PC Dragon Age Origins

Scott Tortorice

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I believe 2009 to be one of worst years for PC gaming in a long time. While console gamers have fared better, PC gamers have had to put up with one poorly executed console port after another. Is there no hope? Where is our knight in shining armor?

Look there! On the horizon! A figure clad in plate mail, mounted upon a great steed! It’s…it’s…Ser BioWare!

Okay, that might be a bit dramatic, but it pretty much sums up how I feel about BioWare’s latest role playing game, Dragon Age: Origins. Delivering one the finest fantasy RPG experiences in a long time, Dragon Age: Origins has rescued PC gaming’s fair maiden with its deep gameplay, visceral combat, and engaging story. In short, it is the game that saved 2009.

Character Creation

Like any good role playing game, Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) begins by giving the player a chance to create a character to suit his tastes. The player can pick one of three races – Human noble, Dwarf noble or commoner, and Elf noble or commoner (known in game as a Dalish or City elf) – along with three classes: warrior, mage or rogue. Choose carefully, as your race and class will determine your “origin story”, a specifically tailored narrative that will reflect these choices and echo throughout the game.

Needless to say, the race and class choices will also convey certain stat benefits to the character, such as +4 strength for warriors, for example. In addition to these stats, though, the player can then assign additional points to the standard attributes (strength, dexterity, et cetera), along with picking a skill and talent/spell specific to their race or class. Of course, if all of this is a bit to tedious for the player, DA:O has a “Quick Play” option where the game will automatically assign all the points for the player.

Lastly, the player is given all the tools necessary to customize his (or her) appearance, from hair color to tattoos and even nose size! It can be great fun to tinker with all the different combinations and come up with a thoroughly unique hero that will stand out in a crowd. Finally, when the player is satisfied with all his choices (he is free to go back and change any before sallying forth into the game), he can select a background and viewing angle and take a portrait that can be uploaded to the BioWare Social Network.

Welcome to Ferelden!

In the interest of creative freedom, BioWare has broken with established fantasy realms to create their very own – and what a realm it is! While it does bear more than a passing resemblance to other fantasy lore, such as that of Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, it is clear that Bioware has labored long and hard in coming up with something more than its derivative parts. The world of Ferelden is deep, possessing an intricate back-story comprised of a rich stew of religion, politics, and prophecy. At times I felt it all to be a bit overwhelming as there is just so much information revealed by the game that it can be hard to get a good grasp on it. Fortunately, the game includes a Codex that records all the important tales, bits of history and politics, and characters that the player will be exposed to during his adventuring.

The most important part of the history of Ferelden - well, most important where the gamer is concerned - is the Blight, a growing storm of evil that seeks to unleash an ancient, slumbering demigod upon the world and usher in an age of darkness. That is where you come in, of course. You must embark on a quest to unite the feuding Human, Dwarf and Elvin realms in the nick of time and end the threat to all. Of course, in addition to the intricate main quest that should provide at least forty hours of gameplay, there are many, many side quests that are interesting in their own right. After a bit of adventuring, it becomes clear that the opportunities for adventure are numerous and varied.

Fortunately, the land of Ferelden is as well fleshed out visually as it is historically. DA:O is a very pretty game, with settings and locales being stylishly rendered. Now, DA:O is not an open-world game, you cannot just head West and go exploring, but is instead a game with discreet locations that, while possessing boundaries, are nonetheless nicely realized. There are buildings to enter, wilds to wander, and of course, the occasional dungeon or castle to crawl through. I found all of them to be nicely varied and memorable for their architecture as well as overall mood. Adding to the visuals is the wonderful sound work that also helps to contribute mood to every locale, from ringing town bells, to the gossip overheard as one passes the locals.

What DA:O might lack in open-endedness it more than makes up for with its many opportunities to converse with the many NPCs found throughout Ferelden. It is here that the game shines, both structurally as well as in terms of its story. It is remarkable how many people the player can engage in conversation, and what he will learn during the process (hint, hint). It is even more remarkable that such discussions aren’t of the ‘wall of text variety’ that is often found in MMOs, but rather are executed with clever scenes where the player’s character is seen speaking with a fully voiced and emotive NPC. It is during these conversations that the player is given a chance to influence the story by choosing from a series of dialogue options, the implication of which is not always clear. It is here that BioWare has succeeded in putting the ‘role playing’ back in the RPG as, at times, DA:O more closely resembles an interactive movie than a game.

Of course, while the player’s character will be leading the way, he is not alone as he sojourns across Ferelden. As he progresses, he will come across various individuals whom he can ask to join his party, up to three at a time. These NPCs are just as fully fleshed out as the rest of the inhabitants of Ferelden, each with his/her own backstory, predilections and personality quirks. Do something they don’t like, and risk losing their friendship and have them depart from your group. Of course, it is also possible to hit all the right buttons and find yourself in a romance!

