Review: Dragon Age: Origins — The Game, The Myth, The Review

One cannot simply review the game Dragon Age: Origins. To attempt to do so is to reduce a very visceral experience to some set of component parts, exemplia gratis, graphics, gameplay mechanics, story, et cetera, would be to do a great injustice to the gestalt that is the game itself.

This review will confine itself to the PlayStation 3 version. I chose this version, despite having a PC more than capable of running the game at its highest settings, because (1) I prefer to play single-player games on my very large living room TV from the comfort of my couch and (2) I was told that the console version of the game changes the gameplay experience from party micromanagement to a much more action-oriented feel. Without having played the PC version, I cannot comment as to whether this is true, but after viewing the Xbox 360 version on the Gamestop display, I can safely say that among the console versions, the PS3 is graphically far superior to the Xbox.

Enough about eyecandy… for now. Principally, one must understand that Dragon Age represents a move that is once retro and evocative of great classic console role-playing experiences and progressive, introducing the kind of intense graphical, gritty realism that has suffused the action and FPS genres for the past few years. Traditionally, RPGs have stood on their story elements, not their technological. Even BioWare’s excellent ideological precursor to Dragon Age, Mass Effect, was more in line with the FPS or shooter genre than a strict turn-based RPG experience.

Do not be fooled by the seeming real-time nature of the combat in Dragon Age: the trappings of a classic RPG experience, complete with initiative, random number generation and mathematical gameplay are present, if obscured behind the facade of a lively, action-based experience. In addition, it is possible, advisable even, to frequently pause the action (a simple button press does so, bringing up a radial menu for the issuance of commands) to direct party members’ actions. Switching between party members without the benefit of mouse clicking is only slightly counter-intuitive. Once one understands the quick button-press combos to move between party members, the pause+command scheme becomes second nature.

The battle system ends up feeling very familiar to those that cut their teeth on the Final Fantasy Active Time Battle system, perhaps mixed with a bit of Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit system. Characters will continue to attack based on a number of pre-programmed settings. For instance, one may choose to use a healer preset, a ranged damage-dealer preset, a melee fighter preset, a debuffer preset, a support preset, and so on. The actual system is very complex and will delight fans of intense customization, and for the most part, it is easy enough to get your party members to at least not do something terribly stupid and life-threatening.

The Battle System of Dragon Age: Origins

This is the combat from a ranged perspective

The party system remains much more inscrutable, in many ways similar to the maddening nature of Final Fantasy VI or VII. Characters not used in combat gain neither experience nor levels. I have not been able to discern whether the plot is affected materially by party choice, although I tend to choose my party members by whether I like their personality than some sort of desire to min/max my party’s balance. That said, I would have liked for party members not in combat to scale at a slower rate than the main party, that way each mission could be configured by each party member’s strengths and weaknesses. Large party choices (present in many BioWare games) often make one feel like repeating old content simply to grind out levels and gear is necessary, which significantly reduces the enjoyment factor of playing the game. For instance, I try to keep the rogue character Leliana in the party simply for lockpicking, although otherwise I find her to be uninteresting and not as useful of a melee fighter as Sten or Shale. The ability to swap out party members during non-combat situations might also alleviate this point.

Alistair, the earliest companion you find

Alistair is the first party member you find

The graphics, music and scenery are all extremely well-done, as to be expected from a BioWare game. The in-game cinematics and cutscenes render very well on the PS3, and even though the game’s native resolution is 720p, and my LCD TV’s native resolution is 1080p, it looks nearly flawless. BioWare’s art style trades in a bit of realism with the graphics for clarity and atmosphere. Some of the scenes look frighteningly real, while others seem almost like an illustration or illuminated manuscript. Shadows, light and particle effects are all extremely well-done, and the immersion into the game world is nearly instant and complete.

The game promises significant replay value. Each of the three class archetypes available, combined with one’s race selection, present a different origin story. With varied talent trees that allow a wide degree of customization in character development, I expect novel and interesting customized styles of gameplay will emerge. In this respect, the class system of Dragon Age is much deeper than BioWare’s previous efforts, and feels more much fun and authentic to the “pure” tabletop RPG experience. Want to make a heavy-armor melee fighter that uses two-handed weapons, but can swap out to become an eagle-eye archer with a single button press? It is very possible. Although one may not cross class boundaries (that is, no warrior + priest + mage combos are possible), the varieties are endless. However, each choice is agonizing because no reworking of talent trees or point distributions can be made.

