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Dwarves. We already know what dwarves are. Dwarves are short, but strong. They make for good warriors and live underground. We already know all about dwarves, elves, mages, and dragons. So we thought we already knew all about everything Dragon Age: Origins could possibly throw at us while browsing through the unsurprisingly wide selection of beards for our upcoming dwarf warrior in the character creator. But after crafting one of the most generic dwarves of all time, the familiarity of Dragon Age’s typical fantasy setting quickly faded, and it quickly blossomed into one of the most engrossing role-playing games we’ve played in a long time.
History: From Modern English dwarf, and that time you read Tolkien, played Dungeons & Dragons, or did anything remotely geeky between the age of 12 and 37
Definition: 1 a: a mythical creature of small statue who dwells underground; excels at metallurgy, forging battleaxes, growing beards, and holding a mob’s agro
Above: A dwarf. You can totally play as one. Of course, there’s much more
This is high fantasy at its finest. So how does this title set itself apart from other RPGs that have done elves and dwarves to death? As with previous BioWare RPGs, like Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, it has to do with the game’s detailed lore, memorable characters, and an excellent combat system. But it’s the bounty of meaningful choices you have to make that really makes you feel like you own your story in Dragon Age - and it all begins when you create your first character.
We rolled a dwarf warrior and opted to give him the background of a commoner. These seemingly superficial choices dropped us off in the slums of the dwarven capital city, Orzammar. As a low level commoner, we found ourselves doing dirty deeds for an underhanded crime lord just to survive. We exchanged harsh words with our alcoholic mother. We abandoned our poor sister. We lied. We stole. We murdered. And if we rerolled this character, we’d probably do it all again.
Above: Blood flows like wine in Dragon Age: Origins
That’s because Dragon Age doesn’t make you feel like a scumbag for acting less than chivalrous. For every problem there are several solutions, each with their own set of pros and cons - and deciding the best course of action is great fun. Had we chosen a different race and background, we would have experienced a completely different introduction to Dragon Age’s world. There are six origin stories in total, all unique and equally compelling.
No matter which origin story you get based on your seemingly innocuous choices when creating a character, you’ll soon learn that the land is beset by a Blight. It’s a rare occurrence where vicious creatures, known as darkspawn, gather in large numbers and make every castle in the world look like the battle for Helm’s Deep.
Enter the Grey Wardens, a group of hardened darkspawn slayers who helped stop the last Blight ages ago. You’ll soon find yourself initiated as a member of these elite warriors before the task of reuniting the humans, dwarves, elves, and mages under the same banner to drive back this new Blight, is thrust upon you.
Above: The bad guys
The story feels a bit generic and overly predictable at times. But only the most coldhearted fantasy expert will fault Dragon Age when it dips into the well of familiar fantasy scenes and tropes. As you explore new lands, recruit new characters, and complete quests, Dragon Age keeps giving you more lore, more drama, more loot, and more reasons to keep on playing. There’s a good 60 to 80 hours of gameplay to be enjoyed here.
Like Baldur’s Gate and other BioWare RPGs, combat takes place in real-time, but can (and should) be paused often so you can switch between your party’s characters, assigning new targets and queuing up actions. Real control freaks can (and should) take advantage of the ability to fill each of your characters’ Combat Tactics slots, which automatically assigns specific reactions to certain situations. These automated commands can be simple, fixing it so that your archer always targets the enemy your main character is attacking. Or they can be more complex, making your warrior switch his stance whenever his stamina drops below a certain value.
Above: There are no easy fights in Dragon Age, and that’s how it should be
You have an incredible amount of control over what your party does each second they navigate the battlefield. And you’ll need this control. You’ll want to position heavily armored characters carefully so they can bear the brunt of enemy attacks. You’ll want to maneuver rogues so they can flank and backstab. Archers should be placed out of harms way so they can cripple targets, and you’ll want to watch your spell caster’s mana so you can keep the group buffed and healed. There are no easy fights in Dragon Age. Each battle demands your full attention but never feels like a repetitive grind.
You can have up to four members in your party. But you’ll have the option to recruit many more and will enjoy filling out your party each time you’re ready to dive into a new area. The dialogue and voice acting for the caste of your ever expanding crew is topnotch. Their battle cries and witty banter also helps keep the game moving along at a fast pace whether you’re in the midst of combat or exploring a dungeon.
Above: You’ll want to visit your camp to talk with you comrades often. This is where your party members really open up
Each character reacts differently to the decisions you make. For example Allistair and Leliana tend to like it when you stop to smell the “good guy” quests and help NPCs in need. Supplement noble deeds with gift items and time spent getting to know them in your camp, and their affection for you will grow. Get them to like you more, and they’ll start receiving bonuses to their stats as their loyalty increases. Get them to like you a lot, and they’ll reveal more about themselves and even teach you some new skills if your character’s class can learn them. Continue to earn their admiration and trust, and you’ll eventually have the option to get intimate.
Above: Morrigan is a mage shapeshifter (left). Leliana is a rogue bard (right). You’re probably going to have sex with one of them
Sex in Dragon Age is just as clumsy and silly as it usually is in RPGs. Despite its “M” rating, Dragon Age is set in a world where warriors make love in their underwear and quickly suit up in their plate armor once the deed is done. It’s really a rather insignificant part of the game. But you know you’re going to do it, so we figured we’d at least mention it.
Above: Interacting with your war hound at camp also helps you separate the dog people and cat people in your party
There’s still the part in the review where we have to list the things you won’t like. Some battles feel way too difficult, even on easy. The way encounters demand your constant attention keeps combat engaging, but sometimes it’s too easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated when you keep dying on the same boss.
Above: Maybe we just suck, but we had a nightmare about this boss and its many nipples after she strangled our party a dozen times
Console owners also won’t get to experience the true elegance of Dragon Age’s combat system. Clicking on targets, activating skills with your number keys, and pausing the action with the space bar, just feels more fluid with a mouse and keyboard. The console versions make the most of a competent radial menu to deal with all the options at your disposal, but it’s just not the same.
360 and PS3 owners also won’t have as much freedom when it comes to zooming the camera in and out. The PC version lets you use your scroll wheel so you can zoom far out and get a nice Baldur’s Gate-like view of the battlefield. Unfortunately, the console versions keep the camera locked relatively close to your selected character. That’s a shame because playing with the camera to view the action from all angles and distances in the PC version is great fun.
Above: You won’t have as much camera freedom on the console versions. In the PC version you can zoom all the way out till it looks like an RTS
Above: The radial menu in the console versions feels clunky at first. But once you get used to it combat works fine
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic? Yes. We love ourselves some Star Wars. But Dragon Age: Origins is the better RPG. There’s more story, more action, more character development, and a much larger world.
Mass Effect? Yes. Mass Effect may have seemed huge when it released. But as with KOTOR, a journey that spans the galaxy is still a drop in the bucket when compared to Dragon Age’s truly grand adventure. And while Dragon Age reuses some graphical content to populate its gigantic world, you won’t encounter as many déjà vu moments as you did when exploring the same space cave for the eighth time in Mass Effect.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion ? Yes and no. If you haven’t played either, it’d be a tossup between the two due to how polished and grand both games are. But Dragon Age: Origins just isn’t going to rock your RPG world as hard as Oblivion did when it released in 2006.
Dragon Age: Origins is high fantasy role-playing at its finest. Its detailed world, memorable characters, meaningful choices, and engrossing combat system makes Dragon Age the sort of game you’ll want to replay from start to finish several times. RPG fans won’t be disappointed by this truly epic adventure.
Nov 3, 2009
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