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Dragon Age: Origins Review

Brad Gallaway's picture

Frodo, Meet Commander Shepard

Dragon Age: Origins Screenshot

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.

Dragon Age: Origins Screenshot

...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.

Dragon Age: Origins Screenshot

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. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

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.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): BioWare  
Publisher: Electronic Arts  
Series: Dragon Age  
Genre(s): Role-Playing  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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I think you are restricting

I think you are restricting yourself from enjoying this game by reviewing the console version Brad. I'm tempted to say that if EA hadn't bought Bio-Ware the game might not have even ended up on consoles at all since the game has always been intended for the PC platform, and playing it on that format explains why.

Some of the issues that you highlight are immediately banished in the PC version (especially in regard to combat and tactical challenge) and I've actually found the game to be somewhat low on glitches compared to my experience with Bio-Ware console titles (where game freezes are an accepted trait). I dare say the visuals are sharper on the PC too, though I do agree that the overall graphical output is near the 'outdated' category.

I think you would be surprised at how much more you would like the game if you could play it on PC, but from your console experiences I think you've given a good review for that format.

Hey Crofto. I actually agree

Hey Crofto.

I actually agree with you 100%. After seeing the differences between PC/console, the actual implementation of the version I played was sorely lacking-- combat primarily. it's a lobotomized impression of what the PC players get, and doesn't work at all the same way on PS3/360. Pretty disappointing, really... DA's PC combat looked infinitely more satisfying, and what we got doesn't even match up to Jade Empire or Mass Effect. kinda sad.

That said, I rarely play games on PC (various reasons) so i'm just going to have to hope that Mass Effect 2 restores the standard of combat i expect.

But in the same vein, if the

But in the same vein, if the review would have been based solely off the PC version you could have had a lot of angry owners of the console version who made purchases based off of it.

Better yet, each version deserves its own review. This usually isn't so important, but with this game it apparently is.

Brad, I think that's a pretty good writeup. I was initially a little disappointed, but getting deeper into the game it is growing on me more and more. The turning point was when I figured out the best/least bad way to tune the tactics.

Still, not a lot of room for strategy. Bumping the difficulty down to easy might be the best one.

Dragon-Agery

Very interesting review Brad. I was actually unaware that the console version had so many glitches. Which seems quite disappointing.

On the PC ive played 3 toons so far and i can say out of the glitches you mentioned, ive only had experience of getting stuck behind a door.

The PC graphics a certainly very nice for the most part. Not up to Mass Effect standard but shiny, crisp, and bright none the less. They only loose their luster during pre-rendered cutscenes, which look horridly low res.

My biggest problem with the game is how unforgiving it tends to be... you mentioned missing one line of dialogue, and thats just one example of how it can be brutal if you make a mistake. Also the difficulty level is just a *tad* too high for me. You know i like games to be tough challenges, but it should be a gradual thing, much like Mass Effect's varying difficulty levels.

You've already mentioned that the combat system on the PC fits a lot more smoothly, and all i can add is that i certainly love how the system works once you understand it.

You seem to be getting some telling you to try it on a PC before you blast it, but in my opinion, you're a console reviewer, you can only review the console version.

(i honestly cringe at the thought of using the combat system on a console though)

I'm guessing your review is an accurate one, ive not actually seen it on a console, but theres no doubt my PC experience was much more pleasant.

Ultimately, the console version is a port. So is a good game, but a bad port? That's up for debate.

Regardless, im in absolutely no doubt that despite some issues, Dragon-Age is a fantastic experience, on any platform.

"Also the difficulty level

"Also the difficulty level is just a *tad* too high for me."

It's weird how the difficulty scales in Dragon Age; by having it on 'Easy' the game is an absolute push-over, yet on 'Normal' the level of tactics and strategy needed is akin to some of the more complex RPGs/strategy games I've played. There doesn't seem to be a nice middle ground for gamers whom don't want to die in frustration, but at the same time enjoy a little challenge from time to time.

I personally enjoy the more challenging combat, especially as I find previous Bio-Ware games too easy (in regards to combat), but the huge gap between balance is a bit puzzling. I dread to think what the two highest difficulty settings are like!

Sadly, melee chaos is not a console exclusive...

