Summary: While Jakub wasn't too impressed with Dragon Age Origins, Vandy has a completely different take on the game. This is one review you definitely won't want to miss if you're a BioWare fan!
There were seven Old Gods, great winged dragons that were said to have ruled over the ancient world. Scholars assume that the Old Gods must indeed have been real at one point, but most agree that they were likely actual dragons – ancient high dragons of a magnitude not known today, and impressive enough to frighten ancient peoples into worshipping them. Some even claim that these dragons slumber as a form of hibernation, not as a result of the Maker’s wrath.
To date, four of the Old Gods are said to have risen as corrupted archdemons: Dumat, the first and most powerful, was slain at the Battle of Silent Fields. Zazikel fell at the Battle of Starkhaven, Toth died at the Battle of Hunter Fell, and Andoral was felled by Garahel, the legendary Grey Warden, at the Battle of Ayesleigh.
The archdemons have been identified only after years of argument among scholars, and to this day it is unclear whether the archdemons were truly Old Gods and not simply dragons. All that is known is that the darkspawn hunt for them deep underground. If they are truly the Old Gods, as many scholars believe, then we have only three Blights remaining. When all the Old Gods have risen and been slain, however, what will happen? Will the Blights end forever, and humanity earn forgiveness from the Maker at last? We shall see.
- - From The Old Gods Rise Again by Sister Mary, Chantry scholar, 8:50 Blessed.
From RPG legend BioWare – creators of Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect – comes Dragon Age: Origins, a dark fantasy game of epic proportions. And unlike the popular vernacular, I do not use that word lightly… There is no question that the PC is the premiere platform for experiencing this game. The graphics, interface, controls, and price are all better, and powerful mod tools have already been released! Just how good is this supposed spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate? Keep reading, friend, and find out!
Of course, the focus in Dragon Age is on you, the hero. You begin with one of six “origins,” a background story you choose based on your race and class. These interactive introductions usually last a couple hours, giving you perspective on your character and his/her place in the world while also tutoring you on the gameplay basics. Once you finish this, you are thrust into the main story that is shared by all characters, at which point you begin to explore, build your group of adventurers, and set off to save the world.
Similar to Knights of the Old Republic, you can only have 3 other NPCs in the party with you at one time, but you accumulate a larger staff of players with varying skill-sets to complement your own. Don’t worry about having to train them all, because companions you don’t use will be automatically leveled so that they don’t fall behind. Speaking of leveling, character development is far simpler than the old D&D system. You still have an array of base attributes like strength, dexterity, willpower, etc., but then you have a handful of skill proficiencies (combat, survival, crafting), and finally a variety of spells/talents that are class dependant. If you don’t want to bother with all of this, you can enable the auto-level option that will allocate points as is appropriate for that character’s build.
These aren’t the only things this game borrows from KOTOR, the general model of combat is also very similar, able to be carried out in real-time or by pausing the action to give orders to your party members. The ability to queue up several actions for each is sorely missed, though. Everybody has health points, but you also have stamina or mana depending on your class. All of them will regenerate very quickly outside of combat, but you must rely on potions or spells to replenish them at more than a snail’s pace while fighting. If a character falls, he may be resurrected by a spirit healer, or else will revive after the battle is over with a random injury. Of course, if your entire party falls, it’s game over.
In dealing with the many denizens of Ferelden, you have quite a variety of dialogue options to choose from. You can be courteous or cruel, pious or agnostic, charitable or covetous, and usually you even have the choice between violence and verbal persuasion. Unlike other games (even previous BioWare titles), there is neither a clear cut distinction nor a system to inform you of your good/evil status; it is left up to you to decide what sort of person you want to be and how you will feel about the effect you have on the game world, not a scale of “good points” and “bad points.”
Practically every quest has multiple ways to complete it, and I don’t mean just choosing between brute force and cunning linguistics. Most of the main quests have a morally ambiguous decision you must make. These aren’t simple, clear-cut choices like, “Should I blow up Megaton to receive 500 caps, or not?” I’m talking about killing a possessed child or sacrificing his willing mother in a ritual to get inside his head and defeat the demon safely. What sort of karma should you get for solving that little problem one way or the other?
As you make these choices, your fellow party members react, able to be inspired or disgusted by your leadership. The result is an approval rating for each character, essentially telling you what they think of you as a person. Attribute bonuses can result from a good rapport, but if they severely disapprove, they might confront you outright, or even desert you. To make it so that you’re not entirely tailoring your decisions to please a particular character, you can find a variety of gift items to bestow for an immediate boost to your likeability, ranging from tiny to medium. They also may give you a task that is very important to them personally, with the reward being a very large increase to your influence.
