- 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.)