The spiritual sequel to Baldur's Gate, where not every hero is pure.
By Ben Salter
Dragon Age: Origins
marks BioWare’s return to their Dungeons & Dragons roots, and the release of Baldur’s Gate’s
spiritual sequel, almost a decade after the groundbreaking title. On paper that’s a lot to live up to, and perhaps we went into the console versions expecting a little too much. After the release of Mass Effect
we’ve seen what the developer can do on current gen platforms, but have they crafted another gem?
Dragon Age: Origins takes place in the war riddled land of Ferelden; a land full of elves, dwarves and humans vying for survival against the Darkspawn. You start by picking your character, one of the first three races. There’s a surprising amount of detailing that needs to be decided before you set off on your epic journey including: class (warrior, mage, etc) and character background (I played as an elf that had been living with their native tribe, rather than been enslaved by humans, for example). This all affects how the game pans out, and which of the 6 introductions you’ll play. The level of character customisation is fantastic, if you put the time in. I did not, and my shemale pug-faced elf required a double taken, after which I could only ask myself “dear god why” as the monstrosity stared back at me through the screen. Still, if you put the time in you could probably create Miss. Universe (on the PC version at least). No matter which character you choose you’ll rise to the ranks of Grey Warden – the protectors of threats in the ancient land. The first few hours are spent playing through the prologue, before you get stuck into a predictable, but deep, RPG storyline.
The deep back-story, and character interaction, is by far the best thing Dragon Age: Originshas going for it. Despite following basic fantasy conventions, it’s refreshing to see a narrative in a game that we actually care about. It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that nothing’s set in stone. You get to decide what happens and who to talk to. The characters each have different, and interesting personalities, so you actually want to talk to them. So often we feel compelled to have meaningless chats with characters in games because they are there looking at you, kind of like speaking about lawn bowls with Uncle Burnie each Christmas, even though you have no interest in it. In Dragon Age that’s not the case. Each character has something interesting to say and will respond based on your reply. If you act like a moody teenage people will love to hate you. If you act like a suck-up onlookers will love to hate you. It’s like extended family communication, as portrayed by a fantasy game.
The conversation system is something BioWare is getting particularly good at. And while it’s not as engaging as Mass Effect, it does play a large roll in the outcome of events and let’s you be whoever you want to be. Some of the conversations do tend to drag on a bit, so like most RPGs it’s best to stay clear of this one if you prefer to skip cutscenes and get straight into the action. However, if you want to spend countless hours meeting the diverse range of characters, Dragon Age caters perfectly for that. If you start getting bored you can always select the “badass” option and shutdown the old whippersnapper, leading to an awkward silence.
Dragon Age: Origins takes the RPG genre back to its Dungeons & Dragons roots, as we eluded to earlier, though it is not technically based on it and is more of a spiritual sequel to Baldur’s Gate. Along with basic combat you have access to 6 quick spells or combos that are equipped to the face buttons (on consoles) at any given time. The effectiveness of these is determined by random chance, based on your character’s skills; it feels a lot more like tabletop gaming than a videogame, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a dialogue driven RPG.
The combat adapts to your style of gameplay. Patient players will revel in the ability to set up traps and try to lure in enemies, but most will run in with the generic hack and slash technique. While using magic and traps is all well and good the enemy AI isn’t really good enough for it. They’ll either charge and attack you, or fire from a distance. That’s it. While there’s a host of tactical options available, for most people combat turns into a bit of a button mashing fest, but the outcome is entirely based on your character’s stats.
Defeating enemies will earn you skill points that can be assigned to specific areas of your character. As well as close range, there are also magic and longbow attacks that can be improved through the levelling up system. What you spend your points on will largely depend on what character you chose; it goes without saying increasing your magical ability is rather pointless on a warrior. It’s also important to improve social skills, as how you interact with other characters goes a long way to determining how the game will pan out.
Your party generally consists of 3 other, AI controlled, characters. These change constantly throughout the epic journey, and are not set in stone. The characters that join the party will entirely depend on your actions leading up to needing assistance. If you accidently kill someone, for example, they are obviously not going to be able to come and fight by your side. Similarly, if you chose to ignore citizen’s pleas for help prospective party members might all of a sudden disappear. Dragon Age features a rather interesting romance system, that plays out a lot like it does in real life. I suspect a lot of gamers won’t bother with this as it requires almost as much patience as it does in real life (and we game to get away from that, amirite!). Nevertheless, it works really well, and if you commit to treating certain characters well, talk to them about the right things at the right time, and offer up enough presents you might just get yourself into a virtual romance mid-saving the world.
Now, we’ve covered what makes Dragon Age: Origins a great RPG, but it isn’t without its issues. If you’re playing on PC most of these won’t apply to you, as it has been built from the ground up, since 2004, with a computer in mind. The console port, however, does suffer from some rather annoying issues, which is why we have scored the PC and consoles versions different. Unfortunately we did only get a few hours with the PC version, and could not explore it fully (due to being Mac users, but it’ll be released on the Apple platform next week!).
The most annoying issues is the movement of the camera. On the PC it’s more of a top down view, but on consoles in moves right in behind your character. Unfortunately that means you can’t see the rest of your party, and half of the enemies most of the time. The controls and presentation have also been downgraded. RPGs have, and always will, worked best on PCs, but you really feel the difference in controls switching between the two. It doesn’t feel as fluid with a controller. The target reticule will lock-on to an enemy that’s roughly in front of you, even if your character is facing the camera, which results in not being able to see which enemy you’re trying to attack momentarily. You can change target by pressing the left analogue stick, but it becomes increasing awkward in large battles.
The graphics have taken a sizable hit, as have the animations, which all look rather dated on the console version. Character movement is fairly robotic, and enemies have a habit of spawning almost on you. At times character faces look fantastic, which is important for a game that replies heavily on conversation. However, moments later the same characters look terrible, and the lip-syncing is almost Britney Spears out of sequence.
As with many RPGs Dragon Age: Origins at first glance appears to have a fully equipped open world, but upon closer inspection you’ll find the path is quite linear. It suffers from a serious case of invisible wall syndrome. Even if you should easily be able to walk through a gap, or off of a tiny incline, you’ll always have to walk all the way around using the designated path. It’s nothing short of really annoying after playing so many sandbox games, we’d say it’s even worse than discovering peanut butter in your jam, and that’s really annoying. Our final complaint comes from the load times on the Xbox 360 when playing from the disc. The game paused for up to a second almost every time a cutscene or conversation is triggered. With how frequent these are it’s yet another problem that gets on your nerves.
The easy solution to most of these problems is to play on PC.
The Final Verdict
Dragon Age: Origins is yet another great RPG from BioWare and best played on PC. While the console versions suffer from some port issues, it’s far from a deal breaker if you’re looking for a decent RPG, but they do hold the game back from being in the same league as the PC version. Nevertheless, the story is still great, gameplay is fun and the RPG elements are fantastic no matter which version you play.