Another interesting and even-handed Gamecritics review from Brad Gallaway. Might be worth adding that no matter how obsessively you micro-manage the battles, the combat quite easily devolves into complete melee chaos on the PC version as well. Somehow the Baldur's Gate series never really had this problem...or maybe that's just nostalgia messing with my memory. Anyway, Bioware's structurally schizophrenic pause-and-play mechanic never was such a great idea to begin with, and a good old fashioned turn-based system (like in Temple of Elemental Evil or this year's fantastic indie RPG Knights of the Chalice) would have been much more manageable and satisfying...

Interesting you say that,

Demiath> Interesting you say that, since my biggest critique of the current system is that the unlimited free movement of the enemies severely undercuts the potential for strategy. not that hex or square-based systems are the only answer, but a more regulated system restricting the distance possible to travel each 'turn' would have done wonders for the level of combat complexity, IMO. i mean, why bother with the scripts and tactics when each encounter is a big free-for-all? might as well make it a straight hack-n-slasher then.

Mozart> the game is rife with bugs and the combat engine has major issues, yet i recognize the strength of the story and roleplaying to give it an 8 despite the many problems... and you're calling _me_ mentally challenged? might want to go in for some special ed yourself, son... the way i see it, i liked this game a hell of a lot more than you seem to have recognized.

but you didn't say it was

but you didn't say it was like totally freaking awesome lol

I'm not quite sure I understand...

... why you laud Mass Effects combat system yet feel DA's is inadequate. Dragon Age's combat is what Mass Effect's should have been. The AI teammates in Mass Effect were liabilities whereas they're crucial in DA. In Mass Effect more often than not my teammates would fire their guns into a wall because an enemy was perched on the other side. How I yearned (yes yearned) for more control over my squad. Well, DA delivers in spades. I'm curious how you played throught Dragon Age. Did you make use of the radial menu? Did you approach it as Pause and Play? Did you only use the shortcut ability buttons? There are as many ways to control combat in DA as there are players so I'm curious about your setup.

Personally, I played on Hard difficulty and made heavy use of the pause and play functionality. I felt I had total control of the combat at all times, really! Thanks, and good review.

Hi Zel. Not sure what you

Hi Zel.

Not sure what you mean about lauding Mass Effect's combat. In my review, i actually don't even mention the combat, so I'm not sure where you're getting that impression.

In response to your points, I never had much of a problem with ME's teammates since I chose to handle most of the action myself. Never saw teammates firing into walls or whatnot, so I can't speak to that. (my hands-on approach was similar in DA, btw.)

About the game's combat options, i did attempt to cycle between allies to give instructions and also played with the scripts menu. pause and play? sure. shortcut buttons? of course.

Liks i state in the review, the problem is that enemies materialize without warning practically on top of your party far too often, basically eliminating many options for strategy. such occurrences don't lend themselves to anything but messy melee.

in contrast (and it's been a while since i checked) i don't remember enemies appearing so sudenly in ME, and since characters in ME all use guns, it eliminates the 'dogpile' close-combat effect that happens so often in DA.

Hope i answered your questions!

I'm a little over 7 hours

I'm a little over 7 hours in, and I haven't really had any issues with combat so far. Planning my actions beforehand actually seems like the only way to win a lot of the battles. I haven't even touched the AI options though-its just easier to tell them to do what I want directly.

PC or 360/PS3?

PC or 360/PS3?

PS3 version worked well for me

Just thought it was worth adding that I played the PS3 version and had none of the tech problems described here. Only two or three times did I hit a line of dialogue that seemed to have been mixed to a wrong or non existent channel (the line could be heard extremely faintly and with tons of echo). Not sure why this reviewer experienced so many bugs and I did not. I didn't have one freeze during my entire 85 hour or so play through. This was pretty amazing to me, compared to games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 where they were semi regular occurrences you simply grew to accept. I also was fully aware of the PC vs Console gameplay options and it is worth mentioning that some gamers, perhaps a minority such as myself, simply do not like the top view strategy pause every few seconds style of gaming at all. To me it feels like I am reducing my party and character to chess pieces. To me, there are hardcore strategy and sim games that utilize this and I don't play them because I simply do not enjoy this experience in gaming. So knowing that the graphics would not be as good as a high end pc was, for me, the only downside. I think it's an amazing game and I wonder if others have had the comparatively smooth experience I had with the PS3 version.

