Dragon Age: Origins PC, 360, PS3
DRAGON AGE. AGE OF DRAGONS. ELVES WHO PRANCE ABOUT IN FORESTS. DWARVES WHAT LIVE UNDERGROUND AND DO MINING AND STUFF. AN UNQUESTIONABLY EVIL RACE OF MONSTERS THAT ARE TRYING TO WIPE OUT ALL FORMS OF LIFE, AND IT’S DOWN TO ONE PERSON TO SAVE THE WORLD. AND THAT PERSON IS YOU.
Yeah, alright. At first glance, the kindest thing you can say about Dragon Age is that… um, I guess there are no giant rats, as far as I can remember. But the nods to the traditional Tolkienesque fantasy setting are as countless as they are obvious. It’s no wonder that EA decided to publicise the game by putting out a load of bizarre trailers showing a whole bunch of fighting and shagging while Marilyn Manson rasps away in the background. But is the final game really as desperately adolescent as those trailers might’ve suggested, or was it just a ploy to get the kids interested since fantasy nerds were already paying attention anyway?
Dragon Age: Origins is a fantasy role-playing affair, modelled very much after the fully-excellent Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games. The combat is almost identical, giving you real-time control over one party member at a time, whilst also allowing you to pause the game at any time and issue orders to the party members you’re not currently controlling. There’s a catch, though – while the KotOR games allowed each character to queue several actions at a time, Dragon Age allows just one. This can be pretty irritating when you’ve got a character’s next three or four moves planned out in your head, but you have to wait for each one to happen, pause the game, set the next one, unpause, and so on. However, all’s not lost, because Dragon Age gives you a ‘combat tactics’ section to work with. Similar to Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit system, it allows you to set up the AI behaviour for each party member yourself. It sounds like a total ballache, but it’s essentially a series of ‘if, then’ statements – for example, if an ally’s health falls below 50%, then throw a healing potion in his or her face. It’s surprisingly fun once you get the hang of it, and you’ll even begin to plot your character’s skill development around it – spotting groups of skills that work well together, then ‘programming’ your team to perform them in the right order of their own accord. Dragon Age isn’t an easy game by any means, but sort your tactics out and 90% of your battles are already won before they’ve begun.
That said, the combat does feel a bit backwards at times, at least in terms of its presentation – a lot of the trailers we saw prior to the game’s release showed off a bunch of badass-looking finishing moves with people’s heads flying off and the like, but they seldom occur in the game. Most of the time, the combat just feels like a numbers game – two melee fighters can charge at each other and go into their looping attack animations while their health gets steadily flayed off, yet neither fighter will appear to take (or block) a single hit. Of course, this shouldn’t hamper your enjoyment of the game one bit – after all, it is just a numbers game, really – but when you consider that even the first KotOR game had lightsaber fights with the characters actually appearing to engage with one another and parry each other’s attacks, you can’t help wondering if someone needs to tell BioWare what year it is.
Still, none of this is what makes Dragon Age important. After all, Mass Effect had some pretty awful combat, but it was the characters and setting that made it so compelling. And by Christ, BioWare have done it again – the main draw of Dragon Age isn’t really the combat, but the decisions you’re forced to make on your travels. Of course, most good RPGs give you choices to make, but few have done it quite like Dragon Age. In most RPGs, there’s a clear-cut distinction between the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ choices – or, in Mass Effect‘s case, a choice between compassion or ruthlessness. But Dragon Age has very few obvious choices. Sure, your goal of gathering an army to fight the Darkspawn might be unquestionably noble, but no matter how ‘good’ you try to be, you’re going to end up treading on people’s toes. There’s very little good or evil here – just people. People with their own motivations, histories, perspectives and rivalries – many of them perfectly understandable or sympathetic – and you’ve got to pick sides. It’s a surprisingly mature approach for a video game, and certainly a far cry from the puerile trailers. One decision towards the end of the game gave me an actual headache - I stared at the available dialogue options, hoping that if I waited long enough then a new option would appear, saying “JESUS CHRIST I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO, JUST WORK IT OUT YOURSELVES”. Each of the decisions you make will affect the ending, and when you add the fact that your main character has six different origin stories to choose from, each of them giving you a unique perspective on the world, then you’ve got a lot of reasons to replay a game that already takes at least 50 hours to finish.
Unfortunately, these critical story points only punctuate some rather lengthy combat sections, some of which definitely outstay their welcome (I’m looking at you, Deep Roads) – but if you’re a fan of dungeon-crawlers, you’ll be right at home. Everyone else, rest assured that your efforts will be fully rewarded when you reach the end of the game – especially when it all goes a bit Dynasty Warriors, in a very good way.
With Dragon Age clearly being a bit of a PC-centric title, there’s some wariness amongst console owners to pick it up, and it’s not entirely unjustified. The PC version benefits greatly from mouse & keyboard control, better graphics, and a fairly vital quicksave button. In contrast, the console versions are a bit clumsier and less appealing to the eye, with the PS3 version in particular suffering from the occasionally dodgy frame-rate. But if you don’t own a decent PC, don’t let it put you off – the game is still perfectly enjoyable across all formats, and if you haven’t touched the PC version you certainly won’t find yourself screaming “OH MY GOD I WISH I WAS PLAYING WITH A MOUSE AND SLIGHTLY NICER GRAPHICS”.
Is it the RPG of the decade, as some have famously claimed? Nah. Not for me, at least. As great as it is, there are too many irritations with the combat (and too many unnecessarily drawn-out combat sections) to hail it as a true classic. Dragon Age‘s story, and the decisions it forced me to make, will certainly keep swimming around in my head for quite some time – but the likes of Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic kept me engaged throughout the entire experience, while Dragon Age almost put me to sleep on several occasions. But it is nonetheless a brilliant game that appears cliché-ridden at first, but reveals a whole load of its own ideas as you go. Just make sure you’ve got no other games to play for at least a few weeks.