Developer: BioWare / Publisher: Electronic Arts / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content) / Played on: PC / Price: $29.99
I read The Lord of the Rings several times as a kid. I’ve played tabletop role-playing games, maintain a subscription to World of Warcraft, and even watched the Dungeons and Dragons movie. I’m not trying to impress with my fantasy experience, just relating how packed my mind already is with magic-wielding characters and settings checkered with dragons. As such, I was confident the overcrowded fantasy genre portion of my brain could not accommodate another resident. The fact Dragon Age: Origins carved out a warm spot in my mind and heart despite this is indication of how remarkable the game really is.
Taking place during the titular Dragon Age, DA:O follows a group of knight-errants dubbed Grey Wardens as they attempt to raise an army to combat the Blight – a periodic resurgence of demon spawn that crawl out of the ground. The overarching plot is traditional; smaller sub-plots less so. Each area the player visits offers a handful of problems to solve, most with complex no-win situations. The game often made me sit back and think about the consequences involved with my decisions, and thankfully shied away from template good / evil / asshole actions.
This takes place in an expertly realized setting. Similar to Bioware’s previous release, Mass Effect, inspecting certain elements of the world unlocks codex entries that reveal in great detail how the Dragon Age universe hangs together. While the setting isn’t as iron-clad as Mass Effect’s (there’s an unavoidable ‘it’s magic’ aspect to the fantastic), most elements are explained satisfactorily. The game’s story abides by the setting at all times; there is no convenient wizardry afoot when the plot needs a tricky solution.
This would all be moot without interesting characters, and Bioware’s topped themselves with DA:O’s cast. Bioware games relied on Dungeons & Dragons archetypes too frequently in the past, and while DA:O does have its share of taciturn giants and plucky redheads, every character manages to forego expectations and pique interest. Ditsy warrior-priestess Leliana will humorlessly describe the visions she sees commanding her to fight, while wry fellow Warden Alistair will recant his fabricated youth with a pack of flying dogs with a straight face. There is no “thee, thou, forsooth” here, DA:O’s dialogue is natural, impactful, and entertaining.
Character interaction, both between the player and other NPCs, is the real gem of Dragon Age. Be it a whimsical trade of jabs or a heated debate, each character reacts intelligently and appropriately. For instance, I chose to use forbidden blood magic to solve a problem, only to be chewed out for it later by Alistair. At first I didn’t understand why the man was so assed up, but then I remembered he previously worked for the Templars – a group that plays watchdog for all mages. Naturally he’d been ingrained with a distrust of magic, not to mention a hatred for the really nasty stuff. Frequently, interactions with characters go this way – “Why the hell his he/she doing this?” to “Oh I get it” and finally “Wow, that’s cool.”
Learning about the setting and singing Kumbaya with party members is all well and good, but now and again a man has to regulate. DA:O’s battle system is an incremental improvement over previous Bioware games, most resembling Baldur’s Gate in difficulty. Most of the game is played via a World of Warcraft-esque over-the-shoulder view. This can also be used in combat, but the restrictions of such a perspective won’t lead to many victories. A simple scroll of the mouse wheel yanks the camera back to a top-down view, allowing strategic placement of party members. Battle can also be paused at any point to queue up actions or issue party orders.
This turns encounters into pseudo-turn-based strategic battles. Given that health and magic regenerate completely after every battle and players can’t save during combat, each encounter becomes a measured expenditure of skills and resources to effectively whittle away the enemy. Wisely employing skill combinations – like activating a warrior’s invincibility to knock down before casting an earthquake spell on the entire area – can turn battles with heavily stacked odds into victories. Winning in this way is incredibly satisfying, but won’t appeal to more attention-deficit gamers.
Aside from combat, a number of great ideas turn an otherwise by-the-numbers RPG into a modern experience. The game automatically saves before consequential encounters, and automatically takes screenshots of plot-critical events, which can be uploaded to an online profile and shared with others. Achievements accrue across multiple playthroughs, and DLC downloads quietly in the background, providing a simple notification when finishing. The game’s interface and mechanics are tuned for the particular freedoms and strengths of the PC, which is itself extremely refreshing given how most contemporary PC games are obvious ports of their console counterparts.
While DA:O won’t dazzle over Mass Effect with sparkling lasers or the soft glow of neon, it’s uniformly solid and stable. The game runs very well and looks great at higher resolutions. The environments range from typical fantasy-esque crumbling gothic castles to overgrown forests, all bristling with detail. The game exhibits more visual individuality in The Fade – a surrealistic alternate plane of existence housing demons and all sorts of craziness. Otherwise, the game is a visual cousin of the Lord of the Rings movies, which isn’t remotely a complaint.
Character models and spell effects all show incremental improvements by keeping pace with the times. Lighting across the character models looks great, however – so no more wonky self-shadows from Oblivion. Blood effects deserve special note, however. Characters become spattered in the stuff during battle, resulting in particularly dramatic post-battle conversation. Nothing sets the tone of an I-can’t-believe-we-survived-that gasp better than a man coated in blood.
Voice acting in DA:O sets new standards, in both quantity and quality. Each actor does an amazing job bringing their roles to life – even bit-part quest-givers. From humor to intense sorrow, DA:O’s cast carries the content perfectly without sounding hokey. The game’s music proficiently compliments any ambient mood – fittingly scored by Baldur’s Gate veteran Inon Zur. Moody strings compliment ruined towns while strong drums and brass resound during combat.
I came in to this game expecting neither an attachment with the characters or setting and left with both. Like Mass Effect before it, I now want to read the books, talk about it with friends, and play more games in the series (hear that Bioware – that’s the sweet sound of DLC sales). This is not a game for everyone – those that just want to blow things up will not find such thrills. Aside from that, anyone that has enjoyed a good movie, book, or even occasional daydream will love Dragon Age: Origins.