REVIEWS -- Dragon Age: Origins -- PC
We are the Grey Wardens…
by Mike Sicliano
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
Titles are good as this one come along rarely, but when they do they permanently change the gaming world for the better.
There is a Blight approaching -- a terrible, looming catastrophe that promises to envelop the land of Ferelden in a plague of Darkspawn. The Archdemon is building an army to strike with a swift vengeance against the forces of man. Tasked with the defense of the king’s army are the Grey Wardens, an elite group of sacred warriors tainted by the blood of the Darkspawn, endowing them with significant abilities to aid in their defeat of the treacherous Archdemon. But an early betrayal spells doom for the fate of the war, and the very existence of the Grey Wardens rests in the hands of its newest member: you.
From Bioware comes the self-proclaimed “dark heroic fantasy,” a tale of violence, lust, and betrayal. With it, the famed developer has crafted a world that’s fully-realized; assembled a cast of characters all of whom are individual, believable, and engrossing; refined a battle system from one of their classic titles; and deployed a wealth of lore, exposition, and history the likes of which few players will ever fully experience. This is a game that so rarely comes along, that when it does, the gaming world is all the better because of it.
Survey the battlefield, find an opening, and strike…
Those familiar with Bioware’s earlier RPGs will find their way into the world of Dragon Age: Origins with relative ease. With the ability to fully pause combat, adjust the camera angle any which way you please, issue direct commands to all party members as well as completely shift control to one or another, the game will certainly prove a tempting challenge to any strategist. The game truly feels like an MMO, with a world that seems alive and ever-changing, and a presentation befitting its dark and fantastic premise. Those familiar with the standard MMO may also find themselves easing into the groove of Dragon Age with consistency. Featuring a hot bar that can be stretched or shortened to the player’s liking, you are able to drag and drop whichever spells/talents or items as you see fit. Total control is handed directly to the player during combat, giving you a true sense of military leadership amidst a chaotic war.
Being a fantasy game, there is all that you can expect to see in this game, and perhaps then some. The traditional warrior, rogue, and mage classes are available to choose from during the character creation, and as such the development of your character will generally fall into the role of tank, offense, or support. Where the genius in the system lies is your ability to switch player control at the literal press of a button to another party member and continue the battle without a single hiccup or interruption. This seamless integration allows battles to become much more involved, and certainly require the player to keep a vulture-like eye on his or her party members to maintain a decent level of health and/or mana. Tactics can be set for all characters, and generally it takes quite a bit of fine tuning to get the set list perfectly desirable, but when and if you do, that character is guaranteed to perform to its fullest potential.
The most important aspect of combat, however, is not the ability to control all party members, or to set tactics; while they are certainly of vital concern, what will most assuredly save your life is the pause feature. This is a game disguised as an Action RPG, but it is nothing of the sort. If you approach most situations with the mindset of simply letting your party members go at it with whatever they choose, you will die, and you will die often. Instead, strategy and battlefield placement is key. Pause the game, examine the area, see where the enemies are positioned or where they are coming from, and arrange your party accordingly. Do you have a ranged user (either magic or bows)? Move them off to the side somewhere atop a raised section and have them pick off stragglers or healers. Set your tank dead center to attract as much enemy attention as possible while your healer remains a safe distance away to provide support. These are the types of strategies that your life will depend on. Use them as often as possible and as best you can. Many of the game’s high level magic spells are AoE, or Area of Effect. They target a large specific area or simply in a cone-shape in front of the caster. Be warned that AoE spells can damage your own party members, so use them cautiously and effectively.
Not only that, but spells also have special chain bonuses with each other. There are few combinations in the game that you can discover by using two or more spells in succession. For instance, one of the most common spell chains is using the Grease spell to blanket an area and then setting it ablaze with Fireball. This can be an effective way to reroute enemy movements or to block off a particular area of weak defense, so remember to play strategically. Perhaps the game’s biggest nuisance is the fact that it often resorts to something that I like to call “swarm difficulty.” That is, the game will send a rush of several dozen or more enemies at your party for you to fend off almost immediately following a previous wave of enemies just as big. This type of combat does not necessarily make the game more difficult, but it certainly makes it more tedious when around every corner, roughly 30 or 40 enemies are waiting for you. A mage’s AoE will definitely come in handy throughout the game, but even still, there is a point where enough is enough.
A day in the life of a Grey Warden…
Dragon Age: Origins offers a plethora of excitement within the meat of the game itself, but perhaps no more ingenious is the opening segment following character creation. The namesake of the game, a character’s “origin” story depends entirely on the race and/or class that you choose during creation. With six possible origin stories, Bioware has delivered six different opening segments of the game, each which is certain to last anywhere from one to two hours. That is an estimated eight to sixteen total hours put just into the introduction to the game’s world and to your character. These origins provide an extensive and dramatic look at the character you have chosen and how he or she finds his or herself thrust into the battle against the Darkspawn.
When you finally reach the main quest, you’ll soon find yourself a member of the elite Grey Wardens, and sooner still, one of the only surviving members of them. With the task to assemble an army and defeat the Darkspawn, so begins your journey to unite the forces of Ferelden against its gravest threat.
