Dragon Age is a brilliant, if slightly predictable, addition to BioWare's stable of RPG classics. It suffers from a few problems with plotting and world building but ultimately triumphs, offering a classic RPG experience that can hold its head high with any of BioWare's previous games.
- Very deep class system
- Fun tactical combat
- Huge amount of content to explore
- Clichéd main plotline
- Very difficult
- Long load times
- Inventory issues
Among RPG fanatics, the name BioWare carries a weight unmatched by nearly any other developer. From the classic Baldur's Gate series to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to the sci-fi epic Mass Effect, every new release from the company has been a major gaming event. So it is with Dragon Age: Origins, a brilliant if slightly predictable addition to BioWare's stable of RPG classics. It suffers from a few problems with plotting and world building but ultimately triumphs, offering a classic RPG experience that can hold its head high with any of BioWare's previous games.
The Age of Dragons
The land of Ferelden has a problem. It seems the Darkspawn, a plague of monstrous humanoids usually confined to underground kingdom of the Dwarves, have found themselves an arch-demon to lead them and have boiled out of the ground in one of their periodic Blights that threaten to destroy the world. Unfortunately, the races that usually band together to fight against the Darkspawn are too mired in their own political differences (including an internal civil war) to do it this time. The world is counting on a hero with a mysterious past, the last of a mystical band of all-but-extinct warrior-knights, to unite the squabbling factions of the world in time to stop the Darkspawn threat.
If that sounds familiar, that's because it is. It's pretty much the plot for every BioWare title since the days of Baldur's Gate and is the single weakest link in what is otherwise an exceptional title. As the hero of the story, you'll get a chance to create a unique hero that fits into the classic warrior/rogue/wizard archetype with a number of interesting variants and subclasses on offer. You'll gather a collection of ragtag travel companions, each of whom have their own psychological traumas to overcome and character related side-quests to pursue all in the service of eventually gathering an army that can defeat the Darkspawn. It's all been done before and doesn’t present a whole lot of surprises for anyone who has played a BioWare RPG in the last ten years.
The brilliance of Dragon Age is in the execution of what's otherwise a bog-standard plotline and the depth of exploration available for the player who really wants to dig into the world. Put simply, there's no one better at stringing together and crossing over role-playing plots and quests and creating fascinating worlds to explore. The problem with BioWare's talent is that it makes Dragon Age the very definition of a “slow burn” title. Bull your way through the 40-50 hour main plot, fail to explore the well-designed settings or re-explore them after major plot points and you're guaranteed to miss much of what makes Dragon Age so good – the incredible depth of characterization in both the people you deal with and the societies you explore.
Take your companions. They’re incredibly compelling, endearing and frustrating by turns because they’re all believable, psychologically complex personalities with multi-layered motivations and well-written dialogue. Depending on your choices and your personal tastes, you may find that they join you, love you, hate you, leave you in disgust or simply wait in your camp forever, never being used until they stab you in the back when you least expect it.
The decision to drop any sort of “morality meter” (comparable to Dungeons & Dragons’s alignment or the Knights of the Old Republic Light Side/Dark side measurement) really works to the game’s advantage. Throughout Dragon Age, the player and his companions will be asked to make difficult, morally ambiguous choices that don’t have a clear right or wrong answer. Even better, these choices often have interesting and scary backlashes, such as when a “good” choice invites unintended consequences or a “bad” one turns out to have been be the right one.
This multi-layered texture is what makes the world of Dragon Age such a fascinating place to explore. What initially seems like a weakness -- having a fairly standard Tolkeinesque fantasy universe -- actually turns out to be a strength because of the realistic way the various societies in the game are portrayed. While never straying outside of one’s clichéd expectations -- elves are nature-lovers, Dwarves are avaricious miners, the oversized Qunari are simplistic brutes -- all of them manage to defy expectations by acting from an extremely believable set of motivations. Except for the Darkspawn, no one in Dragon Age is truly good or evil -- they’re a great mix of both and much of the storyline boils down to the importance of personal choice in the face of circumstances as the definition of morality.
