Monday, 09 November 2009 19:40

Dragon Age: Origins (PC, 2009)

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Overview

Dark times have come to the nation of Fereldan. Having recently freed itself from a century of occupation by a neighboring country, now a new, ancient threat has begun to move in the southern reaches of her lands. The darkspawn, a twisted mockery of life created when the mages of old attempted to breach the Maker's city, are rising. So evil that just being splattered by their blood can be enough to corrupt you and turn you into one of them when it doesn't just kill you, they are legion – and man alone is not enough to fight them. Enter the Gray Wardens, an order of heroes who appeared when all hope seemed lost during the first invasion by the darkspawn so long ago. Men and women of all race and creed, immune to the taint, and gifted with unheard of strength and power and... Oh, sod it, we've heard this story before, let's just get on with the review.

Review

As a rule, I tend to summarize the first fifteen minutes or so of a game as part of my introduction. However, that's rather difficult to do in Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare's new fantasy RPG, where each possible race/class combination has its own, discreet prelude story that takes place before the game itself begins – a prelude that, in and of itself, is worth better than an hour of... Well, I was about to say gameplay, but that's not one hundred percent accurate. It'll work, though, so just keep it in mind for now. You get to know some of the mechanics of your character's abilities, get to experience some setup for the story to come, and a chance to get familiar with your class's combat style. As 'tutorial' gameplay portions go, these introductory sequences actually rate surprisingly high. Unlike many, there's scarcely any hand-holding – and what little there is isn't absolutely mind-numbing.

So, alright, I did try to give you a picture of the backstory that creates the backbone of Dragon Age in my overview. Some interminably long time before the events of the game, the mages of an ancient, powerful nation were working on unlocking the secrets of the 'Fade', the dream world where all souls fly when their bodies are asleep. Well, all souls save those of the dwarves, anyway. Mages are especially drawn to it – they retain their consciousness in the Fade and are able to enter it while waking, through certain rituals. This isn't all great, mind you – there are a great number of demonic spirits in the Fade – demons of rage, desire, sloth, the occasional pride... If you're picking up on a theme here... These spirits want in on the mortal plane, and they can inhabit a Mage's body to do it, turning them into horrible, twisted abominations in the process.

Aside from that little detail though, it's not too bad a place – nice enough that The Maker – note the caps there – decided to build his city there. Naturally, we humans are neighborly, nosy people and decided to drop in. Turns out The Maker didn't like that much, and cast out the mages rather harshly, changing their bodies to reflect the magnitude of their sin, which in this case means turning them into slavering, ghoulish goblin-like creatures that despise life as we know it and prefer their meat still screaming... I've said this once already, but we've heard this story before. It's Fantasy Plot 101 – humans fuck things up and turn into our own, worst enemy of relentless cannibalistic evil. It's not that I take a great deal of offense from such a bread-and-butter basis, but put bluntly... this is basics. There's nothing unique here. This is not what I was expecting from the company that brought us Mass Effect. No – worse, this is beneath the company that brought us Mass Effect.

Alright though, this is the backstory we're stuck with so there's not much I can do about it. As with any setup work, it's not so much the basis of a story as the execution of it that's really important, and here Dragon Age fairs far better. A lot of the plot retains that simple, straightforward, bread-and-butter storytelling, but it's a twelve-grain whole-wheat, apple-butter with a dash of honey sort of bread-and-butter. Similar to Mass Effect – folks, I'm going to be drawing a lot of parallels to BioWare's other massively story-driven game here, just so you're aware – once the game gets going there are several main points of contention that will require your attention, as well as a number of smaller sub-plots and quests to complete that help to craft both the history and current events of the characters around you.

These major locations can be tackled in almost any order, but there may – or may not, mind you – be advantages to going to one place before another. For example, one choice you face involves using forbidden 'blood magic' to save an NPC, or going to the Circle of Magi and getting their help. Of course, the Circle of Magi have their own problems – problems you're going to have to solve sooner or later. If you deal with them first, then it's just a matter of walking in and asking for their help. If not, well... That's a path I haven't actually taken yet, so I don't know if it would mean the loss of the NPC because of the extra time it would take, or if it would just be a speed-bump sort of thing.

