Dragon Age: Origins In Depth Review Part 1

So I didn’t plan on it taking two weeks from launch to finish my review of Dragon Age, but the extra time (minus the time I spent on my freaking mid-term of course) ended up being a good thing.  I’ve been able to take the time to not only play through the entire game but to experience the first several hours of all six origin stories.

If I had to review the game in a single word I think I would have to go with magnificent.  Thankfully I am not limited to such, so much so that I am not sure what the best thing is to begin with.

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I suppose the origin stories themselves are the best place to start.  There are, of course, six different choices as to an origin. (Twelve if you include gender, which affects gameplay only a bit less than your class does)  I found all six options to be enjoyable and compelling, but in very different ways.  I must note though that none of these are happy introductions to Ferelden. (The country the game takes palace in) Fratricide, betrayal, rape, tests of life and death, abuse, and soul crushing prejudice are just the tip of the iceberg of the bad things that happen in this game.  I was particularly impressed with the city elf and human noble origins, both deftly evoking major emotions for the NPCs in a very short time.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the dwarven intros, as I almost never willingly play as a dwarf, mostly because I vastly prefer finesse to brute strength tactics, something dwarves are not known for.  The mage and Dalish origins are the weakest in my opinion, the Dalish being very straightforward and reactionary, though it does capture well the feel of their nomadic lifestyle and slowly disappearing culture.  The mage opens spectacularly, pitting your character immediately against demons in a life and death struggle, but kind of stalls after that, as you help (or not) a fellow mage, but without any real connection to him or his plight.

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No matter where you start you end up at Ostagar, a crumbling fortress of a lost empire, as the King and his army prepare to fight the darkspawn, an evil race that goes far beyond the standard Orc placeholder race.  One of the most interesting aspects is that their blood is poisonous, and usually lethal, making fighting them all the more dangerous.  This (and some other things I won’t spoil) is where the Grey Wardens come in.  They exist as a (nominally) neutral force throughout the continent, whose sole purpose is to fight the darkspawn and the blight.  The term blight is used to refer both to the taint of the darkspawn, and the destruction said taint causes on their environment, and the massive invasion when the darkspawn rise up from the deep roads (the abandoned tunnels of the dwarf kingdom) to destroy everything they can, lead by an arch-demon.  The Grey Wardens have, through a secret and apparently terrifying ritual, gained immunity to the blight, and are said to be the only ones capable of killing and arch-demon.  It is here the player is made a Grey Warden, and given a vital task away from the front lines.

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Of course the battle doesn’t go as planned, and the player finds themselves nearly alone, left the daunting task of building an army large enough to withstand the blight, a task made worse by everyone seeming to decide that now is the best time to start killing and/or plotting against one another.  The scope is epic, the tale dark and grim, yet heroic.  I could go on for a very long time indeed about how much I loved the story, but it is better experienced first hand.  I will say this though.  Bioware has managed to make the game very ambiguous in a great way.  I always go the ‘good’ route in games, for reasons too complicated to explain here, but with Dragon Age I wasn’t always sure what the good path was.  Who do I support in a divisive dispute between two groups of political backstabbers, neither of which is telling me the whole truth?  In another case I have a group attacked by another over a curse laid centuries before.  Do I side with those attacked through no fault of their own or those who attacked out of desperation because of a curse also no fault of their own?  No easy answer presents itself and that is wondrous, especially as these are not trivial choices to make.  Over the course of the game you will be making choices that will drastically change the political landscape of the land, to the level that complete annihilation for certain groups is possible.  As I’m fond of saying, give a man a choice between saving his family and a million dollars, the moral choice is obvious and easy to make.  Make him choose between saving his family and saving a dozen strangers, or two different groups of strangers, and the quandary will have him thinking long after the choice is made.  Of course not every choice in Dragon Age is so difficult.  There are several encounters with nefarious characters of various stripes that I had no problems exterminating with extreme prejudice, and other decisions to help requiring no thought at all.  This really helps the world feel alive, a world that has its light and dark side, but grey as well.

