Dungeons & Dragons is old and Lord of the Rings is played out. For fantasy fans, it's slim pickings across the board. The closest thing to swords and sorcery currently hot in entertainment is vampires and, even then, that market has been hijacked by teen angst, missing the grit that made it popular to begin with. Needless to say, the genre has seen better days. Luckily, BioWare has a plan to bring fantasy back to the forefront. This isn't the first time the Neverwinter Nights creator has tried to reinvent a genre for gaming. Actually, it isn’t the first time this generation. While the developer has been known for their work on Star Wars games, they eventually decided to drop the license in favor of creating their own IP with Mass Effect, crafting an interesting, involved science fiction universe to call their own. Hoping to do the same for fantasy, they've released Dragon Age: Origins, and while EA didn't put nearly as much marketing behind Origins as they will Mass Effect 2, it's obvious that BioWare treats it as a release just as large. It also has the benefit of being released across three systems simultaneously, a first for the RPG maker. While it's not a perfect game, the tale is absolutely worth hearing, and the experience makes up for the bumps in the road.
Legend tells of the Old Gods, who lived thousands of years ago and gave the gift of magic to mankind. The hubris of man, however, proved as difficult to manage as ever, and in their attempts at attaining power, man destroyed the Old Gods, and turned themselves into twisted, demonic creatures called Darkspawn. Whether or not the legends are true means nothing, because one thing is certain: the Darkspawn exist, and wage a constant battle against the world. Their typical attacks aren't an uncommon occurrence in the history of Dragon Age. In fact, the Dwarves need to deal with them on a frequent basis after the roads that connected the old Dwarven Empire became flooded with the creatures. There are times, though, when the Darkspawn invasion is more than a minor pillage. At four instances throughout history, the Darkspawn have attempted to overtake the land of Ferelden when led by an Archdemon, and if the legends are true, the Archdemon is a reincarnation of one of the Old Gods. These instances are referred to as a Blight, and serve as the backdrop for the epic story of Dragon Age: Origins.A great evil force would be nothing if not for its opposition, and that is where the Grey Wardens come in. The Grey Wardens formed during the first Blight, and worked together with the rest of man to destroy the Archdemon and run the Darkspawn back underground. Since then, they have waited, preparing for the next Blight and training those who will take their place when they fall. But before players can join with the Wardens for an epic battle with the Archdemon, they must first make their character. The creation system is not unlike the one found in other BioWare games, allowing for customization of the race and class, as well as visual appearance. Where things start to diverge from the norm is with the last thing players chooses: their Origin.
There are five Origins in total, pulling from the character's race and class to create a different opening. The time that typically would be spent in a traditional tutorial for the genre is, instead, a thrilling introduction that will provide a distinctive experience depending on which is chosen. Playing as either a human or elf Mage will begin the character in the Mage's Tower, whereas any Dwarf needs to begin somewhere in the Dwarven city of Orzammar. Going even further, choosing to play as a Dwarf will still present two options, allowing for the player to either start as royalty or as a Commoner, each with a unique introduction. These Origin stories do a wonderful job of shaping the Dragon Age experience, since they will greatly change the way the player approaches the world once it's over. No matter which path is taken, they all end up meeting after a few hours with the character being recruited in the Grey Wardens, and tasked with destroying the Archlord.
Destroying the Archlord, as expected, is no small feat. This current iteration has taken the form of a large dragon, causing its power to be is even more than normal. On top of that, there are other circumstances that make the job of the Wardens significantly more difficult, which means plenty of stops on the road to fighting the Blight. Before the attack can be mounted, the player needs to raise several armies, wielding treaties with different races and groups that have promised, in the past, to help fight the Darkspawn should they rise again. While most in the land are willing to honor the treaties, they often have problems of their own, and the Warden must first help alleviate some issues before their armies can march.
Completing these missions this takes up a majority of the 60+ hours spent in Ferelden. Arriving in any given town opens up several quests, some required to advance in the story, and some completely optional, though each has rippling effects that travel throughout the world. Seemingly small, insignificant choices made early in Dragon Age can have unexpected results later, delivering branching plot lines that can be completely missed or ignored. It makes every choice feel much more important when it can have a reaction, and can lead to stunning plot-twists that feel completely influenced by the player's actions.
