Summary [9.5 out of 10]
Heading back to their roots, BioWare delivers a deep action RPG in the rich tradition of Baldur’s Gate II and Neverwinter Nights. This sprawling fantasy epic offers up a role-playing cornucopia of options and interactions that will keep you coming back again and again. With a robust character creator and several unique origins and character combinations, the options are staggering and the role-playing will keep you coming back for more.
This is a classic party based dungeon crawler with a lot more packed in for good measure. The set up is not dissimilar to Champions of Norrath or the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series but has more depth and story than those games could have ever hoped to have. The combat suffers from the move to consoles but is fine once you get used to it. The role-playing is the real star here and makes it really hard to put the game down.
BioWare has been making some of the best role-playing games in the business for almost 15 years. From sci-fi adventures like Star Wars: Knights of the old Republic and Mass Effect to fantasy epics like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate II, BioWare is at the head of the class in Western RPG design. Dragon Age: Origins is no exception. Mining the rich tradition the company has built of deep character interactions and moving stories, Dragon Age takes it a step further with a darker, more mature approach and an intricate morality system.
When I approach role-playing, I am really not interested in or impressed with just taking control of a pre-made character and watching cutscenes of their interactions with other characters. I want to be right in the thick of things with a character that I have a connection with and who I control in more situations than just pointing him or her in a direction and pressing whether to attack or use a spell. Naturally, I am drawn to the games mentioned above for their depth of options and immersion. When I started playing Dragon Age, I found myself blown away by the conversations and personal storylines. This game is a role-player’s dream and while it is easy to compare it to games of BioWare’s past, I find it is much more like a single player version of World of Warcraft and from a role-playing perspective, that is a very good thing.
Editor’s Note: Agree with Patrick on this point — BioWare has added an incredible level of detail to the characters in this game both from a storyline perspective (feels about 1.5x as much as Mass Effect) as well as control over the characters. You can tweak out the traits/talents/behaviors of the other people in your party to follow logic rules when in combat — like tanks attacking strongest character first and mages healing whenever a team member falls below a certain heal amount. This was way too complex for me to enjoy, so I ignored the system completely — but it’s there for folks that want to worry about things like tanks, healers, aggro and the like on harder difficulty levels.
- Depth: This may seem like a strange category to have but if you spend 10 minutes with this game you will see why it deserves to be here. You will then most likely spend the next week to two weeks of your life hopelessly devoted to it, personal fitness program be damned. When I talk about depth here I am referring not just to the story but also to the options available. Situations can play out in myriad ways depending on the character you have built, what you say to other characters, what you have done in the game previously, what NPCs you have with you, what specializations you have decided on, what items you have or have not found, your race, your sex…the list goes on. Everything you do in the game is important and will have impact later on in the game. Side quests can effect what happens in the main quest and vice versa. I have never played a game that feels so much like being in a living world. There is so much going on and for once it doesn’t feel like simple filler to pad gameplay length.
Editor’s Note: Absolutely agree — the depth of this game is daunting enough to be overwhelming if you try and grok it all. I’ve played Neverwinter Nights, both of the Knights of the Old Republic games and Mass Effect — they all said that your “choices would effect the world/story” but in reality, there was only really 1 path to the end-point. In Dragon’s Age, it’s complex and large enough with enough major decision points that it’s absolutely true. As an example, below is a playlist of 4 videos of one of the more complex scenarios that play out in the Elven forest in the game — SPOILER for anyone that hasn’t played — but the actual conversations can unfold in 4 different ways here, having completely different outcomes.
- Role-playing: Video game role-playing is never as good as the sort that you will find in a good table top campaign because you are hamstrung by the options provided by the developers. There is no true freedom in terms of what to do and what to say as you are bound by the game’s frame-work. This is still true in Dragon Age but the options offered are so varied and robust that you hardly notice. The list of responses in conversations is usually quite sizable and tends not to only consist of good, bad and neutral responses. The responses are often varied enough to cover most sentiments you might be wishing to convey and are generally more clever that what you were probably thinking of saying.
