In many ways Dragon Age is a wonderfully perplexing game. It’s very easy to sit back and declare it the single best role playing game ever constructed. In a lot of ways it is exactly that. It’s also easy to focus on the ways it could have been better and conclude it’s a disappointment. There’s really no single element in this game that is truly innovative or original. There’s nothing here that you, if you’ve been around long enough, haven’t seen before. There are longstanding and outdated tropes of the fantasy genre that are sure to grate on players, especially those who don’t live and breath the traditional PC RPG. Yet at the same time, there has really never been anything quite like this wonderful game.
Dragon Age is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Every little piece you pull out of the box has a shape you’ve seen before, loaded with familiar colors. But they’re all cut just a little bit different and, when they’re assembled, they create something that is not only epic in scope, but also utterly beautiful and totally unique. This is every bit the game fans of the old Infinity Engine games (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Tormet) have been waiting nearly a decade to play. It’s also a game that Bioware hopes will draw a legion of new adherents to the genre, a goal that is not as easily reached.
Following a brief in-plot tutorial that serves as a jumping off point for your player character’s origin story -there are six different origins to choose from, ranging from human noble to dwarven commoner to elven mage- you’re introduced to the larger world as a potential recruit in the order of the Grey Wardens. This is an order dedicated to fighting back the world’s primary nemesis, the darkspawn, which have a nasty habit every few hundred years of raising up a dead Old God and corrupting it, resulting in the birth of an Arch Demon to lead them. Putting an end to this world-threatening uprising, known as a Blight, is at the core of Dragon Age’s story, but it barely begins to sum up everything you’ll be dealing with while trying to unite several disparate groups of Ferelden’s community against this common foe.
Character creation in the game is fairly standard RPG fare and utilizes a system of character attributes (strength, dexterity, cunning, etc.), classes (warrior, rogue, mage), skills (combat training, poison making, etc.), and talents (spell classes, fighting styles, lock picking, etc.) that is instantly familiar to anyone who has played a Dungeons and Dragons-licensed game. The system does its job in that points spent on attributes do impact what you can and cannot do in the game and every skill and talent has its place in the game world.
At the same time, however, it can be tricky figuring out how to build your character because there’s no sense of scale to the numbers. In D&D a 22 in strength basically makes you the equivalent of Hercules, but in Dragon Age you’re expected to drive that number up from the teens to the high 30s or even low 40s just to wear “massive” class armor. What does having a 40 in cunning do for me that a 36 doesn’t? The world may never know. At the very least, it would have been nice if players, particularly those who are new to this genre, had some mechanism (even were it limited) that allowed them to respec their characters mid-game, allowing them to overcome character building mistakes made as a result of not understanding a brand new role playing system. I know there are a lot of reasons not to let players “cheat” in this manner, but if the goal is to bring in new people to the genre, you need to throw them some bones. (There is a user-created mod available to PC players that lets you respec your characters.)
In a lot of ways this is a game that demands to be played through at least twice, and not just because there’s so many different origins or because there are so many different paths you can take – there are a ton and they do affect the end game and what happens to the world when all is said and done. Really, an initial play-through of the game, which can take anywhere from 50 to 100 hours depending on how much time you spend on side quests and reading in-game lore, really just serves as an introduction to the world and the system so that your next time through you can focus more on just playing the game rather than merely learning it.
Perhaps the best strength of this game is that it has so many strengths. Pick a half dozen people who are fans of the genre and you’re likely to get a half dozen different answers as to what the game does best. If you’re a story-driven player, you’re sure to find a story here that is as epic as any seen in an RPG. The themes of love and betrayal, of blood and sacrifice, are expertly laid out in this game. There are times the story falls on tired conventions of the genre and times when it transparently attempts to manipulate your emotions, but for every character with an obvious ulterior motive, for every time an NPC falls out of character in the name of forcing the plot where the designers want it to go, there are just as many moments where you simply have to sit back and say to yourself, “Wow. I did not see that coming,” a twist that instills in you righteous need for retribution, or pity for people cursed by a far more cruel fate than they deserved. There are moments in this game’s story, a single line from one of the game’s possible epilogues in particular, that will be with me for a long time to come.
If it’s a fully realized world, one in which you can immerse yourself, that you crave, you’ll find a lot here to like. Sure, the Lord of the Rings influence is ever-present, as is the influence of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, as is the influence of our own world history (the Chantry is an analog to Catholicism, for example), but the way all these influences are woven together has created a much more visceral and real world for you to inhabit than I have ever seen in a game. One gets the sense that if you asked its lead writer, David Gaider, to write a prequel based around events of, say, the 36th year of the fourth age, that he would already be able to tell you who ruled which lands, what social movements dominated public discourse, etc. You really can spend just as much time reading about the history of the kingdom of Ferelden as you can hacking the heads off darkspawn.
