Dragon Age Origins: PC/XBOX360/PS3 Game Review

The other night I was watching VH1’s ‘100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80’s’, and was thinking about Bioware and the whole ’spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate 2? thing surrounding Dragon Age: Origins. Baldur’s Gate 2 is the 2000 classic PC RPG that is not just one of the best RPGs ever but one of the greatest games in video game history. Not only that, it is one of those rare sequels that is better than the original – and the original itself is always on the ‘best video games ever’ lists! Put into that context, it is hard to ever live up to the massive hype and expectations. But Bioware has never stopped trying, and didn’t shy away from this challenge.

The Hype:
From BioWare, the makers of Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Baldur’s Gate comes Dragon Age: Origins. An epic tale of violence, lust, and betrayal, Dragon Age: Origins is a single player role-playing game (RPG) set in a fantasy game environment, and featuring three playable character classes, accessible in the form of three races. In addition, the game features extreme character customization, a new game engine, party-based gameplay utilizing non-player characters and a built-in personal history system for each hero character rooted in a variety of possible origin stories.

* Scalable combat options that let you decide the level of control you have over your party, including NPCs. Issue orders, set your own tactical AI, or take control of any party member to lead the charge.
* Exclusive Collector’s Edition items including in-game content and an unlockable item for ‘Mass Effect 2.’
* 6 possible playable preludes known as `Origin Stories¿ which along with your play, define how your hero character will see the world, how it sees you and sets the tone for the entire story.
* Dragon Age: Origins will give you deep character customization options including: class, race, appearance, abilities, and equipment.
* At the heart of the storm sweeping across Ferelden. Decide the fate of nations, people and, ultimately, yourself. Just remember: for every choice, there is a consequence.

The Reality:

For me, buying Dragon Age was not even a question – it was a foregone conclusion months ago. I have bought every Bioware game at day of release for years, and the prospect of a novel fantasy game from them was thrilling. But that doesn’t mean all signs were positive for me. First off, I am of the opinion that Bioware’s games have consistently declined in terms of quality and role-playing depth since Baldur’s Gate 2, with Mass Effect representing my least favorite of their games. Also, the marketing campaign seemed to be selling ‘blood and boobies’ for teenage boys, and quite frankly it would have turned me off were it not a Bioware game. Finally, I just wasn’t thrilled with the whole ‘day of release DLC’ thing, and it was a pain to navigate through the various configurations and decide what to buy. I knew I wanted as much as possible, so I grabbed the ‘Digital Deluxe’ Steam version, which had the Warden’s Keep DLC, the Stone Prisoner, and a variety of ‘trinket’ DLC items.

Before I get too heavily into characters and gameplay, one thing I thought was really cool was the concept of ‘Origin Stories’. After going through and building your character, you are launched into a backstory adventure that takes you up to the moment you join the Gray Wardens. Unlike most games, this isn’t a cutscene or slideshow or scrolling text, but rather a fully fleshed out adventure that will take from a few to several hours, and involve a number of characters and small quests. My first character was a mage, and I was amazed at the depth and breadth of his origin story. But I was even more amazed as I started a new game with a female noble fighter and also had a great introductory experience. I have since played all of the Origins, and found all of them very well done and highly immersive.

One thing I have always found with Bioware games after BG2 was that there was a moment when things started to fall apart, but then they come back together, then get really good, then threaten to unravel, and then end on a crescendo. That is absolutely true here, because while I found this to be an amazing game and right up there with the best games of the decade, it is far from perfect. I’ll detail some of my complaints in a bit, but I did want to talk more about the Origin stories.

I was never under the impression that the Origins would be epic in and of themselves, but rather that they would help you define your character and see where they were coming from before entering the service of the Wardens. In that regard I highly enjoyed them. As I mentioned, I found the Mage Origin story to be meaty and worthwhile and took me ~5 hours or so – and heck, there are ENTIRE GAMES recently released that (one that sold millions, no less) took me less time than just the Mage Origin story! The other stories all took at least 2 – 3 hours for me to work through, but I was also intent on developing my characters as much as possible. Most importantly, upon completing each story and proceeding to Ostagar, I felt completely connected to my character in a way too many recent RPGs have ignored. As I said, where many games offer a CGI cutscene or a simplified tutorial sequence, Dragon Age shows your backstory in much greater detail, which for me produced a resounding effect that remained as I made critical decision throughout the game right up to the end.

Speaking of getting to the end … Dragon Age: Origins is a MASSIVE game, especially given how I tend to play these. I estimate that I have spent well over 250 hours so far, and I am STILL enjoying myself. As such, there are bugs you will hit along the way. I have seen quirky actions, out-of-sync dialogue, minor quests fail, and so on. But after all of these hours I have yet to see anything nearly as serious as what you mentioned. It is amazing in that regard looking back at a game like Baldur’s Gate II, which is every bit as big as Dragon Age but had many fewer bugs. But it was also less complex in many ways, so perhaps it isn’t such a fair comparison.

