The highest compliment I can give Dragons Age: Origins is that everyone who plays it wants to tell me about their character. In a pen-and-paper RPG, that’s a major social faux paus, but with Dragon Age I think it’s a sign of just how into this game people are getting … and how well it’s namesake gimmick is working. Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360/PS3/Windows) opens, as so many RPGs do, by having players pick their physical appearance, species (human, elf, dwarf) and class (rogue, fighter, mage). Your picks drive more than your abilities in the game though; they also establish which of six origins stories will be associated with your character.
Will you be the ne’er-do-well roguish son of a human noble? An arcane orphan raised in a mage’s tower? A dwarf caught up in the power struggles of his people? Choose and you’ll find yourself in a full-blooded prelude to the main adventure, one that has broader story implications as the game unfolds.
The world you’re introduced to is fairly standard fantasy fare, insomuch as there’s a cyclical evil that arises every few centuries to crush civilization, inspiring yet another band of epic heroes to defeat it. The specifics are interesting: it appears that humanity used magic to wage war on Heaven in order to seize the power of the Maker (aka God) for themselves. They failed, but in doing so, they allowed demons to enter heaven, forever corrupting magic. Now anyone who uses magic, even for good purposes, has the potential to be corrupted by that power.
They’re watched over by a religious order known as the Chantry, whose Templar enforcers hunt down any mages who go rogue. Standing apart from everyone are the Grey Wardens, defenders of civilization who watch for signs that new evil Blights are about to appear on the land … and then fight them.
All of these plot points converge with your own origin story at a single location: Ostengard. An epic battle against the forces of evil is fought there, the result of which leads your character to being the last best hope for the forces of civilization. Your task becomes nothing less than unifying the various factions of the country to stand against (and defeat) the blight.
Blah Graphics, Solid Story, Lots of Gore
Dragon Age: Origins is played from a third-person, over-the-shoulder view. You control a primary character, and can have up to three additional characters with you. You can switch between these NPCs, fully controlling their abilities, as in Knights of the Old Republic. It’s a setup I enjoyed in that game, and missed greatly in Mass Effect (which gave you access to some, but not all, of your party’s abilities).
Let’s get the common criticisms out of the way. The graphics are dated, making the game look like an early 360 launch title. The controls, especially on the console, aren’t always intuitive and take a few combats to really get. Case in point: the circle at the center of the pop-up wheel for spells and powers doubles as a targeting receptacle; I had no idea that it did that until I talked with a friend. Those same friends say the Windows PC version is better, both visually and control-wise, and I believe them; its easy to see how a keyboard and mouse would greatly enhance the game, as would a nice god-like overview of the battlefield.
The game has its flaws but there’s a reason why it swept through my gaming group like wildfire, resulting in seven of us playing the game simultaneously in late November and most of December: Bioware crafted an engaging, immersive RPG that you want to play. Unlike the black and white moral choices they’ve offered in earlier games (notably Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, Dragon Age’s choices are shades of grey, and in some cases, there’s no obvious good answer … it’s more a question of varying degrees of bad.
Dragon Age is filled with Tarentino-levels of gore; as in utterly over the top, Kill Bill-style fountains of blood. Every combat ends with a characters drenched in the stuff, creating these surreal interludes as discuss personal stories, plot points, etc., all while splattered red. Their ignorance of this mess — no one even so much as raises a hand to wipe away the gore — tended to take me out of the story, but in-game beheadings certainly did reinforce the game’s darker feel.
I was frustrated by the main character’s inability to speak – Mass Effect had male and female customizable characters, and while Dragon Age has multiple races, I think that the investment in voice acting (and data) would have paid off. As is, your compatriots end up doing a lot of on-screen talking for you, which is annoying, but not fatal. The dialogue options, on the other hand, are deep and rich, and the game rewards you for developing strong inter-party relationships by allowing you to unlock certain boons. Even better (and making up for your lack of voice), the NPCs in your adventuring party love to talk to one another, and get into funny conversations as you wander through encounters and towns. All told, the story side of the game seems as deep and complex as a Wheel of Time novel, though without taking 15 books to conclude.
I enjoyed both of my main characters – a human noble rogue and a human wizard, though the edge definitely goes to the wizard. The magic system gives you access to all manner of cool spells, including an old-school concussive fireball, cones of cold, confusion hexes, polymorph spells and much more. It scratched the D&D itch that I’ve occasionally felt since my group moved away from the pen-and-paper RPG to play Star Wars.
Dragon Age: Origins is a worth-while successor to Bioware’s Balder’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic RPG franchises, providing players with rich narrative choices, a fun combat system, and complex moral choices. The game’s graphics fall short of the standard set by Mass Effect – in some cases far short – but Dragon Age’s game play makes up for it. The origins gimmick will have you either playing two characters simultaneously, or returning to the game multiple times to see how the variant stories play out. If you like fantasy RPGs, this worth picking up.