Editor’s Note: There are quite a few hilarious responses that if you play good/friendly, you will almost reconsider just to use the funny smart-ass answers.You really get the sense that you are connecting with your character and you can build reasonably deep relationships with the other characters. You play your cards right and they will love you, but if you bumble a conversation or say the wrong thing, they get pissed and may leave you altogether. Sometimes you have to cut their heads off on a set of stairs because they are being emo little bitches. This goes hand in hand with the aforementioned depth and makes this a game you care about playing, not just for achievements or bragging rights but because you want to spend time with the characters and have a vested interest in what happens to them. Even the characters you meet on quests are more than one-note cliches and just about all of them offer up something unique and surprising.Editor’s Note: Again, agreed. None of the NPCs felt like “filler” to me, they all had important story to provide me. And while I didn’t cut the heads off any “emo bitches”, I did full on murder one of my party members when their loyalty came into the slightest question… NO ONE CROSSES ME!
- Story: The storyline at the center of Dragon Age is one of political intrigue and betrayal. It is also a bit different for each character based on the titular origins. There are through lines of classic fantasy fare and the game cribs a bit from Lord of the Rings and even Jewish folklore but the parts borrowed make up a unique and engaging whole. The story is also very dark and often times mature. Some of the origins are very sad and elements of them will continue to pull at your heartstrings throughout the story. It is hard to summarize as it plays out differently based on choices made and relationships cultivated. The wealth of endings is a testament to how many branching paths the story can lead. What is kind of amazing is that with all these balls up in the air, the game never drops them. The story spins along smoothly and coherently and never gets boring. It is an impressive feat especially when you look at games that try to do half as much and still manage to be tangled messes. It is also funny and sweet at times and is really a joy to spend time with.
- Characters: This sort of role-playing experience would never work without compelling characters and Dragon Age has these in spades. The characters you pick up as companions throughout the games are very rich and detailed with deep histories and complex motivations. They can love you, hate you or remain somewhere in between and these feelings are directly related to how you treat them and what actions you take throughout the game.They are all use full in game as well as being fun to talk to in camp and they each bring something worthwhile to the table. I tend to get stuck using the same ones over and over as I get used to them but often this game makes it worth it to try to use all of them as they all have personal quests to do and generally have unique interactions with the other NPCs throughout the game. Those NPCs are also generally deep and interesting to interact with. It cannot be overstated that the interactions with characters in this game are deep and really fun.
- Inter-NPC-Interaction: More than any other game I’ve ever seen, Dragon Age has scripted conversations between all the different NPC characters that can sometimes be hilarious. These interactions are also context-sensitive — for example, if both Morrigan and Leliana are in love with you, they will bicker and banter between each other as you walk through town. Alistair and Morrigan are also another funny match as they hate each other and always try and insult one-another.
- Replay value: Because of all the depth discussed above it follows that the game would have super high replay value. There are tons of alternate paths to take and different endings to see. As soon as I finished my first playthrough I jumped back in later that day with a new character of different class and sex to see how much difference it made. It made a lot. My girlfriend is also playing and did the same thing. Of the four character builds I have seen so far, they are all different and play out differently. I am already thinking about what sort of character I will play next time. This game is like getting enrolled in the jelly of the month club, it is a gift that keeps on giving and giving.
- Length: If you are the sort of person who complains that Modern Warfare 2′s single player campaign only lasts six hours or so then this is the game for you. My first time through I played on Normal difficulty and spent 54 hours to get to the end. Half-way through the second play through on Casual has me at about 15 hours. This is a long game and if that is your thing, prepare to get happy.Editor’s Note: On Easy it took me 38 hours to get through my first playthrough.
