In a place ruled by magic and feudal lords, an ancient evil stirs every few hundred years to cast a Blight across the land. The continued survival of these people is ensured by a small group of heroic individuals, warriors of peace charged with uniting the disparate factions into a single force capable of repelling the forces of the underworld. Is it Dungeons & Dragons? The Lord of the Rings? No. The land is called Ferelden, its peacekeepers are the Grey Wardens and the creator of it all is BioWare. Welcome to “Dragon Age: Origins.”
The above setup pretty much lays out the basic story. A race of demonic creatures known as the Darkspawn emerge from the depths of the netherworld once every long while. The Grey Wardens then spur into action, uniting the land to beat back the intruding evil, which is led by a malevolent force known as the Arch Demon. This is a BioWare role-playing game cut from the cloth of “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,” only with a wholly original orcs & elves fantasy setting that feels at once familiar and entirely different. Not necessarily fresh mind you, but definitely different.
Back to the Basics
After pushing into more action-oriented fare with “Mass Effect” and “Jade Empire,” BioWare returns to the fantastic RPG formula laid out in “Knights of the Old Republic.” Combat is perhaps a bit more active, though it can be paused at any time by opening up an easy-to-navigate radial menu, which provides quick access to all spells, talents, inventory items and so on. Console versions of the game allow up to six quick use talents/spells/items to be mapped to face buttons (X/Y/B on the 360, Square/Triangle/Circle on the PS3), with the right trigger used to switch between the two sets. Perhaps not as adaptable as the controls afforded by a QWERTY keyboard, but functional nonetheless.
The Art of Conversation
The list of dialogue options highlighting conversations in “Dragon Age” is definitely a step back from the mood-based radial cues seen in “Mass Effect.” At first glance at least. The more dated setup works well here, allowing players more depth in their dialogue options. What’s more, the situations presented to players are not as easy to read as “good,” “bad” and “neutral” responses. Very often, you’ll come across dilemmas in which there is no clear right or wrong response; there are simply responses. Case in point: an early encounter with a young orphan boy. After hearing his story, it’s clear that his mother — who told him to run and seek refuge in a nearby village — fell to a Darkspawn attack. You can try to cheer him up and give him hope that she’ll return, but eventually that course convinces him to go home and check things out. He refuses any offer of help in getting back there, and before you know it the probably-doomed child is off to find his mother.
“Origins” Isn’t Just a Fancy Title
A key component in creating one’s character involves choosing where he or she comes from. Anything from human noble to elf outcast, this choice affects not only the available character classes but also the way the start of the game plays out, roughly the first four to six hours. What’s more, those early choices shape dialogue and plot revelations through the length of the games in ways both subtle and overt. The aggregate effect of these differences leads to immense replay value for what is already a lengthy — 30+ hours, easy — game.
Credit goes to BioWare for shrugging off the shackles of licensed source material and building a world to call their own. “Mass Effect” and “Jade Empire” were both better experiences for it, even if the game component didn’t quite deliver. Here, the opposite is true. “Dragon Age” makes a welcome return to the tried-and-true RPG mechanics of “KOTOR” but many players will find the land in which the action plays out rather forgettable. There’s a rich history of course, related via an exhaustive number of text-based updates in your journal-like Codex. But the beauty of a property like, say, “Star Wars” is that the depth of the universe comes out slowly and elegantly, as dictated by the demands of the story. Here, players are thrust into a world they know very little about. They are then forced to read mountains of text and cycle through simple dialogue trees for information, making the game’s early going in particular feel especially slow. For all of the subtle differences wrought in the story by different character origins, there is no subtlety in how you come to learn the world around you.
Save Early, Save Often
The auto-save system in “Dragon Age: Origins” is best described as harebrained. Sometimes it kicks in when you complete a quest or transition between locations, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s easy to lose progress if you’re not careful, so follow the old RPG adage: save early, save often.
It’s An Ugly World
“Dragon Age: Origins” is not a pretty game. “Mass Effect” looked better. Perhaps it has something to do with the familiarity of the setting, but it doesn’t matter how you justify it. Reused character skins and animations abound, the world is basically a series of non-interactive backgrounds and the spell effects are mundane as can be. “Dragon Age” gets a lot right, but don’t expect much in the way of eye candy.
“Dragon Age: Origins” is BioWare’s best effort since “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.” It’s not a great leap forward in the evolution of video game RPGs, but it is a compelling, well-crafted experience. The warts are there to be sure, but they are easily overlooked in light of the insane amount of game on offer. BioWare probably won’t win many new fans with this one and they’ll probably lose a few who enjoyed the more active entertainment offered by the likes of “Mass Effect,” but old school RPG junkies will get a kick out of exploring the rich, if initially difficult to breach, new world that the developer has crafted.