Dragon Age will be hitting computers around the globe in a couple of hours.

There have been a few reviews out already and the initial responses from the critics have been excellent. One thing about the game that I was always dismissing as hype was the whole “spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate” thing. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’d have to say “Umm, I don’t think so”. The good news is that I’m sure it does not matter. This is going to be a real good game regardless. It did get me thinking though, what made the Baldur’s Gate series so unbelievably good? In fact, what makes any RPG worthy of the genre, good at all? Here are a few things that I think separate the merely good from the real classics (in no particular order):

DISCLAIMER: I must stress here that I personally do not consider games like Diablo (which I love btw) & Titan Quest, etc., to be true RPGs in the real sense of the word. Those types of games fall into the “Action RPG” genre which is a totally different kind of beast. Also, there will be some spoilers about various games here; those will be highlighted in red like this.

1)      Story. This is where it all begins. Pretty much every RPG that I can think of has the same premise, i.e., the world is in peril, you need to man up and save it. When you consider just how contrite this narrow minded vision is, it’s always refreshing when a developer takes it and gives you a genuine surprise. Baldur’s gate delivered a shocking revelation about you being a Bhall spawn, a bonafide child of the God of freakin murder himself! Mass effect had a space ship being the actual villain. KOTOR 1 hit you on the head with the fact that YOU were the bad guy. Its stuff like that which creates water cooler moments that we gamers so love.

2)      NPCs. Every RPG has them and most are merely passable at best. The real gems give you fleshed out characters that you genuinely care about or better yet, hate (for the right reasons). Any interaction between the player and NPCs and indeed, among NPCs themselves, goes a long way toward making the virtual seem real. BG2 and Vampire Bloodlines in particular stand out here (For instance, remember this?). In both cases, the voice acting was perfect; the dialogues were a testament to a high quality of writing. Recently, Bioware has effectively used cinematics like this one to give the same effect. This is one thing I expect Dragon Age will nail.

3)      Choice. This one is hard to get right. Even Bioware has yet to get this down perfectly. For the most part, an RPG will let you feel like your decisions have made on impact on the world. It’s rare to see a game where your choices will actually alter the way the story progresses (Deus Ex excelled in this). The truly outstanding games will accomplish this while making it hard for you to decide if a particular choice is the “right” one at all. Such as whether or not to turn Heather into your ghoul in Bloodlines or killing agent Anna Navarre in Deus Ex. In my opinion, Obsidian does a better job of managing this aspect than anyone else in the industry. This is why I think KOTOR 2 was a better role playing experience when compared to KOTOR 1, even though the latter was on the whole, a better game.

4)      Character development. This is a key element and one, which boils down to : balance. The old 2nd edition DnD rules employed by the BG series were pretty hard on newbies. I still wince at the memory of how the game handled dual classing. Recent iterations have made character development a lot more accessible. However, regardless of the system used, one thing is certain; having a character that’s still a wimp even at the end of a few levels is just no fun. On the flip side, having a godlike character midway through a campaign takes away all challenge. The real trick, however, is to use a system that allows level progression to be an organic process that feels right. An assassin that uses divine magic and wears heavy armor might seem like a good idea, but any system that even allows this as a possibility is erring on the wrong side of freedom imo.

5)      The world. Graphics can go only so far. An average engine can still deliver an excellent role playing experience if all the other elements are in place. It irks me to see any RPG harp about its engine before anything else. What really makes the world come alive in a game are the people in it and the way the inhabitants behave even when you are not actively engaging with them. Architecture is another dimension that you don’t really tend to notice until it’s done poorly. Besides, how likely are you to care about exploration or the “world coming to an end” if you don’t think much of it in the first place? Now, consider a world like Oblivion’s where almost all the key elements were married to an excellent engine. Now you have something special.

6)      Loot. Random drops are all well and good but an epic item must be the reward for doing something, well, epic. I clearly remember getting an awesome sword for killing my first dragon in BG2. That was a battle that literally took me a week to beat and the reward at the end of it was well worth it. Hell, that game even had a talking sword for Hood’s sake! I can’t remember the last time I was salivating at the prospect of new gear the way I did in BG2.

7)      Combat difficulty. This one is a personal preference; some people like their RPGs to not be combat centric at all. Others won’t touch a game that does not have a deep and complex combat dynamic. The battles in BG were bitch hard (the first time around at least). This was one of only two games that had me strategizing about the battles even when I was not playing (other being the Commandos series which wasn’t even an RPG). From whatever I have read so far, the combat in Dragon Age should feel the same way. About bloody time.

8)      Emotional impact. This obviously has a lot to do with the story and the writing in general. Having twists in the plot is no major achievement. But a twist that resonates with you long after you have finished the game, now that’s something. Consider the way Deus Ex reveals how you were playing for the wrong team, or how horrifying the death of Dogmeat felt in Fallout. The way a game ends also has to be equally satisfying. Cliffhangers hardly ever work in RPGs. A sense of completion should go hand in hand with that of contentment.

9)       Music. It would  be easy to think of this as the icing on the cake if it wasn’t a key ingredient. A good musical score will take an emotion and expand it exponentially. Every RPG I’ve loved has had a soundtrack that’s haunted me for days if not months. (Updated)

I’m sure there a bunch of other stuff that I haven’t listed but, these are the key elements of a great RPG for me. Are there any other elements that make an RPG work for you?