For me though the best part of the game, even above the superb story, is the party characters and their interactions.  One role they serve is as relief (comic and otherwise) to the dire and grim tone of the game.  They argue with each other, say unintentionally hilarious things, and feel like real people, with their own motivations, goals, and personalities that they stick to, even when it isn’t advantageous to them.  I found myself even liking the ‘evil’ characters of the group, all too easily looking past their sociopathic and selfish natures to find their redeeming and charming qualities.  Here is a non-spoiler example of an interaction for you.  Two of your possible companions are Sten, the giant (7 feet thereabouts) warrior whose culture is utterly alien to the rest of the party, and the Mabari war dog, super intelligent (for a dog) trained hound of immense size who is utterly loyal to you.  One time in camp you can go over to interact with the dog only to find him having a staring contest with Sten.  He grows.  The dog growls back.  He snarls.  The dog barks.  He roars, and the dog lunges at him, stopping just short of actual contact, without Sten moving at all.  Then Sten laconically says, “you a true warrior, worthy of respect” and walks off.  After forty hours I have to wonder if the dog is the only one who actually gets Sten at all.  The game is filled with moments like this, odd little interactions between your companions that reinforce their character.  The best part of this is that with a few exceptions you can’t predict how a party member will react to another’s comments, but it always feels natural, in keeping with their character.  Of course you can interact with them to a great extent as well, albeit with less spontaneity.  Romance, a staple of Bioware games for some time now, is an option with many of your companions, both with the opposite gender and same gender.  You can gain influence with them all through dialogue (and lose it too if you offend them) and through the giving of gifts, with specific gifts working better or worse on a party member depending on their needs and wants.  They all (except the dog) have a personal quest you can help them with, ranging from a reunion to saving their life in some way.  Who your companions are isn’t certain at all however.  A couple of them you can miss getting entirely if you don’t do certain things before a particular point in the game. (The dog being the best example: If you don’t complete a simple side quest in the Ostagar portion of the introduction he will not be available later on, unless you are of the human noble origin)  Others you can kill instead of recruit, and there are points in the game for most of them, if handled poorly, can result in them leaving or even attacking you.  The voice acting is excellent as well, with only minor complaints here and there.  At times I wished there were a few more NPC voices to choose from, but that is a difficult problem to address, especially with the cost in time and money to do voice recording.  The party’s voices are all excellent, though one in particular’s accent is a bit uneven, something I was willing to overlook as otherwise the voice actor was perfect for the part.  I’d like to highlight my favorite companion voice, but I can’t decide who it is, they are all great.

Some people have complained over the fact that Dragon Age doesn’t voice the main character’s lines, instead using the more common form of picking what to say from a list of text options.  I can see where they are coming from; Mass Effect really did set the bar high on player conversations, but it really isn’t feasible in Dragon Age for a number of reasons, the biggest one being sheer size.  Dragon Age is larger than Mass Effect is, not just in overall content but in number of lines as well.  Much of Mass Effect is taken up with exploration and combat on uncharted worlds, where conversation is kept to a minimum.  Dragon Age on the other hand deals more with politics, history, and even party dynamics, leading to a much larger pool of choices.  Also, Shepherd, male or female, is always a military officer, making condensing choices to short descriptions easier (because of the uniformity, not the fact that s/he is a soldier specifically) and meaning that they can do it with only two voice actors, male and female.  Were you to voice the player character in Dragon Age you would need at least six, if not eight or more voice actors, all recording all of the thousands of possible lines.  This is because you can be so many different things in Dragon Age, nobility from two different races, a nomadic wanderer, a downtrodden slum dweller, elf or dwarf, or a highly educated human or elven mage.  Just imagine how large all that audio work would become.

