Review: Dragon Age: Origins

Russ Pitts | 3 Nov 2009 09:00
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Dragon Age: Origins is the game you've been waiting for all of your life.

Allow me to qualify that: If you enjoy fantasy role-playing games and prefer gameplay over graphics and story over style, then Dragon Age: Origins is the game you've been waiting for all your life.

Where many videogame RPGs feel flat or lifeless (including some made by BioWare), Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) is captivating from the start, and every step of the way gives you the impression that your actions are entirely your own and most importantly, will have an impact on the world in which you're playing.

Dragon Age: Origins is set in the fictional land of "NotMiddleEarthia," AKA Ferelden, which is inhabited by the usual gang of races. You can play as one of three races (Human, Dwarf or Elf) and one of three classes (Warrior, Rogue or Mage). You can even choose your background from one of six options, so your character's personal history may vary somewhat, as will your abilities and overall gameplay experience, depending on your selections.

What won't change are the basics: The Darkspawn (AKA "NotOrcs") have begun to invade Ferelden and it is up to the legendary order of Grey Wardens (AKA "NotDunedainRangers") to assemble an alliance of the forces of good to drive them back using swords and sorcery. You will be presented with the option to accumulate various party members from time to time, and when you set out on your adventures, you will be able to select which party members will go with you, according to your needs or personal preferences. And you will go on quests, battle monsters and loot their corpses.

Dragon Age: Origins is billed as a "dark fantasy," which one has to assume means that there will be no unicorns and no happy endings. By way of introduction, the game begins with a few brief adventures during which your world is turned upside down, and/or you are recruited into the Grey Wardens, whereupon you are introduced to the Main Plot, in which the forces of darkness have begun sneaking warily into the Forces of Good's backyard. Then, just as the Forces of Good are assembling to begin putting things aright, tragedy strikes again, leaving you the sole survivor and officially in charge of picking up the pieces. You can almost hear the game chuckling as it pats you on the back, saying "good luck with that."

In true RPG style, it will be your task as one of the Grey Wardens to take the lead in beating back the Darkspawn. How you go about this, however, is in some respects left up to you. Dragon Age: Origins makes a valiant effort at presenting a truly grey world, in which good or evil is not merely a binary choice. You can do the "right" thing, and characters with a predisposition towards goodness will favor you, or you can do the "wrong" thing, creating the opposite reaction. Or you can waffle, in which case, you will have to pay close attention to how various characters respond to you because their reactions will vary.

This is one of the ways in which Dragon Age: Origins puts on a good show of being a competent game master. The NPCs feel like real people and for the most part act like it. Convincing characters to go along with your plans isn't always a given, and they'll usually respond in predictable ways, even if that means spoiling your plans. Depending on your actions, you will get more or fewer dialogue options when talking to NPCs, and the degree to which your various party members favor you will impact how much of their stories (and skills) they share. If you prefer the brute force approach, you can purchase gifts to give to your party members, and if you pay careful attention to what they tell you, some of the gifts will have a profound effect.

It's a testament to the depth of Dragon Age: Origins that this mechanic, what would be the core of many other games, is kind of optional. You really don't need your party members to like you; there are so many available that it's easy to assemble a party of like-minded yes men. This may limit your experience somewhat, but in a 100+ hour game, that might not matter.

What does matter is combat. Dragon Age: Origins is a brutally hard game. You will get your ass handed to you a lot, so be prepared for it. The combat system is simple at first glance, but once you scratch the surface you'll find it a challenging, yet rewarding exercise in strategy and tactics.

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