“Bioware delivers another fantastic hit RPG.”
When most people thought about Bioware a year ago, several titles would run through their minds such as Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, or Mass Effect. However, towards the end of 2009, Bioware unleashed another quality title that would soon become a hot property and DLC cash cow. Several months later and that title, Dragon Age: Origins, has become the RPG to own of 2009. But why?
First, there is the setting of Dragon Age: Origins. Set in the nation of Ferelden on the continent of Thedas, Bioware has woven a very intricate and mesmerizing fantasy world from scratch. Many traditional fantasy elements are of course present, such as mountain-dwelling greedy dwarven folk, fearsome dragons, and the antagonizing evil force capable of crushing any army that stands against it.
This antagonizing force is known as the Darkspawn, a faction of repulsive creatures that live underground in the Deep Roads. Every couple hundred years, a Darkspawn leader known as the Archdemon leads the creatures to the surface world where they immediately wage war on, well, everything. This is called a Blight which can only be stopped by an ancient organization known as the Gray Wardens, and it is the prime focus of the entire game as you take on the role of rookie Warden. Setting out for dozens of hours with the intention of just stopping this one inevitable invasion never gets boring either, as Bioware seemed to be slightly inspired by the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the way that the Darkspawn attack and conquer, how they sound, and even how they look. Indeed, the Uruk-Hai appear to be the prime influence of the Darkspawn design.
While setting out to defeat the Darkspawn threat, you will of course meet many interesting characters along the way, some who will join you and some whom will fight against you. Each character you meet has their own distinctive and impressively developed personality. The quality of the writing for party members and major plot characters is very staggering, easily standing up to the scripts of professional films despite a few cheesy moments. Further enhancing the believability of the characters are the moral choices you are consistently presented with. Characters will react according to your choices, which ranges from gaining favour with them, turning your friends against you, or even unlocking class specializations. As well, you will frequently be able to kill minor plot characters if you make incorrect or immoral decisions. You have the opportunity to kill more important characters, but this is much more uncommon.
By gaining favour with party members, you will increase their approval rating towards you which grants them bonuses in battle, which I will now discuss. Anyone who has played Knights of the Old Republic, Final Fantasy XII, or surprisingly World of Warcraft or other major MMORPGs will quickly understand how the combat system in this game works. Your character and party members will have action bars in which you can drag and drop items or powers and skills that you learn through gaining levels. The three classes all have standard skills, such as warriors having tanking related abilities and stances, rogues receiving archery and stealth related techniques, and mages being given a wealth of magic abilities. Upon using an ability in your action bar, a cooldown will be initiated for that ability and you will have to wait a few moments to use it again.
Micromanaging four party members may sound daunting at first, but like the first two games I used as examples in the previous paragraph, you can set up tactics for each party member. Tactics essentially tell the AI who, what, where, when, why, and how. Tactics decide what your computer controlled allies will do in combat. Spend time setting each members’ tactics up appropriately and you will find combat to be a breeze. However, if you neglect to give your characters the proper tactics, you will find the AI struggling to overcome the Darkspawn and other baddies that you will encounter. Of course, you can always pause the game by pressing the space bar and switching to another character to manually issue orders. By utilizing tactics and the pause function, players should feel very in control of the entire party and will not take long to adjust.
Naturally, killing enemies will reward you with experience points, and their fallen bodies can be looted. Upon receiving a set number of experience points, you will of course level up. When this happens, you are allowed to manually distribute stat points and learn new abilities in the skill trees. Dragon Age allows you to be quite diverse with how you develop your characters, and at specific levels you can unlock sub-classes called specializations. These will enable mages to become armed fighters or for rogues to become rangers who can summon animal friends. By giving a mage the arcane warrior and spirit healer specializations, this practically creates a new class resembling a paladin as the mage can benefit from heavy armor and melee weapons, and can also unleash very powerful healing spells. Warriors and rogues can be transformed similarly, and it is an absolute joy to be able to branch out from your starting class in such a way.
Exploration is similar to the two games I mentioned previously, Knights of the Old Republic and Final Fantasy XI. You are given a static world map (which is literally just that, a map) with locations that you can hover over and click on to travel to. A cloudy black line will signify the route that your group is taking on the map, and as this black line moves over the map, you may or may not run into random encounters. These can range from battles to storyline sequences or even to, well, just random encounters with people. One random encounter I had once was a group of hopeless villagers who were trying to pull a sword out of a stone. While the world map is very linear, the ingame environments are usually fairly sprawling and loaded with quests to take on, people to talk to, or monsters to kill.
A very impressive aspect of Dragon Age is the audio department. Music is very well done and sounds like it was inspired by Lord of the Rings. A battle with the Darkspawn will reveal exactly why, as the music sounds like any ominous track played during the Isengard scenes. Throughout the entire game, music shines brilliantly. Sound effects range from decent to good, never seeming to dip above or below the mark. However, voice acting completely steals the show and is one of the absolutely highlights of Dragon Age. Bioware recruited some very fine talent for this game such as Claudia Black, Steve Blum, Kate Mulgrew, Tim Curry, Tim Russ, Steve Valentine and many more. It is the most complete cast of voice actors that I have ever heard in an RPG and I am supremely impressed by the performances given by the cast. Claudia Black, who does the voice of Morrigan, brings her character to life in a way that I cannot possibly describe. Steve Valentine accomplishes the same feat with Alistair. Star Trek Voyager alumni Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ also do very well in their respective roles.
I regret leaving the graphics until just now, but they truly are quite nice. Some locations such as Redcliffe or Orzimmar look fabulous, though there are a few areas of the game which the visuals clearly take a back seat. Most environments do tend to be fairly pretty to look at, and I seldom found myself being unimpressed by a locale. Character and creature models are much better though, as I can only recall one model which I found to be even remotely subpar, and that would be the model used for the annoyingly persistent deep stalkers. The main cast and major plot characters all look very well done. Morrigan in particular has a very alluring and well designed appearance, and Denerim’s grizzled war veteran Loghain is modelled very well also.
Dragon Age: Origins offers plenty of replayability as there are literally dozens of ways that you can play through the game considering most situations you wind up in will present you with three or four moral decisions. In one run through the game you may play as a lawful person who always does the right thing, while in your next trip through you can choose to make choices which make you appear, perhaps, as the most evil entity in the entire game. Multiple playthroughs will also enable you to unlock more class specializations, so there is that to work towards as well.
Overall, Dragon Age: Origins fully deserves every bit of the reputation it acquired since the end of 2009, and it deserves any further reputation it will gain in 2010. This is a very complete and high quality game that every RPG fan should own, as it will provide hours of entertainment.