[Join Kevin Miller and Chris Carter, as they both review Dragon Age: Origins for the Xbox 360 and PC. Intro by Kevin Miller.]
Morality is never black and white. It’s shades of gray, and difficult decisions that require thorough thought. And in these moments, as a person, you are shaped by those actions and decisions. The results of which you will have to live with for the remainder of your days.
Games have always had difficult times with those shades of gray. Morality in gaming has matured over the years, and it is Dragon Age: Origins that undoubtedly brings this gameplay element to where it needs to be. But is this unique storytelling element enough to live up to all the hype surrounding this latest RPG from Bioware? Can a game five years in development still stay fresh and rewarding amongst the many triple-A titles of 2009?
Dragon Age: Origins brings you into the immersive world of Ferelden, and it is you, hero or heroine, that must overcome the many hard decisions and challenges as you fight off Demonspawn from wiping out everything and everyone.
Dependent upon the race and class chosen, “origin stories” are introduced to you in order to provide some background into Ferelden and your main character. The origin stories provide a very unique effect on the narrative, as encounters with various people throughout the game are effected by your race and class.
For example, I played as a human warrior, and the elves expressed hesitance as I offered my help since their experience with humans has never been positive. It’s through the introduction of these origin stories at the beginning of the game that the replay value shines bright almost immediately. For me, having an understanding of a game’s replay value is very important. But rarely am I able to identify with, and understand, a game’s replay value within the first 30 minutes. And as one continues to play this game, the apparent replay value continues to build.
As with most Bioware games, the dialog is a large component of this deep RPG. Storytelling is driven by the superb voice acting, albeit a bit cliché at times, which allows the player to sink even deeper into this fantasy world. This subtle, polished touch drives home a story line that will keep you engaged and itching for more. And for any RPG fan about to invest 60 or more hours into a game, the story needs to be one of the biggest elements of a game that brings you to press on.
Throughout the game, you will be faced with many situations which will require difficult decisions to be made. The actions that are taken in these situations will have an effect on countless future events. And it is because of this that you will find yourself faced with something that not many games are able to provide: consequences. The consequences, unknown to the player, are what gives this game an extremely unique spin on storytelling. This realistic element of gameplay had me walking away to think through a decision multiple times.
Bioware games, such as KotOR and Mass Effect, drew such fine lines between good and evil, bringing the player to decide, ahead of time, the morality in which to follow throughout the game. But Dragon Age: Origins does a phenomenal job of blurring these lines in order to allow the player to learn and understand the effects of difficult decisions, and the impact one’s morality can have on people.
As one of the Grey Wardens, an organization of the most elite warriors, you will seek out the assistance of the mages, elves, humans, and dwarves. Along this journey, you will be joined by up to eight different playable characters. Should you purchase the game new, which I strongly recommend, a ninth character will become available to you.
For those familiar with World of Warcraft, you will find yourself falling right into place with Dragon Age: Origins. The four person group is one that can be changed anytime you obtain an addition to your party or when leaving your camp grounds, a location which can be accessed from the map at anytime. And with the ability to control each of the players in your group, efficiency and strategy is a necessity.
The tactics system, which provides you with full customization of what each player will do in various situations, much like Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit system, does its job well. However, it will require a lot of tweaking. This may frustrate some, but Dragon Age: Origins will require you to think through every battle. This is something that, possibly unfairly, is forced upon those playing the console version.
While the PC version utilizes the more efficient action bar, the console version’s battle system is driven by the radial menu. If you were not a fan of the radial menu in Mass Effect, this love/hate relationship will undoubtedly carry into Dragon Age: Origins. However, I am a strong proponent for the radial menu – especially in this game.
Deep RPGs have, and always will, require a large amount of strategy and methodical gameplay. And, as a fan of that myself, I felt right at home with the console version. The radial menu allowed for a seamless way to think through each action I made. And when I knew I could overpower the “trash” fights, the six hotkeys available to me were more than sufficient.
However, for some, this may be an unfair method that forces players to slow down the game. And, if this is something you do not want, or you are looking for high-action, fast-paced battles, then the PC version is your best choice. But, if the console version is your only option, don’t be afraid to play outside of your comfort zone as you will become surprised by how rewarding the game is after each and every battle.
Despite all of these strong elements, Dragon Age: Origins is far from a perfect game; but don’t worry, the downfalls are nothing near the frustrations of the inventory system in Mass Effect. But for such a large game, I was disappointed in the semi-linear gameplay. Sure you can go anywhere you want at anytime, but ultimately, you must complete specific tasks in order to move on. It may be asking too much of the game, but if I were able to enter into the final battle with only two of the three extra factions, for example, that should be a choice I am able to make, whether it is in my best interest or not. This is where true consequences could lie.
Graphics wise, Dragon Age on consoles is a bit of a disappointment, with problems such as tearing, pop-in, and sporadic frame rates. From what I have seen, frame rates seem to be the biggest issue on the PS3, while the Xbox 360 version is able to dilute some of these graphical issues by playing the game from the hard drive.
For those playing this after hours of loot rewarding games such as World of Warcraft and Borderlands, disappointment is inevitable. Useful loot proves to be a bit scarce as I felt myself purchasing the best loot over a majority of the game, rather than it dropping. Having recently played Demon’s Souls, this became bit frustrating at times.
