Anticipating Bioware’s Dragon Age

When it comes to western-style Computer RPGs, the single best designers around have to be Bioware. They created the fantastic high magic, D&D-spawned Balder’s Gate, the Star Wars-themed Knights of the Old Republic, the Oriental adventure Jade Empire and the space opera Mass Effect.

This fall they’re returning to their fantasy roots with Dragon Age: Origins, a surprisingly blood-drenched sword-and-sorcery RPG. I say “surprisingly” because although my friends have been talking about it for months, I hadn’t actually gone looking for any of the promotional videos. After being approached about reviewing the game at Nuketown, I decided to go and browse YouTube for Dragon Age: Origins videos, and found a small horde of them.

I was expecting a straightforward fantasy RPG; I found one that has the trappings of a traditional S&S game, but has a dark edge whose most obvious manifestation is the gore it showers upon its heroes and villains. The introduction of Leiana (apparently a swordswoman/archer) illustrates this:

After playing the straight-laced, space operatic Mass Effect, I was surprised at the almost Kill Bill levels of blood, and our hero’s casual reaction to it. The visuals don’t look quite as advanced as what we saw in Mass Effect. Which is to say, the cut scenes look great, and the individual character renders look fine, but a lot of the characters have that thousand-eye stare you get from models stuck somewhere in the Uncanny Valley of human likeness. That was the worst part of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and it was something that Mass Effect did well with. The space opera was able to nail some of the subtle body language that you expect from real humans, and its characters more or less looked at what they were supposed to look at.

That said, there are areas where it looks like Dragon Age is going to rock. For one, it appears the game is going to have some great character customization options, starting with the origin stories. As detailed in this interview, there are six possible origins depending on your race and class. How you interact with this world during the origin informs your characters actions and choices later in the game. It reminds of my the old virtues system in the Ultima games, and I’m eager to see how that plays out.

The other big thing though, is your adventuring party. You get to have multiple characters in your party (four from the looks of things) and even more importantly, you get to control these characters. Being able to shift between characters and take advantage of their unique skills is something I loved about Knights of the Old Republic and something I sorely missed in Mass Effect. I also like how you can interact with the environment, as shown in this YouTube clip:

In this clip, the party sets of a trap, igniting a pool of oil. They’re then able to use their mage to put out the fire using a ice/cold spell. That’s just cool, and I’m willing to put up with a few awkward facial expressions to be able to adventure with that kind of physics engine.

It’s hard to say how well it will all come together based on these videos. On the one hand, it’s Bioware, and they’ve proven themselves capable of telling some great stories and building the software necessary for you to experience them. On the other, the gore seems gratuitous, and that’s the sort of thing that can take you out of the story.

I will say this: they’ve got my attention. Let’s see if they can keep it.

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