- Morality System: A lot of games like this will just give you a good, bad and neutral option. This game deals with moral gray areas and forces you to make difficult choices that are almost never black and white. Some of these choices are agonizing and elevates the experience out of some kind of binary plugging in of responses and into something much more organic and real.Editor’s Note: Again, this was a very notable part of the game. I typically like playing games “right”, and will hunt through walkthroughs before making a tough decision to make sure I make the “right” one — in Dragon Age, there are many significant decisions that are impossible to tell which one is right — the game forces you to ignore the internet and make a decision on your own. A lot of the decisions I would lookup online and actually find differing explanations of how Decision A impacted Result B because either the impact was spread so far apart from the decision or it was legitimately different between two players because of a tertiary decision they had made differently.
- Gifts: These are a brilliant little addition to the world that allow you to give items marked “Gift” to NPCs in your group to get them to like you if you have screwed up previous conversations and they now hate you — this is great for the players that must have everyone like them… like me.
- Sex: A lot of games offer up some kind of sex nowadays. As if to thumb its collective noses at Jack Thompson’s crusade against Hot Coffee, the industry seems to be constantly upping the ante in the sex department. BioWare caught flack for lesbian sex in Mass Effect and the game was painted out as some kind of depraved and perverted exercise in hedonistic excess when, really, it was just the equivalent of Captain Kirk plowing a green alien chick on Star Trek.Still, given the amount of flack they got one might have expected them to dial the sex down this time around. Uh, no. Not only are the sex scenes steamier (nothing really explicit and still much tamer than what you will find on Cinemax after about 11) but they brought back lesbian sex and threw in gay male sex too. If you show up at the Pearl in Denerim you can hire prostitutes of your choice, male, female as well as ‘male’ and ‘female.’If you play your cards right you can even get yourself in a three-way or four-way, the latter of which is pretty hard to pull off.Editor’s Note: We felt the sex was too tame in the cutscenes but Patrick is correct, the theme is definitely there in spades and we were happy to have it. Given the maturity of the game, it would have been nice not to tippy-toe around the nudity portion of the game, but understand that BioWare would have likely had the game banned if they tried. Also, if you select “Surprise me” at the Pearl to the head-mistress, you can wake up in the room with farm animals
It should be noted, however, that your traveling companions apparently talk to each other so having it off with two or three at the same time isn’t a good idea unless you want one of them to stop you in the middle of raiding an ancient ruin to ask you what the hell is up with you spending so much time in Morrigan’s tent. Then later Morrigan will get all weird about love and try to break up with you. Even if you talk her into staying around, she withholds sex. It is like a fantasy version of my last marriage with more sex and hotness.
- Character Models: Specifically Morrigan and Leilana. They used real life models for the character design and are thus hot. Very little else needs to be said.
- Strategy: Given the large number of options on the table in terms of skills, talents and party members, there is a huge amount of strategy involved in how you go about the game. You can achieve your goals in a variety of ways and success depends on good planning. There are tons of options and keeps everything feeling fresh.
- Pop Culture References: I am a sucker for this kind of thing and there are a few that made me laugh. One involves Superman and another Star Wars. I am hoping to find even more on subsequent run throughs.
- Combat: This is a sticky subject as I found the combat to be a bit off and hard to handle in the beginning. It got better as I got used to it and I think the reason for the difficulty is the shoe-horning of options onto a console controller. Whether you are playing on the 360 or PS3, the fact still remains that this game was built for the point and click interface of a PC. I was tempted to include this one in the Bad category but I didn’t for a few reasons. The first is that, once you get used to it, the combat controls are just fine. After I had put some time in, I almost forgot I ever had any difficulty. Second, the control scheme does well with the action RPG elements in a way that the point and click style controls doesn’t. You have a better feeling of being directly in control and for the way the combat is set up, it works out. Third, my girlfriend picked it up and started playing with no problem. She hasn’t played the point and click sort of controls and thus was not biased by it. For her, the controls work just fine and that tells me that the trouble with the combat is just perceptual bias and personal expectation. So give it a chance and it will quickly prove its worth. That being said, things are still kind of rough for mages as there just are not enough slots for spells.