If you want intricate intense, tactical combat between your band of renown and anyone who dares to stand in your way, that’s here too. On the PC version of the game, in particular, this is a very similar combat model to the old Baldur’s Gate games. Pausing the action and taking the time to direct your party members and make intelligent use of their skills and equipment is essential. There’s no wading into combat with four tanks and carrying the day. You need magic. You need swords. You need a trusty rogue with a bow or the ability to outflank and enemy and stab him in the back. Fortunately, if you want to avoid tedious micromanagement there is an expansive tactics system that lets you customize and automate AI behavior in combat. Using this system doesn’t exempt you from being an effective field general, however. It still requires a lot of tactical thinking, advanced planning, and you still need to be fairly hands on when the arrows start flying, but it is effective at reducing micromanagement. If that’s not your thing, you’d be better off playing the console version of the game, which is still challenging, but is a bit more hack and slash and not as tactically demanding. (The PC version, for example, includes a top-down tactical camera view that was completely omitted from the console version.)
As much as there is to love about this game, it is blatantly not for everyone. Bioware has spent months trying to convince us that this is a game for the masses, that it’s D&D with a touch of rock and roll. It’s incredibly not. This is a role player’s role playing game. That shouldn’t stop you from playing if you’re new to the genre. Just don’t go in expecting fantasy Halo. Don’t even go in expecting Fallout 3 or Mass Effect. This is a different animal. For instance, if you don’t want to spend, literally, half your play time just talking to people, this is not your game. There’s no ignoring the plot here. Non player characters have things to say and more often than not you need to hear them.
If you expect an easy game, even on an easy difficulty, don’t come knocking here. This game is hard. Even when played on the Easy difficult level it can be a real challenge. This is more true of the PC version than the console, but neither game version can be played with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back. I’ve been playing these games for the better part of two decades and there were still a couple of times where I had to drop down to Easy in order to survive a particularly difficult encounter. On the bright side, the game does make it easy to change difficulty levels on the fly and it doesn’t penalize you for doing so.
There’s also not a lot of exploring you can do in this game. This, to me, was probably the most disappointing aspect of the game. If you prefer the Bethesda school of game design (Oblivion, Fallout 3) where you can wander for hours and hours and not even encounter the main plot, you’re going to feel restricted in Dragon Age. There are a metric ton of places to go and things to see, and they’re almost universally beautiful places, but once you’re there, there’s very little room to wander. Many areas, particularly those located indoors, are very confined, often with just a single path to follow until you reach the end. As much as I loved playing around in this game world, I would have liked it better if it had allowed me to just explore it, rather than constantly have to follow a path.
In the lead-up to its release, much has been made of the game’s depiction of sex and violence. As per usual, it’s mostly a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. The only off-putting aspect of the game’s more violent elements is the persistent blood splatter. Kill some rats, get covered in blood. There are times it fits and at times it’s just silly, but if it bothers you, you can turn the persistent blood splatter off. The combats are still graphically violent, for sure, but we are talking about guys hacking each other to bits with sharp metal here. Of course it’s going to be bloody.
The controversial sexual content in the game is even less noteworthy. Can it be immature? You betcha. It can also be compelling and even, at times, touching. So much depends on how you play it. You can act like an undersexed wank and giggle at the 60 seconds of cut scenes showing two adults kissing in their underwear, but on whom does that really reflect? There’s an old parental adage, I’ll stop treating you like a child when you stop acting like one. The bottom line is that you get out of the “romantic” aspects of this game what you put into them. Love is as much a part of any epic story as sacrifice, loyalty, and heroism, and it would’ve been folly for Bioware to ignore that most fundamental of human emotions in a story specifically crafted to get you emotionally involved.
Ultimately, Dragon Age: Origins is quite possibly the best game ever to come out of Bioware. That alone puts it on the short list for best role playing game ever made. It’s not everything it could or even should have been. There are moments where the graphics, dialog, and general gameplay get in the way of the experience; an AI party member who refuses to stay in a flanking position, a crucial plot twist that is too obviously forced, a seemingly important choice that didn’t seem to have the necessary consequences, or a beautiful, intricate world that is far too restrictive. These faults all pales in comparison to everything that Bioware has gotten right with this game. This is a pure gem that is among the few AAA releases to not only match its hype, but exceed it. The first thing I wanted to do after putting more than 70 hours into finishing it was to start over again with a new character, which is as good a testament as any to how wonderfully addicting it is. On their About Bioware web page, Bioware tells us that their vision is to, “deliver the best story-driven games in the world.” Mission accomplished.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB: M (Mature)
Genre: Strategy fans who like to sniff the salty sea air
Players: 1 (if you ask for multiplayer we get to slap you; just once, but hard and across the face)
Platform: PC (also available on 360 and PS3)
*Originally published at Gameshark.com, 11/2009
*Minor text updates, 2/16/2016