Dragon Age: Origins In Depth Review Part 2

So now that we’ve covered the setting of Dragon Age, let’s look at how the game actually plays.

Dragon Age will actually surprise you with the depth of character choice and tactics available.  There may be only three classes to choose from, but each has several skill branches and unique abilities.  The warrior has skills divided amongst general warrior abilities, sword and shield, dual wield, archer, and two-handed.  The general skills deal with things like the characters durability, armor usage, and drawing the enemies’ attention to the warrior away from more vulnerable characters.  Two-handed and dual wield are the main damage dealing options for a warrior (dual wield shared with rogue) the one putting a lot of power behind a slow and massive swing, the later quick attacks with two weapons to wear down the foe.  Archery is for damage at range, which is less powerful than the other weapon types but has the advantage of being safer.  (Also shared with the rouge who is probably the better archer choice as armor weight affects the speed you can fire a bow)  Sword and shield is best for the main ‘tank’ in the party, as well as having some nice stun and knockdown abilities.  In addition to this there are four specializations for the warrior: Beserker, Ravager, Templar, and Champion.  Each of these is unlockable through specific quest events, training from friendly companions, or books bought from merchants.  One very nice thing the developers did is set it so that once one player unlocks a specialization it is permanently available to everyone, regardless of when the character is created or where they are in the game.  Of course you can’t start out with a specialization, earning a point to pick one at level 7 and 14. (just 14 for the companions as they all start with one except for Sten who can only get one, and the Mabari and Shale who are their own special classes and get none)  Since the ‘soft’ level cap is about 20 (meaning if you do everything in the game possible to get you experience you will end up about level 20 or so) your choice of specialization is important.  Now each of the four only gives you 4 more skills to learn (as opposed to 12 for the rest of the classes’ branches) but these can radically alter how you play.  The Templar, for example, gains powerful abilities to disrupt and drain a mages ability to cast spells, while the champion gains some strong leader abilities for the party, and the last two (who I admittedly not looked at over much) focus on damage dealing and health/stamina management.

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Surprisingly trap and poison use and manufacture, as well as pick-pocketing are not tied to the rouge class and can indeed be learned by anyone.  They are grouped in a separate talent pool along with other skills like combat tactics, coercion (Player character only) nature skill, (resistances and enemy detection) potion making, and combat training.  Mind you though, Rouges get points to spend on these skills more often than the other classes, 1 every 2 levels instead of 1 every 3.  Coercion isn’t necessary, but is highly useful for getting out of trouble and getting people to help you, while combat tactics is essential for your companions, as each rank (out of 4 for all of the skills) gives you additional spots for instructions to the companion AI.  Everything from at what point to use a health potion (I generally set it up as Self: Health <25% Use: smallest health potion) to actions to take against specific levels of monster (I.E. use skill X on any enemy Elite level or higher) or even when to bail out a specific member of the party.  They are quite handy and generally effective, though in combat occasionally they will still disengage and follow me around if I am trying to avoid notice (with the healer mage I am currently using) and they have an annoying tendency to switch to melee weapons no matter what I tell them to do, (there is a lvl 1 skill that makes archery in close quarters no longer an issue) so much so that I finally just took the swords away from my archer.  Combat training is a must as well, as it ties directly into what weapon skills you can learn (you need 3 points in combat training for the third skill in the chain for example  It also enhances combat prowess for rouges and warriors, and how much damage a mage can take before it interrupts their spell casting) Poison making I found more useful than traps, as you don’t often get a chance to lay an ambush, though it is somewhat less useful than you would think as you must be training in poison making to use poison on your blade, not only to make it.  Survival and Stealing I frankly never used, though I suppose the later would be useful for an ‘evil’ player who wanted extra cash.  Neither came up that I saw in the story except for 1 side-quest for survival, and a quest chain of theft. (Some requiring stealth which is rogue specific)

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Anyway, the rogue has access to dual-wield (which works a bit differently than for the warrior thanks to flanking attacks becoming backstabs for extra damage) and archers, as well as the general stuff like stealth, lock-picking, and ‘dirty’ tactics, as well as some enhancing the back-stab function.  Their specializations are Duelist, (bonuses to accuracy and defense, which covers blow avoidance while armor covers blow reduction) Assassin, (bonuses to back-stab and focusing on a single target) Bard, (Party buffs and a couple tricks on enemies) and Ranger which is deals with summoning a wolf, bear, or spider to fight with you.