The actual main quest storyline of the game, however, is the centerpiece, the raison d’ĂȘtre of the game. No matter what your origin story, your character is the juniormost member of the Grey Wardens, a group of heroes chosen for their single-minded dedication to resisting the horde of Darkspawn, twisted and hateful creatures bent on rampage and destruction, under the command of ancient god driven mad by his exile, the Archdemon. Formerly respected as national saviors, the Grey Wardens have fallen into disrepute due to the age and secrecy of their order. Politics abound, and whispers of less-than-noble motives can be heard among both the low and highborn, whispers that carry an edge of truth.

Your character fits into this narrative however you wish: you may be noble, virtuous and true, or cunning and wicked. You can be a pragmatist, an idealist or simply a survivor. Although this has no direct impact on the story progression, it will affect your relationships with your party members (not everyone will like your choices, which impacts party make-up) and NPCs throughout the land of Ferelden. As you uncover the history of the Wardens and the secrets of Ferelden’s past, you are faced with choices that while insignificant to the larger gameplay mechanics, nevertheless are emotionally significant and touching. The world of Dragon Age is, as I have stated, true dark fantasy. It pulls no punches: here is a society driven to the edge of decay by the character flaws of the people that live in the age. Ruins are everywhere, and the wild lands are overtaking society. Society itself is decadent, where the worst are full of passionate intensity and the best lack all conviction. Enemies within and without march on a failing kingdom, and only a group of otherwise outcast heroes stands between the world and destruction.

Your quest, such as it is, is to unite the disparate, untrusting and warring factions of Ferelden into a force capable of resisting the Darkspawn horde, while at the same time maintaining the trust of the common people who suffer at the hands of the demons. Progression through this quest happens not quite on-rails. You are given choice of when and where to go next, much like Mass Effect, though of course many options are better-suited to a particular order. As always, the NPCs you meet, even your own party members, will provide help to lead you along the way.

Dragon Age is also famed (reviled?) for its on-launch downloadable content, some of which is even advertised in-game, much to the chagrin of the great sages and eminent philosophers Gabe and Tycho. Although the intrusion of reality into what is otherwise a seamless fantasy is somewhat annoying, the downloadable content itself is loaded with juicy, juicy lore and phat loot!!! Other bits of purchasable or unlockable DLC (available via pre-orders, special orders, the browser-based game, and so on) all serve to be minor enhancements, but “Warden’s Keep” and “The Stone Prisoner” exist within a special space in Gamerland. They feel like premium content, unfair advantages to those capable of paying to get new abilities, weapons, armor and even a party member. While neither is ultimately necessary to completing the game, the experience is so enriched by them that people will be drawn to them. There exists within geek-kind a certain aversion to this kind of callous consumerism, motivated out of a feeling that good gaming experiences should not be limited to those who can pay for it. Nevertheless, if you are able, I highly recommend each of these scenarios as deep and emotionally significant parts of your character’s development. Did I mention phat lewts!?

Should you spend your hard-earned money (assuming, of course, you don’t win a copy) on Dragon Age? Is it worthy of your time? I answer — yes. If you are a fan of party-based RPGs with deep character customization options, beautiful graphics, immersive sound, and a storyline worthy of the finest novels or cinema, you should. And if you are not such a fan, then I can only assume you are one of the Darkspawn and will shortly be meeting your end at the edge of my blade.

LOLS It's a Dragon Y'all!

Come... your destiny awaits, mortal.

29 Comments

  1. breaka666
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 14:33 | Permalink

    good review.

    I’ve got a question to all those who play WRPGs regularly. how often is it really that WRPGs rip off Tolkein? the Yahtzee review really got me thinking about this. I know the reason I’ve never played them before is because they all looked generic and couldn’t catch my attention. even if the art and graphics were good because the motiffs were the same (elves, dwarves, medieval europe, etc) it would still look generic to me and I’m having the same problem with DA:O.

