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 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.
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’être 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.