Product Type: Electronic Arts PC games
Newest Review: ... title refers to the fact that the player character can choose an origin (in terms of the characters race and class) for their character, ... more
Here Be Dragons...
Dragon Age: Origins (PC)
Member Name: Hishyeness
Dragon Age: Origins (PC)
Advantages: Immersive, engaging, beautifully designed and executed.
Disadvantages: One or two glitches, but nothing of any real note.
Every once in a while in the world of PC gaming, a title comes along that redefines its genre - a game so imaginative and innovative, that it becomes the new standard-bearer in its class. I have been a fan of Dungeons & Dragons style PC Role-Playing Games (RPG's) since industry stalwarts Bioware first developed Baldur's Gate in the late 1990's.
They followed this up with the excellent Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights series of games, and latterly, the excellent "Mass Effect", so when I heard a new title was in the offing, I kept my eyes peeled and my ear to the ground (i.e. various industry blogs and gaming sites bookmarked) and impatiently awaited a confirmed release date for "Dragon Age: Origins".
Having bought myself a copy shortly after its November release, I have been playing the game on and off now for the best part of two months - and finally feel I have had enough playing time with this deep, engaging and thoroughly immersive title to put together a review that does it justice.
I make no apologies for the length of this review - such an epic game certainly deserves the "War & Peace" treatment. So, brew yourself a cup of tea (or grab yourself a pint of Garbolg's Backcountry Reserve), get yourself comfortable, and let me take you on a journey...
THE BASIC STORY
When you play the game for the first time, or you choose to create a new character, you are treated to a narrated cinematic introduction that gives something of a history lesson and sets the scene for the events to follow. It is immediately apparent why the game is rated an eighteen (18), as some of these scenes show repeated, bloody and graphic battle violence.
In short, the surface world has been free of darkspawn (essentially, demons and their ilk) for over 400 years. On their last appearance - each of which is called a "Blight" - a special military order called The Grey Wardens - a rainbow coalition of races and classes - defeated them and banished them back into the underworld. The Grey Wardens (Wardens) have been vigilantly watching for their reappearance, but the passage of time has made people complacent.
As such, the number of Wardens has significantly decreased, and the people have forgotten their original purpose. Respect for them has declined to the point that in some places, the Wardens are treated with ambivalence, if not outright hostility. However, the danger has not passed, and the story picks up at the point when a new Blight is threatening to engulf the world.
Once you get through the introductory cinematic, you are given the task of creating your character. There are four basics - sex (male or female), race (human, elf or dwarf), class (rogue, warrior or mage), and social background. However, not all combinations are available together (dwarves do not practice magic for instance).
The title of the game "Origins" refers to one of six back stories you are able to choose for your character - depending on your race, social background and class. Each variation is given a rich and detailed back story that reveals itself during the course of this epic adventure. What and who you choose to be directly affects how other characters (both playable and NPC (non-playing character) will interact with you.
All of the character's traits and appearance are fully customisable - everything from hair colour and style to eye shape and shade of eye shadow has been thought of - so much so. That you can easily get wrapped up with this aspect of the game. After you settle on appearance, you are taken to an abilities screen which will be very familiar to most RPG fans. Points are distributed between Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Cunning, and Constitution. Depending on your race and sex, these will be set at certain starting levels, but you also get five additional points to allocate between these attributes. Each of these abilities has a purpose and careful balance is essential to building a powerful character.
You are then given points to add to Skills and Talents (or spells for the Mage class). Skills include a variety of interesting options, such as herbalism, stealing, survival and combat skills, poison-making, and persuasion/coercion, and talents are passive or active combat related proficiencies, such as "critical strike" with a bow or "precise striking" with a sword.
The sheer variety available allows for almost infinite character "builds" so it's a good idea to decide early on what you want you character to be, as otherwise he/she ends up as a jack of all trades instead of a master of none. You will get additional points to allocate across attributes, skills, and talents/spells whenever you gain enough experience to "level up" If you can't be asked with such intricate fiddling, the game does offer the option of choosing the basics (sex, race, class and name) and selecting "quick play". You just name your character (with all the Freudian implications that come with it) and off you go.
Later in the game, when a character reaches Level 7 and Level 14. the option is given to further "specialise" in a particular area. However, a player has to earn these specialisations by either finding related content during the adventure or talking to the right people (i.e. those willing to teach it). For instance, my Dalish female elf rogue (no psychoanalysis please!) has the option to be any two specialities from bard, assassin, duellist or ranger. Once these are chosen, they are irreversible, but each choice opens up a new range of talents to assign points against, as well as a one-time bonus to various attributes and skills.
