I finished Dragon Age Origins last night. I should say that I finished playing Dragon Age Origins last night but I won’t. Why? Well, in the 75 hours that I have spent with it, I have been accused of regicide, been an instrument of vengeance, been hit on by a bisexual elf, made deals with werewolves, robbed some snobbish nobles, befriended a golem, concocted deadly poisons, lost myself in a world ripe with adventure and yes, saved the world. And of course, I’ve killed Dragons. Big ones. With a sword. In essence, I haven’t played Dragon Age as much as I’ve experienced it. And if you haven’t figured it out by now, I have loved every minute of it.
A few days ago I mentioned in my first impressions that I really wasn’t expecting the game to live up to all the hype. This is one of those rare moments where I am glad to be proved wrong. Marketing mis-steps aside, it is ironic that I agree with Mr Manson. This, ladies and gentlemen, IS indeed the shit (sorry).
To start with, the player’s choice of race and background is going to ensure a unique perspective throughout the story. Even though the character selection screen may seem limited, (you can only choose between Human, Elf or Dwarf) with only certain classes available to each (Dwarves can’t become mages for example) in actual experience, this gives the player a tailor-made experience. So, if you choose to play as a Dwarven noble, the first hour or so of the game is going to be completely different from say, a Dalish Elf. Though all such “origins” will eventually conjoin to follow a common story arc, the first taste of the game will do enough to introduce you to not just the lore and history of Ferelden but your own place in it. As a noble and a Dwarven one at that, the world will see you differently. The people you meet will treat you differently. You may also find that some of the decisions you make early in the game, characters you have wronged for example, come back and haunt you much later. It might be easy to dismiss this as a mere gimmick, but as any RPG veteran will tell you, it makes the story a lot more personal. And that’s what makes this game stand apart; almost everything that happens in it is personal. In terms of cosmetic character customization, there is a fair bit you can do to alter the facial features of your protagonist. Though, if you want to create a beefy elf, you are out of luck (the tool alters faces only). You can download the character creator for free from here. With regards to character classes, the game has the 3 fantasy staples (warrior, mage and rouge) each of which has access to 4 individual specializations. As expected, the skill system is deep and satisfying with the possibility of creating some truly powerful characters (especially mages).
(You can click on the images for full-resolution screen-shots.)
As far as presentation goes, the Eclipse engine does an acceptable job but it does look dated. The player can switch between a “3rd person” view to a more traditional isometric one by using the scroll button. The textures aren’t really as clear as I would have liked (which is apparent in 3rd person) but, to be honest, I didn’t even notice it after a while. The one thing that I did notice was the lip-syncing in cut scenes (and there are a lot of those btw) just didn’t seem right. Add to that the fact that your character never speaks during any of them and it makes one wonder why that is. Whatever the reason, it does affect the immersion a little. What does look cool however is combat. Every battle looks choreographed, the animation is spot on and spell effects make for some good visuals. Plus, every time a character pulls off a critical to finish an opponent or brings down a particularly tough boss, the camera goes into slow motion to show off an awesome finishing move. It’s always a “Whoa!” moment when this happens.
Speaking of which, I must stress that regardless of what you may have heard or read in forums, the combat is NOT hard. It is certainly challenging and is frequently very unforgiving to those who go rushing in willy nilly. Calling the combat in Dragon Age hard is like saying chess is difficult. It may be difficult to master, but, not difficult to play. Tactics and positioning are everything here, more so during the earlier levels. The fact that most spells have friendly fire on in normal difficulty makes it imperative to have your team position itself strategically. Make full use of terrain and draw enemies into choke points when you can. Using poisons to coat your weapons and the occasional grenade or trap works wonders too. Basically, stop pretending this is Diablo and you will be fine. If the friendly fire bit annoys you, feel free to change the difficulty to easy at anytime during the game. Also, pressing the space key will put the game in “active pause” so that you may give your party commands that they will carry out in real time once you unpause. A control freak like me will probably use the space button for every move and tell each of your party (limited to a max number of 4) what to do every second but, it’s not necessary by any means. The game allows you to script the AI of party members to a ridiculous degree which will do away with the need for such babysitting. So if you want your healer to heal your front line warriors when they get to 25% of their health, you can program it. It is a simple system and it works (most of the time).
The one thing that did bother me was the inventory management. Or rather, the lack there of. Like Mass Effect, Dragon Age uses a common party inventory so you don’t have to worry about the carrying capacity of individual party members. However, inventory space is limited (you can upgrade this by purchasing “backpacks”). The complete absence of pouches or bags for potions and jewels is a pain. Considering how games that came out 10 years ago incorporated something this basic, the lack of this in Dragon Age makes no sense. The loot is nothing to get excited about either, which is a tad disappointing. It’s not that the gear is bad; it’s just that no weapon in the game made me feel like I had something really powerful. 99% of what you pick up will be going straight to a merchant.
Dragon Age does a wonderful job of making the land of Ferelden seem like a living breathing thing. This is a world with a lot of history, deep lore and is rife with political intrigue. It also takes some standard fantasy staples and turns them on their head. So Elves are essentially a slave race and seen as second class citizens. And lo and behold, Dwarves don’t speak like drunken Scots. The characters you team up with and encounter are voiced (with some notable exceptions) to perfection and the dialogues show a high quality of writing. I frequently found myself wishing that I could have more people in my party not because I needed them, but because I longed for their company and witty banter. Not since Baldur’s Gate 2 have I felt like this in any game. Which is just as well, because without these little touches, a game this long would be very boring.
Like other Bioware titles before this (Mass Effect, KOTOR etc), Dragon Age also utilizes an “influence” system to decided how party members feel toward you. It’s pretty much a given that acting as a “do-gooder” will piss some members off. Being a heartless bastard will irk others. Managing your party members’ influence is a game in itself. Do this right and not only will your companions enjoy some stat boosts, they will also trust you enough to unlock some character specific quests. Ignore or anger them too much and you might find yourself being ditched. The possibility of romance also exists if you play your cards right.
Tolkien’s influences are apparent throughout Ferelden. There are more than a few instances where I said “that looks like something I saw in the Lord of the Rings”. The music is also suitably epic and adds tremendously to the atmosphere. The story in itself does not break any new ground. It’s the typical “everything is coming to an end and you must save the world” scenario but, there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.
Bioware have employed an interesting method of community building. The game takes automatic takes screen-shots during play and uploads them on an online album/scrapbook that you can share with like-minded folk. The same applies to any achievements you unlock. Great if you are into that sort of thing I suppose. You do have to log into Bioware’s servers for this to happen though. In fact, if you have any DLC at all you will have to log in at least once before you start playing every time. (I personally find DRM of this kind annoying but will not allow it to affect the way I review a game). Looking at how successful the original Neverwinter Nights (an earlier Bioware title) community was at releasing fan created content, I can only salivate at what we have to look forward to in the next few months. The modding scene is going to explode with this one. Not that you will need to lengthen your stay in Ferelden right away, make no mistake, this is a deliciously long game. You can easily expect to get a 100 hours plus worth of gaming if you take your time with the campaign.
I knew this was going to be a rock solid RPG like every other title Bioware has crafted but, I certainly wasn’t expecting something to raise the bar for every other game of this genre. Well, that’s exactly what has been delivered folks. The bar has been raised and it has been raised HIGH. Some minor faults notwithstanding, this is going to be the standard that every RPG of this type is going to be judged by.