Dragon Age: Origins has a lot riding on it. It has been one of the most anticipated games for me, since a few years now. Although I try not to expect too much from a game, I was expecting something special with Dragon Age, owing to its relentless positioning as a "spiritual successor" to the Baldur's Gate series. Baldur's Gate is generally renowned for two things -- its challenging and strategic combat system and its engaging storyline. At the very least, therefore, I was expecting a good combat system and a refreshing, or at least gripping, storyline.
The Dragon Age universe borrows ideas and culture from various fantasy worlds: Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Eye, and of course mother of all fantasy inspiration – the literary and adapted works of Tolkein. Origins introduces us to this universe through its denizens, their culture and their religion – to that effect the game deals with a phenomenon called the Blight. According to the religious beliefs of the humans of this world, their god, the Maker ruled the world from the Golden City. On behest of the Old Gods, the Tevinter Imperium laid siege to the Golden City in an attempt to usurp the Maker's throne. The siege was a failure but it left the city corrupted; so the Maker banished them for this transgression. Those corrupt are referred to as the Darkspawn and when they return in large numbers led by a corrupted Old God, you get the Blight. This is where an order of elite warriors called The Grey Wardens come in – a response to the threat. You, of course, play one of these wardens.
Be yourself; or not
You can choose from three archetype fantasy races – Human, Elf and Dwarf. Humans and Elves can choose between fighter, rogue or the mage class; whereas dwarves can choose either the fighter or the rogue class. In the Dragon Age universe, Dwarves do not get to be mages as they are racially resistant to the effects of Lyrium – the fuel of magic. After choosing your race and class during character creation, the process requires you to select your background story; which in turn determines the "Origins Story". Various combinations of race, class and background yields six unique origin stories.
After customizing you character's appearance, the next stage of character creation is assigning points to your character's six different attributes – strength, dexterity, willpower, magic, cunning and constitution. The starting value of these attributes is factored by your choice of race and class. The next stage in character creation process is selecting starting skills, followed by picking talents (or spells).
The fighter and rogue class have acess to special abilities categorized under talents; whereas mages have acess to a pool of spells. In addition to this, all the classes also have access to another set of abilities called Skills. Talents and Skills are multi-tiered, categorized abilities, which in most cases directly affect the combat prowess of the fighter and rogue class. Mages on the other hand do not use Talents and instead they have access to a set of magic spells.
Of winning friends and influencing people
The background and race selected during the character creation will determine your social standing in the game world. This subsequently affects disposition of the world towards you and will also offer a suitable starting point for your game.
A common thread connects the six unique Origins stories: each will invariably lead to an encounter with a veteran Grey Warden and your recruiter. Without spoiling the game for you, the main quest in the game is that as one of the few surviving Grey Wardens in the area, you need to garner support against the Blight from humans, elves and dwarves. Joining you on this venture is a group of ten other adventurers that form your party of companions; however the maximum travelling party size is limited to four.
There is no morality (alignment) system is Dragon Age; however you will face choices that can be placed within a spectrum of good and evil. As seen in games such as Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights 2, there is also a measure of your character's influence over other party members; your group’s behavior towards you will be based on an ‘approval rating’ which factors in both your influence on them as well as the decisions you make when faced with choices, as you adventure. A low rating with a party member will cause him or her to leave your party and in some cases even turn hostile. On the other hand, a high approval rating will give that party member a bonus to one of their attributes. You can also win a party member’s favour by completing their personal quests, or by giving gifts that are found in the game as loot, treasure, or bought from merchants.
Hard to the core
The effort it must take to create a tactical combat system is quite evident with Dragon Age. Battle terrain plays a significant role in combat tactics, and along with a combination of skills, talents and spells, the combat system offers a wide variety of options to form a winning strategy during hostile encounters. Spells use the caster's pool of magic energy (or mana) and they come with cool-down timers. Similarly, Talents also have a cool-down timer and they use the character’s stamina instead of magic energy. There are also persistent spells and combat skills that reserve a certain amount of mana or stamina respectively.
I finished the game with a character at level 20 by pursuing the main quest and completing a handful of side-quests – this is not nearly enough to acquire all possible Skills, Talents or Spells. Effectively, you will need to decide on a particular style of play very early in the game and then focus on skills and spells accordingly.
Each character class receives one point at level 7 and another at level 14 to select up to two specialization classes. There are four unique specialized classes for each class and they need to be unlocked by reading books or finding trainers, often with quests attached to them. These open up even more interesting options with character builds and overall combat strategy.
Another layer of depth is added to the combat system through implementation of spell combinations. Casting spells in a certain order (or combination) will yield additional benefits, like increased damage. It is quite unlikely that you will be able to explore all these possibilities in a single play-through, so this works as an incentive to replay the game.
The specialized classes that you unlock are carried over to all subsequent play-through. This coupled with a better understanding of the game world, combat mechanics, and items, should help you create a stronger, more focused character build from an early stage. A word of caution – the game dictates a greater level of patience and investment of time that we are generally used to.
Some enemy encounters, especially tougher ones may require you to reload the game a few times to rethink your strategy and approach. To slightly digress: the game recorded my total play time at over 60 hours with only 40 percent of game completed! Levelling may thus be perceived as quite slow after the first four or five levels as after spending 60+ hours in the game, my character was just level 20.
This much can be said about the combat system in Dragon Age Origins: those who revel in a tactical approach to encounters will enjoy playing this game. Origins is unlike any recent Bioware game when it comes to the game’s mechanics; it’s hardcore.
So far so good. The Dragon Age universe does not offer anything revolutionary or even unique; however the game’s designers have done a commendable job of adding a new level of depth using well-known building blocks. While the game comes quite close to delivering on its promise of old-school tactical combat; it disappoints on the story front.
Meet the new plot, same as the old plot(s)
The one thing that stood out for me with Baldur's Gate 2 was its main plot – it was both personal and epic. Dragon Age can be summed up as clichéd. It offers the tired storyline of saving the world from imminent destruction. There are instances of déjà vu with the main story and it often feels like old wine in a new bottle. The developers have certainly experimented with presentation and have approached aspects that are RPG staple; the game feels refreshing at that. I believe that with role-playing games, what leaves a lasting impression is your *role* in the game world and how you fulfill that role or achieve your objective.
All the dialogues are spoken, so it spares you from reading reams of text and also makes the overall experience more immersive. However, this is hampered by repetitive and irrelevant character animation during conversations. There also appears be to lack of variety with NPC models as you often encounter characters with striking resemblance to each other.
Technically the game is certainly an improvement for Bioware; however it is not without problems. I experienced consistent system crashes while on the inventory screen. There are a few quest related glitches and crashes that had me scouring through various discussion forums. The game patch and the official support forums were of little help; thankfully this was offset by active community based forums and wikis.
Conclusively, Dragon Age Origins is a pretty good game; however in its endeavor to succeed Baldur's Gate-- it is a battle only half-won.
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Developer: Bioware Edmonton
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform:PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360