Unlike many other RPG's, Origins does not have a selectable morality/alignment system. You cannot choose from the beginning to be "good", "evil" or "neutral" and the game does not "track" your morality during the adventure - it's much more subtle than that. A central feature of the game is interaction and relationships with other characters, and each of your choices will affect available options later in the game, as well as having an effect on how your closest companions - i.e. your adventuring party - relate to you. I expand more on this in the "Relationships" section below.
DISCOVERING YOUR ORIGINS
Once you create your character, you are treated to an involving cinematic which is customised to one of the six back stories you have chosen for your character. Although each is markedly different, once it is completed, you invariably encounter a Grey Warden by the name of Duncan. After a brief pre-adventure which also acts as a tutorial, you join the Grey Wardens to face the darkspawn, who are threatening another Blight. I will leave the story there, as to carry on would spoil too much of the fun and games that follow.
All movement throughout the game is done via the pointing and clicking with the mouse and using various keyboard commands. Almost all keyboard actions can be replicated via on-screen graphics, but by playing the game, you soon figure out what personally works best. The most important keyboard keys are the space bar - which pauses the game and allows you to assess your surroundings (especially in combat), the F5 key, which is the quick save button, and the Tab key, which highlights all objects in an area that you can interact with.
The Options menu allows you to fully customise the keyboard layout to optimise your experience - very helpful if you are predominantly left-handed. The mouse also allows you to scroll the screen up and down, and also to angle your viewpoint from a tactical top down view, to a more intimate, over the shoulder perspective.
> Combat & Experience
Combat is initiated either through dialogue or encounter, and hostiles will be indicated on the map or on screen with a red ring. More powerful foes are labelled in Yellow and Orange. The actual mechanics of combat are very easy to master, but getting your head around combat tactics and strategy takes hard work, trial and error and game experience. You simply highlight an enemy and your character starts hacking, shooting or spell-casting, according to the tactics preferences you set up under the intuitive tactics tab.
More powerful abilities are selected from the quickbar and the player or NPC will automatically use it to engage the hostile. Some abilities have a time delay to allow them to "recharge" (essentially ensuring you can't repeatedly use them to your advantage). Each enemy slain (or quest completed) garners a set amount of experience points, which are distributed evenly throughout the party and count toward achieving the next level.
There are four main toolbars on screen. At the top, you will have the main menu, which gives you access to your Character screen, Skills, Spells/Talents, Inventory, Journal, Map, Tactics and the main game menu (to save, load, quit, change options etc.). At the bottom is the quickbar, which gives you instant access to your various skills, talents and items in your inventory (such as potions, poultices and the like), on the left is a graphic of each of your party members, showing their health and stamina status, and on the top right is the mini-map, which shows the immediate area you are in, its landmarks, exits and any potential enemies. It is best to set the screen resolution as high as possible (as much as your system can cope with) in order to maximise the screen "real estate", which also has the useful side effect of expanding the quick bar with more slots, so you have quicker access to more stuff.
> Party Members
During your adventure, you will encounter various NPCs who, given the right dialogue options and circumstances, will agree to join your group. These characters come from all sorts of backgrounds and races, and as such, it can be quite a challenge to get the right balance. You not only have to get the balance of abilities right to ensure your party has complementary skills, but also the personalities as well - in quieter moments, the party members interact in conversation, and whilst it can be fun to hear a righteous Templar bickering with an amoral Mage, it can get wearing after a while. As in life, you can't please everyone all of the time and - depending on your in-game choices -you will get on with some NPC better than others.
You can only have three companions (for in a party) at any one time. These characters can be separately controlled and equipped and will gain experience for completing quests and killing monsters in the same way you do. In another example of the depth of customisation afforded by Origins, you can either choose to allocate points for attributes, skills, spells and talents yourself when they become available, or allow the game to do it for you.
Although you can only have three companions at a time, all of those who choose to follow you are available at the Party Camp (more on that below), so you are free to chop and change your party to suit the quest you are undertaking. For instance, if you have a Mage Priest with a good disposition, its best not to take them if you are embarking on an assassination assignment from a shady NPC, as their approval rating of you will invariably take a hit (which is not the case if you leave them back at camp).
