Dragon Age: Origins is the game you’ve been waiting for all of your life.
Allow me to qualify that: If you enjoy fantasy role-playing games and prefer gameplay over graphics and story over style, then Dragon Age: Origins is the game you’ve been waiting for all your life.
Where many videogame RPGs feel flat or lifeless (including some made by BioWare), Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) is captivating from the start, and every step of the way gives you the impression that your actions are entirely your own and most importantly, will have an impact on the world in which you’re playing.
Dragon Age: Origins is set in the fictional land of “NotMiddleEarthia,” AKA Ferelden, which is inhabited by the usual gang of races. You can play as one of three races (Human, Dwarf or Elf) and one of three classes (Warrior, Rogue or Mage). You can even choose your background from one of six options, so your character’s personal history may vary somewhat, as will your abilities and overall gameplay experience, depending on your selections.
What won’t change are the basics: The Darkspawn (AKA “NotOrcs”) have begun to invade Ferelden and it is up to the legendary order of Grey Wardens (AKA “NotDunedainRangers”) to assemble an alliance of the forces of good to drive them back using swords and sorcery. You will be presented with the option to accumulate various party members from time to time, and when you set out on your adventures, you will be able to select which party members will go with you, according to your needs or personal preferences. And you will go on quests, battle monsters and loot their corpses.
Dragon Age: Origins is billed as a “dark fantasy,” which one has to assume means that there will be no unicorns and no happy endings. By way of introduction, the game begins with a few brief adventures during which your world is turned upside down, and/or you are recruited into the Grey Wardens, whereupon you are introduced to the Main Plot, in which the forces of darkness have begun sneaking warily into the Forces of Good’s backyard. Then, just as the Forces of Good are assembling to begin putting things aright, tragedy strikes again, leaving you the sole survivor and officially in charge of picking up the pieces. You can almost hear the game chuckling as it pats you on the back, saying “good luck with that.”
In true RPG style, it will be your task as one of the Grey Wardens to take the lead in beating back the Darkspawn. How you go about this, however, is in some respects left up to you. Dragon Age: Origins makes a valiant effort at presenting a truly grey world, in which good or evil is not merely a binary choice. You can do the “right” thing, and characters with a predisposition towards goodness will favor you, or you can do the “wrong” thing, creating the opposite reaction. Or you can waffle, in which case, you will have to pay close attention to how various characters respond to you because their reactions will vary.
This is one of the ways in which Dragon Age: Origins puts on a good show of being a competent game master. The NPCs feel like real people and for the most part act like it. Convincing characters to go along with your plans isn’t always a given, and they’ll usually respond in predictable ways, even if that means spoiling your plans. Depending on your actions, you will get more or fewer dialogue options when talking to NPCs, and the degree to which your various party members favor you will impact how much of their stories (and skills) they share. If you prefer the brute force approach, you can purchase gifts to give to your party members, and if you pay careful attention to what they tell you, some of the gifts will have a profound effect.
It’s a testament to the depth of Dragon Age: Origins that this mechanic, what would be the core of many other games, is kind of optional. You really don’t need your party members to like you; there are so many available that it’s easy to assemble a party of like-minded yes men. This may limit your experience somewhat, but in a 100+ hour game, that might not matter.
What does matter is combat. Dragon Age: Origins is a brutally hard game. You will get your ass handed to you a lot, so be prepared for it. The combat system is simple at first glance, but once you scratch the surface you’ll find it a challenging, yet rewarding exercise in strategy and tactics.
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.