The player's actions influence more than the plot, they can actually change the way his party sees him. All of the characters that join the Warden on his quest to eliminate the Blight have their own reasons, with none completely giving up who they were before to blindly follow the protagonist. If the Warden is too often making choices that the other characters don't agree with, they'll tell him. There can be outright confrontation during dialog, where a character doesn't like what the Warden is doing, and feels obliged to tell him. Normally it ends there, and the character loses some favor for the hero, but other times it can go even further to the point where party members might actually leave the Warden. It's possible to counter this by giving them gifts or doing missions that they want to do, but the constant fear of losing party members is enough to create an interesting balance while playing, where the Warden has to know not only his enemies, but his friends, and fear what might happen if he turns too far away from either.
Losing party members is an issue, since the Warden needs to rely on allies in combat. While some conflict can be avoided with a silver tongue (or an angry glare), other times a battle is inevitable, and Dragon Age is filled with such encounters. Combat is more Neverwinter Nights than it is Mass Effect, throwing its hat onto the tactical RPG side of things more than action. It's a little like an MMORPG, with a skill bar and abilities that work on a cool down, as opposed to being turn based or completely real-time. Success requires tactical precision, changing between characters and pausing the game to assign commands before resuming and watching the events take place.
For small skirmishes it isn't really necessary, since teammate AI is usually competent enough to hack-and-slash through such battles and it's possible to customize the actions they'll take when left to their own devices. The system of customizing AI is similar to that found in Final Fantasy XII, though it proves much more useful and less restrictive, making it ideal for minor battles. For larger, more important fights, however, it plays out more like a turn-based RPG. Making sure the Rogue is attacking from behind to get back-stab damage, using the Warrior's abilities to assure he has the enemies' attention, and arranging the entire battlefield so the Mage can use powerful attacks without capturing allies in the blast is important, and means playing Dragon Age: Origins feels like being a commander instead of a soldier. It lacks the option to queue attacks, something that made Knights of the Old Republic’s combat unique, but still allows for tactical precision. It can be difficult, and there are some hiccups in the AI from time to time (they absolutely love running into completely visible traps, for instance), but there's hardly a time where death can be blamed on anything but poor planning and worse execution.
When it comes to combat, however, it feels as though there are some balance issues that will hopefully be addressed in future updates. While the Warrior excels at melee combat, the abilities the class unlocks are strangely dominated by stances, making leveling up much less interesting than it is for other classes. Rogues, too, have the issue of being able to focus on archery, which would actually be a good thing if not for the fact that archers, for some reason, do significantly less damage than the other classes, meaning there's no point in even equipping a bow. Mages, on the other hand, are epically powerful, but have some skill trees that are disproportionally more useful than others. Luckily, choosing one isn't really too important since the player can have four characters in a party, but it's still something BioWare should look into, moving forward.
Other issues are tied into skills as well, with different crafting abilities always feeling underdeveloped, despite being extremely important. Actually crafting is almost too simple, and feels like it could have been expanded a bit to be more akin to what is found in an MMORPG. That's not to say that the Warden should have had to travel around mining ore and fishing, but being able to unlock different crafting recipes by actually crafting, instead of purchasing them at a shop, might have helped make the element feel more in line with the rest of the game. There's also no spell to replace the Rogue's lock-picking ability, so keeping one in the party at all times is almost a necessity. This, alone, isn't too much of an issue, besides the strange fact that the Rogues that join with the Warden during his journey are somewhat inconsistent when it comes to using their thieves tools, but it's complicated when the game forces the player to change characters to unlock doors and chests. Apparently, the Rogues of the party don't get the hint when the Grey Warden stands next to a chest and taps his foot impatiently.