    I know that a game can be derivative and still be awesome (Final Fantasy IX) but the way so many WRPGs blatantly and unapologetically rip off each others art styles to the point they all look the same seems… odd to me.

    penny for your thoughts, WRPGamers.

  2. Ethos
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 18:29 | Permalink

    I think it looks great on the PS3, but it runs noticeably poorly. Like Mass Effect, I don’t mind because the game is so great, but it was distracting at first and occasionally throughout.

  3. Lane
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 18:40 | Permalink

    I haven’t found performance issues. I have a first gen 60gb model, and though it has loading times they’re not noticeably long.

    Breaka, most fantasy isn’t Tolkien derivative. Tolkien mined almost every popular Western mythology to create Middle Earth. Thus, when Dungeons and Dragons started mining the same myths, people drew the same conclusions. Tolkien is the grandfather of the epic fantasy quest story. This game is dark fantasy. It owes more to Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and Robert Howard than Tolkien. Its themes are darker: death, posseson, invasion by demons, religious persecution, greed and betrayal, hopelessness. Very different than Tolkien’s idealized Merry Olde England of the Shire.

  4. Ethos
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 19:26 | Permalink

    Oh, the loading times are fine. I mean the framerate. Compare how smooth it is to move the camera around in Uncharted 2 to the jilted and stumbly hiccoughs Dragon Age provides.
    It plays the same on my PS3Slim and on my friend’s PS3 that is also a first gen 60gb model.
    But again, hardly worth mention in comparison to the scope and enjoyment found in the game.

  5. darthgibblet
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 19:57 | Permalink

    I’m very tempted to pick up this game on Steam this weekend, but I really shouldn’t. It’s almost time for the annual Christmas purchasing freeze :f.

  6. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 20:34 | Permalink

    @Ethos- Yeah the framerate is even poorer than ME, at times it seems like the game is barely holding itself together …

    @Lane- Does your aquisition of characters depend on what order you visit certain locations? With my exams now done, I’m about to begin playing in earnest, and would like Morrigan ASAP.

  7. Lane
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 20:39 | Permalink

    As soon as this flu leaves my body I’m going to play again; I don’t remember seeing anything indicative of bad frame rates.

    SN, without spoiling it, you don’t need to worry about playing a particular way to get Morrigan. That’s the introduction.

    Although you may not want her when you get her.

  8. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 20:50 | Permalink

    I find Claudia Black’s VA to be a massive turn on.

    -I don’t see how you could have failed to notice the framerate, at times it verges upon being a slideshow … (and I’m not even particularly sensitive to framerates).

  9. Lane
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 21:42 | Permalink

    Can’t do much with voice acting when your character is a whiny emo whose skills are extremely lackluster.

    Seriously, I’m playing the game right now. The colors are vivid and balanced, the effects and shadows look realistic, and there’s minimal tearing and judder despite running at a non-native resolution. I’ll keep looking but I’m just not seeing the framerate slow to a crawl.

  10. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.20 at 22:41 | Permalink

    And you’re sure you’re playing on a PS3?

  11. Underdog
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 00:20 | Permalink

    I had a small stutter on the X-box, when I inadvertently kited 3 rooms, but there were like 50 mobs on the screen…I didn’t win that battle…all but 4.

  12. Lane
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 00:28 | Permalink

    SN — Unless Microsoft Gnomes have secretly replaced the guts of my PS3 with the innards of an Xbox, yes.

    UD — what are the graphics like a little ways in on the Xbox version? I’ve heard they’re not so good.

    A few more hours playing and still the framerate isn’t bad. I mean, we’re not talking dual-graphics-card SLI levels, but not bad for a console.

  13. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 01:04 | Permalink

    This is the worst framerate that I have seen on a PS3 or 360. The textures and anti-alising are fairly nice, though I’m uncertain whether the trade-off was worth it (I’d need to see the 360 version for that). Also, all the pop-in and the absence of splashing when running through water is a little bit odd.

    If I was Bioware I would have lowered the resolution, ditched the AA, and then used the spare resources to run a smooth framerate and maybe add a few additional visual effects.