Enemies materializing also not a problem for me

Also I can't say I noticed any problem with enemies "materializing" and messing with my combat tactics etc. I'm not sure if this is related to playing a character with no survival skills (which allows you to see red dots representing enemies and see rooms/areas you have not entered yet in your on screen map) or what. I can't really recall any situations where enemies problematically appeared, and to tell you the truth, I did not even find out about or use the survival skill until more than two thirds through my game because it seemed like something my character did not need. Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning that based on my gaming I did not experience such a problem that simply changing my party's tactics (ranged vs aggressive, defensive vs offensive etc) did not solve.

PC-I haven't played the

PC-I haven't played the console version, so I can't speak for that, but I personally haven't had any real problems yet.

Richard> well, check out

Richard> well, check out some videos on YouTube to see the combat differences between PC/console... it's like night and day. ; )

GvX> interesting point about

GvX> interesting point about the Survival skill. i didn't up it until at least halfway through the game so that may be a factor, but still.. i sort of assume that if i'm IN THE ROOM with a group of darkspawn, i should be able to see 'em. ; )

A historically problematic analogy

I've noticed that the analogy between Dragon Age's micromanagement of battles and various forms of strategy games is a fairly common one, which compels me to add a further (largely historical/conceptual) comment to the discussion.

While it's of course perfectly legitimate not to be interested at all in games which rely heavily on (among other tings) top-down viewpoints and frequent pauses for tactical considerations, it's worth remembering that this general kind of gameplay is an essential element of the traditional PC-centric RPG experience which developers such as Bioware (given its ludography and longstanding reputation) is expected by its longtime fans to deliver. Therefore, one should be a bit careful about using the strategy games analogy, as it can easily be misinterpreted as saying that something external (perhaps even foreign) has been added to the genre, when in fact it's the other way around - by "reducing the characters to chess pieces" Bioware is in fact staying true to the historically most common variant of Western RPGs.

Oh no, I understand that

Oh no, I understand that there are combat problems on the console, I'm just confirming that I'm not having them on the PC.

Is it just me, or is there always a "character overload" in this kind of game? There are 8 or 9 characters (so I'm told-I'm only about 10 hours in) but I can only have 3 others with me at a time. Seems like this limitation should be dealt with by now in some way, but I guess the amount of party members I can have is still restricted by hardware capability somehow.

"Screwing up a quest by

"Screwing up a quest by missing one line of dialogue 20 hours beforehand."

Ahem. I meant to ask,

Ahem. I meant to ask, "When's this?"

In order to avoid spoilers,

In order to avoid spoilers, I'll just say that it had to do with one of the recruitable party members... if you end up getting certain members' approvals too high too soon, certain options get cut off. = P

There is a cheat code you

There is a cheat code you can input to increase the max size of party members you have.

runscript zz_addparty
Allows player to break the party companion limit

I'm not one to use cheats, but if you are OK with that, this works.

Yeah I'm aware of the cheat,

Yeah I'm aware of the cheat, but it's still a downer that you're normally restricted to four.

> i sort of assume that if

> i sort of assume that if i'm IN THE ROOM with a group of darkspawn, i should be able to see 'em. ; )

Perhaps you didn't pay attention to Alistair during your Trials when he explained that the Dark Spawn raise up out of the groud. Perhaps this is the problem you speak of when you said Enemies pop up out of nowhere right in the middle of your party?

On the ground (as if they

On the ground (as if they actually 'erupted' out, which i'd argue that they don't) is one thing, but being in an upper floor of a tower and having a crowd of darkspawn go 'POOF' like they're all Nightcrawler from the X-Men is pretty bogus, IMO.

Crofto wrote: *Snip*I'm

Crofto wrote:

*Snip*I'm tempted to say that if EA hadn't bought Bio-Ware the game might not have even ended up on consoles at all since the game has always been intended for the PC platform, and playing it on that format explains why.*Snip*

I agree with you on such an unfathomable level!

EA is such a blight in the video game industry, that comparing them to (a fictional) Microsoft's acquisition of sourceforge and the GNU license wouldn't be such a far-fetched analogy!

The butchering of U9 comes to mind, Bioware should have sold themselves to either Bethesda, or Blizzard! I must add however, that most PC cross-platforms play/look much better on the PC than the console, further, you can't really enjoy mods (Official or otherwise) for the console.

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