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Review: Dragon Age: Origins 452

Posted by Soulskill
from the blood-spattered-goodness dept.
Since the release of Baldur's Gate in 1998, BioWare has cultivated a strong reputation for quality role-playing games, exploring various aspects of the genre ranging from traditional D&D roles and rules to space marine and Jedi Knights. Dragon Age: Origins is a shift back to traditional swords-and-sorcery standards, unashamedly embracing the archetypes that made RPGs what they are, and using them to tell a complex, interesting story in a familiar yet unexplored world. In addition, BioWare has done yet another iteration of their combat system to make it deeper and allow the player to dictate the level of engagement. The result is that Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best RPGs in recent history. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
  • Title: Dragon Age: Origins
  • Developer: BioWare
  • Publisher: Electronic Arts
  • System: Windows (Also: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
  • Reviewer: Soulskill
  • Score: 8/10

Character creation starts you off with a few simple choices that have far-reaching effects. There are three races (Human, Dwarf, Elf), and three classes (Warrior, Mage, Rogue), and they are much as you'd expect if you've ever played a fantasy RPG before. Depending on what you pick, one or two of the 'Origins' stories becomes available. These are short scenarios which detail the introduction of your character to the main plot line. For example, Human Rogues get their beginning as part of a noble house. Dwarf Warriors can choose either the dwarf noble or dwarf commoner starting areas, and both Elven and Human mages share a starter-story due to their class. (The only race restriction is that Dwarves can't be Mages.) These decisions affect how NPCs interact with your character throughout the game.

While only having three classes may seem limiting, your characters will have a high degree of customization as you start leveling up. You have talent trees (well, not so much 'trees' as 'lines') and each level gives you a talent point to spend. The talent lines are divided up into major fighting categories. The categories for Warriors are Dual Weapon, Archery, Weapon and Shield, and Two-Handed. Within each of these categories are sets of activated and passive abilities that grow progressively more powerful as you spend more talent points in that line.

The result of this is that you can easily have multiple Warriors in a group, each performing a different role and having different gameplay. One can swing a massive axe and lay waste to whatever he touches, and another can grab a shield and take on the tank role, utilizing a host of defensive talents. Mages get a similar selection of roles, and are able to play as elemental sorcerers, healers/buffers, or dabblers in the dark arts. On top of all this, each class has a set of four Specializations, which confer certain bonuses and unlock another set of abilities. Rogues can choose to become bards, which grants them songs to buff their party and mesmerize their enemies; they can also choose Assassin, making them better at finding weak spots, or Ranger, which lets them summon forest creatures to their aid. You get to pick a specialization at levels 7 and again at 14, but perhaps the most interesting part is how you acquire them. Some you can purchase, some are trained by various NPCs or party members, and others are unlocked by quests.

The stat system will be instantly familiar to anyone with experience in the genre; strength makes you hit harder, constitution makes you tougher, etc. It's quite simple, and the tooltips explain everything you need to know. Every level gives you three stat points to spend as you will. Various items and talents will have a stat requirement to use or acquire, but it's a fairly smooth progression. You won't typically have to wait very long to use that shiny new sword you picked up. There's no single, monolithic alignment system, but your actions will have an effect on how NPCs treat you. Perhaps more importantly, your actions will have an effect on how your group members feel about you. Each of them has an Approval Rating, which is a measure of how much they like you. Extreme ratings can unlock side plots — friendship and romance for high ratings, mutiny and abandonment for low ratings — and they can have an effect on the characters' stats.

The Approval system is a fun way to learn about each of your companions. There's a surprising amount of story to be told for each of them. Surprising, at least, until you realize how much story there is in the rest of the game. I was impressed by how often I had a meaningful choice in how the plot unfolded. That is, when the dialogue allowed for different options, they didn't feel like window dressing. (e.g. Do you want to kill him? Yes/No Yes. Are you sure? No/I Guess Not Damnit.) I just picked whichever option I felt like picking, and the plot still worked.

