What, no hobbits?
Bioware are one of my favourite development teams of recent years. From the original Baldurs Gate, through the fantastic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and up to last years Mass Effect, all of their games have been a huge success in my eyes. A deep attention to detail, and the creation of a fully believable world, with rich history and engaging characters have always been a fantastic hallmark for all of their titles to bear, and I am glad to say, Dragon Age: Origins is no exception.
Dragon Age: Origins is the latest in a increasing line of what is called “Western” RPGs: Games that contain the great storytelling and fantastical environments of Japanese RPGs, without the usual clunky turn-based combat, and flights of extreme (and often outright bizarre) fancy that also seem to come with every title. Although I am a fan of “JRPGs”, I agree with many jaded gamer that post FF7, more and more JRPGs became blatant cookie-cutter, turn-based, angst-ridden tales, with a distinct lack of originality, in both gameplay and storytelling. Western RPGs take a different approach, with a faster, real-time combat system, a less intense levelling system, and more approachable stories, which generally is more appealing to the mass gaming markets of the West (hence the name!).
So, Dragon Age: Origins is a third person, action RPG, set in a mythical, pseudo-medieval world, inhabited by the staple mix of humans, elves, dwarves, dragons and an evil entity known as “The Blight”. If this makes the game sound somewhat of a Lord of the Rings rip-off, that is unfortunately what most games of this genre are, and DA:O is no exception. However, the story is a different take on the classic “evil threatens to swamp the land, and the chosen few must stop it!”, with a great mix of politics, social commentary, and believable characters preventing this game becoming anything like another tired old clone.
You start by picking a species and a class, with Dwarf, Elf, and Human to choose from in the former, and Mage, Rogue or Warrior in the latter. The combination you choose picks your “Origin tale”, a large part of the USP (Unique Selling Point, to all the non-Business Studies students out there!) for the game. Basically, the Origin tale dictates how you start the game, what skills you possess and can upgrade, and how people perceive you and behave towards you. I did actually find that although the beginnings were very different, and all very interesting, once you got into the meat of the game, the actual affect of your Origin tale waned very quickly, and soon what quests you could undertake (and how you played them), had far more to do with the choices you made dealing with the people involved in that specific quest, and nothing to do with your origin, bar a few slight changes in the dialogue.
On an aesthetic level, Dragon Age: Origins looks great. The level of detail on character models, backgrounds, and effects is excellent, and the game certainly is at least on a par with Mass Effect. Facial expressions on characters are good too, and although there is some lip syncing issues, generally the game looks fantastic. Characters carry splashes of blood on their armour after fights, the (often brutal) fight animations are excellent, and often Non Player Characters (NPCs) are as believable as the main players in the tale. The game can be played from an over-the-shoulder viewpoint, or from an isometric top-down position, with a range of options in-between.
The sound quality is generally very good too, with believable sound effects, and generally good dialogue from characters. Some lesser characters suffer from very ropey voice acting work, but the main characters, and companions to the player, all sport some of the best dialogue work I have ever heard in a game. Companions talk to each other whilst you are travelling too, and the banter between them is often clever and funny at the same time, enhancing the depth to each individual.
Anyone who has ever played another Bioware RPG knows what to expect in the gameplay department. The combat is in real time, although the action can be paused at any time, and orders can then be issued to your individual team-mates. In reality, get used to doing this quickly, as DA:O is not for the faint hearted. I have beaten most Bioware games without dying at normal settings (yes, I am teh pwnage!), and I found myself dying very early on, until I started using pause tactics for each character. even then, many of the larger fights took several replays as I worked out more advanced tactics for victory. This may put some gamers off, as every fight becomes a genuine win-or-lose situation, so the makers also included an “Easy” option for the more casual player.
Will easily keep most gamers entertained until at least Christmas.
The actual story, and how it is played out, is also of a very high standard. This game has been praised as Bioware´s best work yet, and it shows. The plot weaves and turns, and fractures into several smaller tales which are all interlinked. Each of your companions has a large backstory, to be explored or ignored to your hearts content. How you develop your character and your companions is easy too, with skill trees to be explored as the character levels up, tactics to be applied to to your team mates, and the usual armour and weapons swap all RPGs have as a staple.
So, I have ascertained the game is great. But I’m not saying phenomenal. Why?
Well, I have two smaller complaints. Firstly, the game is a very polished version of what Bioware does best. Which is to say, part of me does feel like I have done all this before. One starting quest, branching into three or four major subquests, returning to the main quest for the ending. With a load of side quests thrown in. Sound familiar? If you have played any other Bioware game, I would hope it does, as this is the standard play scheme for every game they have ever made. It is done well, it is a fresh story, but the structure is identical.
As a result of this, I lead on to my second (small!) complaint. Although the game masks it very well, with the origins stories, and the choice of order to undertake the main quests, the game is unbelievably linear. Whilst this is partly a complaint against the genre, Bioware are very good at almost telling an interactive story with stats thrown in, as although smaller outcomes can be somewhat different, I couldn’t help but feel that my decisions weren’t making as big an impact as the game was trying to make out. Sometimes my allies at key points would change, but the battle was still the same battle, with essentially the same outcome.
Anyway, these problems were nowhere near big enough to detract from the fact that DA:O is one of the best games to come out this year. It is a shame the launch is so close to the behemoth called Modern Warfare 2, as I feel this game may get overlooked by many gamers, which would be a shame. If you have never played a western RPG, Dragon Age: Origins is a great
jumping-off point, although please set the difficulty to easy. If you are a fan of any Western RPGs, you owe it to yourself to try this game as soon as possible. With at least 40 hours of gameplay per run-through, this game will easily keep most gamers entertained until at least Christmas.
Now bring on Mass Effect 2……
The Bad: Some slight lip sync issues; Follows the standard Bioware format; more linear than it pretends to be.