The traditional formula of creating a character, becoming a hero and saving the day is nothing new to BioWare. After all, this is the company that introduced classic role-playing game experiences to gamers everywhere with titles including Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. For Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare fleshed out its customary design by including radically different characters with unique backgrounds for gamers to experience. The result is that Dragon Age dwarfs other role-playing games in size and scale, and weaves in mature themes amidst a backdrop of chaos and destruction.
The plot of Dragon Age is extremely rich with details that unfold over dozens of hours of play. All of this is documented in your in-game codex, which tracks conversations, plot points and other elements of your journey. The general backstory revolves around the Darkspawn threat to the land of Ferelden. Darkspawn are a race of creatures born from magic users who attempted to become gods, but were cursed for their efforts. Led by the powerful Arch-demon, the beasts emerge from underground lairs every few hundred years in a swarming plague known as the Blight.
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The Darkspawn's destructive plots would succeed were it not for the Grey Wardens. An ancient order of elves, dwarves and humans, Grey Wardens dedicate their lives to hunting down Darkspawn wherever they go. It's been centuries since the Darkspawn appeared, and the signs of a new Blight are even more troublesome since the numbers of Grey Wardens have dropped precipitously. To make matters worse, Ferelden is bitterly divided by an internal war, making the repulsion of this threat harder than before.
This is the fractured world your hero or heroine inhabits, a world which can evoke Tolkien-esque imagery. Ferelden has an impressively vast history (as your codex will indicate to you through your adventure). The biggest issue, that arises with the storyline of Dragon Age is that plot elements suffer from repetitiveness. Even though different cities house unique quest events, they all incorporate similar motivating factors – assassination, betrayal or murder. Even though the results of your actions vary, it can become a bit stale. Not every single city needs Macbeth, King Lear or other Shakespearean styled machinations to drive the action forward.
The character creation reveals more of Dragon Age's depth and flexibility. You have three separate races (human, dwarf and elf) and three base classes (warrior, rogue and mage) to choose from. Additionally, your hero will have general skills, class-specific talents and specializations, which you can learn from manuals or other characters willing to teach you their arts. By the end of the game, your hero will feel like a true legendary Grey Warden with a full complement of abilities to destroy the Darkspawn.
Dragon Age provides a ton of customization without a level cap, so it's possible to take two characters with the exact same background and develop them in completely different ways. For example, do you want a berserker that mows down enemies, a stealthy rogue that strikes from the shadows or a mage that wields the elements? These are only a few of the options you can explore as you grow your character.
Selecting your character's race and class decides which one of six unique origin stories you'll explore. Choose your origin carefully, because this decision affects how the world treats and views you. Since each background starts in a different location, the origin stories play out in distinctive ways. As you travel on your journey, your character may return to the lands they hailed from, and people you knew will respond differently to you. For example, if you play a mage, you start out in the Mage's Tower. Eventually, you'll return to the site of your training, and the instructors and guards of the tower will remember who you are and what you did as a young magician inside the tower walls.
The largest issue that I had with the Origin feature is that some of the background elements fade away too easily as the game progresses, becoming little more than an afterthought. For example, many of Ferelden's citizens are extremely prejudiced against elves, but this bias eventually just disappears. Considering that a portion of the game revolves around uniting Ferelden against the Darkspawn, it would seem like you'd have to address these issues of racism somehow, especially if you happen to be an elven character. Simply tossing these endemic problems aside without any attempted mediation or resolution seems unrealistic and forced, and insults the plot of the game.
This is not to say that Dragon Age shies away from tough predicaments. While you can affect some decisions with the respective skill (like manipulating conversations by persuading or intimidating characters), Dragon Age frequently presents you with options that can radically change events -- opening up separate side quests while closing others off. Certain choices have longer-lasting impacts on the world, and some can even alter the overall story. For example, can you convince people to protect a town under siege that they would rather abandon, particularly if it they could lose their lives in the process? Even the smallest decision can have a butterfly effect on the game (particularly if someone dies), which is both daunting and exhilarating at the same time.
