Review – Dragon Age: Origins
This Dragon’s not for turning.
Bioware have already hit RPG gold with one of my favourite games this gen, Mass Effect, and with the sequel due out in a matter of months they’ve seen fit to give us Dragon Age: Origins. Far more traditional than Mass Effect, this isn’t set in the future or in space, but in a Tolkien-esque world, with elves, dwarves and demons. This is a lot closer to their earlier work than Mass Effect was, but will it grab gamers in the same way? I’ll warn you straight off: if you thought Mass Effect was too long or deep (oo er) then move along. Whereas in Mass Effect you could pick a gender, your general appearance, class and a minor background story upon starting the game, here you get to pick your gender, appearance, class, species and background.
Classes available are Warrior, Rogue and Mage, species are Human, Elf and Dwarf (who can’t be Mages) and generally you have two backgrounds for each species, an upper class and a lower class. You’ll also be asked to put some points into your attributes straight off the bat, choose one skill to start with (which allow your character to do different things) and two talents (abilities for fighting). That’s a lot of decision making to do before you even start the game, but you can ‘quickstart’ once you’ve picked you gender, race and class if you’re in a hurry or overwhelmed.
Your choice of species, class and background do make a difference throughout the story in how certain people act towards you, but the main distinction between them comes in the form of the titular Origin stories. For the first couple of hours you will be playing one of six unique stories introducing you to your character and setting you out on the story proper. These act as an introduction to the mechanics as well, which won’t come naturally to those who have previously only played Bioware’s Mass Effect and not, for example, Knights of the Old Republic.
Combat is semi-automatic. Any squad mates you may have act by set rules you can apply (similar to Final Fantasy 12’s gambits), but whoever you are in control of needs to be pointed at the thing you want to kill. Highlight an enemy and your character will continuously attack it until one of you dies, but if you want your character to use an ability then you have to select that yourself, either from the radial menu which gives you access to all commands or from shortcuts you can set on the face buttons. You can control anyone in your squad manually if you choose, not just your main character. This control scheme works well, though not perfectly, but helps you feel involved in the combat, especially as the character you control will not move onto another enemy automatically, so you have to always be aware.
Speaking of combat; this game is hard. Playing through on Normal difficulty, you’ll just be walking along nicely killing things when suddenly you’ll encounter what seems to be an insurmountable enemy. You’ll quickly learn to save after everything you do as it is quite easy to lose a lot of adventuring, despite the autosave feature. After a few reloads and a bit of luck you’ll eventually overcome these enemies (or leave them until later if they aren’t part of the main quest), but these interruptions can annoy from time to time. There isn’t exactly an over abundance of healing potions, so any stash you have saved will generally be wiped out during these encounters, which will make subsequent fights even harder. This isn’t game ruining, and I enjoy a challenge, but there are times when it just feels close to impossible to progress, and it slows the pace in certain sections to a crawl.
Outside of the fighting you will visit towns where you will get side quests or buy supplies. Inside the dungeons you will get a lot of loot so this is where you’ll be selling it all. Unfortunately, unless you buy the DLC, you have no where to store loot which you want to save, so you either have to sell it and buy it back at a higher price later or simply destroy it if you want to pick up something else. You are limited to carrying sixty items to begin with, which sounds like a lot, but will quickly fill up with potions and weapons and what not. Every item of the same type takes up just one slot, no matter how many you have, but it is still silly for them to charge you for what you’d think would be a reasonable thing to have in the game.
Slash, slash, loot, slash. Rinse and repeat.
Now that’s usually my idea of a good RPG, not helped much by playing extortionate amounts of both Diablo when I was younger and the evil that is World of Warcraft more recently. But Bioware’s latest classic isn’t like that. Oh no. Well, it is a bit. But less so. Anyway..
The game has a polished feel to it that will come to no surprise to anyone who’s played previous Bioware games like Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic and of course Baldur’s Gate. There is a genuinely engrossing storyline and some damn fine dialogue to boot which does take the game past just being a game and makes it more of an experience. A gritty experience though, but this makes it all the more memorable.
One thing I’ve got to mention that had me in hysterics though was the gore. When you slash and mutilate whatever enemy happens to be gnawing at your ankles, your character gets blood all over them â€“ we’re talking the armour, the weapon, the face. Now the funny thing is, this lingers into the in game cut scenes, so you’ve got your characters talking about nobility and their love for one another while covered in comically large amounts of blood. It kind of ruins the moment on a regular basis but it’s kind of brilliant so you let it off.
All in all, the only slight negative point I can mention is the huge amount of DLC that was available from day 1. But, I’d blame the publisher more for that than the developer. Forgetting that though, if you like your RPGs with a decent story, a fair feeling of freedom and some pretty high replayability, then I’d highly Dragon Age: Origins. Give it a shot.
Secondary Score: 9/10
Visually the game is initially disappointing. Textures are very poor, most areas are quite sparse and character’s faces aren’t very impressive making you think it was designed with a further away camera in mind (which is only available in the PC version of the game). However, the more you play the more enemies you will encounter in fights and at times the number of enemies and spells on screen at once is very pleasing to the eye, and it runs very smoothly with it. Loading times can be a bit on the long side, but if you have space I recommend installing the game to run from your Xbox 360’s hard drive.
The game has a typical but well made soundtrack, and although some of the voice acting can feel a little off, it is generally very good and the dialogue is well written and at times very funny. The funniest lines come when your squad mates talk with one another whilst in towns (although a trip to a brothel also results in some amusement) and really endears you to each individual. You will grow fond of certain characters and they too may grow fond of you. Everything you do or say has an approval rating with each character, and so certain sidequests may appear to be a waste of time to some characters who will like you less for it, whilst for others it will be a high priority and they’ll appreciate what you’re doing.
The more a character approves of you the greater boost they’ll get to a certain stat. This can also develop into love, or at least sex. During any playthrough there will be three people you can sex up, two of the opposite sex and one bisexual character. Although a lot of the trailers and the like paid quite a lot of attention to this, the sex scenes are rather lame. The Sims is sexier than this and you’ve seen ruder things on Neighbours. Sex does have a place in video games, but this embarrassing attempt isn’t how it’s done. Violence was also talked about before the games release, and blood does fly about, and characters become coated in red splats, but it doesn’t really add anything to the game.
Not that DA:O is completely immature, there are some truly difficult decisions to make in the game. Not all decisions are black and white, and sometimes when you think you’re doing the right thing you’ll quickly discover that you were mistaken. It’s these choices you have to make at numerous points throughout the game that keep you playing, as they really do make a difference and aren’t just for show like in other games.
With all that said, do I recommend Dragon Age: Origins? Absolutely, if you think you’re into Western RPGs. I don’t love it as much as I do Mass Effect, but when I’m not playing it, I want to be playing it, despite the difficulty spikes. When I complete a run through, as long as it takes, I’m ready and raring to start again with a new character to see how differently the game plays out. Far from faultless, but this is a very enjoyable, engrossing and addictive game.