Never before have I been so compelled to continue playing a game. I know that’s a big, bold statement with which to start a review and I wouldn’t make a claim like that too lightly. I want you all to understand that I’ve already put hours into Dragon Age: Origins and I’m nowhere near completion yet. In fact, at last check, I’ve only explored around 40% of the game world. Ordinarily it is very bad practice to review a game that you haven’t completed but with huge RPGs I think we get a little leeway. I will say this: I have played this game for almost thirty hours, probably more than thirty by the time you read this review. It’s huge and I can’t stop going back to it.
Dragon Age: Origins is the kind of game you put on when you have a spare hour after the evening’s TV and the next time you look at the clock it’s three in the morning and you’re dreaming up excuses to stay off work for the day.
The setting is, perhaps, a familiar one. The game takes place in the high-fantasy world of Ferelden, filled with Elves, Dwarves, Mages, Sylvans, Werewolves and any other fantasy race you might care to imagine. For reasons which unravel as you play there is a dark and sinister invasion occurring which is referred to as “The Blight”. Evil is seeping into your world and you must choose a class and a skill path before you embark upon your journey to save it.
So let’s take a look at the world of Ferelden. To begin with you may notice a few rough edges around the textures and character models (on Xbox 360 – I have heard that the PC version is much better and the PS3 version is allegedly slightly better). It is easy to see this is an issue but in truth I think that in such an expansive world the odd rough edge is easily forgiven. I can also completely forgive the very minor clipping issues on character armour. There is simply so much variation that to account for every possible permutation would be impossible.
It may be a little more upsetting that random battles are usually set in one of a small number of generic areas but to be fair those areas are well modelled, well laid out and are much better than the usual backdrop for random battles in an RPG. Each map is also fairly linear so rather than a free-roaming RPG this often feels more like a slightly expanded Dungeon Crawler with multiple paths which are reasonably narrow and clearly defined.
The actual game-world is built on familiar themes of oppression and age-old divisions in culture and religion. Bioware have done an exemplary job of putting you into a world which feels as though it has always existed, with plenty of interplay between characters and a lot of back-story to uncover. There is a rich history which you pick up via Codex discoveries and character interactions. That’s a little understated, in fact. There are probably hours of reading in the codex so if you want to know the full ins-and-outs of Ferelden, including political, social and religious mythology, you will have the opportunity.
For fans of the Role Playing genre (or the old PC “dungeon crawlers” that Dragon Age is so heavily based upon) the mechanics will be familiar. You start the game by choosing a race – Human, Elf or Dwarf. Then you must choose Nobility or peasantry for your character. There are six possible combinations of “origin story” across all races, each unique, so already the game is branching and changing depending on your options. The further choice of class or career path for your character decides whether you will become a warrior, rogue or mage. Then you begin to customize your character’s appearance before setting off into the world where Experience Points earned in combat, via dialogue or by feats of skill will allow you to level-up and add character specialisation and talents. Within a short period of time your character will be totally different from the character your friend has forged and each difference has a real and discernable effect on the game.
This brings us to the actual game-play mechanics. The console version uses a radial wheel which opens via a shoulder button and selects from the radial menu with the left stick. The game pauses while you have the radial menu open so you have plenty of time to make your selections. Another shoulder button will jump between characters so you can fine-tune their approach to battle but in most cases the excellent tactics system will take care of them for you. This is found in the inventory screens and allows you to set a number of “IF/THEN” options for your characters. For example you can tell your archer that IF he is being attacked by melee THEN change to his melee weapon set (each character has two weapon-sets) and fight back. The depth and variation of commands you can give in the limited (but upgrading as you level) tactics slots is astonishing and really helps with the flow of a game which would otherwise be a constant case of radial menu pauses and character switching (which is still a fairly big feature of game-play).
Without spoiling anything I can tell you that the storyline arc of Dragon Age: Origins is epic. That word is often used these days but in Dragon Age it gets closer to its literal meaning than in most cases. The story is a huge, over-arching tale of treachery, love, oppression and evil. You must unite the races and save the world. I don’t want to give too much away (and I’m aware that there are hopefully still twists and secrets I have yet to reveal) but there is a reality and a depth to the storytelling which is rarely achieved in video games.
Most of the story exposition comes via the branching dialogue system, which is abundant in Dragon Age. There are a great deal of options and the interactions really do change and evolve depending on the answers you give or the questions you ask. Not only that but each of your four party members (you can have more squad members that wait for you in a camp so you can vary your four-man travelling party from time to time) will have an opinion based on how you handle yourself and the decisions you make. Fail to keep them impressed and they will eventually either walk away or challenge you for your leadership. Impress them and you could be talking your way into “relations”. You can also appease party members by presenting them with gifts from your inventory. Each personality will have favoured gifts and their opinions of you will change accordingly.
It is difficult to convey the sense of scale that Dragon Age presents the player with. There are multiple side-quests and a vast array of micro-management options which you might assume would distract you into the tiny technicalities but if there is ever a time when you get too entrenched in the smaller side-questing one of your companions will remind you of the larger task at hand. You are kept constantly aware of the plight of people in Ferelden on both the smaller scale and the global scale. You can reunite single families on your way to reuniting entire races. You can steal a coin from someone’s pocket before stealing a priceless relic.
- Massive game-world with a huge number of quests.
- Great setting and well-realised world.
- Tight tactical approach to squad-based combat and looting.
- Masses of dialogue can become a drag if you just came for the combat.
- Generic settings for random battles.
- Minor graphical issues.
Verdict: Dragon Age: Origins is a triumph of a game. It has depth and scale which will keep you interested for many, many hours. There are slight issues that I could pick at but in all honesty the intricate game-play and immense storyline immersion counteract any minor niggles I may have to the point where they are almost completely forgotten. If you don’t like RPGs or dungeon crawlers then you will probably find Dragon Age completely baffling but if you are a fan of the genre then it is simply unmissable. Every gamer who takes their hobby past yearly sports iterations or online First Person Shooters should experience this game. It is a definite contender for Game of the Year 2009 which I will almost certainly still be playing well into 2010.
Note: Screenshots may not be from the Xbox 360 version – they are press shots.