November 4, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins | First Impressions

Troy Benedict Says I really had no idea what to expect from Dragon Age: Origins a week or so prior to its release. All I knew is that it was made by BioWare and that it looked gritty, violent, and awesome! BioWare has had a track record of really awesome games with Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I've even heard a lot of talk that DA:O is the spiritual successor to the some of BioWare's earlier PC-based RPGs Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights.

I cannot attest to this validation, because I've never played Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights. I always thought they looked really fun, and I heard about how good they were, but unfortunately never found the time to dedicate to either of those titles.

However, I have had a lot of experience with BioWare's more recent games, Mass Effect and KOTOR, and Dragon Age: Origins has a feel similar to those games.

Before I get too far, I should clarify that I am playing the Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins.

Dragon Age: Origins is bloody, but not in that gory guts-and-limbs-strewn-everywhere kind of way. It's bloody in that everything-is-covered-in-blood way. Even from the opening EA logo, there is blood drips and smears everywhere. In the game, when you're finished hacking away at the enemy, your character and the party will be spattered with blood - on the armor and on their faces. It's a nice attention to detail, and also kind of helps give the game a much more gritty atmosphere, separating its Mature rating from other similar Teen-rated games.

That's not to say that the violence is the sole reason for the game's Mature rating, as there has been much talk about the sexual content of the game, including partial nudity. If you're familiar with any of the issues that surfaced surrounding Mass Effect and its subtle nude scenes with possible lesbianism depending on the gender of your main character, then I think it's a realistic expectation to expect something similar with Dragon Age: Origins (including the over exaggerated non-gaming media reaction to such plausible scenes). But the sexual content and partial nudity are right there on the box. Whether or not it's a path you have to choose in order to witness this, is something that perhaps I'll be able to share in the final review. The overall story seems a bit grimmer and darker than other dragon-slaying stories.

Needless to say, the game is not for kids.

So, how does it play? I feel that I've only scratched the surface of the game despite logging an almost 3-hour session with it. Please note that in my limited time with the game, I may make assumptions that are not correct or are better implemented as I play further through the game.

I was actually surprised that it felt and played a lot like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic. However, all of the battles I experienced were real-time, button-pressing skirmishes, similar to maybe World of WarCraft, and wasn't the turn-based strategy game like KOTOR. You have your standard attack (A button), but then you also have the other three face buttons which you can map certain actions to. Being a warrior, one of my special attacks was bashing the enemy with my shield. These special attacks take time to recharge, usually something like 10 seconds. This action in particular knocked the enemy to the ground, where I could get in a couple of slashes without any retaliatory action.

The only way that I would pause the battle was to bring up the game's radial menu to either remap actions to one of the controller's buttons, or to pause it. That's not to say that there are no tactics in the game. While you control one party member, the others are controlled with A.I. While you can jump back and forth between any member instantaneously and control them and their actions, you can set specific A.I. routines/actions for the computer depending on the conditions of battle. For example, if the enemy had a percentage of HP left, you could request that the A.I. cast a certain spell. I briefly looked at the tactics, but solely relied on the computer to control my other party members during battle.

Visually, the game is nice-looking, but textures seem a bit flat and smooth. Some facial features of some of the characters during cut-scenes seem a bit too polished and artificial. Compared to Mass Effect, the Dragon Age: Origins didn't strike me as being quite so visually impressive. Perhaps the styles of the game are to blame for that - technology/future style versus a more natural/fantasy setting. The trees are what stood out as being the most awkward, especially when viewing a wooded area from a higher and more distant vantage point. The gameplay seems to be the area where Dragon Age shines, and I've been hearing a lot of positive things about it, especially when comparing it to some of BioWare's earlier RPG offerings.

I'm enjoying it a lot, and haven't run into any extremely difficult situation that I wasn't able to hack and slash my way out of. I am hoping that there will be some more strategy involved, and am looking forward to unlocking new skills for my character to use.

Check back here for my review of Dragon Age: Origins, to see if the game continues to stand up after my first impression.