- Design: While the graphics can be somewhat iffy here and there, the overall design of the characters and environments are without reproach. The style of the world, from armor to architecture to animals and monsters, is interesting. Sure it is medieval fantasy at its core but the design puts its own unique stamp on familiar themes and helps to set the game apart from others in the genre. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the brood mother and tell me where you find THAT anywhere in Tolkien. And I don’t want to hear how she’s Jabba with a bunch of titties either. That all happens in a galaxy far, far away.
- Bugs/Glitches: Sadly Dragon Age shipped with some annoying glitches that can hamper gameplay. It isn’t enough to make the game feel broken or unfinished but when your character gets tagged by some bizarre affliction that drains health to the point of death and resists any attempt to heal it right after an auto-save and you have to start from 20 minutes ago, it is irritating. The bugs weren’t as bad as in, say, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, but they are there and they are annoying.Editor’s Note: Jump to 0:24 in the following video to see Leliana stuck during the end-game Archdemon battle.
- Combat: (Editor’s Comment) I ran into enough quirks during combat that I am putting it here in the Bad section. Targeting is wonky and hard to do well, it’s usually the person you are looking at — also once you target, you can typically hit “X” to engage in an automated fashion, but for some reason after SOME special attacks you stop engaging the enemy and just stand there getting your ass kicked unless you start spamming “X” again. I have no idea why this is done this way, but it was maddening. Also once you start spamming “X”, the NPC that is your character repeats AD-NASEUM lines of dialog to you, like “Why don’t I get you a ladder so you can get off my back” — for about half the game I had no idea who was talking or WHO they were talking to, until I realized the character was suppose to be talking to ME… so I screamed “Well then do your fucking job!” at the TV… it didn’t help at all.
- Graphics: (Editor’s Comment) I differ from Patrick’s opinion up-top… the environments in Dragon Age are very plain and lack any sort of notable pizzaz. The characters look “fine”, but not as polished and interesting/attractive as the Mass Effect characters did. I would never classify Dragon Age as a “good looking game” — I would say that about Uncharted 1 and 2, Gears of War, Mass Effect, and so on — but not about Dragon Age. It’s not a bad looking game, it’s just right in the middle. Good enough to get the story told, but not good enough that I would ever find myself telling a friend they should check it out because of “how good it looked”.
- Launch Day DLC: I think it is cool to be able to get downloadable content but when that content is available on day one for extra money, it really annoys me. In Dragon Age’s case, some of the content was free with every copy and served as an incentive to buy the game new instead of used, which I understand. What I don’t understand is why I have to shell out an extra $6 for the Warden’s Keep content when I just dropped $60 on the retail copy. I thought about just not getting it, but they put a dude IN THE GAME to shill for the extra stuff and that really blows because if he is in there then the content could have been too. It just smacks of fraudulent chiseling and I don’t like it. Sure I could have fought back with my wallet but dammit, there are two new talents and some unique items in there. There is nothing worse than worth-while DLC that should have been in the game in the first place. Annoying.
- Interface: I forgave the combat its short comings but the interface system, including the menus and action wheel is really pretty annoying. The button mapping could be better and cycling through menus and characters within those menus feels confusing and clunky. This is especially unforgivable when things like the D-pad and the actual analog stick buttons go unused. There is plenty that could have been mapped on the controller that would have kept the player out of the menus and playing the game where they belong.
- Auto-save: It is really spotty and you shouldn’t trust it. Saving often is the best policy. You never know when you are going to get ruined in a battle and you don’t want to have to repeat the past half an hour.
