Dragon Age: Origins
By now, fans of BioWare’s output will know what to expect: a big world-saving plot, deep and colourful characterisations, perfidious political schemes, menu-driven combat and even some slightly awkward sex scenes. For all its parts, Dragon Age: Origins is very much a product of BioWare’s previous output, featuring the same aspects which have typified their games over the past fifteen years. It’s a very deep and immersive experience with an impressive game world and back story, albeit one that also suffers from a lack of polish and has obvious compromises made in fitting a PC game onto a console.
Dragon Age takes place in Ferelden, a Tolkien-esque land which is amidst political chaos as well as being attacked by a ‘Blight'; an encroaching army of orc-style creatures led by powerful demons. Taking up the reins as a Grey Warden (think Aragorn from Lord of the Rings), you are cast as a stand-in leader to a group of ragtag warriors who are reluctantly entrusted with unravelling the machinations of your treacherous leaders, bringing the Blight to a halt and generally solving Ferelden’s problems by kicking lots of arse. Along the way there will be the usual smorgasbord of side quests, number-crunching combat and sufficient conversations and character development to make Robert Jordan envious.
Dragon Age eschews the faster-paced gameplay experimented with in Mass Effect and Jade Empire; things here are closer to Knights of the Old Republic than any of their more recent works, with a strong focus on melee attacks and spell casting. Every facet of the game from combat, actions and items is keenly dictated by numbers and statistics. The fights are in real time, although characters’ actions are selected from lists and play out as canned animations. This lends the game a strangely ‘stiff’ quality that lacks the fluidity of combat seen in some of its peers, although in doing so Dragon Age bridges the gap between the more fluid Western RPGs and the stop-start nature of many Eastern RPGs. AI characters can be set conditions for battle – similar to Final Fantasy XII‘s Gambits – and you can ensure, for instance, that they will always attack magic users first, use ranged attacks or heal when their health drops below 50%. It’s a useful system that generally lets the AI handle the combat micro-management, although you can still flit between party members to take control should you wish.
Ferelden itself is typical High Fantasy; dwaves and elves live in squalor, shunned by humans and fighting for scraps of land at the edges of the kingdom. Criminals and bandits are rife, and the whole world has a very beaten-down, despondent atmosphere to it. It’s a shame that the land itself is somewhat disconnected, as different regions are not travelled to on foot, but selected from a map, before a cursor moves between locations. Occasionally you’re pulled into a battle en route against a bandit raid or the like, but on the whole it feels like the game only allows you to explore the bare minimum of the world, which is a shame. That’s not to mention the copious invisible barriers often encountered which breaks the illusion of exploration when in a town or settlement. After the incredibly in-depth game worlds from Bethesda’s RPGs, for instance, it’s a missed opportunity that Ferelden doesn’t feel a bit more whole and cohesive.
If there’s one area in which Dragon Age is a resounding success, it’s in the storytelling and characterisations. Despite the basic plot resembling that of a standard fantasy novel, it’s really the depth and its impressively-mapped history that draws you into the game world and its plight. Early on an attempt to stem the Blight goes awry, then you and your companion are tasked with reforming ancient alliances and gathering the strength to defeat the kingdom’s enemies and purge its traitors. Typically, you meet and join with all manner of characters along the way, from musical warrior-priests, reserved and proud warriors and fearsome demons. There is also the opportunity to play through in varied ways, so you can be accommodating, rude or confrontational in conversations – each trait garners different opinions from your associates, which can make and break personal alliances, and has interesting and varied results which encourage re-plays.
The game is traversed in third person, however it’s not a great looking game; while characters are quite detailed, environments look and feel a bit empty and washed out and some of the animations are very glitchy. Most of the voice-overs are well-done, generally utilising common English accents with a few differing ones thrown in for regional variety. Menus are fairly overwhelming with various stats, and while this is obviously due to the game’s PC roots, it feels like it could be a little more streamlined to work on consoles. The presentation is good, with the same gritty style and low-key feel as the Wheel of Time series of books. The score is consistently good throughout, and does an excellent job of imbuing the game’s melancholy and at times epic atmosphere.
There is lots to recommend about Dragon Age: Origins, but there’s no getting away from the square-peg-round-hole conundrum that it’s a PC game not wholly comfortably squeezed into consoles. The presentation could be tighter – particularly when compared to the likes of Oblivion or Demon’s Souls – and the world of Ferelden feels as though it lacks detail and coherence, although it’s the backdrop to a good plot and some excellent characters. Dragon Age is a good game with a strong premise and characters that falls down a little in a few too many gameplay and technical areas to quite sit among the best of BioWare’s output.