Dragon Age: Origins PC DVD
Published by: Electronic Arts
Developed by: BioWare
There are few developers who seldom disappoint. BioWare is one of these developers and almost everything they touch appears to turn to gold. The original Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and more recently Mass Effect were all great games worthy of playing through multiple times. The same can be said for Dragon Age: Origins, the latest game from BioWare. It's a game that feels like it draws on all of the best parts from their previous games and yet at the same time it has that classic feel to it. It's arguably the richest PC RPG experience since the amazing Baldur's Gate II with up to a hundred hours of quality play time for those who want to see most of what the game has to offer in a single play through.
The game may look as though it's set in a Dungeons & Dragons universe but in actual fact it's in an original setting created by BioWare. The game is set in Ferelden, a kingdom that is under threat from legions of Darkspawn, a brutal race that slaughters virtually everything in its path. Many years before it was thought that the Darkspawn were defeated by the Grey Wardens. As the years have passed the Grey Wardens have dwindled in number and the people that once treated them with reverence now treat them with indifference. The Darkspawn have re-emerged and now they attack in great numbers. To make matters worse there's corruption in Ferelden and not even the king is safe.
You'll play the game as a freshly recruited Grey Warden. How the game begins is up to you as there are six different possible beginnings to the storyline: Human Noble, Mage, City Elf, Daelish Elf, Dwarf Noble and the Dwarf Commoner. Each of these six opening storylines takes around a couple of hours to play through before leading into the main storyline. What I like about having so many different starting points is that not only does it give you instant replay value, but it also allows you to see the early events of the game from six different perspectives. Not forgetting of course that the game will play out slightly differently depending on what race and class of character you choose. Initially you can only pick from three classes, warrior, mage and rogue, but as the game progresses there are plenty of opportunities to specialise your character even further.
Dragon Age: Origins has been dubbed as the spiritual successor to the Baldur's Gate series and it's easy to see why. In many respects the game harkens back to what many would class as the golden age of PC RPG's. You can have four characters in your active party and it's genuinely entertaining to see how the very different personalities interact with each other. At times you just want to stop what you're doing just to appreciate the banter that's going on between your party members. The nature of your characters can even effect how NPC's will react to you. There is no gauge to show your moral status in Dragon Age but your choices will affect your relationships with your party members. Most altruistic actions, for instance, really seem to cheese Morrigan off. The quality of the main storyline is excellent, although some of the six beginning storylines that precede the main storyline aren't as interesting as they could have been. By default you'll have an over-the-shoulder view of the action but if you zoom out the camera angle resembles the camera that was present in the Baldur's Gate games and it's a view that still works really well although at times it's good to be able to zoom back in to get a clearer view of the landscape in front of you.
The combat, as you'd expect from a game by BioWare, is in real time but you can pause the action whenever you want and assign orders to your party members. You can't queue up actions like you could in the Knights of the Old Republic games but you do have combat tactics at your disposal. For each member of your party you can assign various combat tactics instructing them how to behave during the course of a battle. To begin with your characters only have a small number of slots that you can assign actions to but as they level-up they can acquire additional slots that will allow you to customise their behaviour to a greater degree. The whole thing is reminiscent of the gambit system in Final Fantasy XII and it's just as effective here as it was in that game.
I have few complaints with Dragon Age: Origins but I don't think the easy difficulty level has been balanced too well. Whilst you'd expect Normal and Hard difficulty settings to pose a serious challenge you might not expect the Easy difficulty setting to be as demanding as it can be at times. The Easy difficulty setting does prevent your party members from getting hurt by friendly fire and cause your enemies to do less damage, but there are times when you really need to make use of the pause function and setup your party correctly otherwise you'll see a game over screen far more than you'd like. Should you be something of a tactical expert, there's even a Nightmare difficulty level to really make you sweat.
Dragon Age is a fine looking game that has that high fantasy/medieval look about it which is so typical of most RPG titles. There is an option, enabled by default, to show "persistent gore" meaning all of the blood splatters will remain on your characters for a while after a battle. Unfortunately this can look quite comical at times, especially during emotional cut scenes. What impressed me more than anything was how well the game ran on my less than stellar PC. I've played the game using a PC that probably isn't even considered to be average these days but it managed the game at a resolution of 1280x1024 without any trouble which is surprising considering my GeForce 8800 GT only has 256MB of RAM which is pitiful by today's standards. The only sacrifice I had to make was to turn down the texture quality a little (due to the small amount of memory on my graphics card) and even then the game still looked absolutely fine.
Thankfully Dragon Age is subtitled and deaf gamers will be able to enjoy this rich RPG experience. The cut scenes are shown in a letterbox format with the subtitles displayed in the black borders for maximum clarity. There are no speaker names to accompany the cut scene dialogue but it's usually clear who is saying what. Even the banter between your party members is subtitled, shown as floating text above their heads. There is a problem regarding the subtitles for the banter that your party members have with each other however. Whilst you're fully zoomed out, you'll be able to see the subtitles and follow what your party members are saying to each other without any problems. When the camera is zoomed in however, it's easy for your party members to be out of view and therefore be completely unaware of what they are saying to each other. In every other sense the game is fine for deaf gamers with all tutorial and quest information being shown in text. All of the quest information can be recalled at any time too.
There can be no doubt that Dragon Age: Origins is one of the finest PC games that I've played in years. I think it manages to surpass Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire and Mass Effect as an RPG experience and I can't wait to see what BioWare will do with Dragon Age in the years to come. The game disk hasn't left my PC's DVD drive since the game arrived for review and it will probably remain there until after Christmas as I play through the game multiple times to see how the game can play out with each of the different characters. In fact BioWare's next RPG, Mass Effect 2, is going to have a hard time pulling me away from Dragon Age: Origins.