Dragon Age: Origins Review
The currency of war is life. We pay the cost and hope in the end it was worth it.
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Before seeing Dragon Age: Origins as a fragmented, yet coherent and addictive universe, it should be underlined that the developer itself, BioWare, defines this game as the spiritual successor of Baldur’s Gate. In consequence, it would have been natural for Dragon Age to be animated by the same Dungeons&Dragons rules and mechanisms. Unlike other titles in Baldur’s Gate spirit (especially Neverwinter Nights), in this RPG, the Ten Amendments of D&D have been substituted with a new simplified class-based system, the developers hoping to achieve a much more fluid and accessible gameplay. The differences are obvious from the character creation screen, where all the classes we could get lost between in other titles have been reduced to just three options: the Elf, the Human and the Dwarf. The classes and specializations have been also thrown away, leaving us with just three ways of surviving: Mage, Fighter or Rogue. On the other hand, the fighting system is still based on “dice rolls” and it is still influenced by the classical Stats parameters.
Not the same can be admitted of the Skill tree, which had been limited to eight elementary tricks. Survival, for example, allows an easier detection of enemies, while Tactics makes the AI of a certain character a bit better with every point invested. The well-known Pickpocket is no longer a class-based skill and can be learned by any character. As for Combat Training, it affects Mage’s concentration and the weapon skill of the other two classes. Three of the skills constitute the crafting system, so that characters in Dragon Age can either brew potions or poisons, or they can build traps.
In contrast to other crafting systems, the one in Dragon Age: Origins is closely linked to the Skill level and has nothing to do with Stats. Basic recipes are automatically added to the cookbook as you invest points in the skill, while other more interesting recipes must be bought from merchants. All craftable items require two types of ingredients to be created: consumables you can find in the environment and consumables that can only be bought. In other words, you have to stock up before going on an adventure, if you want to rely on potions. This differs from other RPGs, where all recyclable junks could be found in containers scattered throughout the levels.
Coercion remains the most interesting skill, as it is the Dragon Age equivalent of both Persuade and Intimidate. Depending on how many points you have invested in Strength or in Cunning (Dexterity), your character can either impose his will or crawl under people’s skin to have his way. Still, the Skill Check is made before initiating conversation. Which means a Skill Check failure doesn’t result in a negative reaction from the NPC, but rather in your impossibility to try to convince him of anything. This proves that in Dragon Age: Origins, manipulation of other people is not essential for survival.
Still, proving your point does make life easier and more interesting in the game, through unlocking secondary missions and through avoiding a lot of confrontations, especially when things start to get complicated. But this RPG does not feature any classes not focusing on death and destruction. Which means that having a silver tongue is more of a bonus than a proper gameplay style.
This doesn’t imply that Dragon Age has lost in complexity. The only difference is that the hidden labyrinth behind the story does not tire the player from start, but will rather reveal itself gradually, as a grander beast.
In order to prove my hypothesis, let us talk about the new element that has appeared on the character creation screen: the character Origin. After choosing race and class, the player also has to specify the social class they feel most comfortable in. This choice is by no means arbitrary, because as you progress you will realize that every people in Dragon Age: Origins boasts its own culture and form of social, political and economical (in)stability. For example, the dwarves are stuck in the underground metropolis of Orzammar like in a veritable city-state. They are going through a civil war, generated by the death of the old king. As for the equality of chances, it has been thrown away in favor of a cast-based system, which makes any form of social mobility impossible.
Humans in the game are approximately the same thing that the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) represent for the American society. And elves are the outlaws of society, condemned to a life in the capital’s slum, or to one of rebellion in the wilderness. Dragon Age doesn’t stop here. It also raises some philosophical and religious questions. Besides racism and homosexuality, the game also makes us reflect upon the nature of the beast (whether the savage impulse can be quelled, in the case of werewolves) or upon magic (think Eliade style, whether the Mages should be controlled by the Templars). At the same time, it sketches a world of an unbelievably ironic religious rigidity: the dwarves, opposite to the Norse mythology, are afraid that they might fall into the sky, while everyone else seems obsessed with the Maker.
It is then of no surprise that whatever choices you make will have a huge impact upon your character’s evolution. Your origin will haunt you for the rest of your virtual existence, influencing the way toy allies and NPCs react. I, as an accomplished Elf Mage, had to put up with the racial despise of fellow NPCs. And, as a female character, I had some trouble with the misogynistic part of my group. The vision upon the game’s world wouldn’t be complete without a stuffed Codex, where you can read local legends you find on your travels or cheeky details about your new acquaintances.