The story succeeds, by and large, for two reasons: the writing and the voice acting. BioWare made a lot of noise about getting some big names for Dragon Age: Origins (and they did; Kate Mulgrew, Claudia Black, Tim Curry, Steve Valentine, and Tim Russ, to name a few), but that isn't a guarantee of good voice work. Virtually all of the NPC dialogue in this game is spoken (you can skip through it if you care to; I rarely felt the need to), even when you're asking them about mundane things, so poor voice acting would be hard to tolerate after a while. But this cast turned in a performance that (sadly) I don't tend to expect from video games. What helped a lot in this regard is that the characters are very well written — which is to say they actually seem fleshed-out and believable, with a personality that's consistent from one scene to the next. The details of how the characters react to events and interact with each other are spot on. Your companions will occasionally trade jokes or insults at random times throughout the game, whether you're in the middle of dialogue or just wandering through a city.

Now, don't get me wrong; the plot itself is interesting too, but it's hard to tread new ground here (Doom threatens the world; a hero arises; things go wrong that the hero must put right), and the writers don't really worry about doing so. They're just trying to tell a cool story. Without spoiling too much, the Mage Tower story in the main plot is particularly fun. The writers leave you a trail of breadcrumbs to figure out what happened, dump you into fantasy land for a few puzzles and a different way of fighting, then top it off with an epic battle, all while maintaining an atmosphere of hopelessness and dread. What's more, all the different portions of the main plot are completely distinct, each with its own moral dilemmas, level layout, look, and back-story.

In addition to countless hours of dialogue, one big way BioWare goes about establishing their game world is through books, scrolls, and notes scattered around the areas you visit. When you click on them, they'll put a page or so of text in your Codex explaining who's who and what's what, so you're not inundated with a flood of made-up, fantasy-world names at any one time. The Codex entries are relevant to whatever task you're currently doing, and vary in form from dictionary-style explanation to diary entries to poems.

So, how about the gameplay? Many RPGs have met their downfall on the weakness of their combat mechanics, or have succeeded in spite of it. (I'll name no names, but one such rhymes with Moblivion.) Like several other BioWare games, you can pause the action and queue up an ability that will fire off when you un-pause. You can also take control of any other party member(s) whenever you please. Group size tops out at four, which allows a fair amount of micromanagement without becoming tedious. For general commands like attacking or movement, you can control multiple party members at once. There's not a lot of movement during combat. Rogues have bit of an incentive to move behind their targets, and mages will occasionally have cause to kite a monster, but most of the running you do will be to get your melee in range to hit something. My only major gripe is that melee classes tend to run out of stamina quickly, so for long battles they spend a lot of time auto-attacking.

Even with just that, it would be a solid combat system, but there are three other major features which allow you customize your level of engagement. First, there are four difficulty settings. Easy will let you basically just point-and-click to win. Normal will require some planning and pausing, and some potion use on the tougher fights. Hard makes you do a lot more micromanagement, use consumables often, and watch out for friendly fire. Nightmare is for people who should probably be medicated. Second, you can set generalized behaviors for each of your party members; this will make them run to seek a fight, run away, ignore it altogether, or a few other options.

Third is your Tactics page. This lets you set up responses to a large variety of actions or game states. For example, you can set a Mage to cast a heal when somebody drops below 50% health. Or, you could have your warrior tank run over to attack whatever monster is beating on your rogue. There are hundreds of trigger conditions neatly laid out in a set of drop-down menus. You can set some some fairly complex behavior if you'd like to, or just automate the basic tasks. When you put this whole system together, you end up being able to tailor the fighting to your personal preference for involvement. You can micromanage as much or as little as you want.

The UI is very streamlined and responsive. The camera is over-the-shoulder, and if you zoom out far enough it pulls back to an almost top-down, "tactical" view. (The console versions are restricted to over-the-shoulder.) For using your abilities, you have a boilerplate action bar, and your group portraits are off to the left for monitoring health and mana. If I were nitpicking, I'd say the health and mana bars should be somewhat thicker; they're a bit small to take in the whole group at a glance. Click-able bars pop up on the bottom of your screen whenever you get quest or codex updates (and a few other things), which makes it very easy to keep track of what's going on with the plot. You can hold down a button to highlight everything on screen that you can interact with (chests, NPCs, monsters, loot-able corpses, quest items, doors), so finding what you're looking for is dead easy.