Mages have by far the widest range of skills available to them; so many that I doubt two mages together could learn them all.  They are divided among creation, (healing mostly and some trap like spells called glyphs) primal (elemental attacks) spirit, which covers attacks that have various effects like stunning or trapping foes, as well as some that paralyze or disrupt magic, even spells that turn an enemy into a walking bomb if it dies while the effect is in play.  Entropy covers debuffs, reducing resistances, increasing damage taken, that sort of thing.  What makes mages most fun though is the spell combos.  Take for example the unrelated spells crushing prison (immobilizes the target and hurts it over a few moments, though it can be resisted) and cone of cold.  (Or indeed, a number of skills in the cold line and a few in the stone line)  If the target is already frozen or petrified Crushing prison might very well shatter the enemy, resulting in it instantly dying.  There is also the example given of combining a grease spell (normally only affecting movement speed) with any fire spell, resulting in a patch of fire burning anyone in its radius that lasts a fairly long time.  As for their specializations, I found two more useful than the others.  Blood Mage can only be unlocked if the main character is a mage (as far as I know) but isn’t useful enough to offset its negatives (in terms of story mostly) as blood mages are seen as the worst sort of dark mage, the type of mage supposedly responsible for the darkspawn in the first place.  Shapeshifter certainly looks cool, allowing the mage to turn into a bear, spider, or even a cloud of insects, becoming more proficient at melee combat for a time, but at the cost of not being able to cast any spells.  Since mages double as healers that can be restrictive.  Spirit healer on the other hand is probably the most useful of all 12 specializations, starting with a spell to heal the entire party a fair amount, as well as including combat resurrection of party members (technically it only brings them around, they are considered unconscious, not dead) a spell that heals a party member if they get too close to dying (useful as there really are fairly few healing spells and all have cool down periods around 20 seconds) and finally an aura that not only heals the party every few seconds and removing injuries (penalties incurred when a party member falls in combat) from those very close to the healer, something no other spell can do at all.  The last specialization for the mage is also very useful, but counterbalanced with some serious drawbacks.  Arcane Warriors are a lost order of mages (from a VERY long time ago) that combine magic with some of the skills of a warrior.  Basically it lets the mage use armor and weapons, substituting their magic ability for strength to meet the prerequisites of using a certain weapon or piece of armor.  The first skill in the line grants this, and when activated channels spell power (the measure of the relative power of a mage’s spells) directly into melee damage.  The catch is that it adds 50% fatigue to the mage.  What that means is all spells cost 50% more mana to activate, in addition to the fatigue penalties of the armor itself, without access to the skills warriors have to negate some of the penalty.  The other three skills give bonuses to accuracy, damage, and armor, one significantly so, though it costs constant mana to maintain.  Basically it turns the mage into a very strong and tough attacker who just uses the basic attack and some spells.  The one real trick though is that while the mage can use any weapon and shield, many spells can’t be cast with a sword drawn like the can a magic staff.  So in order to cast the spell the mage first has to put away the weapon, which takes a couple seconds that can be quite precious in the middle of combat.  I don’t know, there is a lot of merit in the skills, and at the very least the first point giving you access to armor is invaluable, though I would recommend you wait till the lvl 14 specialization as spirit mage is more important.