On top of this, your decisions influence the relationships you have with your party members, improving or damaging their opinion of you significantly. Managing this balance is very important for a number of reasons. First, as a party member's opinion of you improves, you unlock permanent stat bonuses for that character, strengthening their role in your group. Second, the more a party member trusts you, the more they'll open up, providing side quests that strengthen your friendship and allow them to teach their individual skills to other characters in your group and unlock specializations for everyone. Third, depending on the character and the strength of your bond, you can have a romantic relationship with them. On the other hand, make decisions that they don't agree with or completely upset them, and they could choose to leave your group entirely.
While it's fine to include a variety of relationships, the depiction of love feels rather wooden and romantic segments are censored to the point of being very awkward. But the far bigger problem is that you can essentially buy your party's affection with gifts, even if you've wronged them. It would seem more appropriate to have them refuse to go on missions with you until you complete a side quest to get back in their good graces, or risk them leaving forever. Considering how complex the interaction with your party members can become, that would be the more realistic way of handling relationships, but the current system feels like trite manipulation.
Of course, Dragon Age isn't just about exploration and relationships. There's combat as well. You can engage the enemy in one of three ways: fight in real time, pause the action and tactically determine your next attack, or set up fighting preferences for your characters. While the PC version was particularly suited for tactical combat, the console version was designed around action-based play, with a focus on quick commands and an auto-lock targeting feature. There are two significant issues to be aware of, however. The first thing is that combat can become boring because your characters are more than capable of downing the limited number of enemies that you'll face. Secondly, if you're an RPG veteran, you'll want to bump the difficulty level up to Hard or Nightmare as the standard difficulty is particularly easy.
You can still pause the game and issue commands, but you'll need to keep the left trigger held down to do so, which gets old quickly while trying to micromanage battles. For the most part, the radial menu works well, but there are a limited number of quick command slots. Programming battle preferences is useful, but every now and then the character will disregard your commands and utilize basic actions instead of skills or abilities. Furthermore, even with preferences set up, characters frequently act on their own idiotic accord -- running blindly into traps that they should clearly be able to see and disarm. Combine this with your party's poor path finding skills, and you'll clearly want direct control over everyone.
When you have a well-balanced party of characters working together, you can effectively create combos that can decimate your opponents, like casting a spell to freeze approaching monsters and having your warriors smash the creatures into pieces. Battle within the game is frequently a brutal affair, with spells rocketing towards their intended target and clashing swords bouncing off shields and enemies. Even more striking is the attention paid to kills and critical hits, and watching heads get lopped off, or beasts getting impaled are fantastic touches.
However, I had a couple problems with the battle system. First off, the game doesn't really scale enemies to match your characters' levels, so after a while, some fights are designed to overwhelm your party with size instead of skill. In fact, once you start to approach level 20, many of the Darkspawn are killed in a matter of seconds, drawing out play unnecessarily. Another issue is that everyone, regardless of their distance to a fight, looks like they walked through a slaughterhouse afterwards. Why is my mage, who's a sizable distance from the fight, covered in red? It seems like some of that blood could've been toned down especially since it takes a while to disappear.
While I'd love to say that Dragon Age looks phenomenal, that isn't accurate on the PS3 and Xbox 360. The graphics aren't as crisp as they are on the PC, and character models can be rather hit or miss. General character animations can be a bit stiff, but the battle animations are pretty solid. There is a lot of screen tearing, and I wish that you could maneuver the camera perspective out of its locked position. While I can understand that a locked camera helps keep the focus on the battle and action, it would be useful to get a larger glimpse of the battlefield. Additionally, there are a number of framerate hitches, more so on the PS3 than the 360. It doesn't break gameplay, but with a game that runs for sixty to eighty hours, that starts to add up over time.
An extensive amount of dialogue is included in a mé lange of accents, some of which are done well while others are poorly performed. At least your party members will provide some moments of hilarity as they question, cajole and annoy each other during down moments of exploration. Your created character will exclaim random phrases every now and then in the midst of battle, but they are, for the most part, a silent observer. That's fine, because the real star here is the music, which sounds like a Hollywood score for a fantasy movie.
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