November 23, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins | Review

Troy Benedict Says When I think of a "true" role-playing game experience, I think about the big daddy of all role-playing games: Dungeons & Dragons. It was a simple idea with a complex execution. With a pencil-and-paper game like D&D, your imagination was really the only limitation in the game.

It's no surprise that BioWare's new RPG, Dragon Age: Origins, feels like one of the most flushed-out and detailed RPG experiences on modern video game consoles. They've had a couple of tremendously popular PC-based RPGs using the Dungeons & Dragons licenses (Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights), and their storylines are so rich with details and character development that even secondary and tertiary characters, from their vast catalog of game releases, are still loved and talked about today.

As a disclaimer at the beginning of this review, the copy of Dragon Age: Origins for this review was for the Xbox 360 version and was provided by Goozex. The main quest was not completed at the time of this review, but I have logged enough time with the game, and feel comfortable sharing my praises and criticisms with Dragon Age: Origins.

The game begins, like most RPGs, with you selecting and creating a character of your choosing. However, Dragon Age: Origins really shines brightly in its execution once you begin the game with that character. There is no other experience quite like it! Most RPGs, follow the same storyline from beginning to end, where you play the hero who is destined to save the world, but the storyline really isn't impacted by the race and class of your chosen hero. Most of the time, choosing a wizard character type over a warrior meant very little in the overall storyline of the game. However, in Dragon Age: Origins, each race and class of character has a very unique opening to the game. Each origin story generally takes between 90 minutes and 3 hours to complete. I've even been told that certain characters in the game will react differently and offer different dialogue trees depending on the type of character you're using.

I began the game with a human warrior, and after playing with that character for more than a dozen hours, I decided to create an elf wizard. It was then that I realized that the two intro stories that I experienced couldn't have be more different. Apparently, there are about 5 or 6 different origin stories depending on the race and class of your hero character, which makes replaying this already long game even more interesting and exciting. Not to mention, Achievement/Trophy junkies will be rewarded for completing the variety of different origin stories.

There is no hand-holding in Dragon Age: Origins, which can be both rewarding and intimidating at the same time. Additionally, the game's story is long, with people reporting that focusing on the main quest took between 50-70 hours to complete.

My biggest recommendation to those who are playing Dragon Age: Origins? Always save your game!

Save and save often! The tides of battle can quickly turn against you at the blink of an eye depending on if the enemy characters can take out one of your support characters, and vice versa. There is a certain element of strategy that is involved in each battle that can dramatically affect the outcome. For example, while mage characters generally aren't strong in battle, they can cast spells that will immobilize your character, or heal up the strong warrior-types that are slashing away at your party. I generally try to take the mages out at every opportunity, and I try to make sure that my healers and spell-casters are at a safe distance and are constantly supporting my team.

Another intimating part of the game is establishing and setting up the computer-controlled tactics for each character. The battles play out in real-time, with you issuing different commands for the character with a simple button press. I generally focus on full-control of my hero character, and let the computer control the actions of my party. In order to tell the computer what to do, you have a certain number of query like commands that let you decide what a character can do. For example, you can tell a character to use a certain spell on the first enemy they see, or focus their attacks on a character whose hit point fall below a certain overall percentage, or even heal a team mate whose life falls below 50% or 25%. While there are preset tactical actions that a character can take, the most effective way to guarantee that they'll use certain abilities and attacks is to instruct set up the commands manually. The computer does a decent job of managing your party members, but it's not a bad idea to go through and tweak each member's tactics to your liking every few levels, to ensure that they're taking advantage of new abilities and spells, especially if you find yourself dying over and over during the same encounter.

Morality seems to be a big deal in more modern RPG-style games. Games like Fable II and Fallout 3 let you decide how you want to decide if you want to take the evil way or the good way. Dragon Age: Origins' way of approaching morality decisions is more interesting and realistic. There really is no "good" or "bad" way of playing through the game, it's all a matter of perception. What is good to one party member, might be bad or rude to another. You do build up relationships with the characters in your party, and certain actions that you perform can change how those characters will react to you. The old adage of "You can't please everybody all the time" is so true in Dragon Age Origins. Each character in your party's personality affects how they feel after you make an important choice in the game. There are even some choices in the game, that you can make that will turn a party member against you!

