The last enemy is slain, the last Origin played, the story complete... so it's time to Review Dragon Age: Origins for the PC.
Seeing as the game is pretty much completely plot-based throughout there might be some Spoilers here and there, I'll try to flag the big ones and embed them within the "Spoiler"-Tag.
You start the game classically by choosing your Gender, Race, Class and a Background (a so-called "Origin")
...represent those bits you might remember reading in your "Character Biography" in some older Roleplaying games, shortly explaining why you are supposedly motivated to go on a long quest, kill countless people and what happened that makes you seemingly "alone" in the world. They are especially situated around those single monumental moments in your hero's life where everything seems to change based on some kind of incident.
You can choose from being depicted as one of a few different things: From the mistreated slum-dweller that decides to finally rebel against the authority and there are SOME things worth fighting for, the mage apprentice that has to prove he is worthy of being initiated into the ranks of his elders, a royal dwarf that hasn't suffered a day in his life or the tragic hero, that loses his loved ones during a big battle.
The Origins are, for the most part, very well done and are there to establish your character's motivation to go on his big adventure in the first place and explain his overall lack of familiar and friendly "bonds" throughout the game (which you usually have to meet first). During the rest of the game those "Origins" are also being referred to every now and then and you'll be able to meet a few of the main characters from the Origin stories again later. There are only a few choices, which can be heavily influenced by "What you are", the rest is more of an aesthetic nature and can be something like a different greeting or a few extra lines of text if you talk to someone.
During an Origin, you basically get to play that important part of your characters life where everything changes, and get "invested" into him/her early on, instead of the game telling you that you are a parentless nobody due to a tragedy or are suffering from amnesia and have to deal with it in a textbox, (and you actually having to care about the fate of a "blank" character being dumped upon you, which seldom works) you play the part.
Here are a few chars that helped me brave some of those quests:
Dexter - The Human Noble Knight, usually does the right thing but always asks for a Reward for his deeds.
Eleadra - The coldblooded Sorceress, does everything to further herself and towards the increase of her magical powers, doesn't care what happens to anyone but herself and will betray you as soon as you are not considered "useful" anymore.
Lolzorz - The Rogue city elf, keep your precious stones and money safe around him, also he seems to have a screw loose.
After every Origin story, you are ultimately transported to Ostagar to be initiated into the Ranks of the "Grey Wardens" and take part in a large battle against the Darkspawn, which was one of my main gripes with the game as it takes a lot of choice away from you over your character and in some cases it might be the last thing I'd believe that character (or you) wants to do.
The first thing you will notice when starting a new game is the GREAT/AWESOME work that went into the characterization of some NPCs, from face expressions to body language and animation. Also most of the voices and animations excel in quality and are above many other games I've seen lately... (With ~140 voices for characters, some of them being Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ from the cast of Star Trek: Voyager (Janeway + Tuvok), Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun in Farscape and also on StarGate: SG1 and a few other celebrities.)
Unfortunately the main character doesn't speak aside from voice template you choose for basic actions.
I'd even say it surpasses Mass Effect in some points, while it doesn't feel as "Cinematic" throughout.
A lot of choices in the dialogues actually matter throughout the game and can even have an influence of how the main story might unfold and the ending itself (unlike Mass Effect, where everything you said basically led to the same conclusion). Often I found myself saving before talking to a "Named" character and reloading a few times just to see what the other paths might bring to the table "What would that be like".
The story itself unfolds in pre-rendered films running over your screen after certain events and many InGame Cut-Scenes, making use of different perspectives and tracking shots.
Another thing you will notice quickly (after the first fight to be precise) is the Gore system. After having defeated a few rats in the "Human Noble" Origin, the 3 chars were bathed in blood from head to toe, besides seeming "off" and making for a nice conversation option with your dog (making him "remove" it all with his tongue) they could have made it scalable instead... It's silly that you're full of blood if you kill a rat, why not have it being added with the number of enemies you slay? More enemies = more blood or base it on the size of an opponent. Felling an Ogre or a Dragon might be somewhat messier than killing a rat.
Party after walking through a fountain of rat-blood
But hey, at least the Blood splatters can also be turned off
...so don't lose your head over it.
The Game World...
...seems to be heavily influenced by European history during the Middle Ages and after and also largely inspired by Lord of the Rings (regarding most of the Races, Enemies and especially the "Darkspawn" design, oh and there's talking trees also)
There's "the" Church, Templar Knights, English nobility, the "French", "Joan of Arc" type of characters, the Search for the Holy Grail, Barbarians and their Witches of the Wild with some Arab and Italian Influences thrown in.
