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Dragon Age: Origins Preview: About Those Xbox 360 Controls...

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The Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age Origins, which we now know will be a massively-single-player role-playing game, was brought to New York City last week for a showcase and one of the shortest hands-on demos ever.

Maybe a short demo's for the best, though, because Dragon Age is one of those games that is supposed to last more hours than an Olympics. So what's the point of giving someone a half hour with a game instead of four minutes?


What Is It?
Dragon Age: Origins is an epic role-playing game styled off of dark fantasy fictions. The game is developed by EA's BioWare studio, creators of Mass Effect and, more importantly for this title, Baldur's Gate. The game is an Xbox 360, PS3 and PC October release, heavy on gameplay hours and frontloaded with six playable origin stories — each a distinct 1-2 hours of content — that development studio BioWare says will make the subsequent lengthy quest play differently to suit the back-story. They claim one playthrough might last 80-100 hours.

What We Saw
Two BioWare reps showed me a brief battle with an ogre set on the top floor of a tower, where a beacon needed to be lit to alert an army to rush into an important battle. The sequence was light on dialogue and appeared to be presented to show how the game's controls map to a 360's controller. I didn't try, but I could have probably held my breath during the entire playable demo. Kill ogre. Light beacon. (We had last previewed Dragon Age in May.)


How Far Along Is It?
Dragon Age is set for the fall and the little glimpse BioWare showed looked fully functional. But who can discern the polish of an epic like this?


What Needs Improvement?
Delayed Reaction: Dragon Age is a descendant of Baldur's Gate and other RPGs that are heavy on the strategy of skirmish combat. So your party of warriors each has several possible spells, attacks and other maneuvers. That's all fine, but I found that activating any of them did not always trigger a discernible visual reaction by the characters I was controlling. Maybe it's a byproduct of being thrown into a section that had several characters with several powers, but I'd select a bunch of moves and then have to study the screen for proof of who was doing what. Hopefully the relationship between inputting commands and seeing characters execute them will be more clear in the finished game, especially to those starting their party small.


What Should Stay The Same?
Combat Options: According to the BioWare guys showing me the game, Dragon Age can be played as a real-time twitch-based action-RPG a la Fable 2. And a player need plumb no deeper than that. Or the camera can be pushed more over the characters as your party's actions can be chosen more carefully from multiple menus of moves while the action is paused. And, my favorite part: Expanding on the smart combat system of Final Fantasy XII, players will be able to assign simple artificial intelligence rules to their party heroes, telling them, for example, to heal themselves when their health reaches a certain percentage of damage. Unlike FF XII, however, players won't have to seek the right to use each custom-command in the game world. They will be able to set the rules from the start.

The Controls: The point of the demo was to prove the 360 can handle Dragon Age, and in terms of controls, it was convincing. Character movement is on the left stick. Characters could be switched with another button (a bumper, I believe). The controlled character could launch a default attack with a press of the A button or any of three special moves mapped to the other three face buttons. Holding the left trigger switched the association of the face buttons to three other special moves. Holding down the right trigger paused the action and produced a radial menu that allowed access to even more powers. This may not be as elegant as using a mouse to point-and-click, but, in my hands, it was easy to swap characters and swap powers. The only drawback, as noted above, was the lack of visual clarity as to when the attacks were being carried out, something that may be the byproduct of the demo being set several hours into the game.


Final Thoughts
I can't pass any new judgment on the game's story, its writing or even its graphics. The developers talk about there being as much as 800 hours of gameplay to this game, if someone was to play through it with each of the origin stories. But would anyone want to?

Depends on how much more enticing the game comes off in previews and how much the BioWare name means to potential consumers. One thing that I don't see being reason to scare people away is the Xbox 360 version of the controls. Solid as can be, they work.


Now, BioWare, sell us on this adventure.