It is hard to sometimes convey the feeling of “familiarity” to people, especially when writing. I have seen over the years on how many reviewers say “the controls are familiar to such and such” or the “graphics are similar to so and so” in hundreds of reviews on video games, and I am no saint when it comes to those descriptions as well. Plus these phrases give off a somewhat left-handed compliment at times, on the one hand it can be good, but on the other it also sounds bad, especially when you’re dealing with a medium that is extremely familiar in many aspects, like Role Playing Games.
Bioware is perhaps the best example of this with their new game “Dragon Age: Origins.” The touted “spiritual successor” to the Baulder’s Gate series for the PC, “Origins” is a return to form for Bioware in the sword and sorcery setting, taking a Frank Frazetta aesthetic and mixing it with the premise done by George R. R. Martin, with a hint of Tolkien peppered throughout. The game is traditional in its design, and is frankly what you would expect from Bioware, anyone who played “Jade Empire” or “Mass Effect” knows what I am talking about here too. But with the familiar elements in the mix, this sixty hour epic RPG is perhaps as engaging as it can get, taking even the most common clichés and turning some of them on their heads in the best way possible.
You star as a nameless Gray Warden, who is, through six unique back-story arcs, a survivor of a major battle against the Blight, a maleficent force that threatens your land of Ferelden. Your goal; destroy the blight by any means necessary. How you do it is all up to you. Really standard, but it’s in the simplicity of the presentation is where Dragon Age: Origin’s shines.
For starters, the fact that there are six different openings you can encounter is pretty interesting. While there is the temptation to just play the six openings and then play the game once, a lot of what you choose actually shapes how the game can turn out, not only in terms of building a party for the sake of gameplay, but also in terms of choices and dialogue with the NPC’s, party characters, and even plot devices. For example, as an Elf in the circle of mages, you are met with double hostility towards people, for elves were once enslaved by humans, and mages are feared for the power they wield. This makes certain characters more prone to attack you on sight, and others more likely to help you based on your heritage. These minor details flesh out the world immensely, giving the enemies and background stories some extra character for the mute hero you represent.
And unlike Mass Effect, which seemed like simple “good/evil” dialogue choices, there is a lot more weight in the options here. Your character is aptly named a Gray Warden, as every decision you make can benefit you, your party, the “good” NPC’s the “bad” NPC’s, or even the outcome of the entire game! The subtlety of your choices is definitely more so shades of gray. While some seem more “good” than others, they still may be deceptive in their nature, coming back later to haunt you. Your choices also reflect the outcome of your party in the end as well. With around nine recruitable characters, each has their own personal feelings and experiences, and depending on your actions you can gain favor, lose favor, and eventually lose your party members.
But the dialogue also changes with other aspects. Not just race, i.e, Elves, Dwarves or Humans, but also things such as sex, class, and religion are laced into them. Playing as female character leads to presumptions by some male NPC’s and party members. Religious dialogue can lead to debates or endless shouting matches that block you from getting specific loot or special items. If you were born a common Dwarf, you are treated with disdain by your noble brethren. The game is just rich with subtle detail that it makes it a great character study, not only for the three-dimensional characters that accompany you, but also the vast amounts of NPC’S that you encounter, both good and bad.
And this is why it is hard not to like “Dragon Age: Origins.” It’s story is deep and engaging, even if the setting is familiar and unoriginal. Elves work best as archers and rouges, Dwarves use two handed weapons well; the clichés go on and on. But the detail in the game is as fantastical as the setting it would “accurately” portray.
Gameplay wise it is a Bioware staple, open ended combat that you will have to pause to get down pat. You use skills and abilities by leveling up your character and pumping up their core stats, like Strength, Agility, and so forth. The skill trees leave a lot of variation, but it is clear some abilities are more important to combat over others; depending on your builds at least. As a warrior, you can go as a two handed expert, a one handed expert, or sword/shield, offering numerous skills you can level up. Likewise you have four different schools of magic you can pick at, although for mages a mix would be more likely. Mixing and matching is part of the fun, but doing so with your NPC allies is just as rewarding, especially when finding the correct mix of skills to use.
Combat is really where it shines, but it takes some time getting used to. Especially on the console version, you will be pausing combat a lot to use a wheel interface to pick and choose what you want to do to enemies, if you want to heal, choose different weapon sets, etc. You also can set up NPC tactics, similar to the “gambit” system of Final Fantasy XII, so you don’t have to babysit for your allies in combat. Especially for the harder difficulties this is recommended, because battles with bosses can be long and brutal, sometimes it takes a bit of luck to win them. All the time it takes potions and healing.
One real problem with the game is that, despite the rich detail of the world, most of it is told through codex entries you find all over the place, even in the 11th hour of the game. Plus, navigating the options menu to equip and unequip armor and weapons, level up characters and check skill trees is a pain in the ass. The interface is somewhat confusing and cobbled together, and from what I understand the PC version is cleaner and more organized, which makes sense thanks to hotkeys and extra menu options for the keyboard.
Another somewhat glaring issue is the graphics. The game is HUGE, and looks pretty, but the textures seem last-gen in many areas, in particular with close up’s on characters. The texture issues are probably due to the engine itself chugging to get so much detail on screen at once. Plus there is major slowdown at times when a lot of action is going on in combat, especially due to spell effects. The game struggles too much to be unnoticeable, and it can take you out of the dialogue sometimes. Plus the stiffness of the characters while talking is always a problem, but that can be saved for fan’s of the uncanny valley issue.
The games sound is amazing though. While your character has no voice, everyone else in the game is done with masterful delivery. You get a Ricardo Montalban impression done right, a swarmy British knight, a French-like bard, and Steven J. Blum! Plus Tim Curry in a minor role, which I just thought was perfect for him. There is even some hilarious out of camp dialogue when you have the party roaming areas, just stopping to listen to the side conversations adds character alone. The NPC’s are done real well, and add character to the dialogue. Another really strong suit is the music. The sometimes soft score, the hardcore battle music, and the serenading chants of some mystical place all add to the game. The music is used sparingly though, often you don’t hear it, or it’s so subtle that it slips your mind.
But that is what “Dragon Age: Origins” is about, subtlety. As familiar as the game is, both in terms of Biowares design and the subject matter at hand, the subtle complexity to the themes and nuances in the dialogue, which lead to the choices you make mixed with a solid combat mechanic, breathe a lot of gripping life into a game that could have been rather boring. For a sixty hour game, that is impressive in its own right, and for an RPG fan, missing out on “Dragon Age” is like never reading “The Simarillion.” A great game by a great company, I highly recommend playing it, if not for the dialogue alone.
Final Score- A-