There's a lot of these sorts of cross-story events to be found woven through Dragon Age: Origins. My first character was a 'Wild Elf' rogue/ranger type, while my second is human mage, a new graduate from the Circle of Magi's ranks. The story has changed in reaction to these two differing characters. Mages aren't exactly loved in the world of Dragon Age – at least not until their magic becomes useful – but at least they're human and not subject to the thousands of years of slavery that my Wild Elf's ancestors escaped into the forests from. Prejudices, prejudices, BioWare played this song in Mass Effect, but not at anything resembling this level. More importantly, not only has the story changed between the two characters, it's also remained consistent between the two. You meet and interact with a particular blood mage in the course of the story. This same blood mage features prominently in the mage's introduction – in fact, you've been friends for years. This sort of consistency is what helps – greatly – to raise Dragon Age above its very, very basic premise.

What isn't so consistent is the individual scenario level of writing. Most of the plot is very well written, with complex character interactions and very well constructed twists and turns. However, this isn't always true of the various mini-quests, and even some of the mid-level NPC conversations. I mean, there are sections where the writing reminds me of some of the great contemporary fantasy authors – Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett, Mercedes Lackey. And then there are some sections that left me curled up in a huddled, shivering mass of horrified memories from the days when I used to read fan-fiction. I mean, this is the sort of writing that I'd expect to find in a bad 'I love Reyocko, Eyeyucka suwks!' fic! Yes, if you're wondering, that is intentionally misspelled.

The world seen in Dragon Age is what I consider to be a 'natural progression' fantasy world. It's not the land of High Fantasy, where humans, elves, dwarves, etc live in relative peace and stability, each group roughly equal in power. No, this world is one that is the likely natural result of thousands of years of human growth and expansion. The Elves have been enslaved by humans a couple times – first by the Tevinter Imperium long ago, then again later by the 'Chantry' – you can read that as 'Church' – when they refused to accept the teachings of the human scriptures. Ooh, there's another big one, religion. I'll come back to that later on. In the meantime, it's worth mentioning that the story focuses a LOT on the themes of both prejudice AND religion, and how they can shape – or even twist – conceptions.

Like its sci-fi cousin, you can recruit a small army of additional party members in Dragon Age to join you in your quest. Now, unlike Mass Effect, there are a couple... very distinct supporting characters among these party members that I need to touch on. There's Alistair, a Grey Warden warrior-type character you meet as the real story begins. An all-around good guy, he was training to be a templar – a mage-hunting warrior – before being recruited as a Warden. He begins to feature very prominently as the story continues, and fortunately he's a good solid tank. The other 'major' player is a witch you meet shortly after Alistair named Morrigan. I put quotes around that because it's possible to miss her entirely if you screw up your conversations after a certain event. If Alistair functions as the 'voice of virtue' for the game, then Morrigan, as her name might suggest, is the 'voice of evil'. Well, no, strike that. Not evil, Morrigan would be the voice of practicality.

Extreme practicality.

Hmm, perhaps it would be better to explain something about the way the classes work in Dragon Age: Origins before I go too much farther. There's three 'base' classes to be found, warrior, mage, and rogue. Each base class has four specializations you can take that shape your combat abilities; as you level you are able to choose up to two of the four. Choosing a specialization opens up four class abilities for you to use. The ranger specialization of the rogue base gains the ability to summon animal companions to fight with the group, while the shapeshifter specialization of the mage class allows the mage to literally turn into a given animal, ala a World of Warcraft druid. All of the additional characters you can pickup start with one specialization already chosen – Morrigan is a shapeshifter, Alistair is a templar, etc, etc.

This leads into my first big issue with Dragon Age, actually. Between the many specializations available and the large number of base class skills, there should be a great deal of flexibility to be found here. Instead, with the painfully, horribly thought out level cap of 25, and only one point per level to buy new skills with, you're forced into buying a certain subset of very important skills, to the point of almost precluding the more exotic skills if you want to have a character that remains playable later in the game. Worse – much worse – than the lack of flexibility in skills are the insanely low attribute improvements. With three points to spread amongst six attributes per level, it's easy to think early on that you have time to improve your scores. By nature, I take a balanced approach to improving my ability scores – improving my important stats first, but spreading the points around. In truth, better weapons and armor almost immediately become unusable if you don't have enough strength – and in order to have enough strength, you have to skip entirely upgrading your constitution – health – or dexterity. You can't buy certain important skills, if you don't have enough cunning or dexterity.

