Recently, Bioware flew a handful of gaming journalists out to their Edmonton-based office to see some demos of Dragon Age: Origins and its world-building toolset, spend some time talking to various key figures working on the project, and devote a good twelve hours or so to playing the final PC code. What I took away from the experience is not just that Bioware very likely has a holiday winner on their hands come November 3rd, it’s that they’re clearly thinking bigger than a single video game or even series of video games. Much bigger. Dragon Age, as a property, represents nothing less than a sword point aimed squarely at the Dungeons and Dragons franchise.
Sure, the Dragon Age video game is certainly the biggest piece of the pie and most of this feature is devoted to it, but it also didn’t take much time spent in the great white north to see that the scope of Bioware’s plans for the IP are much broader. It’s the first shot out of the cannon. The game’s lead writer, David Gaider, already has two Dragon Age novels out on the market. Talk to lead designer, Mike Laidlaw, and you’ll hear all about their extensive plans for official downloadable content for Origins, which we now know should keep coming for at least the next two years. Co-founders Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka are more than happy to talk up how excited they are about the world-building toolset and social networking site, and how they’ll work together to make the mod-community for the original Neverwinter Nights look like a mere proof of concept. Talk to executive producer, Mark Darrah, and you’ll hear plenty about all the non-video gaming plans they have for Dragon Age, whether it’s the pen and paper RPG system or even a likely board game and card game. And there can be no doubt that there’s plenty going behind closed doors that they won’t begin to speculate on to us press wonks. Who has time to talk sequel when every available finger is already stuck in a different pie?
One cannot underestimate the pressure all this must surely put on those tasked with making the game a huge success: The designers, programmers, artists, and writers, not to mention the folks who market the game or handle its PR. Were it to flop, a lot of other carefully laid plans are likely to go right down the drain along with it, not to mention a handful of careers. If the reactions of the eleven of us that spent those few days at Bioware are any indication, however, there’s not much chance of that particular doomsday scenario coming to pass. To a person, there was not one of us who didn’t lament the fact that when we took our leave of Bioware that it would be weeks before we could continue our adventures in Ferelden.
This game is good. Really good.
That probably won’t come as a surprise to people who have been playing Bioware’s games for the last ten to fifteen years. No, they’re not all perfect, nor will Dragon Age be, but when it comes to RPGs, even their less commercially successful efforts, like Jade Empire, have a rabidly devoted fan base. Indeed, no group of players has more to look forward to from Dragon Age: Origins than Bioware’s oldest fans, those gaming graybeards who helped put Bioware on the map with their enthusiastic support of the two PC-based Baldur’s Gate games.
Bioware has long talked about this being a spiritual successor to those games and they’re not exaggerating. Any fan of the old Infinity Engine-based games that sits down to play this will be right at home and not just because Bioware is bringing back the heroic fantasy of their D&D-licensed days. The controls, particularly when using the tactical camera view, are instantly familiar, whether it’s how you strategically direct your party’s characters during combat or the way you can hold down the Tab key to highlight all clickable objects on the screen. It’s like coming home again after spending years abroad. Everything is familiar and yet oh-so-different. Of course, the scenery in this case looks just a skosh better than back in the day.
No, the graphics of Dragon Age are not likely to blow you fully out of the water, but that hardly stops the game from being a marvel to take in. One need only look at the fantastically detailed architecture of the fortress Ostagar to appreciate the effort that went into the art direction. Towering, but crumbling, spires, heroic statues that invoke memories of an age long gone, and more all generate a sense of awe and wonder I’ve not felt from a work of fantasy since Peter Jackson brought to life The Lord of the Rings. If anything stuck out to me from those first few hours of play it’s the attention to detail the world has to offer and I can only hope this game carries that early promise through to the end; a tall order considering it’s said to offer in excess of 100 hours of gameplay to those who explore every last nook and cranny.
The other aspect of the game that clearly stood out is just how fully realized the world’s history and characters are. When you start out, the type of character you build – human, elf or dwarf; rogue, warrior, or mage- determines the type of origin you experience. Each of the six origin stories, which themselves take a couple of hours to complete, are wholly unique and each serve to bond you to the character you have created, while introducing you to the world you now inhabit. I elected to go with the human noble origin, which placed me as the younger brother of a noble family ranked not far beneath the king himself. It’s not easy to invest a player in a story in just a couple of hours, but by the time my character’s origin had fully played out they had me sucked in, hook, line and sinker.
From there, regardless of your particular origin, begins the main story, in which your character is adopted into the Grey Wardens, an old order pledged to unite and defend the world from an apocalypse known as the Blight. The key to this aspect of the story is that a Blight is a very specifically defined event and not everyone in the world of Ferelden agrees that one is occurring. Darkspawn, twisted and evil creatures that represent Ferelden’s primary menace, are ever present, but only when they raise up an Old God to become an Archdemon to lead them does it become a Blight and threaten the world. And because not everyone thinks this is actually happening, there are several prominent characters –even early on in the game- who are far more interested in fortifying their own base of power rather than worrying about such pedestrian things like saving the world. In the end, it’s going to be your job to bring not only disparate groups of humans together, but also the likes of dwarves, elves and others.