Combat

If you’re looking for lots of sword fights and spell casting, you came to the right place! DA:O has a very addictive, if challenging, combat system. Combat takes place in real time, but the player is free to pause the action at any time by hitting the spacebar, a greatly appreciated game function considering the challenging nature of battles.

First off, this is not some “hack and slash” affair; combat has a decidedly chess-like flavor to it where careful deliberation is the order of the day. Your tactical choices begin at your camp, where all your potential party members congregate around a central campfire. Here’s a good place to not only get to know your party members better through the game robust conversational system, but also to examine their equipment, perhaps also give a gift as a way of earning their increased favor, and decide which members will be best suited to deal with the upcoming challenge, which is something that is no small feat in and of itself.

Once in combat, the tactical choices multiply. If you are used to rushing into battle Braveheart style, forget it, as most enemies in this game come in large parties and will simply swamp you. Instead, the player needs to begin by taking a careful look around at the terrain and identify any features that can aid you in battle. I recall one particular fight where my party kept getting killed time and again in what seemed a hopeless situation. It was only after I took some time to look around and noticed an overturned table positioned in the corner of a room that I realized the secret to success in this fight would be location and not brute strength. Sure enough, the table acted as a sort of ersatz barricade and forced the marauding monsters to attacks us in a very winnable one at a time pace.

Terrain is just part of the battle; there is also the timely use of the special abilities of the player’s party. As the player’s party levels up, they will gain new abilities that can greatly influence the outcome of a battle. For example, a mage might develop the ability to shapeshift into a fierce bear, or - one of my personal favorites - a warrior learning how to smash his shield into the face of an opponent, knocking him down for a time. Of course, these abilities cost either manna or stamina to use, so the player must be judicious in just when and on whom they should be used.

Be it freezing a foe in place with magic or running him through with your blade, the combat animations are nicely rendered. Breaking with the often stilted combat found in other games (i.e., ‘I swing, now you swing’ combat), the combat in DA:O comes across as fast and furious, with blades slicing through the air, arrows flying to targets, and lightning bolts striking enemies. While the AI does a darn good job of using the party’s abilities to best effect, I have found that more than a little micromanaging via the liberal use of the pause feature is necessary for the best results. However, BioWare has also given the player the ability to script certain “tactics” to better refine the actions of the AI. This is done with a rather straightforward IF – THEN type of system where the player specifies a trigger for a subsequent action. So, for example, the player could create a tactic where if their character’s health drops below 25%, it will automatically use a health kit. As characters level up, they unlock additional tactic slots, providing for more tactical options.

Be advised, in the fashion of a Quentin Tarantino movie, blood will spray copiously during combat; something I found added a suitably gory touch to a genre where hacking your opponent down is standard operating procedure. Even when the battle is over, the player’s characters will remain blooded for a time, adding a decidedly serious tone to situations where a player’s character might inform a NPC that a particular enemy is “now dead”. Hah! I bet he doesn’t doubt it!

The sound is excellent as well, with blades clanging in battle, shields thumping foes down, and chainmail clinking as characters move about.

So What’s Not to Like?

To be honest, I am finding Dragon Age: Origins to be a remarkably polished game for one so loaded with depth and complexity. I have found no major problems, just a few quirks.

First, combat is tough; really, really tough. Be prepared to save your progress often as you will be reloading frequently from many a battle that goes against you. This does have the tendency to make the game feel like a frustrating grind at times, but it also has the benefit of making each victory all the more sweeter…even if the player has to restart a dozen times to get there. The player can adjust the difficulty setting at any time, but even “easy” has proven so difficult that BioWare has released a patch to make it easier!

Second, in a game that has been so thoroughly voiced, I found it disappointing that the player’s character lacks one of his own. This is all the more peculiar as, when designing a character, the player can select a voice! True, the player’s character will make a few utterances when moving around the map and such, but unfortunately remains mute in all the dialogue scenes.

Last, there is no multiplayer. To be honest, this is fine with me as I prefer a good single player experience any day, but in an age of multiplayer-centric gaming, I just thought it important to point out this fact for those looking to join up with online friends for a shared quest.

Closing Comments:

The above is just a taste of what Dragon Age: Origins offers. There is also a crafting system, interacting magic, and an elegant user interface that makes the game an ease to play. What is more, BioWare has released the toolset they used to make the game, thus ensuring a plethora of user made content for the foreseeable future; not that subsequent adventuring will be a problem with a promise of downloadable content for years to come. BioWare has even unveiled its new Social Network where players can upload screenshots from the game, track achievements and network with other BioWare fans. All in all, Dragon Age: Origins is the fantasy-based RPG fans have been seeking for far too long. As someone who has never been an aficionado of dungeon crawls, it is all the more amazing that I have been thoroughly hooked by the magic found in this game (darn your spellcraft, BioWare!). Sir Galahads the world over have finally found their RPG holy grail, and it is Dragon Age: Origins.

10.0 out of 10
 
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