The Age of Battle
Of course it wouldn’t be a traditional electronic RPG without oodles and oodles of combat. Here, too, BioWare doesn’t stray too far from their comfort zone. Combat is controlled via the “order-while-paused” system and governed behind the scenes by a dice-rolling system not too dissimilar to classic Dungeons & Dragons. What makes it special this time around, again, is execution. After so many games and so many iterations of this system, Dragon Age is the title where they finally get the whole combat thing right. It’s perfectly balanced, interesting throughout the whole process and just a joy to play with.
Partial credit for this master stroke goes to the simple but well-designed class system. Regardless of whether you choose to play as a monosyllabic mace-wielder, a stealthy assassin or a spell-slinging mage, there’s a ton of interesting powers and abilities to use for every class type. As you can only take three characters along with your main, it makes for some interesting choices as you level up. If you’re specializing a character as a fragile damage-dealer, it pays to keep an eye on the emotional health of the ally you’re using as a meat shield.
Most of the joy in combat comes from how well-crafted the battlefield challenges are and how well they scale with your character. Put simply, Dragon Age is not a game for those looking to just power through tons of disposable henchmen on the way to a boss fight. Each and every battle in the game has the potential to kill you if you just run in with your characters on autopilot. That makes even minor battles a fascinating strategic challenge and offers a genuine sense of triumph when you overcome the really well-designed (and very difficult) boss fights. By the end of the game, when you’ve gone from a raw recruit taking on poorly trained bandits to a seasoned veteran leading armies against disciplined hordes of Darkspawn, you will feel every inch the battle-scarred soldier. Dragon Age isn’t an easy game to play, but it’s worth it.
The Age of Beauty
Visually, the game is a triumph of art design over graphical horsepower. The game certainly looks good technically. Animations, particularly character faces, spell effects and combat moves are beautifully implemented. Artistically, though, it takes time to realize just what BioWare has done. There are no real jaw-dropping images that you can point to. In fact, the beauty of Dragon Age's world lies within its subtlety. The world players will explore feels old -- heavy with the weight of history and legends and littered with the ruins of old empires and past glories. It’s a place that feels “real” (or as real as a fantasy universe can) because it treats its architecture and landscaping as characters with their own history and personality and not just as an opportunity for the art department to show off.
The game’s sound also deserves special mention. It’s exceptional – everything from the meaty smack of a sword striking flesh, to the whispers of ghosts in a haunted building, to the fiery wind generated by a powerful spell works to pull you into the game. Credit must also go to a talented ensemble of voice-actors, some famous names, some unknown, who work to bring the rich and diverse cast to life. Particular standouts include the player’s witch companion Morrigan, whose dulcet tones mask very deep secrets and Loghain Mac Tir, a tragic hero badly hurt by the choices he makes and his own prejudices.
There are a few technical niggles that stand out, especially in light of how good the rest of the game is. First, while the game seems to be very stable, players should prepare for some unreasonably long load times that seemed to get longer the deeper I got into the game. Some special combat moves available to characters seem to throw the whole world into slow motion without warning, even if the character you’re currently controlling isn’t the one doing the move. The game also experiences slowdowns when there are a lot of enemies onscreen or during particularly spectacular spell effects.
Also, the inventory control screens could use some work. The item categories offered aren’t adequate to properly order all the stuff you’ll need to organize. Finally, there’s the baffling decision to bar you from controlling your companion’s inventory unless they’re in your current party, forcing you to endure endless loading screens just to manage your stuff. None of these things are remotely fatal; they’re just particularly noticeable given how good the rest of the game is.
The Age of Wonder
In the end, Dragon Age: Origins is a triumph of RPG design for BioWare -- albeit one that takes some work to truly appreciate. What at first glance seems like a standard-issue fantasy universe with a typical save-the-villagers-from-the-horde plotline eventually morphs into an amazingly deep RPG experience that invites the player to explore and re-explore this rich and incredibly well-drawn alternative reality. You’ll come for the sword-fighting and spell-slinging but you’ll stay because of characters you care about and an amazing world that rewards patient exploration.