Travel in a local area (i.e. on screen) is by simple point and click - your party goes where you indicate, and you can either travel as a group, or issue individual commands to each party member. When you exit a local area, you are given access to the World Map. Places you can visit (or are quest related) are highlighted, and you simply click on where you want to go. A trail of blood strains tracks your progress, which is occasionally interrupted by random encounters with merchants, bandits or other unpalatable creatures. This can be welcome at times, but more often than not, it's an irritation that nets you a few items and a bit of combat experience.
Every item in the game, regardless of size, takes up the same amount of space in your inventory. You start out with a set number of slots, which can be increased permanently throughout the game by purchasing backpacks from merchants (for a maximum of 125 slots). Anything your character and your party has equipped on their person does NOT take up space in the inventory.
A great innovation for this game is that the inventory slots are shared by the whole party, so you don't have to click on a character's personal inventory to shuffle things around from one member to another. I have not seen this done before in previous RPG's I have played and it is a very welcome addition. Apart from storing stuff, the inventory allows you to compare its contents to stuff already equipped on your character, so you can see whether what you are wearing can be upgraded or improved.
Quests are central to the game, whether it is the main, plot driven storyline that leads you to the game's conclusion, or the vast multitude of side quests and assignments you can undertake throughout. The Journal keeps track of your active quests, logs completed ones and allows you to make a quest "active" so that special map markers appear to help guide your way.
Another important part of the game that is accessed via the Journal - but one which I suspect a large number of players will ignore - is the "Codex" - a huge collection of "lore" which you accumulate by picking up books and scrolls, discovering items, meeting characters and enemies, arriving at certain locations, or completing quests throughout the adventure. Ignoring this excellently written, detailed and painstakingly constructed part of the game would be a mistake, as it sets things in context and provides a richness sadly absent in many RPG's of this kind. Each entry is numbered (there are over three hundred in all) and collecting them all is a quest in of itself.
> Party Camp
One of the options that appears on the World Map, after your first "proper" adventure, is the Party Camp. This is, in essence, a "neutral zone" where you can rest, heal your injuries, interact with all of your party members, shop for and sell supplies and undertake various other "activities" as the game progresses. Away from the threat of combat and the unpredictability of the wilderness, your party members are willing to talk about much more "personal" subjects, giving your character an opportunity to delve into each of their own origins and strengthen bonds and relationships.
The threat of death is ever present in Origins, as you will often find yourself ambushed and outgunned. The key to "cheating" death is to ensure that the F5 key (quick save) becomes your best friend. When you enter a new area - save. When you survive combat - save. When you do anything of note - save. There is only one cardinal rule in Origins (or any such RPG for that matter) - save, save, save!
Death is not permanent, and if your character dies (or any of your party for that matter) they are resurrected IF at least one party member survives a combat encounter. However, everyone who dies suffers a critical injury penalty that can only be removed by returning to the Part Camp, or using an "injury kit". The injury reduces that character's effectiveness and durability until it is healed properly.
You cannot save the game whilst IN combat, so once the martial music gets going, if you and all your party are killed, you will have the option to return to the last point you saved. It is so very easy to get caught up in the game and forget to do so. It's irritating, but I have to admit that even an experienced campaigner like myself still gets caught out. I would estimate I have repeated at least 10% of the game because of a failure to save progress.
There are a couple of things worth mentioning - the most amusing and useful being spell combinations. All spells cast in Origins will interact, so if you cast a spell that creates an oil slick, followed by a fireball, the slick will erupt in flames, casing damage to anyone standing in it.
The second is "friendly fire" - that shady little euphemism created by the Americans during the Iraq conflict - certain spells, items and combat abilities will cause damage to you and your party if they get in the way, so careful combat management is essential in this game.
ITEMS & ECONOMY
As you advance in the game, you will have access to better weaponry, armour and items - either through merchants, or from "drops" by slain enemies, or various vessels (crates, boxes, chests etc.) that you can interact with. Items are either basic or enhanced with magical properties that give various bonuses. Some can be customised with runes and crystals (separately found or bought) which grant further bonuses. Gold, silver and copper are the basic currency and can be earned by questing, killing or selling items found. Two specific categories of item are worth expanding on - crafting materials and gifts.
> Crafting Materials
The abilities include Poison Making, Herbalism and Trap-making. Basic recipes for making each are initially provided, but improved and expert competency in each of these abilities requires the character to buy plans and recipes from merchants, therefore allowing the character to make these potions or traps him or herself. Each requires different components - crafting materials - that can be acquired by various means throughout the game.
