Review: Dragon Age: Origins (PS3)

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Title: Dragon Age: Origins
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (11.3 GB)
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
Dragon Age: Origins is also available on Xbox 360, PC and Mac OS X.
The PlayStation 3 version was used for this review.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 139 of the podcast.

Dragon Age: Origins begins, quite literally, with your origin. You create your player character from one 3 races (humans, elves or dwarves) and then choose your class from the 3 available (warrior, mage or rogue). Each race picks from two origin stories, there are 6 total, which begin your quest in completely different ways. I completed two and while interesting, they felt a bit campy at times and obviously force you into a back story you may not necessarily have envisioned for your character. Of course, that’s the point, but it can lead to some comical outcomes such as me creating a grizzled, old-looking dwarf and having him be referred to as boy or youngster when he clearly looks twice the age of the characters talking to him. What really makes the origins work however, is the way events and characters pop back up during the rest of the game. Even if it isn’t quite what you imagined for your character, it’s a fantastic way to keep it relevant and really adds to the feeling of completeness in Dragon Age’s world.

Each origin ends similarly, a Grey Warden named Duncan recruits you and off you go into the main story-line. In Dragon Age, the Grey Warden’s are a force that held back the tide of the evil Darkspawn as the rose time and again to destroy the world. Now the Grey Warden numbers have dwindled, but the Darkspawn haven’t and are once again threatening to invade the land. The basic premise isn’t terribly original and some of it really smacks of Lord of the Rings or even various Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings. I won’t spoil the plot, but it really opens up after your first battle as a Grey Warden. The twists and turns along the way are expertly crafted and presented, making Dragon Age one of the most enjoyable and compelling stories I’ve experienced in an RPG. The massive amount of detail and lore presented to you through both the codex (basically your notebook) and in-game dialogue is simply astounding. It may not be the most original, but BioWare still manages to inject some very compelling back story and detail to really make those tired old fantasy stereotypes their own.

Story is the key.

Story is the key.

If you’ve played other BioWare RPGs, the gameplay in this one is quite similar. Unlike its PC counterpart, you will view everything from a third-person camera perspective, no overhead isometric views. You have full control over every character in your party including level progression and inventory. Combat is still based around targeting an enemy, then selecting an attack or ability and letting the computer handle the outcome. Despite featuring a third person camera, this is not action game. You’re still free to handle battle tactics on your own as you can freely switch between party members, repositioning them as you see fit. When not being directly controlled, party members use an AI system to handle combat. This is a very well-designed and deep system that allows you to assign nearly any actions you can think of provided you have enough “tactics” slots to assign them to. An action palette mapped to the face buttons (with an alternate palette available by holder down the right shoulder button) gives you quick access to whatever items or abilities you link there. Everything else can be quickly and elegantly accessed with the left shoulder button which brings up a tiered radial menu containing all of your other abilities, items and few more things such as a quick heal option. The game is paused while in this menu giving you as much time as you need to target enemies, choose your actions or even switch between party members.

Graphically, Dragon Age gets the job done, but isn’t spectacular looking. Character models and environments are good, but textures occasionally leave something to be desired and look rather muddy up close. Characters animate fairly well, but are missing some of those little touches you’d expect from a game at this point in the console generation. Little things like hair or clothing just don’t move enough, if at all. Sometimes it just looked like my female mage was wearing a helmet of hair. Framerate is less than stable so when the action gets heavy, expect hiccups and hitches. It’s definitely not bad enough to ruin the experience, but it was noticeable. Personally, I think the worst offender visually is the art design itself. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I just found it to be very bland overall. The character you create probably won’t look much more unique than any random NPCs you run into and even the playable party members are a bit blah in their design. One of the oddest graphical touches has got to be the blood splatters covering your characters after a fight. I’m not sure what effect they were going for here, but it just looks ridiculous having people stand around in conversation after a battle, drenched in blood. Music is fairly well done, but sticks to orchestrated themes as you’d expect from a fantasy game. The rock and metal present in the game’s commercials and trailers is no where to be found in-game.

Get ready for gratuitous use of blood.

Get ready for gratuitous use of blood.

I’m probably coming off sounding a little harsh, but now I’ll get on to what makes the game so enjoyable. As I said, the story and dialogue are extremely well done and those alone are good enough to carry the game. Yes, I said the setting was rather generic, but BioWare has still managed to craft an excellent tale in a familiar theme. The characters especially make it shine. What your party members lack in visual presentation, they make up for in personality. Every so often 2 of them will just start bantering and the conversations are usually gold, from Morrigan antagonizing Alistair to Leliana trying to have a chat with the War Dog. I highly recommend picking up the DLC for the Stone Prisoner if your copy didn’t come with it. Shale makes a fantastic party member and his dialogue is simply awesome. I don’t think I even found a side quest or mission that wasn’t entertaining. Even the standard fetch quests were suitably short and made nice diversions from the often-challenging main quest line. The world of Ferelden is simply a joy to explore and delve into it’s history, even if the fantasy trappings have been seen before.

Aside from the story and deeply detailed world, the simple refinement of BioWare’s RPG system makes this one a winner. The previous fantasy RPGs BioWare worked on were actually licensed Dungeons & Dragons games. They did a great job fitting a pen & paper RPG system into a video game, but the sheer amount of rules you still had to familiarize yourself with was daunting. In Dragon Age, they’ve trimmed down a very similar rule set, but removed everything superfluous. Classes have been paired down to 3, with several unique options to specialize in, and even magic has essentially become a skill tree. It works amazingly well and keeps the inventory and character management down to far more tolerable levels. I’m actually planning to buy the tie-in Dragon Age novels and eagerly anticipating the pen & paper tabletop adaption of of it simply because I’d love to see it come full circle and see what else they do with the world they’ve created.

You'll be facing some epic battles.

You'll be facing some epic battles.

If you listen to the podcast, you’ve undoubtedly heard me harping on the fact that Dragon Age looks an awful lot like Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings. So much in fact, that I freely accused it of ripping off those well-known fantasy settings. After playing it, I’ve definitely changed my stance to Dragon Age being less of a rip-off and more of an homage to both those and BioWare’s own previous RPGs. Yes, it borrows liberally from those franchises, but BioWare still manages to inject some very compelling back story and detail to really make those tired old fantasy stereotypes their own. I really feel like they did it to make the world more familiar to mainstream audiences and the strange actiony focus of the marketing campaign seems to back that up. Those who would only know an elf or dwarf from seeing the Lord of the Rings movies, but otherwise have no frame of reference will still feel at home here. Unfortunately, to someone who is quite familiar with fantasy settings, it seems far less original. BioWare has the RPG-making muscle to create something incredibly original and you definitely see glimpses of it in Dragon Age, but the originality fell short of my expectations. That said, what it may lack in originality it makes up for in story and refinement. The actual system used here is possibly BioWare’s finest to date and it’s obvious they put a lot of care into creating Dragon Age’s world. RPG fans are definitely going to love this one and I think RPG newcomers may find a lot to hook them as well. I personally can’t wait to begin my next Dragon Age adventure.

Score:
8.0

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Written by Mark Senger

Glenn’s second co-host on the podcast , Mark graced the airwaves from late 2007 to early 2010.

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