You have to option to completely customize how each party member will act in battle using the "tactics" menu. Depending on the characters' stats and skills, you can program them to respond in dozens of ways to almost every conceivable combat event, such as attacking mages who are attacking specific characters, or using certain spells once their health reaches a specific point. It's a mind-numbing level of detail at first, but once you get a handle on it, you'll be able to tackle even larger challenges and the game will begin to feel even more like playing a game with flesh-and-blood friends.
The combat is real-time, but you can pause the game to change weapons, select abilities or even adjust your party's tactics. Even so, it can get hectic, especially in the console version, where the absence of being able to direct battle and select enemies by pointing and clicking is keenly felt. The talent wheel and bumper controls for scrolling through abilities and characters is helpful, but in the heat of battle it's easy to select the wrong character, or suffer defeat do to laggy target selection. Death, therefore, will be a frequent companion. If even one of your party members survives an encounter, the fallen will "revive," but will carry wounds which must be healed or else they'll suffer penalties. If all of your party members perish during an encounter, it's game over.
Quest-wise, Dragon Age: Origins is an overflowing cup. The main story alone is a sprawling affair filled with various sub-quests and surprises, but if you're the type who enjoys exploring side missions, you should prepare yourself to be playing this game for weeks, if not months. Years, perhaps, if you want to replay all of the character options.
As of the time of this writing I've played the game for just over 30 hours and, according to the game, I've explored less than a third of the game worlds. Even at that my quest log is filled with over a dozen open quests. One side mission took nearly 10 hours to complete and was enough of an adventure that it would have been worth the price of an entire game.
The game world is not wide-open, but there is enough variety in the locations and quests to make Ferelden feel like a living, breathing world. You select your destination from a world map, and the game takes you there, more-or-less instantly. As a cover for long load times, it's inventive and except for rare instances where "random" encounters will trap you mid-journey, literally forcing you replay a battle over and over until you finally succeed, it's a good compromise between open world and sustainable atmosphere.
The in-game journal system does an admirable job of helping you keep track of what you're doing, organizing quests according to where you got them. Not only does this help jog your memory regarding the circumstances of the quest, but it also helps remind you where to go when you've finished it, as rewards and updates are doled out in multiple locations.
Where the journal falls down is in keeping track of the various texts and scraps of information you acquire in your travels. Each new monster, character, notable item and more generates an entry in your "Codex." This is also where the logs of your conversations are stored, along with the texts of every book you read and scrap of paper you collect. Unfortunately, the organization of your codex trips all over itself, making an exercise in frustration trying to find things on the fly. The other side of the coin is that with this vast store of secondary literature, you'll have plenty of in-game reading with which to entertain yourself. There are also some secrets that are only revealed in the in-game literature, as well as some quests that are only activated once you collect and read certain scraps of information.
While we're on the subject of negatives, it must be mentioned that the game's visuals are sub-standard on the Xbox 360. There are brief instances where you will be amazed by the stunning visuals, but they are few and far between. For the most part the game is a washed-out mess, and the items and character models are uninspiring. If sub-standard graphics are a severe impediment to your enjoyment of a game, then you'd be wise to play the PC version if you have the option.
Also on the negative side is the limit on save games. Dragon Age: Origins limits you to 30 save games per character, even though it admonishes you in a loading screen to "save often." If you exceed 30 save games, the game will ask you to overwrite or remove some of your previous saves. Unfortunately there is no in-game option to remove saves. This is a colossal oversight and damned annoying.
Bottom Line: If you can overlook the relatively minor annoyances, Dragon Age: Origins offers plenty to love for fans of fantasy RPG, with enough flourishes on the traditional formula to keep it interesting even if you've "already been there, done that" a thousand times. This is computer/console RPG at its finest and you'll swear there's a GM behind the game somewhere directing the play, even if he is a bit of a jerk.
Recommendation: Buy this for the PC if you have a choice. If you don't, buy it anyway.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Russ Pitts is Editor in Chief of The Escapist.