Relationships are an integral part of Origins and there is no quicker way to improving your approval rating with an NPC than by giving them gifts. Gifts are either bought or found and are given in the Party Camp via the Inventory screen. Some are specific to certain characters (obvious ones tell you who they are for in the item description, while others leave you to guess) and if you try and give them to the wrong person, they can be refused. Other gifts are generic and can be given to anyone.
In my view, the fostering and building of relationships with your NPCs is one of the real highlights of an already immersive game experience. High approval ratings will give additional bonuses to your characters (ostensibly due to inspired leadership) while low ratings will cause them to desert you in times of need, or indeed, completely. In fact, get the approval rating high enough, and you could have romance on your hands - and in keeping with modern times, relationships are not necessarily confined to the heterosexual. Thankfully, the game stops short of showing any graphic sex scenes - settling for innuendo instead.
I have found the game to be pretty fairly balanced in "Normal" mode (the other options are Easy, Hard & Nightmare) with some challenging battles that require a fair degree of strategy and thought to prevail in, but stop short of leaving you frustrated. In any event, you can change the difficulty level at any time if you get stuck. The AI used by the computer for enemies is also pretty realistic and challenging.
On another note, anyone looking for a hack and slash RPG may be disappointed, as the plot and storyline play a huge part in the adventure. I would say there is an even split between the amount of time spent actively adventuring and engaging in dialogue. This will not suit all tastes, but for me, it makes for a well balanced gaming experience.
Game performance will be materially affected by your PC build. I won't go into that sort of detail here as it is easily found on the website or when buying the game. However, the two areas most affected by marginal builds are loading times and in-game graphics performance. On my PC, load times are fairly long when transitioning between areas, but not intolerably so.
I have also encountered one or two bugs, with the occasional crash (only twice in 50 hours of gameplay), but nothing that would seriously annoy me (and are probably local issues anyway). One minor irritant is that when your character equips a bow, because you get an over the shoulder view, sometimes, in face to face dialogue the bow obscures the other character's face.
Origins is a deeply absorbing and atmospheric game, which effortlessly draws you into its beautifully rendered fantasy world. The accuracy and expressiveness of facial expressions can be mesmeric at times - so much so that you can - for a moment - forget that they are animations. Ordinarily, that would not be possible but for the excellent voice talent used by the designers to really bring these characters to life. There is a rich variety of accents, tones, and personalities realistically and effectively delivered.
The 3D graphics are excellent, although at times they can get a bit blocky on my system. In any event, all of the eye candy is accompanied by great gameplay and an evocative (and at times eerier) soundtrack.
This is a well thought through and extremely well designed project. Despite the length of this review, I feel I have barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer both the dedicated and casual gamer. A good example of the attention to detail is that when you resume a game after loading, the start screen provides a plot re-cap which reminds you of where you are and what you were doing - invaluable if, like me, you often dip in ad out of the game at infrequent intervals.
COST & RESOURCES
The PC version of the game is currently available from Amazon.co.uk for the discounted price of £15.73 (£29.99 RRP) and is also available on PS3 and Xbox 360. Alternatively, you can buy the game as a download direct from the official Bioware web site (www. Biowarestore.com). It is a single-player game (with no multiplayer or on-line options).
There are a couple of expansion packs planned for later this year which will significantly enhance the game world, the first being "Awakenings" due out in March. In addition there is a selection of free and paid-for downloadable content which adds quests and items to the game via the Bioware web site. You will need to register and create a player profile - which gives you access to the content, plus game news and a record of your in-game achievements.
As an added feature, the web-site (http://dragonage.bioware.com) also gives you access to a downloadable content creation kit that allows you to build levels and quests and upload these to Bioware to facilitate access to the entire on-line community. These levels and quests are then accessed via the game's main menu after they have been downloaded.
Another invaluable resource, well worth looking into if you need help or hints, or just want to learn more about tactics, strategy or where to find things, is the Dragon Age Wiki at: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_Wiki
Fun, diverting, challenging, immersive, atmospheric, engaging - the list of superlatives is as long as my arm. It has been ages since a PC game has had me so enthralled and involved. For fans of the genre, Dragon Age Origins is simply a must-have.
For everyone else, forget the stereotypical RPG image of nerdy pox-ridden teenagers in dirty jeans and T-shirts, poring over dungeon maps and rolling many-sided dice as their wishfully named Sir Phallus the Mighty attempts to slay their emotional dragons of inadequacy - this is a game well worth checking out. I can't recommend it highly enough - just under 4000 enthusiastically penned words should be testament enough to that! 8^)
© Hishyeness 2010
Summary: The new best in class RPG from Bioware.