More importantly, though, is the question of class balance, and Dragon Age doesn't fair much better here, either. First and foremost, rogue and warrior bases are practically interchangeable. They share many of the same general skills. Warriors of course have some additional defensive skills, while rogues have lock picking and critical hit skills to work on, but both classes can take and dish out a fair amount of damage. So why is it, eight hours into my game on my mage, that I'm wondering why I even bother bringing any additional group members with me? Like any game, the mage can't take much damage, but can deal it out in horrendous amounts. In Dragon Age, however, with just a couple early purchases, it's possible to control and destroy large groups of enemies while barely touching your mana pool. Embarrassingly easy, in fact. Mages can't take much damage – but that's not a problem if MoBs can't get anywhere near you because they die almost before they get a chance to attack.

Apparently BioWare does agree with me, at least on this. Less than 72 hours after game launch, they released a patch that adjusted the class balance, and said that more was certain to come. It also addressed some issues with damage – bow damage was raised some, and they mentioned that daggers weren't doing what they were supposed to do and will be looked at in the near future. They also said, quite bluntly, that mages weren't going to be changing any time soon. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I do know that while I'm always glad to see a patch that addresses issues, I really don't like it when I see one coming out less than three days after a game hits shelves. That suggests to me that they didn't spend enough time on their testing – beta or otherwise. Of course, the real question that raises is whether that's a result of lack of time – or lazy programming. This is another one that I'm going to be coming back to, folks.

Graphically, Dragon Age: Origins is a truly stellar game. Now, I'm saying this as someone playing the game on a quad-core machine with 8 gigs of memory and a 1 gig video card feeding out to a 42" screen, so your mileage may, of course, vary depending on your rig/console. The world you enter is a lush one, with the standard RPG variety of scenery. From the verdant Brecilian forest to the underground dwarven kingdom of Orzimmar and the human capitol city of Denerium, the setting of Dragon Age is one crafted with vast attention to detail. There are some incredible atmospheric effects, too – fires summoned by your magic are vibrant and realistic, fog rises and flows through some places, and you can see through pillars of ice just like you would be able to in the real world. It's an incredibly realized world, far more visually interesting than Mass Effect's futuristic and often rather sterile one.

Unfortunately, I can't quite say the same for the various character models to be found. Dragon Age, like Mass Effect before it, is a study in how NOT to do a player customizable PC model. Everything below the neck is shared among all models of the same racial type, with only the gender and clothing providing any differentiation among them. While you're offered a reasonable number of options for adjusting you character's facial features, they're almost universally pretty fucking ugly, especially the female characters. Hair is completely stiff – it doesn't move at all, and the myriad of adjustment options available just don't do much to change your appearance. Male characters have the option of both facial hair AND stubble. The facial hair doesn't look too horrible, but the stubble looks more like dirt that was rubbed onto a face at random. It's a pathetic effect alone, and ridiculous in combination with any sort of beard, which tend to float just a little off the surface of a character's face.

Also, there's some really weird transparency texturing going on with the hair. Loose strands and flyaways have a very obvious area around them that screws around with other textures behind the character. There are all sorts of places where you can see this happening, but one of the most obvious is at the party campsite, whenever you run over to talk with Morrigan. Her hairstyle is particularly guilty of this problem, and as you talk to her you see part of an overlaying moss texture on a rock wall hidden, revealing the stone under, by a very clearly defined outline extending at least an inch around the upper edges of Morrigan's hair. Now, it's always possible that this is a driver problem on my side. I accept that. It's a brand new game, and there's always room that it could be a rendering glitch. Even so, this is going back to that whole testing problem I was talking about earlier. A driver glitch this blatant should really have been caught before the game was released.

Still, if that were the only problem, I wouldn't complain much. It's exceedingly difficult to craft a realistic humanoid body, after all, and even more so to create one that can be adjusted to a player's taste. It's effort that BioWare should have gone to, especially after the incredible amount of craft and nuance they put into the world around those models, but... understandable to have let it slide by a bit. Lazy, but understandable. However, what I can not understand, what breaks the limits of laziness, was the horrible, HORRIBLE amount of poke-through to be found on the various armor models. It's particularly noticeable on the heavy armors, where shoulder pauldrons poke right through chestplates, but there are issues scattered throughout the game. Like hair, leather and cloth armors are completely stiff. There's a scene where Morrigan is sitting down. Her skirt consists mainly of what looks like belts and buckles hanging downwards – and as she's sitting, her skirt was pointing upwards far enough to see that her knees were well away from touching the garment. This is absolutely inexcusable laziness on the part of the modelers. If this is the best BioWare can do with character modeling, I am NOT impressed.