That streamlining carries over into the gameplay as well. Any of your party members who fall in battle come back to life if the remaining characters win the fight. It's silly from a realism perspective, but at the same time it saves me from spending 30 seconds casting Resurrection every other battle or keeping 500 Phoenix Downs in my bags. (Though, oddly, characters come back to life with injuries — minor stat debuffs — that require an item or a visit to base camp to heal.) Itemization is perhaps a victim of this streamlining. As I leveled up, I naturally picked up better gear, but it never felt like the items made a significant difference. On the other hand, stat gains from leveling were constant, and new talents provided obvious improvements. Quests are sometimes quite simplistic because of the interface as well, but those quests mainly exist to serve the narrative. I expected this to bother me, but it didn't; I just wanted to see where the story was going.

Dragon Age: Origins has a ton of (quality) playtime in it; even more when you consider replayability. I'm sure I could go through the entire game again and have a largely different experience, both in story and in combat. (I tend to stick with a group configuration I like, so one of my potential companions has been sitting on the sidelines the whole time, and I slightly killed another one. Not to mention different talent choices and specializations.) BioWare didn't blaze a new trail within the genre, but they succeeded in their effort to create a game that presents a new, fun take on the familiar with elegance and polish. (And Claudia Black.)

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Review: Dragon Age: Origins

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  • Re:Black Isle (Score:1, Insightful)

    by poetmatt (793785) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:12PM (#30034826) Journal

    how about "maybe they'll actually release a complete game and not ask people to buy an addon with the original release". [penny-arcade.com]

    I'll pass, pass, not buying this for this exact reason. Oh and slashdot's sellout here is disappointing. The more people try to milk a game beyond it's cost the longer before they actually develop something new and interesting.

  • by Knara (9377) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:15PM (#30034862)

    The game is solidly single player, for the folks who like single player RPGs.

    I really don't get the need for people to have coop/multiplayer in EVERY GAME they come across.

  • by Reibisch (1261448) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:16PM (#30034874)
    I'm all for being a social animal, but every now and then I like to retreat to my own private world and enjoy a game crafted around the single player experience.
  • Re:Black Isle (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TheKidWho (705796) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:18PM (#30034902)

    You're implying they didn't developing something new and interesting to begin with which is wrong IMHO. The game is very well done and they have spent almost 7 years developing it.

  • by Spazztastic (814296) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [citsatzzaps]> on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:20PM (#30034934)

    The intros are heavy on cut-scenes due to them being "intros". They're not really cut-scenes, anyway, due to you having to make choices in the middle of many of the dialog sessions.

    It's nowhere near as cut-scene heavy as MGS4, though, so I'm happy enough.

    It's also not as bad as your average Final Fantasy game which you can't skip through at all.

  • Re:Black Isle (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stagg (1606187) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:21PM (#30034956)
    It is very much a complete game. I hate DLC as much as anyone else, but it's not like they hacked pieces out of the original game and offered them up for sale. The DLC is extra, totally unnecessary, and IMHO not that impressive. I'd try not to confuse hating DLC and hating the original product, if you do that you risk missing out on enjoyment you could otherwise appreciate. ;)
  • by illumin8 (148082) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:28PM (#30035062) Journal

    It's a shame this game has no coop or multiplayer. I know a lot of you will say there is nothing wrong with a well-done single player game, and I agree with you in spirit. But, in practice, a part of me looks at a game like this in 2009 and can't help but see it as, well...old-fashioned.

    Coop or multiplayer only works in a game where the story is completely linear. This game has so many different plot twists and the story can change so dramatically that there is no real way you could do coop; the story would have plot holes all over the place. Also, what would happen if two people tried to play completely different in the same game world? One person could go around killing NPCs that the other person wanted to keep alive. It would be complete and total chaos.

