Dragon Age: Origins Review: Tripping The Blight Fantastic

After a successful mission to space, BioWare returns to its fantasy roots with Dragon Age: Origins, an epic tale of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and hot girl-on-elf action.

The country of Ferelden is on the verge of being overwhelmed by the demonic Blight, and only the heroic Grey Wardens can save the land from total destruction. It sounds simple, but the struggle between good and evil is merely the backdrop to a much more twisted tale of intrigue, political maneuvering, and betrayal. Once you play through one of six unique origin stories based on your character's race and caste you're plunged into the thick of it, gathering a party of heroic and not-so-heroic adventurers as you struggle to ensure that Ferelden is ready to take on the Blight once they rise.

BioWare has proven time and time again that it can produce high-caliber fantasy roleplaying games based on existing properties, but can they pull off an original fantasy setting? The Dragon Age is dawning.

Loved
In A World...: As comfortable creating their own worlds as they are dabbling into established fictions, BioWare brings the country of Ferelden to life in Dragon Age: Origins. Rather than a simple game setting, Ferelden feels like a real place with a rich history lurking just outside the corner of the player's vision. The look and feel of the world is almost as impressive as the fiction, with several areas - particularly those in the underground realm of The Deep Road - looking as if they were traditional fantasy artwork come to life.

Tangled Webs: The origins in Dragon Age: Origins are more than just little stories created to move your character into the main story arc. Each gives insight into the major political and societal issues that plague the country of Ferelden, all of which crop up on a larger, more important scale later on in the game. The struggle between good and evil merely serves as a backdrop for a much more complicated tale of political intrigue, racial tension, and moral versus popular choices.

You Gotta Have Friends: Expanding on the excellent character work established in titles like Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur's Gate, BioWare once again provides an amazing cast of characters to fight by your side as you travel the twisted paths of Dragon Age: Origins. Each of your NPC companions has a distinct personality, and while they may seem rather cookie-cutter at first glance, exploring their origins and motivations reveals a truly complex collection of individuals. You'll Travel with them on their own personal quests as you progress through the game, establishing bonds and perhaps even falling in love with one of them. You'll grow attached, and should any of them part ways with you, you'll feel it acutely.

It isn't just your party members, either. Each NPC is handled with great care and attention to detail - even the ones who only have one line of text, spoken over and over again. Enchantment?

So Many Choices: I've played every major BioWare RPG released so far, and while they all deal with making tough decisions, none have seemed to have nearly as profound an impact as those in Dragon Age: Origins do. I regularly found myself making the sort of decisions that had me realizing that I had just completely altered a major portion of the game. Kingdoms rose and fell and important people lived or died based solely on my whims. This is definitely the kind of game you'll want to play through multiple times, just to see how your actions affect the world.

Just Talkin' Bout Dragon Age: An extremely well-written, deviously witty script is only as good as the actors who voice it, and BioWare has pulled together a winning team for Dragon Age. Claudia Black does a fine job of voicing the sardonic witch Morrigan, and Steve Blue does one of the best dwarves I've ever heard in his portrayal of Oghren. All in all, everyone does a spectacular job, but by far my favorite is Steve Valentine as Alistair. Alistair has some of the most amusing lines in the game, most of which would have fallen completely flat if not for Valentine's expert timing. Just remember, "There's nothing like a brush with death to make you...not like death very much."

Swords and Sorcery: Combat in Dragon Age can be as shallow or as deep as the player desires. You can spend the entire game simply controlling your own character and letting your party members go about their business, triggering special moves using the double 3-slot quick bar on the bottom right of the screen, and you'll do just fine. For more depth, you can customize your party's AI behavior by assigning situational tactics for individual characters based on a wide variety of conditions and roles. As satisfying as it is to simply plow right through the enemy, constructing elaborate plans and placing your party in just the right positions to completely decimate your opponents is even more satisfying still.

Hot Micromanagement: I really enjoy micromanaging my role-playing characters, from fine-tuning their equipment to placing each skill point to maximize combat efficiency. Throughout the game you unlock specializations which allow you to tweak your characters even further, focusing on particular aspects of the warrior, mage, and rogue classes. Enchanting weapons, applying poisons, constructing traps; these are the elements of a good RPG that get me all aflutter, and Dragon Age: Origins allows me to indulge myself while still allowing the player who'd rather just wing it to go their own way.

Outside Of The Game: BioWare goes above and beyond with the Dragon Age: Origins community site, where players can communicate, share stories, or browse each other's character profiles to see how far along they've gotten in the game. Once you have an account at the BioWare Social Network website, you can see everything I've done in Dragon Age. Skills, plot points, talent, equipment; it's all there for the world to see. It makes the game feel like more than a game, if that makes any sense, adding a new layer to the experience that keeps it alive long after you've finished playing.

Hated
Bugs Aplenty: My time with the PlayStation 3 version of Dragon Age was not without troubles. In fact, my 40 or so hours in the game were plagued with annoying little glitches that, while not breaking the game completely, did hamper the experience. Some special combat animations were way off, with my character performing finishing blows in the air next to the boss I had just downed. Sound glitched frequently, leaving me watching a character's lips move while no words came. On a few occasions the screen would glitch when a character was speaking, showing broken geometry instead of the person talking. I also had issues with monsters dying and taking up to 30 seconds to register as dead, making me have to wait to loot bodies and in some cases delaying the completion of certain quests.

Perhaps the biggest bug I encountered was during the final battle, when I simply could not progress. BioWare suggested it was due to a monster I needed to kill falling through the world. I wound up having to load a previous save in order to complete the game. Luckily the game had autosaved just before the battle started, but it was definitely more frustration than I needed.

Chugga Chugga Frame Rate: Dragon Age is a pretty game, but when it really starts moving, things get ugly. With only a couple of characters on the screen things aren't too bad, leaning towards the high 20's frame rate-wise, but when you're in a big battle or a crowd scene, things dip into the middle to high teens. Mind you I am guestimating here...it's not like I have some magical PS3 FPS tool, but the dip is definitely noticeable.

BioWare's Ray Muzyka once said that "Dragon Age is the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate." I'd take that a step further and say that Dragon Age is the evolution of Baldur's Gate, taking the concepts and mechanics established in that classic PC RPG and updating them using today's more powerful technology. While that alone is a recipe for success, the lack of an established license has allowed the developers to craft a unique fantasy setting from the ground up, populating it with fascinating characters and instilling upon it a depth that goes far beyond the simple tale of good versus evil the game initially presents. Much like CD Projekt's The Witcher, Dragon Age overlays modern day politics and social issues onto its fantasy world, creating a richer, more mature atmosphere in the process.

Perhaps the biggest testament to Dragon Age: Origins is the fact that after more than 40 hours of play time, I found myself contemplating my next character as the credits rolled, working out in my head what I would do differently the next time around. During the busy fall video game release season, when my response to completing even the most enjoyable games is "next," it takes an extremely compelling title for me to want to go again. Dragon Age: Origins is exactly that sort of title.

Dragon Age: Origins was developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 on November 3. Retails for $59.99 USD ($49.99 PC). A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Reviewed the PlayStation 3 version. Played through the main game on standard difficulty, choosing the City Elf origin and rogue as my character class. Completed main quest, multiple side quests, and The Stone Prisoner downloadable content, which should definitely not be missed.

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