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Review | Dragon Age: Origins

Format: Xbox360/PC/PS3 | Genre: RPG | Publisher: EA | Developer: BioWare | Release date: 06/11/09 | RRP: £34.99-£49.99

By Lewis Denby

dragonage1When you think about it, the entire role-playing genre is all about origin stories.

Sure, the focus is invariably on progression.  You level up, you gain abilities, you push onwards towards some sort of greater good.  On the surface, it’s about moving forwards, about looking to the future.  But what’s the first thing you always do – in traditionally structured RPGs, at least?  You build a character.  You birth a life.  Fallout 3 understood this, embedding its character creation into a literal character birth.  Some games opt to make their openings as inconsequential as possible, ensuring they can be played through with choices along the way making the real differences, rather than those few minutes at the start.  But it’s always there.  You start with character sheets.  Origin stories.  It’s just that BioWare are the first to make a game that’s so completely dependent on them.

I played as a human noble.  A female one.  As such, my story began on an elegant estate, filled with extended family members and run by servants.  A Grey Warden was in town, a man of the most revered and mysterious of orders.  He was looking for recruits.  A war raged against the Darkspawn – a race of evil creatures that emerge from the ground and wreak havoc on the population, the first sign of an impending Blight.  My father and brother were preparing to head for battle.  As a young woman, I wasn’t permitted to fight alongside them.

Then, anarchy.  Betrayal.  A legion of armed invaders, hell-bent on seizing the estate in the family leader’s absence.  An escape.  Moral and pragmatic decisions, with real consequences.  A voyage into the wilderness for important supplies, and an initiation ceremony with a 50/50 chance of fatality.  An enormous, dramatic battle against the Darkspawn.  Another betrayal.  My origin story.  Start to finish, it took around two hours.

There are six of these origin stories in Dragon Age, and the one you’ll play will depend on your choices in the character creation menus.  While they all merge at the point of recruitment to the Grey Wardens, the experiences of each are wildly different before that, and their events and the choices you make lead to a radically different game experience.  A combined 12 hours of introduction, then – roughly the same length as Mass Effect’s main story.  In Dragon Age, the real story doesn’t begin until afterwards.

dragonage2This is a huge game.  Enormous.  There is no way you could see it all.  To do so would mean playing through the 50-hour-plus campaign not only six times, but also with opposing choices at every turn along the way.  While the game is multi-linear as opposed to non-linear, and progression through the main plot is to a point pre-defined, all Dragon Age’s phenomenal intricacy lies within your choices – of who to speak to, of which characters with whom align yourself, of your chosen party members and your decisions all the way back in your origin story.  I probably won’t play Dragon Age again – not for a while, at least.  I quite like that I’ve seen but a spec of its universe, been told only a single side of the story.  It makes that story mine.

This is Dragon Age, based on my story.  But first, an important preface.

It would be foolish to ignore the key differences between the PC and console versions of Dragon Age.  I played on the 360, which I found to be a perfectly acceptable way of experiencing the game.  But it is noticeably different in a few key areas.  Visually, the 360 version is a mixed bag – textures are often muddy, the lighting frequently a little off – but there’s a subtle beauty that often shines through.  This is a detailed world, and although it’s rendered much more consistently on the PC, the 360 does a decent job of replicating the mood.  Less impressive are a number of animation glitches and scenery pop-ups, which may or may not be isolated to the version I played.  They are in no way deal-breakers for me, but if you’re particularly sensitive to this sort of thing, consider this a word of caution.

More significantly, the combat system has been split and tailored to each version of the game.  On the consoles, the camera is fixed in a third-person view, and while you can control it with the right analogue stick, it can’t be zoomed in or out, or moved up and down.  On the PC it can, snapping all the way out into a tactical overhead view to you a greater sense of the battlefield, and allowing you to dish out tactics more carefully.  Notably, the PC version’s combat seems to be more challenging accordingly.  Where it requires regular pausing to dish out orders to party members, the 360 version encourages mostly real-time fighting, with a radial menu pausing the game and allowing you to stack commands.  On both versions, each party member can be individually controlled, and even on the consoles, you’ll find yourself doing so regularly on anything above the easiest setting, to avoid your entire party being wiped out in a matter of seconds.


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    Fantastic review, Lewis, really did emulate my feelings on the game. I started in Orzammar as a Dwarven noble, and loved every minute of it, especially returning later with a Dwarven golem and watching their reactions shift accordingly.

    I’m not all the way through yet, though I’ve already had two 12-hours-plus play sessions, As for the romance, dwarf-fellow has fallen for Liliana, and though I’m not in it for the nudity (I tend to feel very awkward when it crops up, especially the she-demon who seems to enjoy herself a lot, and the werewolf leader), I think their relationship seems pretty impressive. I think because gifts stop having a major effect after two or three, you’re forced to talk to speed things up, and it’s sweet watching her burst into song and then get all embarassed as Grumnir (my toon) tells her it’s lovely and finally gives her a kiss. A little clunky at times, but nice. I plan to have an elf rogue (male) fall in love with one of the male characters too, as I’d like to see if they deal with it any differently.

    Great review, expect a blog on it sometime this month.

  • It’s worth mentioning that I thought the actual interactions between characters was fantastic. The banter’s convincing, and the coyness between interested parties is really cute. But it’s all a means to an end. I would have been much more impressed if you did that for the whole game, then even right at the end, the girl/guy said “What? Oh, no, no, I don’t like you like /that/.” Y’know?

    (That said, I was pleasantly surprised that an unrelated relationship-thing happened on its own, without my direct influence. Which I won’t spoil, but it was a really natural moment.)

    RE: the gifts – I didn’t notice that. Is that the case? All I noticed is that different characters have a preference of which sorts of gifts they like.

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