    If you played the game you would understand why coop wouldn't work. Also, the combat in this game, while it can be played in realtime similar to WoW, is deep enough that it requires pausing the game to give command to your party members. Have you ever seen a coop game that allowed one person to pause the game? It would be a nightmare because one person would be pausing the game when then other wanted to play it.

    I don't fault Bioware at all for not having multiplayer in the game. This game is meant to be played like a well run pen and paper RPG, or a great fantasy novel. You need to take the time to read Codex, immerse yourself in the game world, and that just doesn't come through in a "twitch" oriented action RPG.

  • by vga_init (589198) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:31PM (#30035120) Journal

    I agree that multiplayer games are great (especially cooperative RPG's), but not every game has to fall into one genre. There are many things that can be done with a single player design that you simple can't do with multiplayer, so expect Dragon Age to offer a unique and comprehensive experience you wouldn't otherwise get if they included multiplayer. Sometimes games get torn between the two and end up suffering the most that way; they want to be both a single player and multiplayer game, but ideally you'd pick one since it defines how the entire game plays out.

  • Content Galore (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:35PM (#30035168)

    While I too, like many of the posters here, was a bit annoyed by the $7 "Warden's Keep Tax" - the sheer breadth of the game has won me over.

    I'm over 20 hours in and (except for the opening Origins section) I've barely touched the main storyline. I've just been doing sidequests and experiencing the huge amount of dialog options your companion characters have.

    In other words, I suppose I'd rather pay $57 for a fantastic game than $50 for a mediocre one.

  • Re:Black Isle (Score:5, Insightful)

    by poetmatt (793785) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:38PM (#30035210) Journal

    from what I heard, they actually offer the DLC content as a quest in game that you'll get a "you must buy this to do it" type thing.

    that's about as hard a sell short of in game/loading screen advertising that you can get.

  • by smartaleq (905491) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:47PM (#30035360)

    Arcane mages (a specialization) are mages that wear plate. Shapeshifters are mages that spend all their time in animal form. Warriors specialized in ranged weapons are equally competent at it as rogues.
    It isn't as simplistic as the review makes it, and I've been quite happy with it.

  • Re:Sounds good (Score:2, Insightful)

    by TheKidWho (705796) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:54PM (#30035474)

    Last I checked, an 8800GT from 2 years ago can still run any game released today at very high quality settings. Except Crysis...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:00PM (#30035562)

    Wonder what I'm doing wrong.

    You're trying to play a video game on Linux. Just stop it already.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:05PM (#30035644)

    Had to boot back into my WinXP partition

    Oh noes the sky is falling HELP HELP! BAWK BAWK BAWK!!!

    Wonder what I'm doing wrong.

    Trying to play a Windows game in an OS other than the one for which it was designed.

  • by Chyeld (713439) <chyeld@gmai l . c om> on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:16PM (#30035828)

    Multiplayer makes sense for some things but for some things less so.

    Multiplayer RPGs in the fashion that Bioware makes their RPGs would be sufficently different from current multiplayer models that it would require alot of thought and effort to make even a cursory system.

    At the worse, you'd just be playing seperate characters in a party, one where the entire story is geared towards the idea where your main character is "The One". That isn't plot details concering the most recent game, that's just what BioWare games are about, single character going through the universe righting or doing wrongs along the way to defeat the big bad guy after having a couple of 'bonding moments' with their sidekicks. So who gets to be "The One" and who is the sidekick. And when your teammate starts the romance sideplot with you, are you going to feel uncomfortable about the sex scene?

    Or perhaps that isn't the worse, how about two competeing parties. "I'm sorry, you would have been able to save our village from the bandits, if your friend hadn't rolled through town last week and killed all the NPC's himself! Hope you didn't need that XP for leveling!" "Yeah, all the cool NPC's have joined your rival's party. Here are the NPC's no one ever plays with if they can help it.."