Screen of your basic group of Orcs... err "Dark Spawn"
and a cathedral of the "Chantry"
You can also clearly see throughout the game, that the writers put a lot of work towards the Lore and overall coherence of the game world. Unfortunately the "Codex" is just a few scraps of paper with some info or bits of text written, without any illustrations or anything to support it (unlike Mass Effect, where it was mostly narrated and I already thought only few people will bother to read it all. I do not think there's more than maybe 100 that will ever collect all the pieces AND read them all in this game).
The Codex, how it looks In-Game
At some point I also thought that they maybe went a bit over the intended target with the Lore. I had that realization first, when I started the "Human Noble" Origin of the game and one of the very first NPCs that I met was throwing around some terms during a "History Lesson"... here they come: "Black Age", "banns", "teyrns", "arls", "King Calenhad", "Highever", "Ferelden", "Teyrna Elethea", "Orlesians", a city called "Harper's Ford" and several other people like "King Maric", "General Loghain" and "King Cailan" etc. You'll barely start to understand half of those after playing for approximately 30 hours.
Stay away from this man!
Also the world is no "Forgotten Realms". I can't exactly put my finger on it, it's not bad or anything but it doesn't seem as "Huge" and "Epic" as most titles in the Dungeons & Dragons or the Star Wars Universe (where hundreds of people spent decades on writing and expanding those and thinking of believable and good foes, villains, deities, cities, political parties, nations and heroes)
The Spell and Skill-system...
...also felt a bit similar at times, it doesn't seem as thought through or useful as it was in Dungeons & Dragons, you can basically irreversibly screw up a mage or a warrior by taking weak spells instead of nuke (damage) spells and some CC (crowd control) spells and maybe healing or trying to go into too many skill-trees at once with a warrior instead of specializing in one, say Sword+Shield.
There is basically no telling what exactly a spell does or how strong it will be, there's no numbers or a "trying" before "buying". A system where you get most of the spells in a spell-book and can test them or upgrade them over time might have been better. Skills and Spells usually also have a pretty vague description seeing as you have to pick them and stick with it.
For example the description for the spell "Flame Blast" only says "The caster's hands erupt with a cone of flame, inflicting fire damage on all targets in the area for a short time. Friendly fire possible." Leaving you to decide if that sounds useful or not.
To further complicate things, spells are paired in the number of four along Spell-"Schools" and usually increase in strength the nearer you get to the fourth, so you might have to take a few spells (the first 3 in a line) that you do not really want, they might even seem and basically be useless just to get to the honey at the end of it.
You have to choose and select the first
three spells in a row to get the fourth
The combat system...
...is very similar to what you might know from the Baldur's Gate/Icewind Dale series, Planescape and Neverwinter Nights 2. You control up to 4 characters and can switch between them or select a few and give them commands or use skills.
The Pause-Function is your best friend in this case, as you can Stop the game at any point, scroll around, zoom in and out and see what exactly you will have to do to win the fight, then assign your commands and hit Continue.
You can either fight using a neat detailed over-the-shoulder perspective
or zoom out to an Overview over a certain visible area.
The party can all be controlled by you, or by leaving a basic AI on that will do basic tasks like "Attack nearest Enemy", "Use Skill if Mage is being attacked" and "Attack Enemy with Lowest Health" or "Take Strongest Potion if Health drops below 25%".
It is encouraged to use the AI to some degree, so you won't have to do EVERYTHING manually, but it won't really help you much in Boss battles or with stronger opponents/large encounters. You will have to think of and use certain Tactics in combination with several Skills and Spells to actually live to tell the tale in those.
The AI Options are either assigned automatically by choosing a role like "Defender" or "Offensive Mage" or can be customized over a somewhat complicated Tactics Screen by defining simple Triggers.
Some Options in the Tactics Section
I can't complain about most of the Comfort Functions though, it is nearly all there and then some. In Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights 2 etc. when someone died he/she was dead and had to be revived at a healer, also most of the equipment landed on the ground and had to be picked up. Usually this led to a "Reload" to before the battle, because it was such a hassle and also cost a lot of money.
If one of your Companion dies in Dragon Age he/she is being revived after the fight is over (with a penalty that has to be cured at camp or with certain equipment but still) and there's also an "Auto heal" function outside of combat regenerating your HP/Mana and Stamina so you don't have to constantly "Rest" or drink potions. It makes Combat a lot more fast-paced and natural even if it isn't the most "realistic".
It seems to be a lot more designed towards a game than a pen & paper system (which is good, as it IS a CRPG).
