RETROspective REview: Dragon Age: Origins – yes there is life after Oblivion

Dragon Age: Origins… I love you and I hate you.

“Love” and “hate” are powerful words, but they are key here, as BioWare’s first fantasy foray into the next-gen range of consoles takes the familiar mold that we’ve come to expect from Canada’s finest RPG developer, and stuffs it full of the kind of mature themes and scenarios that cause players and characters to realistically swing between extremes of emotion and experience. And it also sums up just how I feel about this damn game.

I have a feeling this review is somewhat redundant. If you are a RPG fan you have either played DA:O (probably several times over) or you are going to regardless of what I say. If you are not a RPG fan, there might not be enough in here to keep you interested for the long haul; there are other games full of guns to shoot and balls to kick for you. However, if you want to know what to expect from this engrossing but heavily flawed game: read on.

For the less perceptive among you, Dragon Age: Origins is a fantasy RPG set in the mythical universe of Ferelden. Right of the bat I can tell you that Ferelden itself is one of the things that will keep you hooked to DA:O. If you enjoy exploring a game’s depth and backstory, then there is more here than you could possibly hope for.

Fans of the Mass Effect series will testify to the fact that BioWare show a lot of love and imagination when it comes to developing their game world, and sure it’s not exactly that original, but in this case it’s a very well crafted and engrossing take on familiar legends and concepts. Dwarves, Elves, magicians, a totalitarian religious body… they all take centre stage at some point. And the enemy: the darkspawn themselves, will seem not-unfamiliar to fans of the Lord of the Rings films.

The “Origins” title of the game is also suitable not simply because this is the first title in what is to be a long-running series, but because the very origin story of your character is one of the game’s central concepts. Pick from three races, either gender, and (if applicable) one of three classes. However, your choices will determine widely different opening locations and scenarios – from the aristocratic to the pauper. Eventually, each choice will lead to the same result: you joining the Grey Wardens in their battle against the darkspawn horde threatening to overrun the land.

However, your choices will not only determine what kind of character you are, but they will strongly influence events to happen later, how characters respond to you, and even the possible endings of the game, basically meaning it’s impossible to explore everything this massive game has to offer on a single play-through. Or even the second.

The overall structure of the game is pretty standard fare: go to different regions (dungeons) to recruit characters to your party and a group to join your army. At each area you’ll be forced to pick sides – either good or evil, and the game rewards or punishes each style in equal measure.

The combat too is as standard as the rest: pick a four character team from your warriors, wizards and rogues and tackle enemies in a faux-real time exchange that barely disguises the dice-rolling mechanic underneath. All the usual levelling-up options are there, but there are some very interesting choices you can make for your characters later on, specialising in certain abilities. Carefully balancing your party between might and magic is a must, and the tactical options open up considerably as you progress.

If you are expecting something ground-breakingly original then I’m afraid you aren’t going to get it here. But what kept me hooked to DA:O for agonisingly long gaming  sessions was not the fundamentals, which were familiar and functional, it was the depth that this game had to offer underneath that.

Sure the usual mechanics are there: get to know your party to develop skills, each has their own quest which can be unlocked, but there’s more to it than that. The combination of voice acting and writing is actually (and I mean this) good; you’ll talk to your team because you want to. Relationships can become surprisingly complex, and yes, even quite graphically sexual (it says 18 on the box for more than just violence).

Your team members don’t just follow you blindly either, they can interact with NPCs and influence how events play out. Want to come across as a goody-goody to impress someone? Don’t take Morrigan along with you. And so on. Do something that really pisses your team off, and they may even try to kill you.

The Graphics are on the whole serviceable, although the console versions do suffer from frame rate issues and screen tearing. In fact, the game unforgivably suffers at moments of very little action from time to time.

The strategy and difficulty has also been toned down on consoles to compensate for the complex combat system which has been reduced to radial menus. The combat works, but it is frustrating. You can pause the action and switch between characters at ease to stack up commands, and en effort has been made to create an AI system which you can fully tailor, but it never really works. As much as you try, your teammates will freeze you, your hardest warrior will chase one enemy around a tree for ages. As the game progresses, you will be forced to pause the game and carefully stack up actions to micromanage combat as much as you can. Some people will actually enjoy this, others won’t.

The sound is actually impressive. These are real actors and actresses, and care has been taken to imbue each character with personality. Other sound effects also add atmosphere and depth to the game, although you might not even notice it half the time.

And just a quick word about download content; DA:O has a vast amount of DLC, but unfortunately a lot of it is short, disappointing, and over-priced. The Stone Prisoner is available for free for some customers and includes the playable character Shale, and is definitely worth it. I also personally enjoyed Return to Ostagar. The others depend on your version and how much you want to spend, just don’t expect too much.

The Bottom Line

Dragon Age: Origins is a huge and engrossing game. If you have ever been a fan of this type of game and have access to the PC version, you are in for something special. Console owners who are able to look beyond the faults might actually find something to love here. Especially at it’s current low price.

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