As for the setting in general, it is at least on par with the world building of Mass Effect.  More of the history and culture is revealed through codex entries than in previous Bioware games, so if you don’t care to learn about, say, the country of Antiva neighboring Ferelden you can easily skip it, and you’re sure to skip something at some point due to the sheer weight of information.  Even if you don’t read a single codex entry (which I didn’t much my first time through) it is hard to miss just how fleshed out the world is.  It truly feels like Orlais, Antiva, and the other neighbors exist in the world of Dragon Age, even though you never visit them, and only meet a couple people from outside of Ferelden.  The various cultures are well thought out and distinct, from the isolationist Dalish to the backstabbing caste conscious dwarves, and the several human cultures.  The Qunari (the giant race Sten belongs to) are only hinted at, but that merely reflects how little the Ferelden’s themselves know about the mysterious group, yet you clearly get the feeling that even if it isn’t said in game the developers took the time to develop each group completely.

Of course you can’t have a high fantasy setting (not that it is strictly a high fantasy) without inviting comparisons to Lord of the Rings, for good or ill.  It is very hard to ignore the conventions of Tolkien’s work, especially when it comes to various standard races of fantasy.  Bioware somehow manages to make all the races seem familiar, yet completely their own.  The elves are downtrodden former slaves, the dwarves still appear concerned with honor and duty yet are ruthless and pragmatic in secret, and the humans are as divided as ever.  The group most departing from the standard is mages.  They are still incredibly powerful, able to ‘make manifest their will’ in the physical world, but it is as much (if not more) a curse as a blessing.  Not only are mages feared and hated by the people, the dominant religion treats them as a necessary evil, so much so that the mages are trained in an isolated tower in the middle of a lake, constantly watched by knights templar trained specifically to counteract a mage’s power and never allowed to leave.  The craziest thing is I can’t say they are wrong to do so.  Along with their great power mages attract the attention of demons of the fade (the dream-world) and a weakness to being possessed.  Any mage whose guard slips even for a moment runs the risk of being possessed and turned into an abomination.  Worse is the temptation of blood-magic, taught to mortals by the demons, offering vast power, at a horrific price.

One element of the setting often overlooked is the music of a game.  Personally I will put up with a lot of blemishes in game-play and graphics if the story is compelling enough, but I am not so forgiving when it comes to the music.  Let me put it this way.  Imagine your favorite scene or battle from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or some other epic.  Now imagine it with the soundtrack replaced by a Weird Al polka.  It just isn’t the same.  Thankfully Bioware spoils us with their soundtracks, accompanying their games with music rivaling anything you’d see in a Hollywood movie, and Dragon Age is no exception.  To my tastes I don’t find the overall soundtrack to be quite up to the level of Mass Effect or Jade Empire’s music (gotta love Jack Wall’s stuff) but it is effective, and certain tracks are hauntingly beautiful. (My favorite is Leliana’s song, check it out on YouTube)  Aside from the music the sound quality is superb, in voice acting as already mentioned, in incidental sounds, combat, etc.  Even the dog’s sounds are done superbly, in large part responsible for the effectiveness of that character’s presence.

Graphics is a bit trickier proposition, and an area where I do have some legitimate concerns with the game.  Originally I was unimpressed with the graphics on my Xbox, despite playing it on a 50 inch flat-screen.  The resolution seemed sup-par and as I played the origin stories I just wasn’t particularly impressed, especially by the fortress of Ostagar.  Luckily Microsoft just sent me out a new Xbox, mine having succumbed to the red ring of death.  I had been playing on my little brother’s system, never realizing that it wasn’t setup properly for a 1080i big screen.  Once the resolution was set up properly on my new system the game looked much better.  That said, the early part of the game isn’t as polished as the later areas.  I did some digging and the consensus seems to be that the introduction was finished quite a while ago (the game did spend a long time in development) and simply never updated to the quality of the rest of the game.  So if you are picky when it comes to graphics go with the PC version and give it a bit before deciding.

That’s it for the setting and story of the game, my next post will concern gameplay mechanics and combat, as well as the strengths and weaknesses between the Xbox and PC versions, and I actually was surprised that there are a couple things that work better in the console version.

Oh, one note about the screenshots.  They are from my brother’s two characters.  It turns out the game automatically takes screenshots for achievements and specific points of the story.  A few are rather worthless, for example one of the romance achievements is a screenshot of a black screen, but the idea is rather nice

[tags]Bioware, RPG, Dragon Age Origins[/tags]

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