Those familiar with any Bioware game will know what comes next; visit a handful of locations to complete a task, and ultimately make your way to the game’s climax. What truly separates Dragon Age: Origins from the rest is its impeccable storytelling, its brilliant pacing, and the multitude of side-quests to keep you entertained amidst the toil and trouble of building an army. Every city you visit has a good half a dozen to a dozen side quests available, not including many of the ones found simply through exploration of the game’s world and the discovering of codex, or journal entries. Further still, as you travel the country of Ferelden, you’ll do so on an overworld map, where your character’s progress is tracked with a trail of blood. Occasionally during these travels you will come upon “random battles,” although often these battles will be triggered from side-quests or story progression. These are exciting and entertaining ways to liven up the monotony of travel, which you will do plenty of throughout the game.
As far as the development of your character goes, you can choose to have total control over the stat distribution or set it to automatic and have the game level you up based on your class of choice. I mentioned the initial three classes earlier, but in addition to that, every class has the ability to specialize in up to two out of four unique sub-jobs. A mage, for instance, can learn “Shapeshifter,” “Spirit Healer,” “Blood Mage,” or “Arcane Warrior,” and with this specialization comes a small stat boost appropriate to that class as well as a new single-tree of abilities to learn. These abilities, among your class’s standards ones, are learned via points accumulated after every level-up. Each class has in addition to the four advanced specializations, four unique trees of abilities. To adhere with our mage example, as a mage you can choose to learn from any of the following schools of magic: Primal, Creation, Spirit, and Entropy, and a fifth tree specific to the Arcane school to enhance basic magical staff bolts and increase spell damage.
You are not limited to how you develop your character or to one specific tree; feel free to mix abilities to best accommodate your play style, but also try to maintain some sense of direction so your character is at least fully specialized in one path. Skills are a separate branch of a character’s progression that have a more worldly-purpose. For instance, you can raise your character’s Coercion which will influence many dialogue choices in game in your favor. There are eight total skill options and four level paths for each. Rogues will gain a single skill point every two levels starting at level 2, while warriors and mages will gain one point every three levels starting at level 3, so try to determine very early which skills you wish to learn to take full advantage of the limited points.
A fantastic world envisioned…
In an effort to get the player more involved and more attached to the already-brilliant cast of characters, Bioware has adopted an approval system. While choices you make in the game as related to the story may have a dramatic effect on the outcome, they may also affect your party members’ opinions about you. Engaging in casual conversation will raise or lower their approval depending on your answers, and offering gifts to them will certainly raise it, especially so if it is a gift they are looking for. Should you manage to get their approval high enough, a specific item will unlock a unique quest for that character which usually results in a rare weapon or access to a special ability. Likewise, the higher their approval, the more effective they become in combat; for instance, one of your characters, Morrigan, receives a boost to her Intelligence at certain approval intervals. Should the approval rating drop too low, that party member may actually leave for good.
Bioware have managed to design an attractive world, albeit not to the extent of their capabilities. You’ll find what you expect in a fantasy setting: caves, forests, high towers, and plenty of castles, but there are quite a few remarkable sights to behold, particularly the Dwarven underground city of Orzimmar and the sequences within the Fade, a dream-realm.
The game’s audio is more than enough to compensate for what it lacks in visual design, however; there’s an absolutely fantastic voice cast featuring the likes of Tim Curry, Steve Blum, Claudia Black, and more, and a flawless soundtrack with some truly awe-inspiring orchestral scores. From the moment the initial splash screen hits to display the game’s logo, you are immersed in the epic struggle of these characters. Few games have managed to assemble a score that so precisely compliments the mood.
Dragon Age: Origins is ostensibly the best single-player experience to come out all year. With few titles released in 2009 that can compete with the depth of gameplay and variety of things to do, it seems almost impossible to consider another game as wholly fulfilling as this. A near flawless presentation, an engrossing story and cast of characters, and a battle mechanic for the strategist-at-heart, Dragon Age: Origins is a mighty force to be reckoned with.
Pros: Tremendously diverse cast; impeccable voice acting; engaging combat that requires a great deal of thought; remarkable story spanning close to 60 hours, excluding hundreds of side-quests.
Cons: Frequent swarming of enemies; visual quality doesn’t match its epic presentation; few quest-related glitches.
There are few words left to describe this game: simply put, you must play Dragon Age: Origins.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Review Date: 26-01-2010
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: ---
Notes: Downloadable Content
While not the brightest looking tool in the shed, Dragon Age boasts tremendous visual effects and fantastic character models to make up for its sometimes rough landscape.
Tactical combat combined with full-range party control and a plethora of ways to shape your destiny lend themselves exceptionally well to this epic adventure.
BioWare’s dark fantasy RPG soars high above other pretenders of the genre by providing plenty of heart, soul, and pure satisfaction straight from the hands of the developers.
Brilliantly-cast voice actors and thrilling ambiance set to the background of exhilarating music.
A single campaign alone will take no less than 30 or 40 hours, combined with the excellently woven Origin Stories of each race and the varied ways to create your party, expect to be playing Dragon Age well beyond that time.