  14. Underdog
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 01:10 | Permalink

    I would have to say the graphics are not as sharp as the could be. I’ve seen it on PS3 and a Mid grade PC. I would have to rank them from best to worst as

    PC
    PS3
    360

    PC benefits from much longer draw distances, and smooth transitions and just a clean interface.

    PS3 graphics are slightly worse than PC from personal first hand view, but it is not horrid.

    360 graphics are a hug draw back, the textures remind me a little of NWN2 with better Character models, I really don’t see an improvement overall.

    It’s a great story but I made a mistake by not trusting my PC as far as graphics go. However, after using the PC menu I have to give the Edge to the 360 and PS3 wheel quick menu, I think it’s just better designed. Skill use edge goes to the PC having the ability to set multiple quick swap menus of 10 skills instead of 1 ability menu with 6 possible skills is extremely nice.

  15. Underdog
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 01:12 | Permalink

    Oh and if you’re having a gold shortage in the PC version you can just cheat to get it. I have to say no matter my level, I do not have a very good gold flow in 360 and my buddies (all 3 of them) on the PC version don’t have a gold problem even without cheating.

  16. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 01:59 | Permalink

    -I love the radial menu!

  17. Lane
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 02:00 | Permalink

    I hated the radial menu until I hit the option to turn it on and leave it on with a single button press. Now I too love the radial men… ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD

  18. Ethos
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 03:00 | Permalink

    I like the radial menu. And I’m with SN on this one. I don’t usually care about framerates, but DA:O has the worst I’ve seen on the console.

  19. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 03:39 | Permalink

    I really don’t like Duncan, I hope I get the opportunity to destroy him.

  20. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 05:35 | Permalink

    I keep on getting a bunch of copper coins from killing enemies which never seem to materialise into my inventory … does 100 copper coins automatically convert into 1 silver coin or something?

  21. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 07:40 | Permalink

    Morrigan is just adorable!

  22. darthgibblet
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 10:22 | Permalink

    @SN: I haven’t played the game yet, but I’ve never run into an adorable Morrigan in a game unless she’s a dog or cat or some other kind of pet:D.

    @Lane: If I remember correctly, Mass Effect did the same thing where you had to hold down the button to keep the radial menu up, but there wasn’t an option to change that :f. I’m glad they add…. ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD

  23. Ethos
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 10:56 | Permalink

    @SN – Yes. And 100 Silver into a Gold. That confused me a bit too at first.

  24. breaka666
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 11:00 | Permalink

    @Lane – hm… OK, I’ll buy that. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to think that a lawyer is more well informed than a board game but the games are still extremely samey looking. admittedly, all genres are like that but WRPGs seem especially so. I remember a while ago I kept confusing DA:O and Demon Souls (which is a WRPG, I don’t care who made it) and this isn’t the first time it’s happened. even if they’re not Tolkein derivative they’re rippping someone off. you wouldn’t happen to know why this trend happened, would you? I’d like to give these developers the benefit of the doubt so I assumed it wasn’t simply a widespread lack of originality. and some get that fucking toad away from him so he can answer my questio… A

  25. breaka666
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 11:01 | Permalink

    -face palm-

  26. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2009.11.21 at 19:02 | Permalink

    Oh … DAO is certainly Tolkien derivative, just watch the Yahtzee review. Within that framework however they’ve certainly brought their own brand of awesome to the table.

  27. Epyon
    Posted 2009.11.22 at 00:49 | Permalink

    Excellent and detailed rewiew, sounds like a must-get. Unfortunately the way the DLC was handled is vile to say the least and I’m sure more and more companies will follow suit seeing how much Bioware made off of it.

    Look forward to watching these guys charge you extra for watching the ending of a game.

  28. Underdog
    Posted 2009.11.22 at 12:42 | Permalink

    I have to say the DLC is frustrating. THere was a penny-arcade comic about it, and I think it hits the nail on the head. Thankfully, we got the Dragon Armor, and Shale for free.

  29. Cesar
    Posted 2009.11.22 at 23:24 | Permalink

    Cool review. The guys have been talking a lot about this game at work. I just hate the fact that so many good games come out at once this time of year. I’m still playing Demon’s Souls! But will definitely get this one soon.