I really like the implementation of the influence system. Bioware has been playing with this for a while, with some characters back in the Baldur’s Gate games having issues with your good / evil choices – even to the point of leaving. Same thing happened in Knights of the Old Republic, and Obsidian moved even further as they made the first modern influence system in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, in which your actions had impact on relationships and paths available. Yet that was also incomplete, and gained more depth in Neverwinter Nights 2, particularly the excellent Mask of the Betrayer expansion. Now in Dragon Age: Origins you have a much broader range of possibilities in terms of how your actions might impact a relationship, which goes together with the move away from the typical Bioware ‘Good / Mercenary / Evil’ dialogue choices. Some have complained that the ability to ‘gift your way’ out of negative influence negates the impact of choices, but since in general a negative choice will cost you 10 – 15 points (some can reportedly cost you even more!) and gifts will earn at the very most 10 points and usually 2 – 5, it is not really a viable way to play the game. At least not the way I tend to role-play.

That said, I really did like the Gift system. It at once incentivized thorough exploration of every area and frequently talking to all characters. You find items marked as ‘gift’ and try to figure out who might like them and then offer them as a gift. Some will refuse, others will get a small boost, others a larger boost, and occasionally you’ll find something that will advance the relationship between characters. And, yes, those relationships can lead to romance if you have gotten to a certain favorable status.

My final thought related to all of this gets back to what I said about moving away from the typical Bioware ‘Good / Mercenary / Evil’ dialogue choices. In games like Knights of the Old Republic, it was pretty easy to tell if you were going to get ‘Light Side’ or ‘Dark Side’ points based on a dialog or action. One of the things I loved in Dragon Age was that you would frequently encounter situations where none of the choices you were given were exactly what you wanted, but you could see that you had to ‘make the best of a bad situation’. There is a plot involving a possessed child, for example, and you can actually take a few different paths which will have an impact on the overall game as well as your relationships with a few different characters. That sort of thing reminds me of The Witcher, where sometimes repercussions weren’t immediate – and unlike Baldur’s Gate II or Knights of the Old Republic, where the impact was immediate. I personally love the vague morality of Dragon Age!

One more thing to bring up in detail: DLC. It is clear what the publishers are doing – they are trying to maximize the return on investment for these big games without raising the initial cost. That is the obvious standard that involves using a small group to make small add-ons with minimal interactions to other content (therefore less chance for problems) that can be sold quickly and cheaply. The obvious gamer concern here is that some content originally intended for inclusion with the main game now becomes extra paid content (the ‘Horse Armor’ argument). Publishers are also trying to kill off the used game and game trading market. How are they doing this? Specific to Dragon Age, anyone buying the game new gets ‘Stone Prisoner’ for free, but if you get the game used you’d have to buy it, making the used purchase less cost effective.

I was playing the ‘deluxe’ version, meaning I was already loaded to the gills with included DLC. Indeed I made a spreadsheet of the various digital download offerings to maximize my ‘gill loading’. The biggest thing I got was the ‘Warden’s Keep’, a $7 DLC. For those of us who bought the Deluxe version, we went to camp and got the quest and off we ran. But for buyers of the standard game, they got someone waiting in camp to present them an enticing sounding quest and then break the fourth wall to ask for money. This has really annoyed some folks and I definitely understand that – I am on the fence about DLC in general because I think to many companies it represents easy money from a captive audience and greed attracts companies like flies are attracted to … well, you get the picture. I want to support these guys and understand that they can’t have in-game billboards like some games, but breaking immersion like that annoys me.

I think I have talked enough about my misgivings as to how Bioware utilized blood all over the place, from combat and cutscenes to the map to pretty much every chance they had to draw graphics. But I think that did a great job with it in combat. It was clear that this would be an M-rated game from early on, so why NOT make full use of the content? It isn’t gory or gross – it presents a dark tone to combat consistent with everything else in the game. I do think that at least once or twice they could have put it into context – there are times you come into a peaceful area and talk to people, with your whole party dripping blood and there is no mention or reaction made. I think it would be too much to expect a fully dynamic reaction / dialogue system based on your health / injury status, but once or twice to have someone remark about it would have really worked it into the game much better.

The gift system I mentioned before is the subject of much discussion, as some folks who wouldn’t necessarily ever use the exploit still feel that its very presence changes the impact of choice and consequence in the game. To me that sentiment really sums up how some games can move the genre ahead without most folks even noticing. I have just been involved in a lengthy discussion in a forum about the ‘quest compass’ – some reviewers have started seeing it as a necessity, while others see it as a lazy gamer crutch. I don’t think either one answers the question fully. The same is true with gifts and the influence system in Dragon Age. Personally, I tend to archetype my characters to a Paladin morality / law system regardless of the fact that I typically play as a mage. So immediately I work well with some characters and struggle with others, and am put into a conflict of doing what my character SHOULD be doing and also wanting to advance every angle of the plot.

