Dealspwn Rating: 9/10
Platforms: Xbox 360/PS3/PC
Is it possible for BioWare to produce a game that isn't good?
This is the question that reverberated around my head as I was playing through Dragon Age: Origins, or at least it would have been had I not been totally engrossed in the epic story, the gory combat and the charismatic characters at 4 am for the second night running. I will say this about the game right away: don't expect to just dip in and out of Dragon Age, it won't really let you. This is a game that will challenge your body with sleepless nights, vicious eye strain and brain-melting overloads of fantastical narrative information; in return, however, it'll gift you with one of the most engrossing role-playing experiences of the decade.
Starting out, as with all meaty RPGs, comes the deep level of initial character customisation. What race will you start out as? Which character class will your first choice be? Do you want your hero to be blonde, brunette or ginger? Dragon Age offers enough options for you to spend the best part of an hour playing with your avatar's jawline and then goes and gives you a number of completely different origin stories to choose from based on the race and class you pick out.
The races are more or less untouched as genre tropes, but there are a couple of interesting inversions: we now have a reason for the elven dislike of humanity, with a backstory of elven subjugation and enslavement providing a present filled with class tension. The dwarves themselves have a society determined by caste, with massive disparity between the wealthy, politically-minded nobles and the slum-dwelling common-folk. Magi have also isolated themselves from the rest of the world, locked up in their ivory towers and protected by iron-clad beefcakes - the aptly titled Templars.
These titular 'Origins' mean that six players can start their journeys through Ferelden - the kingdom in which Dragon Age: Origins is set - with completely different initial plotlines and experiences; add that in to a larger 40+ hour game with dozens of key decisions and moral dilemmas to play out and the replayability factor goes through the roof. Ultimately, though, you wind up in the same place: at a frontier outpost with the King of Ferelden, staring an army of evil 'darkspawn' hell bent on devouring every man, woman and child in the land; so far, so Helm's Deep.
Of course it wouldn't be a terribly long game if everything came up roses so let's just say Something Very Very Bad Happens and you suddenly find yourself standing in the face of a demonic horde with a sarcastic ex-Templar for company. From there it's your job to unite all of the forces of Middle Earth - sorry, Ferelden - against this new Blight, taking on numerous side quests as and when you please.
It's all very much a regular BioWare affair, and anyone who's journeyed through Knights of the Old Republic will feel right at home here. There's a radial menu that expands on the one used in Mass Effect and combat plays out much in the same way as it did in KotOR and other real-time affairs like Dungeon Siege with you queuing up attacks and spells. This is occasionally a bit fiddly - as is the item menu - when not using a mouse and keyboard, but the interface is all relatively intuitive, you can pause as much as you want and it puts you right in the thick of the action; which, incidentally, just happens to be awesome.
You see, one of the big motifs in this game is blood, whether as a source for legitimacy arguments, dark magical incantations or just plain violence; and it shows. Your path through the world map is soaked in the stuff, the loading menus ooze and drip like fresh wounds, your armour and face become more and more splattered as you fight, and battles are a frenetic jumble of claret clouds and flying limbs. Most pleasingly, instead of a text-based acknowledgement of a critical hit, you'll decapitate your target instead. This RPG is not for kids.
That maturity seeps into every pore of the game and drags you back time and time again. Every decision you make has a consequence and this time instead of being represented on a single bar that tells you just how much of a saint or sinner you are, your actions force reactions from everyone around you, especially your party members. There are few black-and-white moments in Dragon Age: Origins which means that you really have to get to know the game. It rewards you more the longer you spend exploring its dark corners and memorable characters. From the haughty yet naive blood mage Morrigan to the charmingly Mediterranean assassin Zevran, each have been created with an enormous amount of care and attention.
Technically speaking, the gameplay is very fluid, and clips along at a very pleasing framerate on the 360, although that's partly down to the underwhelming graphics. BioWare have created much prettier games than this - Mass Effect - being one of them, and this game suffers slightly from some drabness in places and poor facial expressions up close. It's not an ugly affair at all and some of the ruined temples and catacombs of the game have some beautiful details, but neither is it likely to win any awards. The sound, however, is a different matter altogether, rising and falling beautifully and adding enormous, if subtle, depth to the entire atmosphere of the game.
If there is a criticism to be made of Dragon Age: Origins it lies in the feeling of familiarity that saturates the game. BioWare are not exactly treading new ground with this one and genre boundaries remain firmly unpushed. The story is a fairly ordinary affair when all's said and done, but it's fleshed out by exceptionally drawn characters, brilliant voice acting (Peter Molyneux take note), equipment customisation that can be as shallow or deep as you like and a morality system that is extraordinarily realistic. More focused than The Elder Scrolls series, and BioWare have not shaken the foundations of the genre to be sure, but they've created one hell of an example to follow, and a game that you'll want to come back to again and again.
- Excellent characters
- Mature RPG
- Fresh takes on tired tropes
- Not as good on consoles
- Pretty ordinary story
- Graphics could be better
The Short Version: If Lord of the Rings had a bucket of gore tipped over it, it'd probably look like this. Exciting, engaging and thoroughly entertaining, BioWare have done it again. Probably the best RPG since Mass Effect, which isn't surprising really.