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Platform

PC

 

Genre

Role-Playing

 

Publisher

Electronic Arts

 

Developer

BioWare

 

ESRB

M (Mature)

 

Released

November 3, 2009

 

 

- Long, Epic Storyline

- RPG Combat Done Right

- Impressive Visuals

- Classic Fantasy RPG at its Apex

 

 

- Minor miscellaneous bugs

- Some small dialogue parts have flat delivery

 

 

Review: Trine (PC)

Review: Borderlands (360)

Review: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS)

 

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Dragon Age: Origins

Score: 9.5 / 10

 

BioWare is a developer with a pedigree. Most serious computer RPG fans have at the very least heard of them, and most have probably played one of their games. Stretching all the way back to the mid nineteen-nineties with Shattered Steel and the infamous Baldur's Gate games, up to Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. More recent entries into a library consisting almost purely of hits are Jade Empire and the very well received Mass Effect. I feel comfortable in saying that - in a few months - Dragon Age: Origins will comfortably join the pantheon of BioWare smash titles without a hitch.

 

dragon age origins          dragon age origins

 

I should preface this review by stating my own bias. I'm a huge BioWare fan, and their games consistently tickle the right notes of classic RPG and epic story-telling for my tastes. That said I have tried to remove myself as much as possible in writing this review.

 

What BioWare has delivered with Dragon Age is a visually appealing, classic fantasy role-playing experience. It has an epic story on scale with Tolkien, and it may be the best delivered story of its size I've ever seen in a game. The gameplay and story all get very much to the root of the genre. This may be the apex of the fantasy computer RPG - the best we've ever seen it done. Its drawbacks, what few

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there are, come in the form of technical bugs and glitches which I'll explore in more detail a little later. First let's talk about what makes DA:O unique.

 

The 'Origins' bit in the title isn't just for show. In Dragon Age you choose your gender, race, class, and an origin story for your character. At first glance I was surprised to see that many

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class/race combinations only had one origin choice available to them - but that was when I thought the origin would just be for flavour text. I then spent the next two hours playing through a tutorial and mini-adventure that set up the rest of the game and tailored the experience specifically to the choices I'd made. Only now, going through the game for a second time, can I say for certain that the origin stories in the game set up so much more than you expect them to in terms of story, and I find my character even having somewhat different motivations for his actions on my second play through of the game. Are origin stories something we've seen before in RPGs? Sure, on occasion. But you've never seen them like this. This is the closest you can come in a computer RPG to having that old-school, pen-and-paper feeling of someone actually creating the story just for you.

 

Back in 2003 BioWare were the first ones to bring us truly serious, game-effecting moral choices. They did this in Knights of the Old Republic, where they brought us something that has become a mainstay in many RPGs: a morality meter. In the context of the Knights game it made sense to have everything judged on a scale of light and darkness, and it added a depth to the game that I found I appreciated a lot. Moral decisions and consequences of such are, after all, the stuff that ancient and modern myths alike are made up of.

 

Unfortunately, this mechanic didn't evolve a whole lot in the time between that game and this one. Mass Effect utilized a similar mechanic, renaming Light and Dark to Paragon and Renegade, but it more or less felt like that's all it was; renaming. It still added depth in comparison to a game that didn't feature moral decisions, but it added nothing new.

 

For Dragon Age they've taken this mechanic out, looked at what made it so fun in the first place, and replaced it with something much more organic, and valuable. There is no visible light/dark meter at any point, nor will the game inform you when you make a decision if it was good or bad. In the world of Dragon Age there is no outside force telling you through the mechanics which decisions are good for your soul, and which are bad - you decide for yourself. By removing that outside judgement they've created a much deeper system. Your characters will react to what you do in sometimes surprising, nuanced ways that are specific to them. And 'good' choices aren't always what they seem. In the past, killing bandits who were trying to rob people on the road after they'd already surrendered and dropped their weapons would be judged 'wrong'. In Dragon Age if you let them go then they may well just go ply their trade elsewhere, hurting countless others. The game leaves you gloriously free to make your own decisions, and yes - sometimes they're going to come back and bite you in the ass.