That is a struggle for the ‘true role player’, and is something many modern games avoid by basically saying ‘to heck with morality and consequences, DO IT ALL!’ I won’t single out a particular game, but when you can be the leader of two groups that are enemies of each other and defeat the entire game at level one, you are pretty sure that the game has NOT been designed with the ‘true role player’ in mind. Recent games such as Risen and The Witcher are on the other end of the spectrum, where a single choice can haunt you throughout, and where your quests send you in a general direction and you are left to hunt around.

Bioware clearly didn’t want to completely leave you hanging, but neither were they trying to allow Dragon Age to become a silly shallow action-RPG. In that regard I applaud many of the choices they have made. The gift system allows you to really focus on advancing relationships with characters, but it also allows you to be sloppy and clean up the damage by giving trinkets. Some will call the latter an exploit, but I honestly see it as simply an alternative gameplay method that the developers allow. Another one is the combat system.

I am a big fan of the combat system. I really like how several games have had no problem amping up the difficulty of combat recently, and have found both the challenges and the tools you are given makes Dragon Age one of the most rewarding combat games I’ve played in a while. You can micromanage all of your party if you choose, placing them in strategic positions, setting their attacks and making sure to keep them alive and so on … but that takes a fair amount of work and is still no assurance of keeping everyone alive.

That is why the Tactics system is so nice. Once again it is something that many folks choose to ignore, others embrace wholly, and still others use as a bridge that allows them to focus mainly on their own character but still manage the broader actions of the party. Perhaps obviously, that is how I used it. I would try to get each character to have as many tactics slots as possible, then modify them so that character would be most effective. First I would generally issue a ‘generic attack’ tactic and a ‘please don’t die’ tactic, and from there I would fill out the rest to make sure my melee crew was in the thick of things and ranged attacks tried to keep away from melee attacks. I know I never made full use of the possibilities, but even what I did use kept me out of trouble most of the time.

Beyond the Tactics system, there is a need for players to actually utilize tactics in carrying out battles – because your enemies will, and at higher difficulty levels it will make survival a real struggle. Archers and mages pick at you from afar, spread enough apart that an area-of-effect spell won’t just wipe them all out; meanwhile melee fighters crash down upon you working to take out your ranged support while your own melee warriors try to keep them safe. If you don’t make sure your party has a nice balance of ranged and melee attacks – and optimize your party by actually moving them around during combat – you will be constantly buying up ‘injury kits’. These are what are used to treat the critical hits that knock a party member out of combat – if you don’t handle them, the negative effects (stuff like -3 to defense and so on) can really stack up and your characters become a bunch of cream puffs waiting to be wiped out.

As for the PC versus console thing, I find that this time around it is interesting to hear things from a console perspective. That is because Dragon Age: Origins is pretty clearly a PC game ported to consoles. Everything about it just FEELS like a PC game, and all of the complaints I have heard from console gamers in terms of performance, appearance of characters, some animation glitches, no strategic view and so on … just aren’t there in the PC version. The core game offers plenty of logically assigned hotkeys, including those you can specify for spells and items, and also the standard ability to access your inventory, map, skills, and so on with individual keys. Once again, Bioware provides choice as they allow you to get to those panes either by using the hotkeys or bringing up your inventory and clicking the appropriate indicator. Alternately, you can simply click the page you want to visit at the top of the screen. Choices … such a wonderful thing!

Along with choices come consequences. I spoke about trying to play my typical Paladin archetype regardless of class, but Dragon Age makes it tough – you are often faced with ‘lesser of two evils’ sorts of choices. These are things that can push people to ‘game the gift system’ as stated above, but regardless present a very tricky challenge for role-players of any type. But then again, it is a much better representation of how things really work, where not everyone will survive a siege, where there isn’t always a ‘good’ choice, where not everyone gets to live ‘happily ever after’ even if they really deserve to.

So I wanted to wrap up my thoughts by discussing how choices play into the game itself and eventually into the ending. I have now reached the ending twice, once as a human noble female warrior and once as an elven male mage. I have gotten very emotionally invested in the characters, which has made some of the choices I had to make tougher and the endings quite emotional. I love how you get to see the impact your choices have had throughout the world, that is a nice throwback to classic games that I always love to see. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that you can come up with a wide variety of endings that reflect the choices you have made throughout the game, and even if you try to power-game the main quest you’ll still have more than one way to finish up.

For me that is just the crowning glory of Dragon Age – not only do I love nearly every aspect of the game, I also love how after finishing it a couple of times I am thoroughly enjoying a new play-through as I contemplate my actions and consequences from the prior runs. I have often lamented the many ways I feel gaming has taken steps backwards in the quest to be more ‘HD’ and ‘cinematic’, but games like Dragon Age show how classic gaming and modern gaming can work together to produce a tremendous game that is satisfying to folks raised on PC classics as well as those who are only familiar with controllers. And THAT is an epic achievement!

Where to Buy: Steam.com

Price: $64.99

What I Like:
+ Beautiful graphics
+ Tons of quests
+ Great combat and tactics systems
+ Choices and consequences
+ Great character development system
+ Epic story

What Needs Improvement:
– Gift system can be an exploit
– Intrusive DLC

Source: Personal copy

Categories: Gaming, Reviews

Tags: , , ,

18 replies

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