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[Review] Dragon Age Origins

Overall Feeling: 

Despite its dull and dated visuals, Dragon Age Origins still manages to offer a terrific experience. With deep gameplay, an epic plot and host of interesting characters to meet, the world of Ferelden will suck you in and you won't want to leave.

The Pros: 

Deep gameplay forces you to think before you act. The main plot has great length, before you even consider all the little extras available to you. Multiple playthroughs are actively encouraged, extending the game's life even further.

The Cons: 

A host of visual problems, from dull and dated environments, to some clipping and frame rate issues. Lack of player voice-over is a disappointment. Rating : 

1998 saw the release of Baldur's Gate, an RPG which is still heralded by many as one of best. Several years on, a few expansions later, and BioWare have finally released what they refer to as the "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate; Dragon Age Origins. The game takes the traditional style of Western RPG, which is based heavily around the Dungeons and Dragons rules, and brings the whole niche to a "next-gen" level. And whilst there are a couple problems, the experience offered in Dragon Age Origins is unlike anything you'll have played this year.

As is typical for a BioWare game, plot is a central construct and Dragon Age holds true to this. The story tells of the Grey Wardens; elite warriors, and their eternal adversaries; the Darkspawn. Created through a combination of magic and the evil residing within magi, the Darkspawn seek to wipe out all live in the world of Ferelden, and more. Having just been accepted in the Grey Wardens, it's up to you to assemble a grand army, defeat the Darkspawn armies and slay their leader, the Archdemon. To make matters just that little bit more difficult for you, each of the various races that you require aid from all have their own little problems which you'll have to solve first of all.

Morality plays a huge part in Dragon Age and you're forever making decisions. During each of the main plotlines, there will always be two sides. What's interesting is that whichever faction you choose to support doesn't just alter the goal of your mission, it's reflected in your final army. Whichever side you choose will be the one to join your forces, whilst the aggrieved will most likely want to fight you, not with you. Across your journey you'll also encounter a host of powerful individuals who can join your forces; some are essential whilst others' inclusion in your team is entirely your own choice. Needless to say, it's often the characters that you have to go out of your way to collect, that offer the most in return.

The origin of the story is not set in stone, as it is in most plots. Whilst creating your character, you'll choose all the general basics from gender to race to class. However you'll also have to pick an origin - from which the game gets its name. There are six in total and each offers a different starting point to your character. Each origin lasts now more than an hour to two but their presence in the game really helps to shape your character. Instead of being thrown into a world without any knowledge or motivation, the origins give your character his back-story - an idea that was first introduced in another BioWare game; Mass Effect, but one that has been expanded here.

Simply knowing what your character has experienced immediately helps to flesh him (or her) out a little. You'll also find a quest or two in the main game that is related to your origin, allowing you to gain closure on the various wrongs that were committed against you. And there's certainly a lot for you to get up to in Ferelden. Aside from the lengthy campaign which could take anything from twenty to forty hours to complete, there's a host of side-quests for you to perform, loot to collect, and dragons to slay. Similar to your own character, each of your party members has a rich history which can lead to an additional quest. Of course none of this is forced leaving you the freedom to work through them when you want to, or maybe forgo them all together.

Whilst the level twenty cap may seem a little low, you'll need to complete most of what Dragon Age has to offer in order to reach it. Almost any task you perform will net you experience, be it defeating an enemy or opening a locked chest. Once you've accumulated enough, you'll level up allowing you to increase your character's attributes and add new skills and talents too. The standard three class options are available; warrior, rogue and mage. However within each one you'll find plenty of scope to craft your character as you see fit. Magi have access to a host of schools to learn spells from whilst warriors can learn various abilities all focused around the type of weapons they're using.

There are also class specialisations for you to choose from which will grant one time stat bonuses as well as unlocking more talents for you to pick from. Each class has access to four, of which you pick two. Some are fairly useless whilst others are fantastic to have. They are also a couple that are very interesting to try out such as the Warrior's Reaver specialisation which allows you to inflict more damage at a cost of your own health. The closer you get to death, the stronger your Reaver gets.

Your character's appearance is also fully customisable from his build to his hair. You'll also be able to select a voice for him to use throughout your adventure. Unfortunately your chosen voice is nothing but a few messages for your character to say whenever he does something, such as a attacking an enemy. When it comes to dialogue itself, your character's a little tongue-tied. Considering that you'll be spending a lot of time conversing with other characters, the lack of a voice is blatantly obvious. With so many lines of dialogue, it's understandable for developers to cut back like this. More recent RPGs such as Oblivion and Fallout 3 both used text to convey your character's speech. However, given how well the dialogue system in Mass Effect worked, it's a little disappointing to find that Dragon Age has gone backwards a little.