These small issues are just that - small issues, minor kinks in what is otherwise a stellar suit of armor. So many things are done well that these issues stand out, but hardly detract from the experience. Mere minutes into Dragon Age the attention to detail becomes obvious, immersing the player into the world of Ferelden completely. BioWare is billing the game as a dark fantasy epic, a term that fits it extremely well. The mood is what sets it apart most from other stories like it, filled with blood, sex, and betrayal. It’s a much more violent experience than traditional fantasy games, and each battle ends with the party being covered in the blood of fallen foes. In fact, it's almost funny at times, when the characters on screen seem completely complacent with their faces being splattered with demonic blood. Enemies will sometimes see the Warden's blade slicing their head off or being thrust through their chest, resulting in massive blood splatters that leave large puddles on the ground.
Romance also rears its head from time to time, if the player wishes it. Just as members of the players' party can grow to detest him, they can also grow to love him. Giving gifts to certain individuals has a chance to improve their character’s abilities, and the option to kiss or, eventually, bed them, coming to fruition with an incredibly awkward cinematic. Despite BioWare's obvious attempts to keep things classy, there's nothing about the underpants sex in Dragon Age: Origins that's anything but silly.
Beyond some strange, uncomfortable moments, it’s a mature tale, inventing new lore specific to the world while still retaining the elements that make fantasy interesting. Ferelden is masterfully created, feeling as well-developed as any other RPG world. Learning about the practices of the Mage’s Circle and the political system of the Dwarves is engrossing and fleshed out with both in-game dialog and hundreds of pages of literature found while exploring. While it feels like they could have done more to push Ferelden further away from tradition, they’ve managed to craft something that should feel recognizable to anyone who has ever rolled a D20 without isolating people who fell asleep during Lord of the Rings.
As a character driven story, voice acting and graphics are both important, and for the most part they’re successful. Animations are a mixed bag, with the characters going through motions that look realistic and inspired, but executing them in a robotic fashion. It’s halfway there, but lacks a feeling of humanity, something that’s not easily overcome. The world is beautifully bleak; really selling the atmosphere of a nation whose spirit has been broken. Cities have been completely overrun by Darkspawn, armies have been wiped out, and the people are scared, desperate. The war is very one sided, and people don’t seem to think it’s winnable, something the game captures wonderfully. Music, too, is adequately epic, enhancing every situation with a powerful score, drawing inspiration from fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings. The wonderful music complements the game’s visuals, which can present large forces on screen without too much of a problem. From time to time, the framerate can dip a bit, though it’s never too problematic, and doesn’t really prove to be much of an issue most of the time.
While so much of the game is a success in terms of immersion, some instances break the illusion so horribly that they need to be mentioned. In the campsite, where players can converse with their party, there is an NPC that spins an epic yarn about his history with the Grey Wardens, and promises made to him in the past to clear his family name. After a long story about his past, he asks the Warden to help clear his family name, an act which seems right up Dragon Age: Origins' alley. There is a catch, however, as the mission in question is downloadable content, and requires a $5 payment to proceed. Another area on the map exists solely to sell the player additional content, costing a whopping $15. Though one pack comes free with a purchase (the more expensive of the two, thankfully), it’s still woefully intrusive when it’s brought up, and despite coming packed with more than enough content to justify the price it’s presented so poorly that it’s nearly infuriating when it shows up. To make matters worse, the DLC pack not included with the title includes access to an item cache, something that should have been included in the campaign.
As mentioned earlier, BioWare has launched Dragon Age: Origins across three platforms, meaning console fans and PC gamers have a chance to enjoy the fantasy epic on launch day. When compared, there’s no question that the PC version is better looking, and features more intuitive controls for the system. That said, the visuals are not even remotely bad on consoles, just not as good, and the differences aren’t problems, just differences. If given the choice between the three, it is likely worth picking up the PC version over the console versions, but that’s in no way a knock on what BioWare was able to push out of the consoles, and shouldn’t be considered as large of a difference as, say, Mass Effect from Xbox 360 to PC.
BioWare’s newest is one of their best. While not for everyone, Dragon Age: Origins is absolute bliss for fans of the genre. Some issues along the way keep it from achieving perfection, but there’s absolutely no question that the developer has, once again, created a franchise to call their own, and developed something to be extremely proud of. Hopefully future installments improve on the foundation laid with this first game, since there’s plenty more of Ferelden left to explore, and I, personally, can’t wait for the next Blight.