Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release date: Available now
It’s been a really long time since I’ve played a game that aimed to take over my life. In fact, I can probably count all such games (going back to my first video game RPG in 1988) on both hands. Baldur’s Gate and Oblivion are the most memorable of the lot, but my last adventure as the Hero of Kevatch was about two years ago. Since then, Fallout 3 filled the void for a time, and Borderlands tried its best to be rebound relationship number two, but they’ll both end up on that list of dalliances I refer to as “almost rans.” I’ve a new game in my life now, we’re very happy together, and I’m ready to commit to it completely. Dragon Age: Origins is that game. It’s poised to consume my life, and that’s just the way I like my games: deep.
Six very different and yet eerily similar origin stories launch you on your adventure. The one that you get is determined by the choices you make during the character-generation phase. The stories serve as a tutorial of sorts as you become acclimated to the controls of the game and the world of Ferelden. The end result, however, is that whether by choice or unfortunate circumstance, you end up as one of the Grey Wardens’ new recruits in their latest war against the Darkspawn. Once recruited, all origin stories merge and the real gameplay begins. To avoid spoilers (though there’s so much I want to share), I’ll not delve too deeply into the plot, but while other games have attempted this level of immersion, even my former favorite, Oblivion, pales in comparison. Unlike most games of the genre, the storyline is not a tool that lends logic for combat and puzzles within. Instead, conflict is the tool utilized by the story to fully immerse the player within the context of the world it creates. Moral decisions are made, paths chosen, and in the end (though I doubt there will truly be one for this game for some time), your outcome is one of your own crafting.
There’s a lot to control and track here, so mapping it to the Xbox 360 controller must have been a challenge. Access to your extensive inventory, character sheet and abilities usually requires a two-deep button combo, and while learnable over time, it’s terribly awkward and cumbersome at first. Once you memorize which button does what and when (the manual contains a very useful large-print diagram that you might wish to leave open for a time), prepare to be wowed. The four difficulty settings enable the greenest RPGer to jump in and have fun, while the most seasoned veteran can still feel challenged. The puzzles can be fairly complex (even on Normal the Fade gave me a run for my money), and some of the moral issues give you pause in your decision making; would you kill a young boy to save an entire kingdom? Battle can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be, and having a fully controllable team of four makes for some very hands-on fighting. Your fellow adventurers engage automatically, and you’re free to either let them be or send them specific orders as you see fit. Speaking of your comrades, you’ll notice that some items contain a red “gift tag.” Read the descriptions of these items carefully, and reward your companions with them to gain favor, friendship and “other benefits.” This is particularly important if you want to complete one of the several romance quests and achievements.
I’ve spoken at length of the story and gameplay, but even together they don’t comprise the whole package. While graphically not the fanciest presentation out there (it’s no Ghostbusters), Dragon Age still presents a quality experience with just enough photo simulation to be effective while using sufficient light, shadow and water effects to enhance the experience. You won’t forget that you’re playing a game, but you’ll be having so much fun that you won’t find either the graphics or the score intrusive, as the cut scenes are film quality and reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films. The best part (after story, of course), however, is the dialogue. I don’t know how Bioware did it, but they managed to create enough dialogue to keep everything fresh, even 30 hours into the game. Your companions even converse amongst themselves (some of which I can’t even repeat here, so be on the lookout for things you might not want the little ones to hear), and you’ll find yourself laughing raucously over and over again.
Apart from the control scheme issues, my main pet peeve with Dragon Age is the inventory. Instead of each character having an individual set of equipment, it’s all communal under Party Inventory. You’ll need to keep careful track of everyone’s unequipped items (even those you’ve left behind in camp) to avoid selling someone’s favorite sword.
I cannot fully express how good this game really is (without spoiling the story for those who desire to remain pure), but it’s definitely a must-have for all fantasy RPGers. While not perfect (Xbox control scheme and inventory chaos), Dragon Age: Origins is as good as it gets in this genre. I hadn’t really “lived” for a game in more than two years, and it’s about damn time. The story alone is worth the price of admission. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a king to crown and a blight to stop.