 

dragon age origins         dragon age origins

 

Visually I find DA:O to be top notch, probably the best looking medieval fantasy game I've seen - if you've got the hardware to run it at top settings, at least. I have heard some complaints from others that the settings are too realistic and mundane for a fantasy game, but these complaints usually come from people who haven't gone far enough through to see some of the more fantastic areas yet. The immersion created by the generally realistic (and well-rendered) environments is important, and it makes the fantastic elements stand out even more when they do appear, and it makes those elements take greater significance in the story; you can often tell at a glance if something is powerful.

 

Admittedly, you will not find the bright colours and shapes of World of Warcraft in this game. DA:O isn't about that - its a more real world, a fantasy RPG where the characters have grit under their fingernails, and blood on their armour, and things appear to be made of a more real scale, with real bones and blood behind their flesh. If you're into the more bright, cartoony approach then the look of DA:O might seem a bit boring to you.

 

For the audiophiles out there, I can say that the soundtrack was impressive and didn't come off as 'generic high fantasy', but like something that people had put effort, and care into. The voice acting did waver a bit, but anyone voicing major NPCs did a fantastic job. Its only minor, un-named characters with one or two lines of dialogue that sometimes come up stale.

 

Combat in DA:O is handled through stats, in classic RPG style. You'll still be clicking skills in a hotbar however to activate special abilities, or cast spells. It utilizes a fairly traditional system of Health, and Stamina/Mana depending on your class. While the game is not Dungeons and Dragons based it does borrow from that system in some ways, but it has one significant advantage. To me D&D-based games always seem like they're trying to shoehorn in extra feats and skills that don't actually translate well into a computer RPG, since they're based on a pen-and-paper system. DA:O is built from the ground up to be optimal for a computer RPG, and at no point in either of my play-throughs did I take a skill or ability and find it of low value, or useless. I'm not willing to say that such a skill isn't out there (cunningly waiting in the shadows to prove me wrong) since DA:O is tremendous in size, but I can say with confidence that if its out there, I haven't found it.

 

Speaking of size, RPGs are a genre where it definitely matters. I prefer longer RPGS myself, but only when that play time is made up of real story, and fun action, not just filler. Well, following the story of Dragon Age, and doing a good handful of optional sidequests (but by no means all of them) I clocked my first playthrough at approximately sixty-five hours. That is, by modern standards, a heck of a lot of hours. I don't feel I've seen anywhere near everything that the game has to offer, either. I'm halfway through my second play now, and I'm already getting designs on my third to see some content that I didn't get to in either of my first runs, since there are just so many options.

 

But its not all sunshine. There is a small black mark marring this otherwise tremendous game. I suffered a few glitches during my time with Dragon Age, and they ranged from annoying to one that actually forced me to go back to an older save game. The most common minor bug was that, after finishing a quest I would sometimes speak to someone in one place and when the dialogue finished I was in another. This was disorienting and I never got 'dialogue teleported' very far, but this should have come up in testing and been fixed. It happened to me four times in my first playthrough, and while only a mild irritation, it shouldn't be there.

 

The more irritating bug was in my first origin story, an NPC failed to give me a key after a dialogue scene, which meant I couldn't go on. Of course, having never played before, I didn't know this was what happened. I spent the next fourty-minutes running around trying to figure out what to do next before moving back to an older save. This time the action qued correctly and I got my key, but it was a needless, time-wasting frustration. This stuff slips through in every game - especially one to this tremendous scale! - but it still warrants listing. Ultimately these technical issues are why I can't give the game the perfect ten I feel it deserves. These bugs didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the game but I can't overlook them and just call it spot-on, either.

 

In the end what I was left with after my first play-through was the longest lasting RPG experience I've had in years, and possibly the most emotionally involving computer RPG I've ever played. Someone who is not as into story and role-playing in their RPGs as I am may not feel the same way, but I can't walk away from this game (or this review) without mentioning that Dragon Age: Origins has made its way into my favourite three RPGs of all time, sitting by Knights of the Old Republic, and Fallout 2. I'm not sure how to pay it a higher compliment than that.

 

- Daniel Mathers

(November 27, 2009)

 

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