    Really, a multiplayer version of a Bioware game would need a completely different story structure (not to mention tech) than the one they use. Sometimes just because you can bolt a jet engine to a car, doesn't mean it's a good idea to do so.

  • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:31PM (#30036064)

    Wonder what I'm doing wrong.

    Trying to run it in Linux. Think back to when you set up your system, I'm sure there's a good reason to have that WinXP partition there. But when you buy a game and try to run it on an OS that it wasn't built for, you can sort of expect as much..

    You did buy it, right?

  • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:35PM (#30036138)

    Half a game? The game has, what, 80 hours of gameplay? It's a 20GB download, and you're bitching over an extra 4 or so hours worth of play time?

  • by ajs (35943) <ajs&ajs,com> on Monday November 09, 2009 @03:17PM (#30036650) Homepage Journal

    Why is this modded insightful??

    Because it is.

    It doesn't need to be in every game (any more than the game NEEDS to exist in the first place)

    Correct.

    but there's no reason to NOT build in the option for people who want it.

    • Delays in production/release
    • Single player play typically gets second class status when multiplayer is a requirement
    • UI must be more complex for multi-player games
    • A game which is fundamentally paced for single-player play is not well suited to multiplayer
    • They felt like it

    It could turn a $50 40 hour game into a $50, 100 hour game.

    True, but there is an audience for games that are designed to be single-player, and not multi-player.

    They could offer it and you could ignore it.

    Typically, no. The impact on gameplay and UI are deep and, I suspect, intractable.

    Then people who *have* friends could play this game together.

    Cheap and inaccurate shot. I play highly cooperative games ranging from multi-player to MMOs and I still appreciate a good single-player only game.

  • Mixed Bag (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ender77 (551980) on Monday November 09, 2009 @04:02PM (#30037258)
    I have been playing Dragon Age at a friends house, and have been tempted to buy it, but I think I will hold off after running into the guy trying to sell me DLC in the camp site. WTF?!?! Bioware, how you have disappointed me. I am sure this is EA's decision to milk the franchise even more, and this is what all of us were screaming about when EA bought them out. Ah, how the mighty have fallen. Whats next? In the next game, we will have ads playing during loading screens? Or perhaps we will have company brand names put on items? Pathetic. Still, the game IS fun, and besides the DLC annoyance I am having a blast. I will probably get it, but not as it is. Why buy an incomplete product? I will wait till the mondo, super, complete edition will be released in a year or two at a reduced price that will include ALL the DLC, addons, extra content, etc.
  • by El Gigante de Justic (994299) on Monday November 09, 2009 @04:16PM (#30037482)

    In hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers like the Diablo series or Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance multiplayer can work because those games area really action games with an RPG shell put around them, and the story related elements are minimal. In Neverwinter Nights it worked because people could create custom servers with persistent worlds and it wasn't a party based game. Multiplayer was designed into the game from the beginning because they designed it around the creation of custom mods.

          For story driven RPGs like this, multiplayer just doesn't really work, especially if its something with over 100+ hours of gameplay and hours of spoken dialogue. Does each player have to talk to every NPC separately, or do both have to wait for all of the others to say its ok to skip the dialogue? What about areas that require the party be kept together to exit? What if one of your party member players is unavailable for a while - then you can't do anything.

      Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale had multi-player, if you can call it that, and it was pretty lame. Basically it let you create more than one custom character (in the case of BG), and then each player in the session could be assigned exclusive control of certain PCs and NPCs - I don't recall if it still let you pause or not in combat. The only real advantage of it in BG, is that you could use "multi-player" to make a completely custom party for a single player game instead of using the NPCs.

  • Re:Black Isle (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chyeld (713439) <chyeld@gmai l . c om> on Monday November 09, 2009 @04:52PM (#30037986)

    Many (but not most) new games are $30 if you go to the effort of looking for deals and are willing to then buy the DLC separately.

    Most no longer new games will be $30 with DLC included, eventually, if you are willing to wait and don't need to be the first kid on your block to play it.

