BioWare are fast becoming the masters of the role playing game, surpassing the great Bethesda Softworks in many ways. Following on from fantastic RPGs such as Knights of the Old Republic, and the highly acclaimed Mass Effect comes Dragon Age: Origins. Every time BioWare bring a new title out it seems that they are building on the successes of their previous iterations, while still doing new and stunning things to wow gamers. The console version of Dragon Age: Origins is no different.
The game is an incredible dark RPG set in a sort of fantasy period in which dragons and beasts rule, and humans, dwarves and elves fight it out amongst themselves for authority. In the world of Ferelden, BioWare have crafted an intricate society where caste and race are extremely important. The humans rule in numbers and clearly hold an upper hand. The elves have largely been ostracised and struggle for survival, whereas the dwarves have become ever more reclusive and dwindling in numbers due to the threat that the darkspawn pose.
What kind of an RPG would Dragon Age: Origins be without the threat of total annihilation by some evil force? In this case its the darkspawn who threaten to overrun the entire land of Ferelden. The story is totally epic and utterly delicious in its presentation and complexity.
At the outset you are greeted with a complex character creator where you can choose from being a human, elf or dwarf, with a range of sub-settings from which you can select your characters background as well as class, i.e. rogue, mage or fighter. This is similar to Mass Effect but has a far greater effect on the story than before. In fact, the starting environment and initial quests are different depending on the different race and storyline that you select, though each culminates with you joining the Grey Warden’s, an order of guardians who are tasked with fighting the darkspawn. You are then taken through a long and well fleshed out story of betrayal and adventure, with many side quests and meaty bits to chew through. The games story is relentlessly entertaining and possibly one of the best RPG storylines hands down.
The story is helped along by an amazing narrative/conversational element. As you traverse the world you can engage in complex conversations with NPC’s as well as your own party members. Unlike in Mass Effect however the conversation tree is highly detailed, and you won’t be told when you fail to persuade someone, much like in a real conversation. In this sense, saying the right things and doing the right things is incredibly important, though you will never know what you missed at times which adds to the suspense. Sometimes though, it's not a matter of saying the right thing, but someone may simply not want to talk to you because of your race. This makes the conversations and the world all the more believable, and some tact is certainly required if you want to be successful. That said, force will also do the trick, but it will alter the storyline and the quests available to you.
Party members are recruited to an excellent party system, where you choose which four allies you want in your party at any given time. Keeping your relationship with these people strong is also very important, and again has a strong influence on the environment and world. It can be very difficult however as the needs of various party members are quite different from one another, and sometimes it is impossible to please them all. This system is similar again to that in Mass Effect and it works well, especially as the ability to talk to your party members makes them more personal, and makes the experience more immersive. The recruitment is exciting, as you never know when you are going to find a new party member, and they often come from the most unexpected places.
The combat is equally well implemented, though at times it can get somewhat hectic. It is real-time combat where you can queue up attacks and special moves, both for yourself as well as for your party members. The attacks and specialities are then implemented by calculating attack vs. defence statistics as is the case in most RPG style games, and similar too to table top games like Dungeons & Dragons. The mix of real-time combat with stats-based combat works really well, and finds a great combination between the skills of the character and party and the skills of the player.
That said, party members can largely manage themselves, however you can also set up overlying tactics which will dictate the form of combat a character will take on in a given situation. For example if you want a character to largely be an archer, however to switch to melee combat when certain conditions are met you can do this. It sounds complicated, and it can be, however BioWare have fortunately given console gamers a meaty manual to work through which should answer any questions. It's great to see BioWare acknowledging that not only PC gamers need good reading material for the bathroom.
The game includes a wide range of spells, weapons, armour and utilities that you can collect throughout the game to continually enhance the level of your party. These items not only enhance stats, but also make your characters look awesome as you go. Potions, traps and the like are also included and can be used tactically in combat either to coat a blade in poison, or lay a trap under an enemies onslaught. As can be expected from an RPG there is a wealth of information and objects to be found within the game, or bought from traders. The ability to make potions, poisons and traps yourself depending on your skill level too is fantastic, and finding a good balance for your party is very important to ensure you maximise the skills available to you at any given time.
The console version comes equipped with a radial interface to aid you in issuing the considerable number of commands required. The wheels are mapped to the controller's shoulder buttons, and whilst perhaps not as quick as a mouse and keyboard, still manage to provide you with all the control authority you'll require at any given time.
Only one area really seems to let down Dragon Age: Origins and that is the graphics. The odd glitch occurs where a body may disappear, however that is nothing to the somewhat hideous graphics you are presented with, particularly in the beginning of the game. This is odd as one would expect that particularly the early parts of the game are important to grab and pull gamers in, because some of the latter parts actually look quite stunning. The game also includes exemplary visual and battle effects, of particular note is the spell casting. It's really let down though in the area of environment textures, with the armour textures also not looking too flash at some stages. Clearly BioWare have focused very heavily on the story and content of the game, and downplayed graphics to keep the game flowing smoothly. We initially had some problems too with slow loading times and some stuttering, however once we installed the game and ran it from the HDD it all came right.
Another element which has caused some outrage amongst gamers is BioWare’s lack of scruples in selling downloadable content. You will, in the retail version, be greeted by an individual who will offer you a quest, on the condition that you buy the associated DLC. In BioWare’s defence, two of the three pieces of DLC available are free with a retail version of the game, however the third you must buy. It should be noted that it is not the DLC we are opposed to, but the way it has been integrated into the game is questionable. It didn’t bother us that much as it makes the context of the DLC clearer before purchasing it, however it does set an interesting precedent.
All in all, BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins is a phenomenal RPG. It certainly is one of the most compelling RPGs of all time, and has been designed extremely well. The combat and the party system are excellent with the only let-down being the inconsistent graphics. Though for a game this enthralling and comprehensive we can look past this, in fact we’ll gladly do it.
Dragon Age: Origins is highly recommended to any fan of RPG titles, particularly if you enjoyed previous BioWare games. The Xbox 360 version, despite its shortfalls, is every bit as enjoyable as the PC release.
The Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins is available now, and the PS3 version releases this Friday 20th November.