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So how does combat work?  Your party is limited at any time to 4 people, yourself and 3 others.  Generally you will be outnumbered or attacked by a few strong foes, and it all happens fast.  Pausing to issue specific orders to your party members (and you can control whichever you want in combat, changing on the fly) is often crucial, despite the usually reliable AI.  This is area the PC version really shines over the Xbox, not only because you have the entire number row for presets of skills and potions/traps/poisons (a different bar for each character obviously) while the Xbox has only six, three of the four buttons and a second row accessed by holding the right trigger, but also because on the PC you can zoom out for an overhead view not unlike a game such as Neverwinter Nights to get a better sense of where everyone is.  On any mode but easy and normal you have to be very careful with spell placement due to concerns about friendly fire (and actually, even in easy and normal with some spells will still cause problems.  Cone of cold for example won’t hurt a companion character, but it can still freeze them)  If you don’t like pausing often I’d recommend you play it on easy, which generally can be done with the AI handling everything for the other 3.  In fact, I would recommend you start on easy regardless, even if you are a long time player of RPGs.  Dragon Age Origins is HARD.  There has been so much talk about this that Bioware is going to (it might actually be out for PC already, I didn’t check as I primarily use the Xbox) release a patch lowering the difficulty across the board.  This also will influence the party you bring with you.  Having two mages can be very cool, especially if you plan ahead to complement their respective spells, but having two mages and a rogue (rouges are basically mandatory for their lock-picking skills if you want to get the good loot) leaves too much for the heavy to handle, and I don’t think a group with no warriors would survive at all. (It would make a good challenge though, perhaps even up to the level of FF1 with 4 White Mages, though the most you could do is 3 mages and a rogue, assuming the PC is a mage.)

I’m not sure what else to say.  The game is extremely fun, though the necessity of pausing can be a bit of a turn-off for those seeking fast and furious playing, and can be as straightforward or tactically deep as you are willing to make it.  Dialogue choices are easy to understand and intuitive, though you can’t always predict how the other party will react. (As it should be)  The realism of the combat is intense, though not as bombastic as something like Fallout 3.  There are some cool fatalities for the melee classes, beheadings and the like for normal monsters, but much more dramatic for the larger enemies like dragons and Ogres. (Coolest moment of the intro for me was when my rogue leapt onto the dying Ogre’s chest, knocking him the the ground before plunging her sword through his mouth out the other side of his head)  Blood is plentiful, almost too plentiful in fact.  Fallen foes will seep out great pools of crimson liquid, and any level of melee combat will leave your party members spattered from head to toe, blood that endures until you leave the area.  One spell (a form of blood magic) even has the mage spraying a veritable fountain of blood from their throat, using it to recharge their mana.  Is it too much? Maybe, and it certainly is a bit distracting when you are making nice with your love interest and they are covered in blood.  It does drive home the seriousness of the game though, especially in one moment towards the end that is totally brutal and effective but that I am not going to spoil

Oh, one last minor (very minor) complaint.  It is possible of course to bed a fair number of people in the game, from prostitutes to party members.  The game does a great job of getting you to emotionally bond with your significant other, yet when you finally invite them back to your tent… well, let’s just says the scene is ludicrously badly animated.  I’m not saying they should have made it more explicit (underwear is never removed) or longer, as I said the emotional aspect is more important than the physical, but something better than this non-sensual tripe would have been nice.  Heck, a long kiss and then fading to black would probably have worked better.  I have to wonder if this is another victim of the long development time of the game though, as Mass Effect’s love scene(s) was much better done, not overly explicit yet effective emotionally.  Or maybe it was because of all the stupid backlash they got when Mass Effect came out, decrying the game as a sex sim or what not? (Which is truly sad, as sex sims do of course exist, at least in Japan.  I’m not sure if they are available here, never having had any interest in finding out.)

Anyway, the game is nearly flawless, and what faults is does have are mostly hidden by its brilliance elsewhere.  If you care about a game’s story, the characters, the choices, or even just like a good fantasy about good(ish) against evil, get this game.  If you prefer games to be twitch based and nothing but action, I’d suggest you think about it before buying, but definitely think about it.

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

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