    I used to buy games impulsively due to the fact that in the 80's and 90's it was anyone's guess how long a game would be on the shelf. And once they were gone, they were gone. But in today's day and age, if a game manages to drop off the edge of the Earth it's normally because it was crap and not worth paying for.

    Throw as many "you pay as much for a few hours at the movies" arguements at me as you wish, it's been a long, long time that I've come across a game that was so "WOW" that I've felt paying $50-70 bucks for the 'privilege' of being in the first wave of people playing it was actually a worthwhile investment. And as long as year old (and older) games are being bargain binned on things like Steam, it's likely I never will again.

    Do you know what they were charging for Mass Effect this weekend? $10.

    Do you know what they'll be charging for DAO in a year or two? $10.

    I can wait. I picked up Oblivion finally this year, I've still got to find time to play either of the Far Cry games, and even if I push those out of the way, I've got ~80 more A list titles from the 2000's that I paid a pittance for and are just waiting for me to pick up.

    That reminds me, I never did get around to finishing Psychonauts ...

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Monday November 09, 2009 @05:57PM (#30038952) Homepage

    Trying to run it in Linux. Think back to when you set up your system, I'm sure there's a good reason to have that WinXP partition there.

    You did buy it, right?

    Windows XP? No, I didn't, which is why I don't have that option for playing games.

    Oh, you meant games. Yeah, well, I knew what I was getting myself into when I went Linux-only, so no I don't tend to buy many games. I will only if wine/cedega users report that the game works great (e.g. World of Warcraft), or they have a download-able demo I can test (a test which most games fail, though sometimes it's only because of the demo installer heh). If the demo does work, and I buy the game, but the full game won't work... well, guess I should have checked winehq more closely!

    The only time I've really felt like this bit me was with Popcap games. The Peggle demo worked perfectly in Wine. So I bought the full version, which basically just means 'registering' the demo you already downloaded. Well it didn't work. Long story short, it requires you to have Internet Explorer running some funky ActiveX control while the demo-version of the game is also running. Ugh. The reason this ticked me off is because it's the first time that the only obstacle between me and playing a game was their method of letting me buy the game. Oh well. I consider that $10 to be a donation to the indie game developer scene, and the Peggle demos are still fun. :P

  • by Rycross (836649) on Monday November 09, 2009 @06:15PM (#30039178)

    No, the PS3 doesn't run Linux for its normal function (Blu-ray, games, PSN, etc). It has the *option* to run Linux, but that isn't exactly the same thing. Whether or not it uses OpenGL, I don't know, although I've heard from online game development discussion sites that it uses a Sony-specific API that resembles, but is not quite, OpenGL.

    Regardless, development is only part of the equation where Linux support is concerned. There's also QA and support costs that have to be factored in. And then, you're limited to the cross-section of gamers who use Linux, but don't own an XBox, PS3, or Windows PC. I can't imagine that amount of sales adds up to anything significant.

  • by ravenshrike (808508) on Monday November 09, 2009 @06:29PM (#30039372)
    This'll probably run on Wine as well, in 6 months to 2 years.
  • by Valdrax (32670) on Monday November 09, 2009 @07:35PM (#30040100)

    You can't go two minutes in this game without being thrown into a long cut-scene. I like to play my RPGs, not watch them.

    It's called "plot," and not all RPG fans are as convinced as you are that it should be given cursory treatment. Anyway, Bioware's RPG have had long scenes of linear dialog for as long as I can remember. (Baldur's Gate, Planescape Torment, etc.)

  • That's almost exactly what I was thinking. Besides, since when does any set of characters need to be ideal at all? I find it much more interesting to try and play through RPGs with less-than-optimal character sets anyway.

  • by Draek (916851) on Tuesday November 10, 2009 @01:29AM (#30042556)

    How is that any different from what we've always had? I'm not aware of any RPG that let you move around while you chatted with an NPC, its just Dragon Age puts some black bars and moves the camera angle during the conversation so it has a more 'cinematic' feel.

You are in a maze of little twisting passages, all alike.

Working...