Bioware has a long and charted history of creating RPG's that empower the player with the freedom of choice within their tightly focused narratives and the diversity to develop your character in whatever fashion you deem fit. Dragon Age: Origins is the veritable epitome of this design mentality, which despite being far less flashy and spectacular than it's contemporaries, emboldens all of the hallmarks of what makes Bioware game so great – the conversations, the romances, the grand overarching narrative and drizzles it liberally in a dark, fantasy setting that is both appropriate and also sufficiently piques the interest in the process.
Narratively, Dragon Age: Origins concerns itself with the invading Darkspawn; a horde of monsters which has traditionally done its evil thing of wholesale murder on and off for a good few centuries. When a Darkspawn invasion occurs, the horde is usually led by an Archdemon; a particularly powerful long-dead deity and thusly the attack is defined as a ‘Blight’ – This is, as you might have guessed, is bad. Very bad. To combat this, a special order of individuals made up of humans, elves and dwarves from all walks of life and known as the Grey Wardens, are the only force capable of fighting the Darkspawn on anything approaching equal terms. Yet, the enormity of the challenge that lies in front of them is such that they need to recruit armies from each of the major powers in Ferelden to combat this menace. A task which is easier said then done given the prejudices, political intrigue and dark secrets that threaten to derail any hope of an alliance against the threat.
This as you might expect is where you come in.
As you may infer from the title, where Dragon Age: Origins does things a little differently than its peers is in the manner by which you begin the game. Choosing one of six, completely different origin stories or beginnings for your character, you begin your journey into the dark fantasy world of Ferelden. Rather than just representing different ways to start the game, each origin story embeds itself into the character that you play and will require you to bear the brunt and consequence of any decision that you made during them.
For example, in my initial play through I chose to be a Dwarven Noble, if only because I just had to see what the aristocracy of a race that concerns itself with killing things, living underground and drinking copious amounts of foul tasting alcohol would be like. One of the decisions that I had to make was whether or not to sleep with a nice Dwarven lady who was looking for a noble to bear her a child that would elevate her social status.
So with a little twisting of the arm (not really), I bedded the wench and imagine my surprise when I return later, after some fifty hours of gameplay and countless other places visited, to discover that not only has she gone and actually given birth to a sprog of mine (I thought she was joking), but that I have to ensure that the kid grew up with the correct upbringing.
Alternatively, I could have simply have ignored the woman when she approached me all of those game-hours ago; completely closing off that path, quest and all other associated dialogues to me. It’s in ways like this that Dragon Age: Origins really impresses, with such a large amount of choice and the appropriately far-reaching consequences to accompany them and it’s the mantra of choice that works so effectively as the beating heart of the Dragon Age experience.
Bioware has gone to great lengths to ensure players buy into the believability of the dark fantasy world that they have created. NPC's spill forth dialogue aplomb, ranging from idle chatter to the history and contemporary events of Ferelden, while a considerable smattering of books and other assorted texts throughout the land seek to fill in the lore-gaps and flesh out additional back stories. For the most part Bioware are successful; Ferelden is certainly one of the more richer and narratively denser settings that the genre has enjoyed, but the trade-off is that Ferelden itself isn't all that big, lacks visual polish and looks comparatively tiny when put next to any of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls titles.
Indeed, the actual areas that you quest in and visit seem very small. Denerim, supposedly one of the largest cities in the land, is depicted as small, separated ‘zones’, which although packed with content, reveal a limited production budget and undermine a real sense of epic scale. There are also graphical glitches too, with one such example I encountered being that sometimes characters would talk with their helmets on and then mid-conversation, their helmets disappear.
Nevertheless, Ferelden remains a compelling place to ply your adventuring trade and the connection with it is only strengthened by the cap-doffing worthy work that Bioware have done with the members of your party. Lifting itself above that of its Mass Effect counterparts, the characters in Dragon Age are a varied, witty and mostly sarcastic bunch that never fail to entertain the player with their spontaneous conversations and sometimes, incessant trolling of one another to make you pause; a testament to both the superlative voice acting and the tightly written script. From the acerbic, venom-tongued swamp witch Morrigan to the perpetually paralytic and equally lecherous Dwarf warrior Ohgren, the characters that accompany you on your travels are a colourful and extremely well written bunch that never fail to make your adventures engaging, compelling and most of all – entertaining.
Sadly, as adept as Bioware appears to be in creating interesting characters teeming in personality, they appear unable to engender the same sort of emotional attachment with your main character. Verily, any sort of connection that the player might want to establish with the main player character is dealt a serious blow; the actual player character is essentially a mute statue, with no voice of his/her own and just a single expression of dead-eyed indifference. He/she never gets angry, sad, happy or delirious and in conversations you merely choose what you want to say from a list of replies and the other characters simply respond to you. I found it extremely jarring and doubly so when you acknowledge that having fully-voiced central player characters is pretty much The Done Thing these days.