And this is just the beginning, the zero level of details which are there just to spice up the situation. Actually, your purpose in the game universe is to create a solid system of alliances in order to protect the universe from a Darkspawn invasion. Darkspawns are a sort of Orcs that emerge from the underground once in a while to destroy everything on the surface. As a Grey Warden, elite warrior and ambassador of freedom, you will be regarded differently by all the factions in the game, some regarding you as a real savior, others just as a willy-nilly.
My world…what have you done to it?!
As complex as Dragon Age: Origins proves on the socio-cultural level, it is sometimes too plain when talking about exploring the geography of this new imaginary world. If you can explore a healthy amount of lore through tomes, you’re not as successful at world exploration because you have to use a disappoint map in the style of Neverwinter Nights 2. Running around the realm is often slowed down by pseudo-random encounters, which are actually triggered by the different quests.
Just as in Neverwinter Nights, these mini-encounters don’t only make the playing rhythm seem jagged through a lot of loading screens, but they also give a hard time to adventurers. The random battles are really crowded and filled with inaccessible enemies. The general design of levels is just as well inspired, limiting exploration even further, because it doesn’t really feature any décor. In this RPG, everything has a role in the story and will not be used just for eye candy.
Even the different points of interest are disposed in a predictable way and an experienced D&D player will know exactly where to expect traps or an ambush. Actually, there aren’t many areas in the game that are not linked to the main narrative thread. Secondary quests usually take place in already visited locations or they are resolved through random encounters. Secret rooms are out of the question. You don’t even have a Spot Skill anymore, remember?
Still, the important confrontations fit perfectly in the level design, the player being often lured into traps that exploit a poorly configured tactic. The hours spent in the Fade are an exception, as the décor is a true labyrinth, teeming with secrets. Here you can only access some zones by taking up the form of a different spirit and I found these puzzles quite ingenious. These small moments of genius suggested that the people at BioWare were somehow reserved in integrating their wackiest ideas in Dragon Age: Origins.
On the other hand, the designers did insist upon a totally different chapter, meaning the robust quest system, which develops in all directions. As we rarely see in RPGs, missions really have coherent premises and the player doesn’t feel forced by the circumstances to take some decisions. Everything seems natural, the normal consequence of the decisions taken so far.
You don’t feel like recruiting everyone in the realm? No problem, take your hero directly to the civil war in Denerim, but there will be no one to help you in the final battle against the Darkspawns. Other smaller decisions count in the exact same way. BioWare got rid of the alignment system present in titles like Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights, which gave those games an artificial feeling. You had to either go with the ever prevailing good, or with the punished and punishing evil.
In Dragon Age, decisions have nuances and, as a consequence, the missions have an impressive array of possible endings. We don’t have good and evil anymore, but we do have individualism, greed, universal values or the divergent opinions of your companions.
All variables fit so well into the big picture that it’s hard not to feel impressed. Even the DLCs that have been launched together with the game feel like part of the main story. Stone Prisoner, for example, inserts a new character in your party, Shale the Golem, together with his (her?) delicious commentaries and two very interesting secondary quests.
The League of extraordinary Monkeys
As we’ve already reached the subject of heroes and anti-heroes, BioWare managed to create quite a happy bunch. You might find some of them tiring as they’re too much of a prototype: Morrigan is the sexy witch thirty for destruction, Allistair is the chaste Paladin, Sven, the mute warrior, Wynne, the wise old lady and Zevran an exotic playboy bunny. The list could continue infinitely in the same manner. Some of their attitudes reminded me of other characters in former BioWare titles: Morrigan is a sort of Neeshka (the NWN 2 rogue) and Shale is a HK-47 clone (see Knights of the Old Republic).
Still, the stupid conversations between the characters will always put a smile on your face. The old lady will get to love the drunken warrior. Allistair is damned shy. Shale has something against pigeons. And Zevran himself is obsessed with the smell of Antivian leather. Be attentive enough and you might discover funny secrets, like the fact that Shale is actually a she-golem.
So no character is in the game just for scenery. They all familiarize you with the way in which the other classes in the game function, while Shale and your animal companion have their own unique abilities. Unfortunately, you can’t use all your teammates’ skills. A rogue might be able to disable traps or open locks, but he will never offer to carry out a conversation in your name, even if he has a higher Coercion level.
As all characters are somewhat equal, the only way in which you could avoid someone in your party is by disagreeing with their value system and their moral structure. I, for example, left Morrigan out of the story because she found helping people a waste of time. And, unfortunately, players have a tendency of getting attached to the very first teammates they meet, although I can assure you that none of the allies in Dragon Age: Origins is less complex than the others when it comes to personality.
What I really didn’t like about this ready to party bunch was the fact that relationships build up pretty artificially. Deep, metaphysical conversations between the main hero and his sidekicks are only triggered by specific narrative events, so you’ll soon run out of weather-talks. And even if the decisions you make can lower your influence in the group, make allies attack you or leave, you can always fix things up with some well placed gifts. At least each ally has his own life-story and if you’re careful enough with them you can unlock secondary bonus missions that will make the group survive longer.
