Dragon Age: Origins

As the popularity and success of Japanese RPGs sadly dwindles, powerhouses in the West like Bethesda and Bioware are left to craft the latest and greatest adventures for keen RPG gamers to invest hundreds of hours in. Bioware have taken the RPG world by storm with the incredible Mass Effect series, with Mass Effect 2 receiving incredible praise on all consoles, including PS3. The developers are also responsible for a second series, Dragon Age, rooted in a more medieval setting, as opposed to the futuristic galaxies of Mass Effect. With stories revolving around brave knights, powerful mages, dangerous cults and mighty dragons, the two games share little in terms of content, although the strong underlying infrastucture backing up both RPG series is evident in Dragon Age, and it's no surprise that Dragon Age: Origins, is such an accomplished RPG.

Dragon Age

The first option granted to the user, unsurprising given the subtitle of the game, is to choose an origin, selecting from human, elvish or dwarven backgrounds, from different areas of civilization. In addition, character class needs to be chosen from Warriors, Rogues or Mages, with a variety of selectable skills available for each. The game's trophy set encourages you to try each of the origins and classes, but it's critical to the game that each one is as comfortable and effective to use as the other. No matter the choices made initially, there'll always be a way to tackle each situation, with no character receiving any unfair advantage or punishment. By experimenting with the Origins stories, it's straightfoward to select a character that suits your style of play, with each one highly customizable, ensuring a compatible hero or heroine. The only downside of note is the slightly limited set of customizations for your character's appearance. It's not at all bad, but it's unlikely you'll be able to make the exact character you want. That said, many of the presets are decent enough, and since you'll see the other game characters more often than your own, it's hardly an issue.

With a character created, you find yourself swiftly herded in the direction of the Grey Wardens, a group of warriors who are able to sense and defeat the dreaded Darkspawn that threaten all of Middle Earth. Oops, that should be Ferelden. Yes, the game is Lord of the Rings in many ways, but it's an original take on a familiar genre. The Grey Wardens strive to unite the lands in battle against the incoming threat, while the mischievious Loghain goes about the same thing in a far more destructive, back-stabby fashion. The relative freshness of the game stems from the decisions you make as you pursue each major quest. For instance, when attempting to secure the allegiance of the dwarven nation, do you side with the wise politician Harrowmant, viewed as an outsider attempting to overthrow the true heir, or Bhelen, last remaining son of the fallen king. Even if you feel as though a decision can be made straight away, there are inevitably new details to the story that emerge as you play, adding layers of complexity and a shades of grey, making every decision a tough one. In this world under threat, every decision you make can have lasting consequences that could prove harmful to somebody. The freedom to craft your own adventure, with an ultimate conclusion that reflects your actions throughout, is a key ingredient in making Dragon Age a thoroughly enjoyable game.

Dragon Age

Recruitment plays a role not only in forming an alliance to fend off the Darkspawn, but also in creating a party of controllable characters. Much like Mass Effect and Final Fantasy, there are certain core characters that will always form a part of your team, and others who you encounter in the game world, that may join provided a particular conversation or action unfolds as it should. Dragon Age pushes such decisions even further, with certain characters threatening to leave the party altogether if they become especially unhappy. Recruitment can also be linked to major quests too, with one potential ally requiring you to treat a tricky conflict between Templars and Mages with careful respect. Several of the characters, including Morrigan, a Mage, and Alastair, a Templar, can also become more than just friends of the main character, with romantic encounters possible. Treated correctly, this is something that helps to add depth to both the characters and the story. Sadly, a downside is motivated by the trophy set, which encourages players to romance all four possible NPCs, which hardly sends the right message. That aside, the characters do offer a great deal to the game, and frequently contribute to discussions with the many diverse folk you meet on your travels. You'll also find that members of your party converse with eachother as you explore, often having quite comical conversations. Even the Mubari Bloodhound, manages to have fun conversations with party members thanks to some well-timed barks.

