Due on New Zealand shelves November 6th, Dragon Age: Origins is the latest title from BioWare - a developer seeking to solidify its position in a PC triumvirate with Blizzard and Valve. It may be very close. BioWare’s point of difference its emphasis on engaging storytelling and Dragon Age: Origins is proving to be the finest example yet of the company’s expertise.
Indeed, the game’s name is a nod to one of its most compelling narrative features: you first experience a corner of the new game-world through one of six unique backgrounds - origins - divined by character race and class selection.
To call them prologues is to do no credit to their scope. Each origin takes some hours to complete and explores a narrative premise that will significantly impact on how you experience the game. NPCs from the particular origin played will reappear throughout the game and, depending on decisions made in the opening moments of gameplay, will drive the story in new directions.
Once completed, characters step out into the newly-minted fantasy world of Ferelden, one beset by demonic invasion and corruption, and mired by intrigue and war. The Blight have returned and as a newly-aspiring inductee into the Grey Wardens - Ferelden’s “Blight-Be-Gone” - you’re soon swept up in a plot that involves enough twists and turns to give M Night Shyamalan cold sweats.
When swords are drawn, those familiar with BioWare’s past catalogue will note the similarities to both Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate. Dragon Age uses turn-based combat and live pause, allowing you to issue orders to party members before unpausing to execute. The game also features robust character scripts that let you determine how your party will respond to particular events (right down to defining at what health percentage, for example, the party’s healer will cast a particular spell). And if that sounds too nuanced for your tastes, there are also script archetypes that strip out micromanagement.
The party combat system and combat roles greatly enhance the tactical nature of fights - line of sight can be used to great advantage, for example: funnel disparate ranged mobs together into a rogue’s trap and rain down area effect spells - as does the capacity to experiment with spells and talents to create devastating and unlikely combinations.
The alignment systems of previous BioWare titles have been removed and replaced with an approval system, allowing you to better manage your party’s relationships personally. The more your allies approve, the better they play. Ferelden’s dungeons and markets are full of trinkets which can be gifted to disapproving allies to win back their affection.
The game features two points of view: over the shoulder and top-down. Top-down is better suited to combat, allowing you to more precisely target your spells and giving you a better vantage from which to survey the action. The over the shoulder view is a much more visually pleasing mode with which to explore the game’s dungeons, cities and wilderness areas, but can be confusingly cluttered once you’re in the thick of it.
Dragon Age is not breaking new ground graphically, but it’s no slouch. Besides, BioWare’s trump card is storytelling. All the NPC’s well-scripted dialogue is professionally voice-acted and each conversation is held in a cut scene. As you’d expect, there are multiple dialogue options to choose from throughout, and your selections here will have outcomes that can dramatically reshape the course of the game. Your allies will also voice opinions of their own during critical discussions.
The designers have also become more ambitious with their cinematography: no more are we cutting between head and shoulder crop shots of the conversation’s participants, the camera now tracks and pans; it pulls out for wide angle shots and back in for close ups. If a new voice enters the conversation, all characters turn their heads in its direction. Additionally, all characters in your party have a repertoire of banter personalised to other party members and will chat amongst themselves when they’re in safe locales. The cumulative effect of these small touches adds charismatic depth to an experience that is already rich and appealing - maybe even award-winning.
Watch this title closely.