Frodo, Meet Commander Shepard
HIGH BioWare's character work is the best in the biz.
LOW The combat system is a mess.
WTF Screwing up a quest by missing one line of dialogue 20 hours beforehand.
The brilliant doctors-turned-developers at BioWare conquered Star Wars, took players on an Eastern-themed martial arts journey, and have crafted what I see as the definitive outer space sci-fi blockbuster. Next up on the agenda? Their take on the classics.
A third-person role-playing game (RPG), Dragon Age: Origins is set in the besieged, Middle-Earth-styled land of Ferelden. Under attack from evil darkspawn creatures bubbling up from beneath the surface, the player must construct a character (mage, rogue or warrior) and choose from one of six distinct background stories. Whether human, dwarf or elf, privileged or poor, male or female, the protagonist will eventually join forces with the Grey Wardens; a group of elite guardians tasked with defeating the darkspawn whenever they appear.
Although the familiar fantasy setting full of shining knights and quaint villages sets Dragon Age apart from recent BioWare offerings (Mass Effect, Jade Empire or Knights of the Old Republic) it actually has much in common with its predecessors. As expected, the player will collect a group of allies and traipse between a series of locations while completing quests both major and minor. Structurally, it's basically identical to any of these previous works. Don't take that as a criticism, however. As far as I'm concerned, BioWare does this style of game better than anyone else in the industry. They absolutely know how to make an adventure like this click, and it only takes a very short period of time before anyone even remotely inclined towards RPGs will become a captive of Dragon Age: Origin's seductive spell.
More than anything else, it's the unparalleled characterization, deep conversations and degree of role-playing that makes a BioWare project so successful. Handled by any other studio, the attempt to save Ferelden from the jaws of disaster could have easily been a completely forgettable, by-the-numbers adventure lost in the overstuffed fourth-quarter shuffle. Instead, players will (again!) be treated to a twisting, turning plot and an incredibly interesting and engaging cast, each with fully-formed personalities, backstories, and endearing quirks (some not so endearing, perhaps) that stand as showcases for the superbly talented writers behind the game.
...Oh, and the voicework? Incredible.
Enhancing the appeal of this already-rich content is the fact that so many of the player's decisions have far-reaching and significant ramifications. Although some are not immediately apparent, the way the player plots their course through the adventure will touch on nearly every aspect of their own, personalized experience. Rather than the simplistic good/evil dichotomy that seems to be popping up everywhere these days, the choices in Dragon Age are sure to have many gamers agonizing over their options. There just aren't very many clear-cut choices here; each crossroads in the story has its own rewards and pitfalls.
Besides the moral difficulty in completing certain quests, the supporting characters in the player's party will often voice their own opinions. If they are of a like mind, then there's no issue. If they dislike the way events unfold, they may leave the party or even attack if the situation is extreme enough. It's very rare that a game can engage someone mentally or emotionally on a level above standard gameplay, and BioWare is able to do it reliably, and with regularity. It's truly a credit to their skill.
Intellectual appeal aside, I have to admit that my time spent slaying darkspawn, hunting down rare pieces of armor, and trying to figure out which of my team would be the best romantic match wasn't everything it could have been. It's very true that a huge part of Dragon Age is the story and characters, but an equal amount of time is spent combing dungeons and vanquishing enemies. Although much has been made of Dragon Age's tactics and combat system, I suspect that reverence only applies to the PC iteration. After watching videos for comparison, it becomes painfully apparent that the console versions are not optimized for their platforms, and lose much in the translation.
Rather than feeling calculated or deliberate, most of Dragon Age's encounters are chaotic, writhing melees with the player struggling to make sense of the action. In my experience, the most effective "strategic" decision available was to try and take out any nearby mages first. Anything more complex than that never seemed to come to fruition.
There are fairly extensive behavior menus that can be programmed to govern how AI-controlled party members react in the quasi-real-time battles, but the results are mixed, and I doubt futzing around with these settings will yield much reward for most console players. Even when used, there's simply not much room to strategize when mobs of enemies appear out of thin air and instantly swarm the player's party. It may be strategic in theory, but greater accommodations towards the PS3 and 360's native strengths would have made for more robust, sensible combat.
Further tarnishing the game's cachet is the generally low standard of technical presentation. Although I'm not a graphics whore by any stretch of the imagination, the visuals on display lack the same arresting qualities and glossy artifice that I would expect from such a top-tier game. Dragon Age is perilously close to being too drab at times, and doesn't even begin to match up to BioWare's last effort, released a full two years ago.
Apart from the visuals, the game is rife with bugs and glitches. None gamebreaking (that I found, anyway) but there were entirely too many for my liking. Voices would sometimes skip or repeat, characters would get stuck in environmental geometry, certain cut-scenes didn't play properly, my console inexplicably locked up twice during play, and trumping it all, the game glitched and omitted the ending entirely after defeating the last boss. BioWare has something of a reputation for releasing slightly buggy titles, and with the gargantuan size of the projects they turn out, it's almost understandable, to a certain point. That said, issues occur in Dragon Age just a bit too often to have these rough patches totally dismissed.
Despite my qualms about the combat engine, graphics and the amount of minor bugs on display, it's a testament to BioWare's craft that Dragon Age: Origins is as intensely addicting and as ultimately satisfying as it is. This sprawling, massive adventure easily carves itself a spot at the top of the RPG genre thanks to the quality of the role-playing itself, and will be doubly appreciated by those who have an affinity for the fantasy-medieval theme or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. For RPG fans who want something to sink their teeth into, this one's an absolute no-brainer.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 44 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, language, partial nudity, and sexual content. Parents, take heed... see all these warning descriptors? They're definitely here for a reason. No kids allowed.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have any issues. The massive amount of voicework is fully subtitled in-game as well as during cut-scenes. You may have to move the camera around to see casual conversations since speech occurs directly over characters' heads in the field, but it's all well done. There are no significant audio cues during gameplay—it's fully accessible.