The RPG aspects of the game are very strong, with the usual experience gathering facilitating levelling, granting improved character attributes and the option to choose new abilities. As characters grow stronger, they become able to handle increasingly potent weaponry and armour. Despite starting the game with little more than a sword or basic spell, characters will wield a multitide of powerful skills by the end of the game, many of which can be assigned to instant-access buttons for in-fight usage, while others can be accessed using an abilities wheel. As a warrior though, it's easy to become confined to a few key moves that see you through most battles, and it's a shame that there aren't more enemies that require specific spells or attack types. There's certainly nothing as clear-cut as the Final Fantasy fire-against-ice formula that is very familiar in the world of RPGs. Still, the harder difficulty settings will make gamers pause to create tactics and truly contemplate which attacks and spells to use. Though the player can switch between party characters, automated tactics can be prescribed for certain conditions, so that AI characters continue to perform strategic moves for the group. For instance, one character can act as a healer, with a health check causing the character to use curative abilities on others, with regular attacks coming back into play provided the party is in good health. The tactical depth is quite exciting, though not everyone will choose to explore it.

Something that won't be missed by anyone though is the visual presentation of the game, which is generally very good. The menus are excellent, and the speech choices work well enough. Character models aren't quite as strong as some, with some slightly waxy facial expressions and a few repetitive faces amongst standard village inhabitants. Perhaps more effort was put into Morrigan's boobs than certain characters faces, but perhaps this helps to facilitate the game's romantic paths. Fortunately, the environments themselves are somewhat better though, with enjoyable diversity evident between areas like the underground dwarven realm, the capital Denerim and the countryside areas near Redcliffe. That said, the draw distance isn't massively inspiring, and you're unlikely to see a vista to rival the incredible views from Oblivion, which is a shame considering that the Elder Scrolls game is a few years old now. Dragon Age is relatively glitch-free though, making it a far more seamless and consistent experience than Bethesda's glitched masterpieces. Similarly, vocal work seems better in Dragon Age, with less obvious recycling of voices, but still an incredible amount of dialogue within the game. Though the main character isn't voiced in every conversation, a set of pre-recorded voices can be used, allowing your character to make comments during battle. In other conversations, on-screen options are chosen, and you simply hear the responses of those around you. The supporting score is strong and is effectively used to complement key moments of the story, though not all pieces will leave a lasting impression. It certainly isn't used to the same extent that a Final Fantasy score might be.

Dragon Age

As with any decent RPG, the game is sensibly long, giving gamers enough time to become truly invested in their characters, without going on so long that every task becomes a chore. Sadly, the trophy list has other ideas, and is determined not to let you simply craft your own enjoyable experience. To "complete" the game, you'll have to experience all the various endings and quest paths, which may grate with some, especially if certain decisions made go against your moral character. The whole point of multi-path missions is to allow gamers to enjoy their own version of the game, not to enforce multiple replays. A little strategic saving can get the uncomfortable stuff over with quickly though, minimizing the impact, but only if you plan in advance. Other trophies in the game are fairly standard, usually involving a certain kill total or item upgrade, and fit nicely with the RPG fomula.

Though not at the same standard as Bioware's fantastic Mass Effect series, Dragon Age is still an excellent RPG, and one that fans of the fantasy setting may prefer. There's a surprising amount of depth throughout, and despite occasionally bland visuals, the game's world and characters will leave a lasting impression. Downloadable episodes have been somewhat expensive, but the Ultimate Edition pack sorts that out with all packs in the bundle at a far more reasonable price. Each adventure adds a few more hours of original fun to the Dragon Age experience, cementing the game as one of the best RPGs around. For those not so keen on the sci-fi setting, Dragon Age is an excellent choice, and one that even rivals Oblivion for its intricate world of interesting creatures. Set aside 50 or so hours, and get stuck in to this top-notch RPG.

Game details

Game logo

Publisher:

Electronic Arts

Developer:

Bioware

Players:

1

Online:

None

Release:

2009-11-06

Trophies:

77

Review summary

Gameplay:

Superb RPG greatness with decent combat

Graphics:

A little muddy in places, but all very grand

Sound:

Lots of good voicework and decent music

Lastability:

A massive adventure with loads of DLC

9.2

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