While on the subject of the party's personality, one neat little feature of Dragon Age is that at any time two of your members will begin chatting amongst themselves. Sometimes the conversation turns into an argument, or gives a deeper look into a character's history or their political point of view, for example. It all seems to depend on which party members you accompanying you at the time. The conversations are witty, too, and always bring a smile to my face.

Your hero is a silent protagonist and will never speak a line of dialogue during a conversation. I found this to be very confusing, because part of the character creation is the ability to choose a voice styling for them. This was also rather shocking after playing BioWare's Mass Effect, where the dialogue between your character and others made the whole cinematic approach to the conversation that much more interesting and appealing. I've never liked they way that games handle the silent protagonist. I've often felt it was a very lazy way of approaching the character design of the main character, and sort of puts in a very blatant disconnect between me and this avatar. It was just such a stark contrast to the exceptionally well-produced conversation system in Mass Effect. With the voice work of such a high caliber everywhere else in Dragon Age, it seemed sinful to not include a spoken response from your character.

The graphics, while decent, are also nowhere near the level of quality of Mass Effect. There are some really noticeable lower resolution textures, and characters will sometimes have an oddly plasticy-looking quality to their faces. I'm not sure if this was a difference between the futuristic stylings of Mass Effect, and the more earthy-natural look of Dragon Age's world, but it was a noticeable visual disappointment, especially considering that the screenshots and video clips of Mass Effect 2. The two games' release dates are only a few months apart.

Like I mentioned before, the game is hard. Sometimes frustratingly hard, especially if you don't save often. The real-time action of the game can often mislead your tactical decisions, making you think that rushing into the battle ready to button-mash the enemy to death will result in a victory. More than often, some strategy is involved in getting the upper hand. Also, I often found a lack of opportunities to quickly level up your character, but perhaps this was the result of playing the game for review and trying to work my way through this epic as quickly as I could.

Load times seem to be a bit long with the Xbox 360 version I played, which made restarting certain situations feel like ages. I'm not sure if this applies to the PlayStation 3 version or the PC version. I suppose copying the game to the Xbox 360 hard drive may have shaved off a few seconds here or there, but I can't imagine even doing this would have made much of an impact. Expect to have some patience with the load screen, especially if you die a lot.

As in most item-collecting games, the inventory system of Dragon Age had its strength and weaknesses, and unfortunately I found myself managing my items and constantly throwing away lesser important items to make room for possibly better ones.

There are a certain number of items and weapons that your party can carry at any one time, and for me that number was 70. During my time with the game, I was never able to increase the available slots from 70 to anything greater than that, nor was I ever able to find an item chest/warehouse at a party camp, for example, to store items that I wanted to hold onto, but didn't want to equip or use at the time. Games like Diablo II and Fallout 3 had extra storage options with which to store those miscellaneous items. Perhaps this inventory limit had nothing to do with increasing my hero's strength, but I was never able to find any additional storage or increase my already limiting party inventory, and I found that to be quite frustrating.

While a lot of the game involves some sort of skirmish, there are parts of the game where battles can be avoided by taking the right path during a conversation. There was a part of the main quest that I wasn't able to physically overcome - either my strategies were completely awful, or my characters just weren't strong enough. I must have attempted this scenario at least 20 times and no matter how I changed my approach, I could not defeat this group of characters. In order to win, I essentially lied to them during the conversation before the battle. I agreed to do something for this group of unsavory types that members of my party seriously disagreed with. This allowed me to pass to a new area where I not only betrayed the enemy in the end by not doing what they asked, but was I also able to physically defeat them because their numbers weren't as concentrated as before. Sometimes a quick wit and a little thinking can go a long way to avoiding those battles that can't seem to be won through physical feats!

Dragon Age does have its flaws, it's the detailed story, richly-developed characters, and the interesting dialog tree paths that make the game tremendously awesome. It is one of those games that you'll constantly be thinking about even when not playing it.

For anybody who loves action-RPG games, especially the more Western style ones like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Fable II, and Fallout 3, I really suggest checking out Dragon Age: Origins. It might not be the prettiest game, but for the richness in story line and the sheer amount of quests and characters you'll encounter, as well as the completely original and unique origin storylines, it's hard to find a deal like this for $60.
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