Even in the early parts of the game it’s clear that betrayal is a theme that plays a crucial and continuing role, a notion that Mike Laidlaw confirmed while noting that the game’s other themes center around violence and lust (for both love and power). Certainly, each of these is a powerful idea that, if explored thoroughly and maturely, could create a one of a kind gaming experience and lend credibility to Bioware’s claim that this is not just a dark heroic fantasy, but one that will appeal to audiences hungry for a thoroughly adult gaming experience. The question then becomes whether or not the Dragon Age team at Bioware has been successful at presenting these themes in a way that won’t come off as childish or gratuitous; an idea that has not been effectively sold by many of the marketing videos and presentations over the past six months.
Let’s face it, it’s not easy to put mature themes, like sexual content, into a video game and have it come off as sincere and adult rather than the product of a fourteen year old geek’s fascination with breasts. Nor is it easy to support the idea that the violence inherent in the game isn’t gratuitous when the mere act of slaying a room full of rats leads to your character being coated from head to toe in blood splatter, as was the case during my character’s origin story. Granted, a two minute marketing video or demonstration doesn’t provide the sort of context that you get from actually spending a few dozen hours actually playing the game.
Spend some real time playing Dragon Age and you start to see how the idea of something like blood thematically permeates all facets of the game: The role Darkspawn blood plays for the Grey Wardens; the role dragon blood plays in a specific quest for which we watched a demo; the George R. R. Martin-esque nobility, in which the blood in a character’s veins can mean everything. Regardless of whatever impression you get from marketing videos, blood is not just used in this game as a visual to gore it up. It’s a core part of the Dragon Age world, and when viewed through that prism, it’s very hard to view its implementation in this game as gratuitous.
Moving beyond the game is the look we got at the community site and toolset Bioware is releasing alongside it that aims to bring both players and module-makers together using concepts pioneered by social networking sites like Facebook. Even now you can download a character creator and upload your character’s profile and photo to the community site, which allows you to create a profile that receives updates directly from the game. Fulfill an achievement and your profile page reflects it. Start a new character and it shows on your page. Are you module makers looking to get some help from a decent artist? The site can help hook you up with just the person you need or vice-versa. As easy as it is to dismiss the idea of a Bioware-specific version of Facebook, there’s a lot of aspects to it that just plain make sense and should help drive not only a conversation among players, but also the creation and distribution of fan-made content much the same way the Neverwinter Vault did (and does) for Neverwinter Nights.
Speaking of which, the toolset itself allows individuals and teams to create and distribute their own scenarios utilizing the Dragon Age engine. It’s clearly an evolution of the aforementioned Neverwinter Nights model. There’s no doubt from the presentation we witnessed that the toolset is incredibly powerful, much more powerful than that of Neverwinter. A dedicated individual or group could produce amazing content with these tools. At the same time, it does seem that only the extremely dedicated will be able to produce any content at all. It’s not so much that these tools are incredibly complex, and we did get a look at a very thorough wiki manual that should be able to help anyone get comfortable with them, it’s that they’re very deep and very detailed. Any effort to put together a quality module is sure to require a committed effort with painstaking attention to detail and one can’t help but wonder how many people will be able to prove themselves up to the challenge.
There’s also the question of how easy a sell these tools will be to aspiring module creators. In some ways it was surely easier to sell people on the idea of a module-based game when you had a D&D licensed product, like Neverwinter Nights. D&D is built on the notion of the player and the dungeon master, so there was a certain logic to the idea that Neverwinter was a game for both crowds. Whether or not Bioware can hook those same people on a completely new IP is a legitimate question that will only be answered over the coming months and years.
When you look at the enormous scope of what Bioware is doing with this new IP, the unprecedented ambition to branch out into so many other areas before the game itself even hits shelves, there’s no shortage of reasons to think that, with Dragon Age, Bioware has Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons property squarely in their sites. If taking that property on is the goal, they’ve had plenty of time during this game’s long development to lay out the sort of plans that could eventually make that happen. It’s a big gamble, but sometimes big gambles pay off in a big way and there are reasons to believe Dragon Age has a chance to pull it off.
Regardless of the end goal, however, in the here and now there’s no reason whatsoever to think that Dragon Age: Origins will be anything less than a critical darling. Whether or not it will get sales to match is anybody’s guess, but if history has taught us anything it’s that there are two things you should never do: 1) Get involved in a land war in Asia and 2) Doubt Bioware’s ability to sell quality, intricate gaming experiences to the masses.
*Originally published at Gameshark.com, 11/2009
*Minor text updates 2/16/2016