As an archer you won't find yourself out of Ammo and not being able to fight in the middle of a dungeon because you ran out of Arrows, the basic ones are infinite and you can load up finite "Special Ammunition" against bosses and during special encounters.
There's a single inventory for the whole party you can equip yourself and your companions with. There's even Item comparisons on shops with the currently equipped stuff for you to see if it is any better (not only that but you can also switch between chars in-shop).
Make sure to buy the inventory bags aplenty and early in the game though, as you cannot get back to most of the starting areas after leaving them and you might have trouble with inventory space later on in the larger dungeon areas with no vendors around.
Last but not least, the really helpful Highlighting function, by pressing TAB. TAB is your friend... learn to use TAB a lot xD A bunch of other games seem to miss out on this and you basically have to search around the screen for useable objects, which may become annoying after a while. Also already examined items or looted chests are no longer being highlighted, making it a lot easier to "backtrack" in case you might have missed something, without having to open every single chest or container again.
There's almost everything there to make you happy...
Unfortunately, there is no way to queue up different Attacks or Spells for a Char like say in Baldur's Gate. You have to manually activate every spell and ability during a fight manually. This might get annoying, especially during boss fights as it makes you use Pause and Change between Characters a lot.
The game is pretty difficult at times, which is nice for a change... Unfortunately the difficulty curve is more often than not dependent upon Randomness and a buggy AI over actual player skill.
For example, you can usually start reloading right away if enemy mages start an attack with Fireball and Chain Lightning or Crushing Prison on important chars.
Fights might go differently, if you manage to only get half of a group by pulling them separately or making the rest bug out by not seeing you (a good example for this is a fight against a Succubus on the 4th floor of the Mage's tower or the Revenant in Redcliffe).
Also sometimes cheap tactics like simply using lots of health potions and spam healing, running around with a tough opponent "trained" on your tail keeping him occupied with one char while the others use ranged attacks or similar can win a fight. On the other hand you cannot use your environment every time (say you want to retreat into a room and use 2 warriors to block the door, the monsters still "slide" through and get to your squishies).
You can actually cast Spells like Earthquake, Inferno and Blizzard inside buildings and through walls. You can even use them on enemies in another room without them attacking you, in which case they just run around and take damage and finally die...
Or use them on friendly NPCs you KNOW will attack you after a short talk and get an advantage.
Bigger/better Armor isn't exactly the "end-it-all" solution either, because it just mitigates the damage taken, but doesn't make you harder to hit or evade more, you are still as helpless against many opponents, you just die slower.
Generally speaking a group of 2 mages with nuke (mass damage) and paralyze/sleeping/knockdown spells can hold and kill big groups of enemies even 4 warriors/rogues might have a big problem against, e.g. in some cases they seem imbalanced compared to other classes later in the game.
Also some bosses seem like big wusses and go down really easy by just poking them repeatedly with a sharp metal stick, while you might have a really tough time against certain random enemies or mages.
I didn't HAVE to walk away from any battle or return to it later however, even if I had to reload multiple (maybe sometimes even 10) times in certain spots.
Following the pattern of previous 3D Bioware titles and their Offspring, some areas (and especially the character models and animations) look really awesome like the dwarf city, most Origin Story areas and partially the battle against the Dark Spawn, while some other areas look worse than NWN2 ever did and kind of break the immersion with washed out ground textures and ugly geometry. I'd wish for a bit more consistency between areas.
The engine clearly seems to be able to depict some great stuff, it's just that the Level designers didn't put the same kind of effort into every area (kind of like with Mass Effect and the Randomly Generated planets, just not as bad). You can clearly distinguish between the areas where people obviously sat down several months to design, and the other stuff that they apparently put together in a week or so. Also some of the textures look really bad :/
Upon entering Denerim for the first time I was like "Wow, this actually looks more like an actual city!" instead of the usual "placeable" houses stacked one after another in Neverwinter Nights 1+2, also the two Sisters arguing in front of the Chantry cracked me up, make sure to visit them xD
Denerim's Market district - the capital of Ferelden
compared to a city as it looked in Neverwinter Nighs 2 back in 2006
My High Points of the game
The Dwarf City was pretty and very atmospheric (I also liked some of the scripted sequences and battles in the "Deep Roads" a lot.
The Brecillian Forest at times seemed very Original (e.g. haven't seen some of the things in another game before) and there were some really nice ideas, it stood out in quest design above the others. Also most of the Origin Stories were very well designed.
My Low Points of the game
Some areas seemed a few battles too long. The Deep Roads kind of stretched out for miles of just killing stuff to get to your goal and near the end of the game it is basically the same again, but even without the nice little distractions and quests that were there in the Deep Roads to distract you from the grind.