Also, can somebody please explain to me why Morrigan, who wears a sash of cloth that leaves the vast majority of her torso exposed, including gratuitous views of her cleavage, and the sides/under edges of her breasts, wears a 'granny' bra? This from a game where one enemy wears nothing but a couple nipple caps joined by a thin gold chain, and another one that just has conveniently placed long hair. The only hair in the game, I might add, that appears to move at all... because it's glued to her chest. Consistency, please – the same thing that served them so well in the crafting of the story is their enemy here. We're talking about a game with an operating cathouse – a cathouse, I'd add, where it's possible not only to rent a member of the opposite sex, but one of the same sex, have a threesome, OR request a fucking animal! If we're going this far, why in the HELL are we being shy and putting one of the characters in an utterly OUT of character set of underclothing? Why are we bothering with clothing at all!? For fuck's sake, Daggerfall TEN YEARS AGO had prostitutes that stood around naked all throughout the game! It had in-game lore that graphically described the public not-quite-rape of a major world NPC in the middle of a seedy bar, complete with tongue-in-cheek commentary on the dangers of having sex with a catboy and their particular anatomy! I grant you, that's a long time ago and certainly not in full 3D graphics, but again, this is horribly, excessively beyond lazy. The game is already rated M, there's no reason to pretend Dragon Age is for anybody aside from an adult.

While we're on the topic of Dragon Age's Mature rating, we should spend a little time on the combat, or perhaps more precisely, the amount of sheer blood and gore to be found. I have two things for this topic, one positive, one not so much. First up, I'll give them kudos on the combat system. Dragon Age plays – on the PC, at least – like a mixture between an MMORPG like EverQuest, and a tactical RPG. You sit in a third-person view point for most of the game, with the camera situated directly behind you. Personally, I'd have preferred it being off to either side a bit, but since you can zoom in and out and pan up and down most of the problems with your character blocking your targeting is eliminated. You can even zoom out to an overhead, tactical level view, a feature exclusive to the PC version, that reveals much more of the battle field. It's useful in up close battles, but I'd have liked to see the angle focused farther forward than it was. If that's not enough for you, you're also able to pause the action at will to study the situation, queue up one order for each character, use items, whatever.

Beside the direct control option you have, Dragon Age: Origin also features a system similar in functionality to the gambit system in Final Fantasy XII. Unlike that epic, a full array of options for scripting out conditions and reactions are available from the instant you start the game, and there are also preset rules for you to make use of as well. Additionally, you can tweak the character's driving AI – making a character more aggressive, telling them to work as a ranged character, or in a defensive manner – separately from the scripted actions. As I mentioned, you can also take control of any character in your party at any time, suspending the scripts and giving you full access to their skills and abilities. This comes in handy, for example, when you have a rogue in your party and run across a locked chest or trap on the floor.

Now for the complaint. While I personally don't have any problem with gore, I do question it when I see characters losing an entire body's worth of blood in excessive, blossoming sprays of virulent red with practically every hit. Even that wouldn't be so bad, but Dragon Age features a system in which the gore stays persistently on your character if you happen to be close enough for the splatter. Now, on the one hand, this qualifies as realistic. Even applaudable, if it were handled in a proper manner. However, the 'gore' is just a simple texture overlay that gets applied to your character – one that stays there pretty much permanently until you leave that zone. You're either sparkling clean, or just covered in splattered blood. Blood everywhere – your sword, your armor, your face, a couple big splotches on your lips. There's no lower step – maybe a splash on your weapon, a spray across your chest – and no higher step – your entire body just drenched in blood, as they would be given the fact you hack and slash your way through enough enemies to fill the Pacific Ocean. No running blood either. Just stiff, full-body splatter, front and back, that just sort of sits there like a wart on a frog. Cute and strangely amusing for the first couple minutes... and then I turned it off and never bothered thinking of it again until bringing it up for this review.