Nevertheless, Dragon Age: Origins is a game that has been hyped up a great amount over its many years of development. But while hype can bring a great amount of concern to fans, the delivery of a game that meets and surpasses those expectations allows for it to be that much more epic. This, in my book, is easily the RPG of the year, and a fantastic contender for Game of the Year. And, whether you are an RPG fan or not, Dragon Age: Origins deserves your attention and investment of time.
The graphics are evidence of a game five years in development. But this is quickly forgotten as the world and its characters are presented in a fantastic, realistic manner.
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Morality and storytelling are done right. Console users are forced into approaching the battle system with an extremely methodical and strategical approach. This is a positive or negative depending on the player’s play style.
Fantastic voice acting brings the characters and the world of Ferelden to life. Battle sounds and music are what one would expect out of an RPG.
With six different origins stories, tons of side quests, and an extremely deep and customizable battle system, one can easily put 100+ hours into this game.
Dragon Age: Origins blurs the fine line drawn by most morality games. The immersive, addictive gameplay is a true testament to the hard work put in by Bioware. Every RPG fan should at least give it a shot.
Chris Carter (PC):
I hope you didn’t enjoy Mass Effect TOO much, shooter fans, because Bioware is going straight back to it’s old school Baldur’s Gate roots with Dragon Age.
Given that Kevin’s review did an excellent job of explaining the core mechanics, I’ll briefly go over some facets of the game that I feel are particularly excellent, and jump into the PC/Console differences.
Remember in Mass Effect, where you were able to choose one of three historical background types that explained your origin? Well, in Dragon Age, there are six, and you actually get to play each one, at roughly two hours apiece. Within each of these stories, there are a number of choices you can make, which translates to roughly 12 hours of playtime, excluding the entire main story. In fact, the origin stories are so well done, you’ll definitely want to go back and redo some of them, regardless of whether or not you intend on beating the game again.
In addition to a compelling and robust narrative, Bioware has mastered the art of character interaction. At any time, you can speak with your party and get extra information out of them, including their back story, and extra tidbits of what’s to come. The half-hearted “morality” system that’s so popular in recent games is also thrown out the window in favor of a “party morale” mechanic. In fact, the choices you make are mostly morally grey, which also takes a page out of The Witcher‘s book, and is an excellent step in the right direction that will hopefully see developers abandoning the “RIGHT/WRONG” fad.
Basically, every major choice you make will have an impact on whether or not each individual member of your party actually likes you: and be prepared to make some tough decisions, because you can’t please everyone! It’s a rare experience when you get a Grandma-Sage type character lecturing you on how your relationships with loose women never end well. You’ll also get much more colorful, and hilarious dialogue than any other previous Bioware game as a result of the superb writing and top-notch voice acting, including my favorite line: “somebody’s been driiiiinkiiiiingg!”
While Bioware has storytelling down pat, graphically, Dragon Age really isn’t all that impressive, even on my top-end machine. While some of the framerate, lack of advanced facial expressions, and texture loading problems of the 360 are fixed, it just plain looks like a borderline last-generation game; but that doesn’t mean anything else is outdated.
I can’t stress enough how at home PC RPG or MMO players will feel with the hotkey system, as opposed to a radial dial. Dragon Age features upwards of 50 abilities, nearly all of which can be used in any given battle. In regards to the battle system, you’re also able to drag your mouse and easily select all party members, as well as utilize a PC-only, top down tactical view, which is really crucial in large battles. You’re also able to click around corners, and target whomever you please without any issue.
Given the large hotkey bar on the PC version, you’ll always have nearly every ability ready at any time, meaning that’s less time spent with the battle paused, if you choose to play it like an action game (but don’t expect to play this swiftly that often, as Dragon Age throws tons of tough encounters your way that require a chess-like paused approach). You also get the added bonus of community mod support, which is a huge boost for all Bioware games. Surprisingly, there are also 150 total achievements: 100 more than the Xbox 360.
Despite all of these excellent additions to the PC version, there have been reports of long loading times for AMD owners, but I can’t confirm this, and there’s already an unofficial fix in place. On my Pentium machine, I’ve yet to encounter a load time over ten seconds, and the average wait is under five seconds. Mechanics-wise, I wish that buffs and debuffs were shown more clearly next to each character’s portrait rather than clumped down into a tiny corner, but it’s not that big of an issue.
Also, as Kevin said, I wanted Dragon Age to be a bit less linear in terms of exploration. While I was running around gaining the help of several factions, all the while I was thinking of a mechanic found in Mega Man X6, of all places, that allowed me to just rush headfirst into a conflict before preparing for it.
However, given the very few problems with Dragon Age, the only people I can possibly see being turned off my this game are pure action fanatics that won’t enjoy the required tactical combat mechanic. Hardcore PC RPG and MMO fans, however, will most definitely feel right at home.
While the visuals aren't top of the line, the PC is a step above the 360. You'll most definitely notice the extremely detailed facial expressions, and fall in love with the diverse world of Dragon Age.
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Dragon Age's grey morality system just can't be beat, and fans of action-based gameplay will be happy to know that the PC setup (hotkeys) allows for more free-flowing battles.
The voice acting here is phenomenal: some of the industry's greats, such as Steven Blum, and even actor Steve Valentine put up some of the best perfomances of their life. Musically, you'll feel right at home in an epic fantasy setting.
Given that there's more gameplay in origin stories than some full retail titles, Dragon Age is one of the most replayable games of all time. Everyone plays it differently, and you'll be eager to see how different your next playthrough is.
Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best RPGs to come along in a long, long time. Bioware has most certainly resurrected the charm that made Baldur's Gate such a classic.