Dragon Age: Origins – Staff Review

Half Baldur’s Gate, half Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins hits too many of the right notes for fans of either to ignore. It’s big, it’s epic, it has tight production values, and it does a superb job of creating a unique set of mythos for its world, staple fantasy elements notwithstanding. Unfortunately, a score of small issues drag down much of the game’s interaction and controls, and some aspects of the story aren’t as clever as they think they are. Still, if you can get into the complex, well-written story, Dragon Age will grab you and not let go.

The story centers around the nation of Ferelden, a collection of feudal territories under assault by hideous Tolkien-Ork-a-likes known as the darkspawn. Historically, an elite order of warriors known as the Grey Wardens trained especially to hunt down and destroy darkspawn, and the massive archdemons that lead them. The Wardens are few in number now, and the game opens with the Warden Duncan scouting for new blood to help combat the latest darkspawn blight. The titular origins are where you come in, playing one of six backstories that detail how Duncan takes you under his wing. One way or another you’re brought to the old fortress of Ostagar, where the local nobility, their king, and the remaining Wardens have amassed an army to head off the blight.

As with other western RPGs, your stats, skills, appearance, gender, and even voice are adjustable from the start. The origins don’t affect this much, though they do change certain events and character reactions down the road by skewing your perspective in an interesting way. For instance, a city elf rogue who spent her life in a ghetto isn’t going to know or care what an outlaw mage did in his past, while a mage of any race will see things differently when their paths cross. Dwarven politics will seem obtuse from the outside, whereas dwarf player-characters start neck deep in them. One minor villain is a short sub-boss encounter for most characters, but a human noble will have a serious bone to pick with him. To be sure, the majority of the adventure plays the same regardless of your origin, but there are big choices to make along the way and your character’s history may well influence your decision or open up other options.

As far as character building goes, on top of improving base statistics, you’ll train up in a variety of general talents (persuasion, trap detection, herbalism, etc.) and class-specific skills. Each class has a set of subclasses which unlock additional abilities, and you’re allowed to pick two and even train your allies in them. There’s nothing stopping your rogue from wearing heavy armor if they’re strong enough, nor your warrior from building up their intellectual side to better resist spells. Some kits are more reliable than others – mages, in general, have it easy – but the flexibility afforded to you and your party is a big help in building up a well-balanced team over time. Your party even gains bonuses as you do things they like, either in dialog, through quests, or just by giving them gifts. It might be silly to smooth over misunderstandings with gems or a pair of shoes, but it is surprisingly practical.

The few bits of brain left in this poor mercenary's head are probably wishing he'd studied harder at school.
The few bits of brain left in this poor mercenary’s head are probably wishing he’d studied harder at school.

Controls can take some getting used to. The interface take notes from both Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate, allowing you to zoom between a top-down and floating third-person perspective. Movement is handled by simple point-and-click commands alongside keyboard controls, and pressing Tab highlights anything you can open, use, talk to, or loot. The camera can be a problem, as it sometimes gets stuck down low in tight quarters and doesn’t always pan far enough to be helpful. However, the ability to pause at any time helps smooth over a lot of would-be problems, as you can always stop and take the time to assess your surroundings or issue select commands.

And you’ll want to take the time, because combat ranges from easy to hard seemingly on a whim. Most early game fights pit you against a reasonable number of targets, and the ability to equip two sets of weapons – for instance, one for melee and one for ranged – helps you shift gears quickly. However, large numbers of enemies can quickly surround your tanks and heavy-hitters, forcing you to spam healing items and magic to survive. A few single enemies are annoyingly powerful, and some random encounters have you walking right into large ambushes; unlike Baldur’s Gate, you can’t escape from such encounters until the enemy loses track of you or all enemies are dead. Difficulty is thankfully adjustable in the game, and it’s possible to break the game in your favor with some character builds, but the gulf between easy and normal seems unusually wide.

Dragon Age‘s tactics system theoretically lets you assign commands to be carried out automatically, and it does help manage basic reactions, like triggering healing magic under a certain threshold or using shield cover abilities in response to ranged attacks. With care one can use the system to cover some micromanagement, but it doesn’t feel as comprehensive as, say, the gambit system of Final Fantasy XII. Battles depend as much on positioning as they do on tactics, and it’s on you to reposition your team to avoid being flanked or to bottleneck the enemy. Tactics can often backfire if you’re not careful, with abilities triggering when you don’t need them or characters simply stopping in place. One major saving grace is that your party will heal to full out of combat, and knocked-out characters will get back up, albeit with an injury or two you’ll have to cure manually.

There’s a recurring theme of two steps forward, one step backward with a lot of gameplay elements. Trap detection is automatic if you have a rogue to disarm them, but health regeneration makes traps a non-issue, as it’s quicker to just set them off and soak up the damage. Codex entries are interesting, helpful, and well written, but they’re sorted by number and not name, making it difficult to locate one in particular. Your journal keeps track of all quests, and objectives and quest givers are marked both on your map and in the game. However, the game throws so many similar sidequests at you that it’s very easy to lose track of what you need to do, and most of them boil down to typical assassin/scavenger hunt/FedEx fare featured in other RPGs.