Ok, enough bitching about the graphics... now it's time to move onto the voice acting! Now, I have to point this out. BioWare claims – CLAIMS – that Dragon Age: Origins is an 80+ hour game. I'm sorry, but I have to disagree, quite emphatically. Dragon Age does NOT have 80+ hours of gameplay, it has about 20. The other 60 hours are eternal, endless, interminable, CONSTANT voiced dialog scenes that are littered about like doggie doo in a pet park. You can't swing your sword without hitting at least three NPCs that want to yammer on about whatever. And the STORY NPCs! Good god, the story NPCs! I understand that we want to add proper inflection and emotion to our voice roles, but does EVERY FUCKING NPC have to drone on, enunciating every last syllable to the point of it becoming practically vocal porn!? EIGHTY HOURS OF GAMEPLAY!? WHERE?!?!?! I haven't seen an RPG with eighty hours of gameplay since having to spend that long building my levels up to face Chaos in the ORIGINAL NES FINAL FANTASY!! I could have gotten up and cooked a three course meal during a couple of these dialog scenes if I didn't have to occasionally click on a response to a question!

Ok... Sorry. But that really did need to be said. The problem of voice acting is one that's been creeping more and more into RPGs, and while I certainly appreciate and welcome the intent behind making a game of such huge scope more cinematic in form... For fuck's sake, shut the hell up and let me play the damn game. With that said, the voice acting suffers from the same good story, bad story problem that the writing itself did – and, not so coincidentally, the worse the writing, the worse the voicing. The vast majority of the main storyline is pretty damn solid, but some of the minor quests and mid-importance NPCs were pretty flaky at times. Considering that the cast of actors was 144 strong, I'm not going to complain too much. Tim Curry scored a role and did a fine job, and Claudia Black, of Farscape and Stargate: SG-1 fame plays Morrigan. Duncan, one of the other Gray Wardens, is voiced by Peter Renaday – old folks like me might be more familiar with his work as Splinter, in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a few centuries ago, not to mention a legion of other VA work. Simon Templeman, the voice of the vampire lord Kain of the Legacy of Kain series voices Loghain, the high general of Fereldan's military and father of the current Queen.

There's not a whole lot of background music to be found in Dragon Age, but what there is is well composed and very well played. I did have to eventually turn both it, and the sound effects down a fair ways, in order to hear the dialog. The mixing work done in Dragon Age: Origins is a bit shoddy, the background music too loud, and the sound effects MUCH too loud, which makes it at times difficult to hear what your party is saying. Still, this is nothing that can't be adjusted easily in the options menu, so while it deserves a mention, it's nothing to complain about. I think depending on what race/class you play, your group's bard character eventually ends up singing a really rather beautiful song that sounded Gaelic, but I can't tell you for certain, honestly.

Alright, lessie, I've got a couple more things to cover before I close this review out. First, and foremost, I'd like you to repeat a word for me. 'Atmosphere.' It has a couple of different definitions, but in this case I'm talking about what happens when setting, story, foreshadowing, tension and a healthy dose of the viewer's imagination all merge together in an almost magical way to draw them into the scene. A proper creation and maintenance of atmosphere is a rare, and wonderful thing, and its something that Dragon Age: Origins does very, very well. I touched on this a bit earlier, when I was talking about the incredibly well crafted world that we get to see while we play our way through the game. For the problems that Dragon Age has with having way, way too much dialog, bad NPC models, model poke-through, not nearly enough actual game, and inconsistent interpretation of the fact that it is NOT a game for kids, it excels at creating and maintaining an absolutely stunning atmosphere that draws you in and keeps you playing.

Next up... Loading times. Folks, just to repeat myself. I'm running a rig with a quad-core Q9550, 8 gigs of PC8500 memory, a very recent, high-end video card, and a high-speed disk drive. I should not be waiting anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes for areas to load. I quickly began to notice that the longer I played the game in a single session, the longer the load times became, to the point where every couple of hours I'd stop, save my game, close it out, and then open it back up. I think that Dragon Age: Origins must not do a very good job of cleaning up the memory that it has used, because I could watch it gradually creep up in memory usage over the space of those couple hours. BioWare is the company that brought us the absolutely mind-numbing elevator rides of Mass Effect, and one would think that they would have learned their lesson after that debacle.