When so many games are being developed in less than three years, advancements within the gaming industry are fairly regular. And whilst a game with a length development process can result in an product with higher overall quality than those created in a shorter time, the age of the game can become a hindrance too. There’s no doubt that a huge amount of time has gone into Dragon Age, over five years, and it’s clear to see from the wealth of options available to the player. However, one look at the visuals on offer and it will be clear for all to see; they’re just not up to it.

Environments, whilst varied, all have the same base colour palette which is extremely dull. It shows the game’s “age” as this was a common problem for a lot of titles released back at the start of the current generation. Ferelden is not meant to be a warm and inviting place – there’s a lot wrong with the land so the art style should reflect this. But there’s just so little colour. When you do reach the few areas which are blessed with a few warm tones, the poor texture quality is all too apparent. Surfaces look flat and their edges, jagged. There’s also a couple minor visual quirks, typically clipping issues and a few lighting issues. Standing next to a fire results in your character’s armour brightening and then darkening in a very quick manner. Character models are substantially better, particularly your party members. Cutscenes are also quite good without ever being fantastic.

But to focus on the games sub-standard visuals means to miss out on what Dragon Age Origins is really about; freedom. No matter how small the instance, there are always numerous choices available to you. If you encounter a small group of enemies do you charge in with your blade? Or perhaps you prefer to set a trap and then lure them into it before picking off the survivors? The same sense of control is extended throughout the game. Each quest will always have at least two ways in which to resolve it. There’s always the standard heroic option, as well as the evil option. However, there’s also a few in between. BioWare promised that the moral dilemmas in Dragon Age would not be so black and white, and even though it’s often all too easy to distinguish between the right and wrong choice, there are a few moments in the game which may require to stop and think about your decision.

Different decisions can have huge impact on the future of your plot such as which enemies you face and which clans join your army. With so many different paths to play through, as well as a variety of roles for your character to fill, you’ll want to replay Dragon Age. Seeing how a quest might otherwise have panned out is always interesting as well as seeing how different your party members could become. Unlike many games offering the same idea of choice, there’s no morality system to track your character. Feel free to make whichever choice you wish but beware, your party will react to your decision. Some will revel in it whilst others may feel contempt towards you. As each party member nears the point of loving you or hating you, their interactions with you become more extreme to point where one party member may even attack you.

Best of all, your party is filled with interesting, as well as unique characters. There’s your typical joker (Alistair) as well as the kind-hearted soul (Leliana). There’s also a few characters whose views you may find rather entertaining. Shale, a golem, who can be accessed through DLC is almost devoid of all emotion and can often reduce the most emotional of events into a few logical, or illogical, steps. Each companion has his or her own back story which you can pursue if you wish, opening up new quests as well fleshing the character out more. Some can even change that character’s very nature, with a bit of gentle persuasion.

But if you’re not talking to someone, chances are you’re fighting someone, and this element of the game is even deeper. Combat is handled in a pseudo-turn-based system similar to those used in many online RPGs. Each turn is split into a few seconds with your character automatically attacking unless you tell them to use an ability. It can also be paused at any point to allow you a chance to work out a battle plan and set it in motion. Of course, if you opt to leave the game playing whilst formulating your plan, your party will still fight for you via a tactics system that allows you to tell each member what to do based on certain criteria. It’s very similar to Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system. The result is combat that offers all the tactics of typical Japanese titles whilst keeping the pace more in line with action orientated games.

Some may find the combat a little too hands-off for their liking, typically those who were introduced to the RPG genre through more action orientated games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect. And considering that it’s based heavily on the famous table-top game, Dungeons & Dragons, a good understanding of the game’s mechanics is required to get the most out of it. This is by no means a bad element of the game, it’s this very complexity that makes it so rewarding to beat. However, if you’re not the type that likes to deal with numbers of a frequent basis, this game probably isn’t for you.

But if the combat is your type of thing, and the visual problems doesn’t put you off, Dragon Age Origins is one of the best RPG experiences you’ll have the pleasure of playing this generation. An engaging plot filled with interesting characters and locales, a variety of enemies who will force you to plan ahead, as well as a genuine sense of freedom to go about things the way in which you want to means that there’s plenty for you to enjoy. Better still, with so many branching options, you’ll most likely want to experience it all over again.