Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Bid farewell to your family and friends. Bioware's return to the high fantasy RPG will consume your personal life.
Bioware has a rich tradition of crafting high quality role playing games (RPGs). Beginning with the Baldur's Gate series and later with the Neverwinter Nights games, Bioware set the standard for trading the pen and paper of D&D gaming in for a PC and mouse. After transitioning from elves and spells to wookies and the Force, and creating one of the best Star Wars video games ever in Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware stayed in the realm of science fiction with their original game Mass Effect and its upcoming sequel. While these latter games have been great, gamers like myself have been wondering when they'd get back to their roots. With the release of Dragon Age Origins, the wait is over. And boy, has it been worth it.
In thinking about how to review this game, I've realized that Dragon Age Origins is greater than the sum of its parts. I could break this review down into analyses of each of its components – graphics, voice-acting, story, design, controls, etc. – and talk about whether they are a strength or weakness and try to make a judgment about the game as a whole (as I've done with past reviews). But such a point of view doesn't serve Dragon Age Origins well. It's too easy, as other reviewers have done, to find faults with one aspect or another, and (to borrow a phrase) miss the forest for the trees.
Bioware achieves greatness with Dragon Age Origins by creating a massive, complex fantasy world, thrusting the player into a classic world-threatened-by-evil narrative, and giving him/her myriad ways to direct how the game unfolds. While original, the story is not so different from that of Lord of the Rings. In the world of Fereldon's distant past a group of mages attempted to ascend to godhood. For their corruption and hubris they were cast down by The Maker and became the first of the Darkspawn. A cycle followed whereby once every several hundred years the Darkspawn amassed enough strength to bring about a Blight – an attempted conquering of the world (sounds similar to Sauron and Middle Earth, right?).
An ancient order of warriors from every race of Fereldon, The Grey Wardens, has stood opposed to the Darkspawn and has successfully repelled the Blights. But it has been almost half a millennium since the last Blight, respect for the Grey Wardens has dwindled (so too have their numbers), and strife and civil war threaten the land. Simply put, the Darkspawn have chosen precisely the wrong (or right, from their point of view) time to launch a new Blight. As a new recruit of the Grey Wardens, it falls to you to stop the rising tide of darkness.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. A big reason why Dragon Age Origins includes "origins" in the title is the focus on various beginnings for different character types. Instead of past fantasy RPGs that provide a single origin for the player regardless of what kind of character they build (I'm looking at you Elder Scrolls), Dragon Age Origins offers 6 different beginnings to experience, and each accounts for about an hour of unique gameplay before they all converge onto the main thrust of the game's story (stopping the Darkspawn). I've played through 2 of the 6 possible openings, and while I doubt I'll actually play through the entire game 6 times, there was more than enough variation with my elvish mage from my human noble warrior that I fully intend to start up and play through the other 4 origins. And who knows? As I said one of the great things about Dragon Age Origins is the plethora of opportunities to make interesting, potentially game-changing choices. The replayability of this game is incredibly high, which if you love a good fantasy RPG is icing on the cake.
While Dragon Age Origins is a single-player game, it is not a solo experience. Like Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect, and other of Bioware's projects you play with a party of up to 4 characters (including yours). There are 10 NPCs that can be recruited to your cause that run the gamut of races and classes. While you can't swap party members in and out on the fly you're free to experiment with different combinations. Opting for a warrior heavy party might make you an unstoppable force, but you'll go through health poultices and injury kits like mad. A mage could help conserve supplies with healing spells, not to mention rain arcane havoc done on your enemies. Bringing a rogue along ensures that no lock will come between you and an inviting door or treasure chest, and can be your best defense against hidden traps.
Though you can let the game's AI control the NPCs in your party, it is far from perfect and sooner or later you'll become annoyed with the decisions and actions made by the AI. Extensive party management isn't a must to be successful, but it greatly helps, and if you're into micromanagement, is actually quite engrossing and, dare I say, enjoyable. So too is the time spent with these NPCs. They by and large all have vibrant personalities thanks mostly to the excellent voice acting. As in Mass Effect your party members can be more than just tools to complete quests. There are opportunities to develop deeper relationships and even romances with some of them. I'll actually be taking a closer look at this aspect of the game in another article (stay tuned).
I could delve deeper into the graphics, soundtrack, controls, etc., but again, I want to stay focused on the bigger picture. I find Dragon Age Origins so fun and damn near addicting because of the world Bioware has created, and is not only letting me play in, but change and shape as I see fit. The decisions I make are not merely opportunities to be good or bad, self-serving or self-sacrificing, but monumental in scope. I've played puppet-master in determining the future ruler of the dwarven kingdom of Orzammar. I've affected the balance of power between the Circle of Magi and their religious overseers The Chantry. I have decided the fates of entire races, elves and werewolves, as they battle each other for survival in the Brecilian Forest. What makes this even more fun is the fact that the decisions that face the player, decisions with deep and lasting impact, aren't presented with clear, morally right and wrong choices, and some present the player with unforeseen, and perhaps unintended consequences.
As one example (MINOR SPOILER ALERT), when faced with two candidates for the throne of Orzammar, my initially confident endorsement left me feeling more and more unease as I helped secure him the crown. After doing so, and faced with the realization that I had supported the wrong individual for the character I was playing (i.e. a do-gooder), I was faced with a decision outside of the game. Do I continue playing, and live with the consequences of my actions, or do I load a previous save-point and replay the 3-4 hours of the game so that I can ensure the other guy would be crowned king? I went with the previous save-point. That's how seriously I've been taking this game!
Are there problems and flaws here and there in Dragon Age Origins? Sure there are. Would the boastful 40+ hours of gameplay be significantly reduced if you didn't count the frequent, and at times excessively long load times? Probably. But all that aside, Dragon Age Origins exceeds any expectations I had for a fantasy RPG from Bioware, which were certainly high. It gets right what a fantasy RPG should get right, excels where one should excel, and offers an engrossing, exceptional gaming experience for any RPG fan.