Video games that are “epic” in both senses of the word - “awesomeness” and “invoking a heroic poem” - form the upper echelon of gaming: Okami, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, God of War, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Dragon Age: Origins aims to join this prestigious company by channeling the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkein through the body of BioWare and by harkening back to a time when one man’s (or woman’s) strength could change the world.
[image1]Describing Dragon Age: Origins isn’t easy. On the one hand, it’s a transformative amalgam of various original sources set in the fantasy world of Ferelden, clearly inspired by English mythology, Christianity, and The Lord of the Rings. By setting the D20-based system in what is akin to a lengthy first-party Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the inspiration has come full circle.
On the other hand, it’s everything we have come to expect from BioWare in a company-wide nutshell: KOTOR gameplay in a Neverwinter Nights atmosphere and Jade Empire graphical framework with Mass Effect dialogue trees. Expect romances, relationship meters, plenty of chests filled with loot, skill trees, multiple options for dialogue and quest completion, and a classic storyline amidst a wealth of side-quests and intermittent random encounters. Almost every interesting facet of Ferelden’s culture, history, and religion can be examined in the codex (and this preview Penny Arcade comic for the game) if you so choose.
No matter which story origin you choose – human noble, Dalish (true) elf, city elf, dwarven noble, dwarven commoner, or (human or elven) magi – you will be conscripted into the Grey Wardens, an order whose sole purpose is to purge the world of archdemon dragons and their
Uruk-hai darkspawn-infested Blight. Your goal is to unite the races together to fight a common evil, but as the saying goes, “one does not simply walk into Mordor”.
Gathering an army to battle the archdemon means bringing order to Ferelden first, no easy task especially since the strength and reputation of the Grey Wardens has weakened in the peaceful time between Blights. Not only do you inherit years of malcontent between humans and their once enslaved elves and of the dwarves’ isolationist policy from the surface dwellers, but each race also has their own troubles with abominations, diseases, and politics. You are as much a legendary slayer of darkspawn and maleficarum as a self-assured, steely-eyed, armor-clad substitute for Oprah.
[image2]Fortunately, you don’t have to face evil alone. Though only four members can form a party, you can amass a group of up to nine heroes (ten, if you download the Stone Prisoner DLC), all of whom have distinct personalities and skills based on their class – warrior, rogue, or mage. Whether or not you wish to befriend or court your fellow party members, it’s important to remain on everyone’s good side by being a good listener and gift-giver, and making decisions in line with their beliefs (well, at least when they’re in your party). Of course, you don’t have to go out of your way to please everyone, but anyone that leaves your party out of disapproval might remove some dialogue options later down the road and anyone who gives you their full trust will teach your party class specializations for free, gain plot-specific bonuses to their stats, and learn special skills and talents.
But I shouldn’t lie; the most important reason to keep party members around – especially your fellow Grey Warden Alistair – is for the humor. In fact, I kept Alistair in my party for the majority of the game just for his "witty one-liners" (that's his words, not mine) even though I didn’t need another tank character. The side conversations between characters are also hilarious enough to make you stop in your tracks and listen, offering a welcome change of pace to the serious and grave task of slaughter and world-saving.
The real-time combat system will be familiar to BioWare fans, though the class structure is much more rigidly emphasized than that of nearly all of the developer’s previous titles. From the moment a character joins the party, that character’s role is clear: tank, damage-dealer, ranged melee attacker, healer, offensive wizard, assassin, or lock-picking scout. There is some room for customization with class specializations (say, an “arcane warrior” mage or “berserker” warrior) and skills, by assigning different people as the designated herbalist, trap-maker, or poison-dabbler, but by and large all of your choices are slanted in favor of one option. Trying to change a level 10 warrior who comes in with seven talents in two-handed weapons into anybody else is a waste of time.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t make certain characters the way they are preset in the first place or that class-based gameplay isn’t dynamic or challenging. It just would have been better if you had the ability to reset or assign a character’s skill and attribute points without the computer choosing for you.
[image3]The instant your party members see an enemy within battle distance, they will draw their weapons and shift into a combat stance. Warriors will rush into the fray and knock enemies around, diverting their attention from your healer and ranged support. You can rotate freely between characters and pause combat, assigning each character up to one action, but you will mainly control only one character at any given moment.
Most of the time, though, you won’t have to worry about characters moving freely on their own apart from the occasional health poultice or lyrium (mana) potion. Borrowing from the gambit-centric system of Final Fantasy XII, party members can be given a pre-programmed set of hierarchical tactics to ensure that they don’t waste stamina or mana.
After whacking enemies down to size with various combat talents and magical spells (and for the more strategic, combinations of the two), you can scavenge their bodies for plenty of loot, ranging from armor and accessories to crafting items and rune enchantments. Much of it will likely be sold to the merchant in your party camp for coin, though anything you can spare can be given to your growing army to improve their gear for the final battle against the archdemon. Or if you’re willing to spend $7 for the Warden’s Keep DLC, whose in-game advertisement is as invasive as it has ben made out to be, you can acquire a party storage chest.
Some minor mishaps, however, prevent Dragon Age: Origins from being as well-tempered as it could have been. Targeting specific enemies on the console (that is, without a mouse) can be loose, causing the occasional tie-up in close corridors and the frequent unintentional conversation with party members. Blood splatter all over your characters after a battle is a cool effect, but not when they carry over to dialogue sequences: I would love to talk about your feelings, Alistair, but please wipe the tainted darkspawn blood off your face before you spit it on me.
[image4]Having the incredibly vague message “Items Received” pop up after every successful steal isn’t helpful, either. On rare occasions, loot doesn’t appear on enemy corpses until after ten seconds has passed. Loading times are understandably long between two different levels that are both vast and fully detailed, but sometimes entering or leaving a simple tavern in a town can result in the same length of loading time. And why is each character build limited to 31 saves?
Comparing the game’s level-based stages to Oblivion’s open-world environments wouldn’t be fair, since each title does their chosen style of level design well. They both have natural rolling landscapes and an abundance of art assets to fill the misé-en-scene, accompanied by an orchestral soundtrack that Howard Shore would be proud of. Just the way some of the walls are adorned, with rich tapestries and twisted wooden wall columns, bring a subtle richness to the world. Water, though, seems to pose a far greater threat to the common Grey Warden than the darkspawn. You can slay a twenty-feet-tall ogre with a badass cinematic deathblow, but you can’t step into a shallow creek to save your life.
Not surprisingly, which platform you should choose depends on your priority for graphics in role-playing games. The PC version is the superior platform with better textures, character models, and lip-synching, not to mention more shortcut keys and the ability to change the preset third-person view to a birds-eye view instead. The console versions can suffer the occasional pop-up, suddenly invisible NPC, odd facial animation, or minor glitch. So if you expect nothing less than graphical perfection, you can knock the grade of the console versions down a notch.
After a four-day marathon of couch-indenting focus playing Dragon Age: Origins for at least fifty hours, I can safely say that there was not one moment of regret. It shows why BioWare is one of the leading developers of our time. Even with its graphical hitches and proverbial chinks in its armor, and though the story may not move you by virtue of its resemblance to The Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age: Origins creates a comprehensive story-world that lives and breathes with the best that epic video games have to offer.