While the game world is rather large, it is not one contiguous environment. Instead, there are several cities, towns, and other areas that you access using the world map. There is no consistent measure of time, so travel is essentially instant, save loading times. However, chance encounters may occur along your route, with anything from a traveling merchant to a group of ambushing assassins showing up unexpectedly. As the existing DLC proves, this disconnected manner of presenting locales makes it easy to add new, different locations, and is sure to be taken advantage of by modders.
There are plenty of items and equipment to trade in Dragon Age, many of which are sporting unique attributes and/or appearances. You gain a bonus for wearing a complete set of the same type of armor, such as chainmail or studded leather, while certain weapons have slots in which to place runes that will add bonus damage or other special effects. It’s very easy and worry-free, too, since it doesn’t cost any money to install a rune and you can switch them around as often as you like. You’ll also find various materials that are used to create potions, poisons, and traps by a character with the appropriate skill. Gift items are clearly labeled, and you should make use of them, but anything else that doesn’t seem to have a practical purpose can be sold to vendors for extra coin.
You are able to move about with WASD or by right-clicking on the ground, moving the camera around by holding the right mouse button. The default is a typical third-person “exploration view,” but you will find yourself sometimes wanting to zoom out to the isometric “tactical view.” From this RTS-like perspective, it’s easier to see enemy positions and formulate how you should proceed. Beyond that, you have the usual RPG fare such as a quickbar for easy access to skills and items, as well as various hotkeys to open menus like inventory, quest journal, map, character sheet, etc.
The varied environments – forests, plains, castles, caves, ruins, and dream-worlds – all look great. Texture resolution is above average, lighting and particle effects are all there and in good form, and depth of field is used primarily in cutscenes and conversations, but is not overpowering. Character models are very detailed, they even have eyelashes! It’s such a simple thing, but I saw that and thought, “Wait a minute… since when do characters in games have eyelashes!?” Armor and clothing is appropriately stylish; while nothing compares to a full suit of dragon-scale plate armor, even high-quality chainmail looks good. Certainly, you can expect visual upgrades and new items alike from the mod community.
Visual presentation is good, with scripted conversations and cutscenes advancing the story. Helmets are removed during these times to allow facial emotion to be seen, but bulky armor or glowy enchantment effects can obscure your view of things. Animations look somewhat robotic at times, but elaborate killing blows are brutal and awesome to watch, especially on larger foes. Overall, the game lives up to the gory hype, as blood splatters everywhere when physical blows are exchanged. Your characters end up covered in red after a battle, which remains for a time, even in cutscenes. Some spells can petrify or freeze enemies, leaving them vulnerable to being shattered by further damage.
Dragon Age features 100% spoken dialogue. Any time a character talks to you, it is heard, not read. Well, you can turn on subtitles, but you get the idea. With 144 actors total, each of the main characters can have their own, including your companions and other major players in the story. Some also do several voices for other smaller parts, but it was not noticeable except for the dwarves done by Steve Blum.
Visceral combat provides a tactical challenge for those who seek it. Upping the difficulty level requires more thought be put into micro-managing your battle strategy, while Easy and Normal allow you to charge through with your party on auto-pilot.
AI can be a bit dense. Pay close attention to the directives you assign them, as you might be responsible for undesired behavior. Pathfinding could use improvement.
It took me 53 hours to beat Dragon Age for the first time… very few other single-player games have claimed as much of my life. Not only that, but according to the in-game statistics, I’ve only completed about half of what the game has to offer! I’m pretty sure it’s counting alternate story paths and the remainder of the 6 origins in that overall percentage, though, as well as at least a few side quests I probably missed. Still, that it takes that long to play through and yet makes me so eager to try a different class and explore alternate choices says a lot about how addicting and fun it is.
Even when you’re convinced you’ve wrung every last bit of replayability out of this game, there will still be new downloadable content (planned to be continuously released for 2 years) and, hopefully, plenty of quality mods. Don’t forget that every copy of the standard game includes both the Stone Prisoner and Blood Dragon Armor DLCs. The other major one that is already available, Warden’s Keep, was included with the Collector’s Edition of the game, but is only $7 separately. They probably should’ve included at least the item storage chest in the base game, but you may find the new items and top-tier vendors worth the purchase. If anything, they should’ve given us that one for free, and charged for the one that adds Shale, a stone golem that can join your party and is very useful throughout practically the entire game.
Dragon Age Origins lives up to the expectations I have had ever since I first heard of it about a year ago. It’s not too often anymore that you see an RPG with so much character depth, well-written spoken dialogue, and engaging story arcs on top of such brutally enjoyable combat. Not to mention that, unlike so many others in the industry, BioWare didn’t make the PC version suffer the same concessions as its console counterparts… It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the best games I have ever played, ranking right up there with the best of the genre. And when the number of hours played exceeds the dollars spent at retail, you know it’s an awesome value, too.
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