Instead, not only do we have this creeping memory usage, we have a world travel system where you watch as a series of blood-drops slowly, slowly, SLOWLY make their way in the longest possible route from one important place to another... and doesn't start loading the next area until the droplets actually reach it. Folks, depending on how far you're going, it takes over a minute JUST TO GET THERE. Not only is loading slow, it often seems like you're loading into a new area every couple minutes. I've spent way, WAY too much time staring at loading screens in this game. This is just NOT acceptable. If games like World of Warcraft, Aion, and the like can manage to have NO loading times with FAR greater model density in the world – models that move around unpredictably and can do anything at any time, I might add – then Dragon Age should be able to do it. I wouldn't even mind just the occasional zoning, as in EverQuest – AS LONG AS IT HAPPENS FAST!!

Similar to Mass Effect, you can get yourself into romantic relationships with your other group members in Dragon Age, but Dragon Age takes it to the next level by turning pretty much the entire damn game into a dating simulator. Naturally, not all of the characters available are interested in adult relationships. Of the cast, Alistair and Morrigan are available for opposite-sex courting, while Leliana and Zevran are bi, but all of the cast is ruled by an approval system that goes up and down depending on your choices while you're adventuring with them. As their approval goes up, they unlock special bonus skills – Morrigan, for instance, gains 'Inspired Magic', which is a bonus to spells and the like. On the other hand, if their approval drops far enough, they can and WILL leave, permanent like.

Now, while I don't have a problem with this per se, there are a very limited number of enemies out there, and a VERY limited number of interactions in which you can improve your relationship, so you basically have to focus on one or two characters through the course of the entire game. That means keeping them in your party at all times, and, just like that, your options for flexibility are limited again. There is a gift system present that allows you to give certain items to group members to raise your approval. Some gifts are NPC specific as well, so you need to watch for a character's likes and dislikes. Giving Morrigan flowers, for instance, is likely to earn you nothing but a snide remark. The statuette of a demonic figure, on the other hand...

Moving on, one of the central themes throughout Dragon Age: Origins is the take-and-give of religion, and to slightly lesser extent, that of prejudice. As things develop, you begin to learn more and more about the Chantry, a faith founded when a woman named Andraste lead a rebellion against the controlling Tevinter Imperium. Andraste was 'The Maker's' chosen, as in, chosen to be his bride. Without revealing too much, it's believed by the Chantry – the ONLY religion allowed in Fereldan (at the very least) – that if they can spread the Word to all four corners of the earth, not to mention every last race, whether they have their own beliefs or not – all of mankind's sins will be forgiven. I've already mentioned that the elves were enslaved because they refused to accept the Chantry – this was after they'd sided with Andraste and helped her to defeat the Imperium, mind you. You should be thinking that this is a familiar story right about now, by the way. Oh, and by the way, the Chantry really, REALLY does not like the fact that Mages exist, hence the entire Templars-constantly-standing-watch-over-the-Circle-of-Magi situation that stands, just in case.

One of the many choices that you have to make through the game is how much you want to support the Chantry. You have precisely two choices: Either you're devoted, or you're rude above and beyond all calls of duty. I have a third choice that I'd have liked to see, a polite, 'Thank you, no, I have my own beliefs.' Of course, that just gets into the whole problem with pick-your-own-personality games... You usually get to pick from being either a saint, or a complete and total heel. At the least, Dragon Age and Mass Effect before it never tied you completely to either like some games do – you can be 'good' one moment, and 'evil' the next, and at least for the most part Dragon Age does provide you with something a bit more middle of the road as well. I just wish that it didn't go on a scale from 10 to –500, with good being 10 and neutral being 0. You really, REALLY have to be nasty to be bad in this game, and that's a problem that Mass Effect had too. I read recently that they figured out very few people ever play the heel role – and I had to ask, is that really any surprise, when your choices are 'decent guy' and 'Satan with PMS'?

Some of that just plain folds in on the fact that, I'm sorry, but there was a whole shitload of just plain lazy work done on Dragon Age. From the issue with hair transparency to the model poke through, the shoddy memory optimization that forced me to restart the game every couple of hours in order to keep decent load times, I just can not say that I was terribly impressed by the voluminous signs of 'rush job' I found. This shit just should not be happening in a game with such a wide spanning intention. How much better could the game have been, if they'd have done the job right, instead of doing it fast? I mean, I swear, at points it feels more like I'm playing a beta release than a launched game. There are several cinematic scenes where, because of extra character placement and where the camera is set, you can't see who's talking – all you see is a random mook standing with his back to you, blocking your view! This is just not a professional job!