- Mage’s Hats: Dumbest looking things ever. So goofy, there aren’t any pictures around.Editor’s Note: They really are stupid looking — I put one on Morrigan that boosted her Magic stats a good deal, but it looked like a giant up-ended vase with handles… I wanted to strike her down every time I looked at her. Luckily BioWare knew that some headgear looked stupid so in cutscenes when you are talking with another NPC, no one has head-gear on.
Summary [9.5 out of 10]
I really love Dragon Age: Origins. There are some issues here and there and it was clearly made to be played on the PC but the story and role-playing involved are just too good to be marred significantly by any of those things. I like the aspects other than the combat much better than the fighting but I still enjoy those elements as well. This game single handedly derailed my exercise routine and has left TV shows piling up on the DVR. There is so much to do and see and such rich rewards for doing them that it is hard to pull away and even once you do, you are thinking about it. I haven’t been this obsessed with a game for a long time. If you are a PC veteran, particularly of Neverwinter Nights, Diablo II or World of Warcraft you will want to pick this up for the PC. If you are looking for a great action RPG for the consoles while you wait for Mass Effect 2 to come out then snatch this up right now. Just don’t start playing until you have some free time and an understanding girlfriend. Get her to watch you play and she may just get hooked on it too…of course then you’ll have to adjust sleep schedules and engage in chore bartering to get play time, but seriously it is so worth it.
Editor’s Conclusion: I played this game as well and wanted to offer my insights as well — I agree about 90% with what Patrick said about the game. If you want a long/in-depth RPG, Dragon Age really is it. That being said, you need to be prepared for a world that doesn’t sparkle and shine with polish and the sometimes frustrating experience of thinking you are making a neutral decision to find out someone ends up dead later.
In an attempt to hide the “right” answers from players and force them to think, it can sometimes be harder to get the outcome you want than you realize. It’s also hard to resist some of the more hilarious snarky responses to characters even though you know it will get you in hot water.
Given how mature the game was marketed, I would have preferred more gore in the general gameplay as the game was portrayed quite heavily as a gory mess of blood but in actual combat it’s really more tame than Gears of War. In addition to that, and given how much of the game is structured around relationships and intimacy and gunning for the eventual sexual relationship with 1 or more characters, I would have enjoyed more intensity to these scenes but realize BioWare’s hands are likely tied due to the puritan nature of American politics… unless your a politician… or a warm-blooded human, then you love nudity… but only in secret… because our bodies are shameful and adult relationships are WRONG… but we’ll use sex to sell everything from kid’s movies to magazines to books to video games to car parts… but we can’t show nipples… god-in-heaven save our souls — or whatever the general consensus is.
I would have personally given this game a solid 8.5/10 for the points above and some other minor niggling things, like the game makes it too hard to find story-related NPCs by only showing you indicators when you are in a zone with another NPC that effects one of your quests… the areas are all generally too small though for that to be really helpful. Some global indicator would have been more handy.
It’s also frustrating when a new Codex (the game-world’s encyclopedia) entry is inserted during gameplay and there is no quick-button to jump right to it and read it. Also scrolling through the codex un-highlights new entries AS it highlights the entry to focus it, effectively hiding whatever the new entries were during scroll… that also made it impossible for me to find new entries and read them.
I also found myself frustrated with collision detection during combat combined with the bugs I mentioned above during combat and the semi-auto-targeted implementation. In some instances other entities have no mass, so you can walk through them like in World of Warcraft — this alleviates the problem of getting “stuck” places. Unfortuantely during combat all entities have mass, and you can get jammed up in a door and literally stuck so you cannot attack anything. I also had multiple times during the game when my NPC would keep walking around trying to auto-target an enemy without actually striking, just sort of walking a perimeter around them back and forth, getting my ass beat until I disengaged and re-engaged to force the attack. That got really annoying.
Even with all these quirks, it was a fun game. It hasn’t ruined me for other RPGs though, I would trade this truly-massive-story for a more polished experience with fewer/deeper characters, which is what I hope Mass Effect 2 will be.