The video game has come of age.
As Hollywood’s creativity continues to plummet, genre fans have turned increasingly to a newer medium for adventure and unique storytelling – the video game. Want proof? In the last decade, only two of the top thirty-grossing films were original. We’ve witnessed an assembly line of remakes and adaptations, many of which are long on explosions but short on intelligence. And that well doesn’t show any signs of drying up. Now consider what the last decade of gaming has brought us – titles such as Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, Gears of War, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the Fable franchise, Half Life 2, Fallout 3, and the Halo franchise, to name just a few. These are games that excel, not only in graphics and action, but in creating immersive worlds and telling interesting stories. Is it any wonder that, while Hollywood struggles to retain its audience, video games continue to gain followers?
After spending about ten hours with the game, I’m thrilled to say that Dragon Age: Origins belongs in the pantheon of now-classic gaming experiences mentioned above. From story to world design to game play, BioWare has done it again (no shock to fans of BioWare’s work). There are a few flaws, however, which we’ll discuss. If you’re reading this review, you’ve likely read many others and are already familiar with the basic game mechanics. So I’ll mention these briefly, but in the context of my overall gaming experience.
The “origins” angle: six origin stories are present in the game, each available based on the race and class you choose. This may seem like a fun gimmick, but a few hours into the game you’ll start to realize something – your character’s origin story is not just a fun way to spend the first couple hours. The choices you make at the beginning will resonate through the entirety of your gaming experience, even affecting how random NPCs react to your character. So don’t rush through this process. Take your time and really think about who you want to be in the world of Ferelden, and you’ll enjoy your time there much more. The origins are also smartly used to help the gamer get emotionally invested in the world and the characters before diving into the larger conflict – and trust me, if you enjoy RPGs for more than just swinging a weapon, you will get emotionally involved.
The “world” and game design: The world of Ferelden feels rich and complete, with a deep history and fully developed cultures. Details of the world and its past are not just a tapestry or pretty backdrop; in fact, they actively shape your gaming experience, from the meaning of your origin to the significance of your chosen class and its attachments. You can also feel history in the art of the game – the architecture of cities and castles, the variance of landscapes, the inclusion of finely detailed old ruins which hint at ancient things long gone, and the variety of weapon and armor designs available. Many things you see and touch feel like there is a story behind them.
Game play: There are some pluses and minuses in this category. First, here’s the good stuff. BioWare has presented Dragon Age as the spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate series, and in that it has certainly succeeded. The party system works well here, with each of your four party members pulling their weight and making tactical decisions (you can also change their behavioral guidelines to mirror your battle strategy). One of the big successes here is that your partners do not feel superfluous. Most of the battles you encounter could not be won by just one character, and many are quite challenging even to four. This is not just a hack-n-slash combat system – your characters’ unique skills, and the way you make use of them, can mean the difference between winning and dying. Your companions also feel more real because they’re not just silent partners. You can – and should – converse and interact with them, show an interest in them, and build relationships within your party. They will also interact and converse with each other as you explore the world. Don’t just ignore these interactions, as sometimes they’re quite funny and can offer good insight into the person you’re fighting alongside. Brace yourself, here come the “buts”. While most of the party system works quite well, positioning each player strategically can be very difficult. Often, your foes are upon you before any of your characters can move to an ideal location, so more often than I liked the battles devolved into close-quarters group brawls. While this can be fun, it cuts down on some options, considering that your characters can and will take friendly fire (a mage’s flame spell will set anything in its radius ablaze, for example). Also, the menu system, while making sense in most of its organization, is slow and feels clunky because of the laggy response time. I continue to be confused as to how the game can animate multi-character battles smoothly, yet bog down switching from a journal to an item inventory. This tends to get frustrating, as most modern games have figured out how to make buttons work when you actually press them. My biggest issue, though, has to do with the dialogue system. After having experienced this amazing aspect of Mass Effect, also published by BioWare, I assumed that they would continue to use that system in all of their next-gen games. Dialogue in Mass Effect feels so natural, cinematic, and immersive; it’s hard to think about going back to anything else. Well, if you play Dragon Age, you’ll have to. Gone are the dialogue wheel and flowing movie-style conversations, and back are the lists of canned responses. In all fairness, this wouldn’t seem like a letdown if I hadn’t played Mass Effect – possibly the best game I’ve ever played – and menu type dialogue has been a standard for a long time. I was just hoping for something more.
Graphics: this is definitely a pretty game, though not the belle of the ball. Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are sharper, tighter, more detailed, and boast a much higher level of object interaction. However, those games were built around very different styles of game play, so the comparison may not be fair. Bottom line – you’ve likely seen prettier games, but Dragon Age is certainly detailed enough to keep you engaged and involved with the world that BioWare has created. They’ve even thrown in a few fun surprises that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, like continuous elemental effects on enchanted weapons. I recently added a rune of electrical damage to my character’s main sword, and even when resting on his back it continues to pulse with electrical energy. These little touches and attention to detail are admirable and contribute to a much richer experience.
Overall: Does Dragon Age: Origins have flaws? Sure. Do I care? Not one bit, and neither should you. Because each flaw I could find is balanced by ten things that are awesome. Sure, I’ve spent some time pointing out what needs work, but what you can’t convey in a review is how addictive this game is. As I’m typing this, I want to go back and fire up the PS3 right now. I want to journey back into Ferelden and see what I’ll run into next – what plot twist will wow me or what compelling character I’ll come into contact with. This game is much more than the sum of its parts, and any fan of fantasy, RPGs, or just rich and skillful storytelling, owes it to themselves to check it out.