The last thing that I wanted to touch on a little was the merchant system, and the tradeskilling system that goes hand in hand with it. Now, I feel that I need to preface this with the confession that, after being a fletcher in EverQuest a few lifetimes ago, I have developed something of a severe allergic reaction to ANY game mechanic focused on picking up ridiculously rare drops and fashioning them into something useful. I'll hold my nose and do it, sneezing all the way if I have to, but I really, REALLY hate tradeskilling mechanics. Dragon Age features such a tradeskilling system, which is fairly mild all things considered, allowing you to fashion poisons, potions, and traps to use. Now, this could have been very, very useful... if not for the fact that in order to use them, you really need to plan ahead (in the case of the traps), or remember to throw them (in the case of the poisons). Realistically though, there's no NEED for them. With a balanced group, enemies are dead too fast to bother with any great strategical methods. Mages, as mentioned above, are PARTICULARLY guilty of this. What you end up with is a bunch of crap cluttering up your inventory that doesn't even sell for very much.

Which brings me to the second point of this topic, the merchants, and by extension gear. Um... This shit sucks. Dragon Age uses the same shopkeeper mechanic that Mass Effect did, where what little gear is available is scaled to your level, but is randomly seeded. However, unlike its older cousin, there is almost NO variety in gear here, folks – you have your choice of simple cloth, leather and studded leather that share the same stats, chainmail and splitmail that share the same stats, and plate armor. Each type of armor's strength is determined by what it's made out of. You can find the rare 'named' version of a piece of gear to equip, stuff that actually has stats on it, but the vast majority of what your characters will be wearing qualifies as 'junk', with little or no bonuses for equipping it. You don't even get decent gear off the higher level critters you face – a trinket here, a weapon there, but you're lucky if you have a full set of the junk for everybody in your party because of the way that gear is itemized out. An absolutely terribly implemented shopping system, and just plain a pathetic selection of gear to be used. At least in Mass Effect, there was a decent variety of randomly dropped gear to choose from.

Overall

Ok, I'm going to throw a curveball at folks here. For all of the problems that I've identified above, for all the damned lazy programming and modeling I picked up on in the course of playing through Dragon Age: Origins, I did enjoy it immensely. There is a lot of good material here, even if it is badly tarnished by its problems, and the plain, vanilla, bread-and-butter backstory. The characters of your group are well written, the major supporting cast very well executed, and the surrounding world as lush and verdant as you could possibly ask for. The individual introduction stories for the various class/races build on the story itself, and provide a good, solid base to start for a new character. I even get to say that I was interested enough in the game to want to replay it with a different character, and that's something I was never able to say for Mass Effect. I made my Infiltrator and never really had any interest in playing any of the other classes.

Dragon Age: Origins has its problems – in fact, I'd say that it has more than its share of them, honestly. Fortunately, for the most part, they don't hold what is, in essence, a good, solid fantasy story back. I really wish they'd have cut down on some of the voiced dialog. I mean, is it really necessary for every Tom, Dick and Harry to have 5-10 minutes of dialog, if you go through all their options? They needed to spend more time on the character models, made an actual effort to clean up the terrible options available on their character designers, but with some tinkering you can get something... passable. I don't know, folks, but I really did expect far more from BioWare on this one. I'd be much happier, if there'd been a great deal more actual playable content, as opposed to 'listen-to-the-NPC-drone-on-then-click-an-answer' content.

Still, I enjoyed the game, and I'm sure that I'll continue to enjoy it. Fortunately, the excessive dialog can be skipped with the escape button. Well recommended if you enjoy RPG's, and if you're a fan of MMO's you should find the PC interface to be very familiar.

Additional Info

  • Title: Dragon Age: Origins
  • Genre: High Fantasy, Action, RPG
  • Composer: Inon Zur
  • Platform: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Mac OS X
  • Developer: BioWare Edmonton, Edge of Reality
  • Publisher: Electronic Arts
  • Engine: Eclipse
  • Writing: Very Good (+3)
  • Pacing: Below Average (-1)
  • Graphics: Very Good (+3)
  • Controls: Very Good (+3)
  • Voice Acting: Above Average (+1)
  • Soundtrack: Average (0)
  • Replay Value: Good (+2)
Last modified on Saturday, 28 July 2012 22:50

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