Game of the Month: Dragon Age: Origins

I’m a big fan of BioWare role-playing games. Their award-winning title Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was my all time favourite game until I discovered the Mass Effect trilogy. But as it is unlikely that there will ever be a proper sequel to Knights of the Old Republic and as the next Mass Effect game is still years away I decided to try out BioWare’s Fantasy role-playing series Dragon Age. As the development of the story greatly matters in BioWare games I started at the beginning and played Dragon Age: Origins the first part of the series.

Dragon Age: Origins is a modern take on a classic computer role-playing game. It tells the story of the fantastic country Ferelden. As growing numbers of Darkspawn, violent and twisted humanoids, attack the population the King’s Army and the Grey Wardens get ready for battle to stop an invasion before it fully begins. Your character is destined to join the order of the Grey Wardens who devote their lives to fight against the Darkspawn. How your character gets to this point depends on her on his Origin. Their are six completely different origin stories which take part before the main events. Which of these stories your character experiences is determined by her or his race (Human, Elf or Dwarf) and class (Warrior, Mage or Rogue). But while the origin has a influence on details (e.g. dialog options) the main story line always remains the same.

Although Dragon Age: Origins looks like a third person action game on a quick glance it is still a round based role-playing game at the core. Both your characters and the enemies can only perform one action (melee attack, casting a spell, use of a potion, etc.) per fixed time round. But fights progress in real time unless you pause the game. The success or failure of each action depends on the attributes of the characters (e.g. strength or dexterity), objects (e.g. the type and level of a weapon), various boosts (e.g. magic spells) and a random factor. Careful aiming or quick reflexes are not required. Strategy on the other hand is important. It starts with picking the correct party with a mix of different classes. You need Warriors to protect your Mages from physical attacks, Rogues to disarm traps and for stealth attacks and Mages to heal your party and to combat hostile magic. Picking the right kind of attack is also crucial: Dragons are immune to fire attacks but very susceptible to cold attacks.

Dragon Age: Origins has a lot of virtues:

  1. The game has epic proportions. It took me over 88 hours to complete the main story and most of the side missions. It took another 25 to 30 hours to play through all of the extensions.
  2. The story is very well written with a lot of attention to detail. The history and social structure of Ferelden are very coherently defined and let the setting appear almost real.
  3. It features a huge number of locations and massive dungeons that you can explore.
  4. You will encounter a huge number of interesting and excellently voiced characters. There are a lot of very entertaining dialogs.
  5. The player is allowed to make a lot of decisions during the game. But they are not aligned to a moral codex, they are not classified as good or evil. They only change how people interact with the main character, in particular how much your companions approve of her or his actions. But while a particular choice might please one of your companions it might anger another one. And while the consequences of your actions are sometimes severe they are not always easy to predict.
  6. The extension Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening has the scope of a full game.

There are also a few minor aspects that could have been better:

  1. The main character isn’t voiced (except in one of the extensions). This disrupts the flow of dialogs.
  2. The game’s background is strongly influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A bit more novel content would have made the story even more exciting.
  3. Round based role-playing games usually allow you to pause the game and select the actions that all your characters will execute during the next round. And while this is possible in the PC version of the game it is missing in the console version. You can pause the game by opening the radial menu. But as soon as you select a single action the game continues. This makes managing your characters unnecessarily tricky, in particular if you fight a large number of enemies with a party of four.
  4. Some of the extended content recycles the layout of locations from the original game, even if the plot takes place somewhere else.

Dragon Age: Origins can definitely hold its own against BioWare’s science fiction titles that I enjoy playing so much. I can highly recommend the Ultimate edition of the game as you get a lot of extra contents for your money. I would also recommend to play all origins stories first and then pick the character you like the most for playing the main game.

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