During last week’s GDC, I got a gameplay presentation of BioWare's upcoming PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 RPG Dragon Age: Origins from lead designer Mike Laidlaw. The game, set for release in the second half of 2009, is looking extremely impressive. Laidlaw promised an average of 80 hours of gameplay with much more available to gamers that want to experience everything. The story revolves around an enemy known as the "Blight" and your quest to raise the armies of Ferelden to combat the darkspawn before they destroy the world. You will play as a member of the Grey Wardens, an ancient order created to fight the Blight, but have mostly been forgotten.
Dragon Age: Origins Red Cliff Gameplay
The game will offer several “Origins” to choose from. These story-starting points will reportedly change the way the game plays. If you choose to be a Human nobleman, your experience will be much different than choosing to play as a lowly Elf. Yes, Elves in Ferelden are the bottom of the social order. A nice change of pace, for once! It remains to be seen, however, if this will actually result in different gameplay or just change some quest lines and NPC reactions to your character.
The game runs in a gorgeous 3D engine with high-quality character models and scenery. In addition to your created character, you will form alliances and control other characters in a party. The loyalty of your allies will change as you make decisions throughout the game. Sten, a barbarian-like character, will become less loyal if you continuously help people. His goal is the main quest and he doesn't like helping other people much. This manifests in gameplay by how effective allies are in combat, whereas a loyal character performs better than a disloyal character. If you make enough decisions to completely piss off a character, they might leave. This is all handled on a point system. After making a choice, you’ll see something like “Sten (-10)” and the status can be checked on the character sheet.
Keep reading for more on Dragon Age: Origins.
This is a BioWare RPG so expect a lot of (well-written) quest dialogue. The conversation isn’t as clear cut between positive/neutral/negative like Mass Effect, but your allies will interject during a conversation. This will give you some insight into how they will react to your choices and you’ll begin to learn how your decisions will affect their loyalty. The voice acting I heard was high-quality and will hopefully hit that level for the entire game.
BioWare was showing off a quest chain at Red Cliff. Your objective, at the top level, is to recruit the army of the area’s governor, the Arl Eamon, who is rumored to be sick. Upon arriving, you immediately learn that a town near the castle has been coming under attack every night. Undead attack! Here, you’ll meet some townspeople including the Arl’s brother. At this point, it’s up to you to decide how to proceed. In fact, one of the options is to just leave.
If you decide to stay, you’ll be able to do a few side quests to improve the militia’s garrison. Although, I didn’t get to see these played out, there was a quest chain that involved putting the drunk blacksmith back to work. His daughter was taken to the castle and he has lost the will to fight. If you agree to help him, he’ll ignite his forge again and upgrade the militia’s weapons. Other tasks will improve the fortifications or add barrels of oil that can be ignited. All of this will play into how the situation plays out when the attack finally comes.
At nightfall, the undead begin coming from the Arl’s castle and it’s time to fight. Combat can be paused and orders can be dished out strategically or you can play the battle out in realtime. Either way, you'll be mixing melee, ranged, and magical combat between your characters and fighting a lot of enemies at once. You can also pull the camera back to get an overview of the battlefield.
Interestingly, the combat engine is entirely based on animation. This game is not based on a Dungeons & Dragons ruleset; there aren’t rounds and you won’t just attack every 3 seconds and automatically hit your foe. An enemy can run past a melee character as they are swinging and avoid the attack if they are fast enough. Similarly, arrows will hit cover and miss enemies that are hiding behind objects. You’ll want to put your archers up on high ground to get the best shot.
If you don’t want to micromanage your entire party, you’ll be able to set up tactics for each character. At the core, these are simple AI routines that can be combined to dictate what a CPU-controlled character will do during a given situation. Think: Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit system. You’ll be able to set things like: When Health < 25% - Use Potion on Self. These can be combined and customized to create complex AI routines. BioWare will also include preset tactics that will grow as a character gains new abilities.
Laidlaw also showed off some combos that can make a fight much easier. For example, by using the ignited barrels of oil they created a field of fire that the undead had to cross. Then, they dropped an earthquake spell in the field to knock the skeletons down and keep them from leaving. Sten used an ability to gain immunity to knockdown and was buffed with a fire resist spell. Using all of these abilities together, Sten was able to freely walk around the earthquake attacking knocked down skeletons that were continuously taking fire damage. Combos will also be available in a per character basis. A mage can freeze an enemy with a Cone of Cold spell and then use telekinetic force to shatter them for an instant kill.
During the battle, the militia helps out, but they can die. In fact, if you can save the village without a single militiaman dying, you’ll get an extra reward. Now, with the village secure, it’s off to the castle to investigate and try to raise Arl Eamon’s army. Sadly, this is where my demo ended.
I am very excited about Dragon Age: Origins and eagerly await BioWare’s return to the PC-first epic RPG. Laidlaw also noted that the PC version would not suffer from the co-development of the console versions, probably alluding to Mass Effect’s poor inventory and item management systems. Expect a different control setup and inventory system on the console. The game looks to sport an engaging combat engine that melds well with the branching quest system. I also have faith that the story will evolve beyond the standard “evil force vs. ancient order” faire. Keep this one on your list.