Nuts and Bolts
Bearing in mind the fact that the player controls one of four characters at any time, it’s admirable how these characters work together. BioWare has learned from the mistakes of the past and has now substituted the basic AI of each character with a veritable ally programming environment, known as Tactics. This is where you can specify the reactions of unselected characters at any given parameter, be it the distance to the nearest enemy or the amount of mana left.
If you don’t want to delve into such details, you can always choose from some class presets. This Tactics system is very powerful so that’s why the developers limited it. You have just a few slots for character reactions to start with. You’ll have to choose between offense and defense. But, as you grow up, you’ll get additional tactics slots and you’ll totally get rid of micro-management during battles.
Except when playing on Nightmare, the pause button is almost useless in Dragon Age. This is due to the fact that the main classes are a bit overpowered, and a reasonable build will surely keep you out of trouble. It’s obvious that BioWare wanted to get rid of the lack of dynamism some RPGs have. That’s why regeneration is almost instant between battles. It’s for the same reason that players have fewer options when it comes to leveling up.
In fact, the three classes can all specialize in two out of four distinct directions. If we compare this to other D&D titles, we don’t seem to get overwhelming options. But in Dragon Age specializations somehow assimilate eachother, resulting in a totally different style of gameplay from one configuration to the other. The same thing could be said about the spells for the Mage class, which complement each other. For example, you can freeze your enemy and then shatter them with an ethereal arm.
Still, fights are extremely fun. The pace of dungeon-crawling is natural. And, even if the every-day monster killing is effortless, final bosses are extremely intelligent and require special strategies to be defeated. The enemy AI is also pretty challenging, as it never falls into the trap of poor scripting. Soldiers know when to dodge area of effect spells and enemy mages are trained to pick the weakest companion out of your group.
Spell effects are also juicy and switching from an isometric perspective to a third person one gives a lot of dynamism to the fights. It’s too bad that sometimes cinematic scripts are triggered too early or too late, ruining the whole encounter. I got stuck in a room with both doors locked a couple of times because a script failed to launch itself on time. At other times, the characters were floating around because of the same scripts. Happily, these small bugs occur mostly in secondary quests and can be avoided by reloading the game.
During normal play, the camera doesn’t allow closing in on the characters too much. But during cut scenes and dialogue, some textures prove to be embarrassingly elementary, be it Allistair’s armor or the shrubs behind him. And the quantity of blood doesn’t succeed in hiding this lack of color and the poor resolutions.
From afar, the world of Dragon Age is rather impressive. The Fade, with its crystallized vegetation and the Black City decomposing behind the planes of existence is one such example. Orzammar is just as picturesque, with its lava rivers and Paragon statues.
Coming back to the above mentioned textures, we have good news. Fans are already working on an improved version of them, to make the game even sweeter. Everything is possible because BioWare offered a complete toolset to the community. We’re not only talking about a map editor and scripts, but also about a cinematic editor, a sound-design tool and a character editor. These powerful tools, combined with a series of detailed tutorials you can download on the community website, led to the creation of some important projects, like the Attack of the Dark Dragons module or a “reincarnation” of the Baldur’s Gate series using the engine of the new game.
Before being a game for the community, Dragon Age: Origins is a high quality, triple A title. The music, for example, bears some cinematographic traces, being brought to life by the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra. It also retains a Baldur’s Gate taste, as the developers hired Inon Zur once again, after he had created the atmosphere in Throne of Bhaal.
The results are some mystic tunes, sometimes mature, sometimes neutral, that sometimes slip into feminine prophecies or chorus torment. The voice-acting is also the creation of some well known actors (Tim Curry is the evil Arl Howe), but also features some rather bored no-names. On the whole, though, the voices are perfect for the characters they represent and often generate irony.
Through the effort put at all levels of the game, BioWare has proven that it tries to transform Dragon Age into a new cult, but also into a new rich imaginary culture. The array of objects in the game is rather poor for this initiative and so is the variety of monsters. But maybe I am a bit too subjective. And we have to remember that this is just the beginning.
What follows can be already seen in the wealthy number of patches that are supposed to balance the game and kill all the bugs, but also in the soon to be launched Return to Ostagar DLC. Looking even further, the developers have already promised an expansion pack, Awakening. And although Dragon Age: Origins brings nothing genuinely new into the RPG genre, the way in which it shapes its universe will keep fans of the fantasy genre in front of their PCs for as long as the story, the conflict and the origins are flowing.
This article has first appeared on ComputerGames.ro, which has in the meantime given up on its English section of reviews. You can also read the Romanian version of the article on the ComputerGames.ro website.