Unfortunately there are also a lot of MMO-esque quests around you can activate by reading and Accepting letters on Chantry-Boards and by looking through certain Containers "Blackstone Irregulars", "Mages Collective" etc. Most if not all of them feel cheap and degrade the whole quality of the game. I don't know why they included them in the first place, seeing as they're basically "run around all the world and talk to X" quests, a few map encounters and add a few cheap optional battles with characters that have one sentence dialogues.
One of the dreaded "Chantry Boards"
Remember the quests in Baldur's Gate where a shady mage wanted you to bring a dead corpse to him for an "experiment" and suggesting looking in the sewers or similar? Presentation can often be everything in such cases and having an "Accept Quest Board" doesn't seem like the best way to go about things.
The first DLC "Warden's Keep"
(which offers about half an hour to an hour of additional gameplay) is the story of a Keep led by the Grey Wardens, which ultimately falls against the armies of a long dead king, it is being told in short flashbacks going back in time while you fight your way through the ranks of the undead now inhabiting the Keep. Aside from a few tough fights, a bit of helpful equipment and the story itself (albeit enacted pretty well) there is not that much more to be got or seen here, so if you miss out on it, it won't kill you.
Warden's Keep and part of a Flashback
Although it is a little annoying that there is an NPC with a glowing mark over his head right in your camp reminding you, gnawing, eating away at your soul every time you... err anyway, it is also the only place where you can stash your loot safely in a chest (without Mods)...
The game is LONG, sometimes it seems even a little too long. Like good old granny coming over for a short visit and then not wanting to leave anymore, while she tells you fantastic stories from her childhood. They may drag a little here and there but are nice to hear overall. Also generally she's a good granny and she comes bearing cookies, so you let her stay as long as she wants.
There were also a few minor things Nagging me throughout the game...
I wouldn't want to stuff into the other points so here goes:
- If they already included that very practical party screen where you can exchange your party from, why not letting you use it in most areas? It is understandable that you'd not be able to do it if you are at the bottom of a dungeon or something collapsed behind you or similar. But why not let you use it in Denerim, Redcliffe Castle or the Deep Roads? Especially since you can just walk back to an area where it works and then head back there... it's just annoying.
- When NPCs that fight with you but aren't in the group (lots and lots of times) kill enemies you do not get XP. Especially awesome if you spent some time equipping them better or getting them better weapons through quests and they take your kills (and thus XP) away with the last blow xD
- There's nowhere to put your items without buying the DLC or downloading a Mod and getting it to work, you either have to sell or destroy them even if you might need them later as the Inventory Space is finite. If you try to keep too much you'll get into trouble during long Dungeon-Runs.
Differences between the PC and Console version
Besides of the obvious one e.g. better graphics, more features to improve them and somewhat better textures there is also:
- The PC version can be zoomed out to a Baldur's Gate-esque Overview of the Battlefield, where the top half of the screen (including any roofs etc. disappear) and you can control your characters a lot easier in battle out of that perspective. I found myself doing this constantly in battle and it being immensely helpful.
Zoomed out Perspective
- The PC version features Friendly Fire at any difficulty above Easy, you will have to use Spells carefully as they affect your party too.
Throwing a fireball into the middle of your party is a big no-no.
- On Consoles "Normal" doesn't feature Friendly Fire and Hard only at 50% damage.
- The PC version features more enemies and harder (boss)-battles. There are less enemies featured during events and they're easier to defeat in the console versions of the game.
- In the PC version you can control the entire party or choose 2-3 characters on their own using hotkeys or the mouse for selection instead of having to switch through the entire team and being able to control only one at once.
- The PC version has a different and more intuitive User Interface similar to most modern MMOs with a Skill bar and a Toolbar at the top of the screen etc. instead of Radial Menus. Also you can use Shortcuts on the Keyboard
- The PC version comes with a Toolset and has support for Modded Content and Custom Maps while Consoles only get the official DLC content.
- The Console version has a few puzzle sequences, which have been dumbed down or cut out completely.
...I actually really liked it, it has its faults and kinks here and there but it was definitely worth a buy, especially because it actually DOES last up to 80 hours as advertised if you want to see everything and that just in one Single Playthrough. Games offering that much Content for the Buck seem rather Rare nowadays, in the time of Short-paced Action-Shooters and "Casual games".
Make no mistake though, it is NO second Baldur's Gate and also doesn't exactly follow in its footsteps, but it has its own Charm and is basically lots of fun. If I'd have to give it a Mark it is probably a 8.6/10.
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