Bioware have made a name for themselves in the Western RPG genre by producing some of the best and most complex titles around. ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ and ‘Baldur’s Gate’ were huge, making RPG fans out of many people who had never even touched a game before, but they were based on the worlds and systems of others. Dragon Age Origins is what happened when Bioware turned its creative talents to an original IP within a fantasy setting.
It can be taken as written that Mass Effect and Dragon Age are Bioware’s two tent pole franchises. One fantasy, one science fiction, both designed to break free of the hold of other’s worlds and build something bigger. Bioware grasps what makes Western RPGs so interesting and provides a detailed world setting for both, complete with lore, items, histories and religions that would fill whole books just to be properly explained. That the games play wonderfully and look great is really just a bonus.
Graphically Dragon Age Origins is an early PS3 or Xbox 360 level of graphical power, although patches exist to bulk out the desktop versions significantly. The engine is capable of rendering diverse environments and character builds in 3D and allows for complete rotation of the camera at all times. Character models are detailed, although somewhat puppet-like when moving to convey complex emotion, showing their age at this point but still visually detailed and interestingly diverse. Lighting is used to excellent effect throughout and areas of shadow or portable light sources (such as enchanted weaponry or armour) give excellent visuals. The character design screen itself is fairly broad and robust, although hair is short on options and can be seen repeated throughout the games NPC population. User interface alters depending on the version of the game you are playing, with the console versions using a six button quick-link system in the bottom right of the screen that is split across two layers in a natural manner whilst the desktop version uses more MMO looking icons spread across the base of the screen for mouse control. The games does employ a ‘grim and gritty’ setting, which largely means greys, browns and greens in terms of a colour palette, but armour and metals look especially nice. Small glitches are present such as clipping of items worn on the back into clothing or hair choices, but they do not ruin the overall look of the title.
Sound is excellent throughout with ample use of recorded dialogue from high quality actors and actresses (Claudia Black is a standout performance) and characters snipe and debate freely, largely through optional dialogue trees. Sound effects are crisp and very real, leaving combat to feel visceral rather than fantastical. Magical elements utilise a touch of echo to make them seem slightly out of place from these other effects, and monsters seem to be sampled based on real animal snarls. Musically the game is a little uneven, with the title screen being bombastic and the same tune used to cover loading times, but other tracks being softer throughout when not engaged in combat. The song used at the games finale feels out of place and a tad silly, as if at the conclusion of a movie, but otherwise everything is in keeping with the atmosphere of the story at any given time.
Being a game focused on its narrative, Dragon Age Origins lives up to its title by allowing the player to create a character from an abundant amount of background quirks and plays out a unique introduction section(origin) for each scenario. This affects how you come to join the main story and how the rest of the game will play out from an interaction standpoint. It also greatly adds to replay value because the experience as a Human, Knight, Noble is significantly different to an Elven, Mage, Dalish background in both play style and content. The main story kicks off in good fashion though, setting a lot of the world’s lore right out of the gate and establishing a place for the character within it. The world undergoes events called ‘Blights’ that see monsters from underground swarm to the surface as an army under the leadership of an Arch-Demon in the form of a dragon. To kill an Arch-Demon, Grey Wardens are needed but the order has grown weak over the course of such a long period between two blights. You are recruited straight out of your introductionary campaign and undergo the rites of passage to become one of these heroes just as the eve of a massive battle to turn the tide of the blight is underway. The battle fails when a power-grab sees the king murdered and the Grey Wardens framed. Traditionally above politics of this sort, the wardens must clear their name whilst combatting the blight and unifying an army using ancient documents of right. It’s a very standard Bioware template for an RPG of their design but it works wonders from a narrative standpoint. By this I mean that many of their titles can be summed up as follows: post introduction the party encounter the main plot, when something goes wrong a position of strength leads to a scrabble to unify several different nations before bringing any plot left from the intro to a conclusion. Clearing the road for a finale where all your choices play out and the day is won or lost accordingly. In this case the choices of nations are between Dwarves and Golems, Elves or Werewolves and Mages or Templar. It’s an over simplification however, because the plot choices and decision making involved is quite gripping and the atmosphere is epic throughout in scale and ambition. Character interaction is the title’s true selling point and the player party is a likable, well written and deeply diverse cast of individuals you can get to know as much or as little as you like.
Gameplay is a sound evolution over the likes of Baldur’s Gate by allowing for freedom of movement within in complex 3D space. In this intense the shift from 2 to 3 dimensions is a boon because it allows for environments to shine and makes exploration easy to accomplish either with a mouse or a controller by putting you third person. Switching between party members allows each to put their considerable skills to work, especially the Rogue class which has disarming and unlocking abilities that are invaluable throughout the campaign. The title does play more as an action title than a tactical one on consoles, but combat can be paused at any time to allow for orders to be given to each and every member of the party before gameplay resumes. A wealth of items can be made, found and purchased and many of them can be fitted with special gems in an action called ‘Enchanting’ that adds special powers to them. Building up a practical and good looking set of weaponry for your party is practically a micro-management game in of itself, as is handling the small inventory space you’re given at first. This is remedied by allowing for purchase of expansions to your inventory, but expect to fill that too as looting corpses is addictive. Conversations with characters grants favour with them that can be boosted with gifts of the right or wrong types, those who trust you implicitly receive bonuses when in your company and many are wooable by one or both sexes. You create your character from scratch at the games start and the detail of creation helps add a sense of ownership to what befalls your hero (or villain!) in a manner few games manage to emulate. Choices all amount to light or dark but every playthrough will throw up shades of grey that further muddy the lines between what is right and what is practical. Combat is fairly automated with editing of the party’s AI easily accomplished to create a powerful team, but special moves are generally triggered by the player character only on command. Magic attacks have areas of effect and friendly fire is always a risk. Levelling is also a lengthy process with options on where to spend skill points to perfect a character build and which new skill tree to unlock from those available at any given time. Ultimately the game does recycle a few too many fetch-quests, but the world is big enough that you don’t really mind repeating an activity.
Overall Dragon Age Origins is one of the best Western RPGs available to this day, it’s adult tone and grim setting may be a little brown and blood splatter may be excessive after battles, but it’s got a charm all of its own. Expansion sets (DLC) have since been released that cover everything from unlocking a Golem for your party to a prelude involving one of the main characters going solo. One expansion comically even manages to put you in the boots of a low-level enemy grunt as he tries to kill the games star. It’s very high level stuff and it manages to keep a quality throughout that many games see ebb away after launch. Dragon Age should be near the top of any gamer’s list.