Quests in Dragon Age split in the usual Bioware way between the main storyline, side-quests and character specific quests that tie into a particular element of a party member's background. Where Dragon Age lacks and disappoints in comparison to its Mass Effect stablemate is in the way that these party member driven quests are handled. Rather than a significant excursion to a completely new location, packed with new characters and things to do, Dragon Age instead tasks the player with the dull and mundane; usually involving speaking to an NPC, killing a single enemy or retrieving an item – lessening the spectacle and making these quests not seem at all like the big deal that they should be.
While disappointingly banal in their execution, party member driven quests do actually serve an additional purpose besides fleshing out the narrative. Each character in Dragon Age that becomes a party member has an approval rating that can raise or lower depending on what you say to them, what you do for them and of course, your actions and behaviour as a whole. The benefit of a high approval with characters is that you gradually unlock additional key stat points for them – so a warrior with a good approval gains additional strength, a mage additional magic and so on and so forth. Character driven quests are a key component of this approval system since when completed they grant the biggest approval bonuses, allowing you to unlock those extra points that much faster.
Perhaps the best aspect of the approval system is that rather than be tied to a dull moral code where only being a squeaky-clean good guy gets you approval, it is instead driven by the personality traits of the individual characters within your party. For example, saving a Templar (a mage hunting knight) may ingratiate you with Allistair, who is a Templar himself, but it will also just as likely ensure you receive a hefty amount of scorn and disapproval from Morrigan; a swamp witch who has spent the better part of her life being hunted by them. These situations are plentiful throughout the duration of the game and it’s a cleverly executed system; one that rewards players for paying attention to the likes, dislikes, quirks and general behaviour of the characters in their party.
Character progression is driven by the time and tested way of levelling up through gaining experience. The actual accrual of ‘XP’ can be achieved through not just completing quests and killing monsters, but through conversation, reading books and developing your knowledge of the world. Sticking your claymore down the throat and into the digestive tract of the nearest Darkspawn however, is certainly this reviewer’s preferred manner of gaining XP personally.
Once one or more of your characters are ready to ascend beyond their starting level, you’ll observe that developing your characters is split across three facets; attributes, skills and specialisations. It is here that Dragon Age continues to reinforce its message of choice with the means to allow the player a great deal of latitude in developing their chosen class.
Attributes are pretty much in line with traditional RPG tropes and function exactly how you would expect them to - Having more strength makes you hit harder, investing more in constitution gives you more HP and increasing your dexterity makes you strikes more accurate.
Skills represent additional abilities unique to your class and are unlocked by having the requisite attribute points. Do you want that shiny new Massacre skill that allows you to wipe out five or ten enemies in the blink of an eye? Well, you better make sure you have the 57 attribute points invested in the strength stat to make it a reality. Some skills however are certainly more useful than others – Rogues for example have a great number of damage dealing skills, but where they really come into their own is through their trap detecting and lock picking abilities, allowing you to avoid unnecessary damage and steal locked up loot which would otherwise be inaccessible.
Finally, specialisations are a combination of both attributes and skills, which allow you to branch off from the generic class that you start the game with and become and customise your class to how you want. The warrior class for example, can be choose to specialise in becoming a Berserker which grants a bonus to strength or a Champion, which grants a bonus to health to name just two. Crucially, in addition to the incrementing attributes, choosing a specialisation also opens up an additional set of unlockable skills which are completely unique to that specialisation, further stimulating the idea of customisation and personalisation within any given class. Specialisations can be unlocked by reading texts or being trained by particular NPC's.
Compounding the concept of choice in how you develop your class, the inclusion of specialisations practically guarantees that two players who have chosen the same class will come out with two different configurations; each tailored to the style of play of that particular player. It’s yet another intuitive aspect of Dragon Age that helps it stand out amongst Bioware’s offerings, previous to its release or since.
The actual combat in Dragon Age has more in common with the quasi turn based shenanigans of previous Bioware alumni such as Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic and as such, players familiar with their previous work in this regard should settle in just fine here. You select what actions you want your character to perform and as soon as they are able, they will perform it. An additional tactical layer is enabled by having the option of pausing the action at any time, allowing the player to dish out commands into individual party members to be enacted as soon as the action resumes. It’s all a far cry from the real-time combat mechanics of say Mass Effect 2 and much more in-line with the gameplay seen in earlier Bioware titles.
Despite being one of the deeper combat systems seen on in a console RPG, a considerable amount of tactical nuance is simply not present in the console versions of Dragon Age, with the tactical top-down view only being available in the PC version of the game. What this ultimately means, is that not only can it be difficult to see the whole battlefield, but you are also unable to tell each of your characters where to go, instead requiring to manually walk them there yourself; one at a time. The issue with this is that as you are controlling them, the battle rages on regardless with other characters taking damage; forcing you to hit that magic pause button and reassess what everyone else is doing.
At the end of the day then, when the smoke has cleared and the Darkspawn carcasses have been piled high, Dragon Age: Origins makes its stake as a significant entry in the pantheon of Western RPG's. It's a game that while never technically brilliant, still manages to nevertheless create a solid fantasy setting; one that is underpinned by some of the finest writing in recent memory and which compels you to press forever on – eager to see the resolution of the epic conflicts housed within it's succinct narratives.