My lords and ladies, if you would kindly clear the floor and provide us some music.  'Tis time for these uncouth rogues to get... served.
My lords and ladies, if you would kindly clear the floor and provide us some music. ‘Tis time for these uncouth rogues to get… served.

Graphically, the game looks far better in motion than it does in stills, and it’s more impressive as more is going on. Quiet outdoor areas, for instance, are serviceable but fairly drab, with trees looking like they’re not rooted to the ground properly. By contrast, bustling market districts and gigantic battles look convincing, and the game is definitely not afraid to put a lot of characters on the screen at once. Animation is fine for the most part, though there are clipping issues, most notably with scripted killing blows; they look great for large targets, but man-sized enemies often don’t line up properly. And the blood splatter on your characters after a battle ranges from surreal to downright goofy. It looks more like a painting accident than actual blood, and tends to kill the drama when someone’s trying to say something important.

Sound fares better overall, and it’s here we start getting into the game’s true strengths. Weapons and spell effects sound meaty enough, and there’s no mistaking the screen-shakingly loud roar of a dragon. The soundtrack is more or less what you’d expect from a big-budget fantasy production, sounding lively, mysterious, or menacing depending on whether you’re poking around town or clearing out a dungeon. It picks up in a big way for fights, especially the many boss encounters; expect your first rumble with an ogre to sound suitably epic.

The real star, however, is the voice acting, and to a larger extent the characters as a whole. Both veteran actors and relative unknowns give great performances almost across the board, and players will undoubtedly recognize several; Simon Templeman, Kate Mulgrew, Tim Russ, and Steve Blum, to name a few. Your party deserves special mention, as it’s clear a lot of work went into fleshing out their respective backstories, some perhaps more interesting than others. It’s easy to point to the perpetually drunk dwarven berserker or the sarcastic stone golem with a pathologic hatred of pigeons as examples of unique and fun characters, and they are well written. To do so, however, overlooks the quieter moments of cleverness from the less auspicious Alistair, one of the younger Grey Wardens, or the healer Wynne. They act and react, they tell you more as they like you more, and they often get into colorful, biting, or just flat-out funny exchanges with each other.

To be fair, the story takes some predictable twists, and at times comes off as a ham-fisted swing at “maturity.” You can expect the guy voiced by Tim Curry to turn out evil, and anybody that looks away from a group of people and says something in a sotto voice is probably up to no good too. But it’s the execution that counts, and even when the plot isn’t taking you anywhere you haven’t been in other games, it’s still pulling it off with a lot more flair and polish than the genre is used to. And to the game’s credit, its established lore helps it feel that it’s always playing by the rules. Case in point, there’s much ado about mages being possible conduits for demons to manifest in the world, and the reason that armored Templars go to extreme lengths to guard them. That fact turns an ordinary search-and-destroy quest in a mage tower into a battle inside a demon’s own nightmarish realm, and yet it feels internally consistent.

If slaying a ten-ton lizard death machine doesn't warrant a fist pound, nothing does.
If slaying a ten-ton lizard death machine doesn’t warrant a fist pound, nothing does.

The story can take a while to really get rolling, but it’s quality through and through, and the game doesn’t shy away from mixing things up. A prolonged dream dungeon is made much more interesting as you gain the ability to change forms inside it. Party members who seriously dislike the way things are going may leave or even attack you. The game’s final battle can change drastically depending on which allies and enemies you’ve made along the way, and there are several big decisions to be made in the eleventh hour. Granted, choices with delayed impact have been done better – The Witcher comes to mind – but between the origins and the various plot branches, there are many reasons to give Dragon Age more than one playthrough.

It’s hard not to notice the nagging little problems along the way, on top of what’s been mentioned already. Dungeons can run overlong to the point where they feel like hurdles keeping you from the game’s better parts. A nasty memory leak can make the game load slower the longer it runs. Your responses to NPCs sometimes feel inadequate, like you can’t explain to a wavering party member the holes in their own logic. AI detection is dodgy to the point where you can often pick off individual enemies at range without aggroing the whole pack. There aren’t enough unique areas to cover the score of sidequests, and it’s a little absurd that all your party’s personal quests are resolved in areas you’ll pass through a dozen or so times anyway. And there’s no escaping how odd it is that dangerous and seemingly time-sensitive problems that have to be solved right now will happily wait for you, with no ill consequences whatsoever.

And yet, focusing on these flaws is both selling the game far short and missing the point. This is a game committed to the adventure, and it’s more than happy to give you big, meaningful choices along the way. This is a game that cares about its characters, and wants you to care about them as well. This is a game with a detailed, believable world, where nothing ever really happens without reason or consequence. It’s packed with content in every direction and the world only promises more to come, and rife with references and shout-outs to Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, and other games; some so quick and well played that it would be spoiling the effect to say which. But you’ll know them when you see them, and they just might make you smile.

Dragon Age: Origins is big, bold, and backed by some of the best writing in recent memory. It’s not as new as it wants to be, but everybody should give it a try. It just might grab you longer than you think it will.

This game was played to completion using a publisher-provided user copy, with only the included “Stone Prisoner” DLC added after installation.

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