Friday, April 22, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins - Full Review

Without a shadow of a doubt, Bioware are the masters of the RPG. They’ve proved many times over that it’s not just meaty combat, powerful weapons, amazing spells and exciting enemies that make an RPG, but also a well crafted dramatic and emotionally gripping storyline worthy of the greatest fantasy novels and films ever created. These tales also contain a wealth of varied interpersonal relationships with both friend and foe characters you encounter on your epic journey. Bioware almost guarantee you will become lost in their original gameworlds. Not lost as in having no map or path, but a loss of the perception of time and even a loss from reality. Isn’t that the main reason why one plays? Well I’m pleased to say that Dragon Age: Origins is another prime example of Bioware’s unquestionable domination of the genre.

While Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG, Bioware released themselves from the constrictions of the Dungeons & Dragons licence they so faithfully represented in the past and have crafted an entirely new IP, creating a new gameworld and working with their own roleplaying mechanics. While for some this may be a turn off, being severed from the cosy familiarity of the D20 system and a wealth of lore you’re familiar with; the leap between D&D to Dragon Age is not as great as the leap between say Knights Of The Old Republic and Mass Effect which would be far more difficult to compare to each other. No, Dragon Age is much lighter on mechanics and options than D&D but it’s actually all the better for it because it’s an easy system to learn and should draw in newer players to the genre than say Oblivion, widely regarded as having a flawed learning curve.

Bioware created the land of Ferelden, where you encounter memorable characters and take up arms for a cause you believe in. Dragon Age: Origins is more than a well-told story, however: It's an epic, intricate, and thoroughly entertaining adventure that's easy to become enamoured with. The basic plot premise seems simplistic; an invasion of a demonic horde known as The Darkspawn expanding with a plague upon the land known as The Blight. Add to that, a bitter civil war and you have the making of a superior high-fantasy experience. But it’s the shocks, the joys, and the anguish that stem from your compatriots or hidden in books of lore and the moments where your dialog choices change the very future of the word is where the real story lies. Ferelden is as tangible and familiar a land as those created by the fantasy greats but is unique enough to feel truly original.

Dragon Age's initial moments, in contrast to many RPGs present very important decisions that completely affect how your adventure plays out. You'll do the normal customisation of your own avatar and abilities with a wealth of options that Bioware are famous for but by choosing a race and class you will set in motion a very different tale from someone who chooses a different combination of race and class. They not only define your abilities but also determine how you experience one of six different "origins” that follow the events that lead you to the elite company of the Grey Wardens [basically the Jedi of the gameworld]. Each origin story leads to the same place eventually, but the events you began in your origin story continue to resonate right until the end of the epic tale.

You learn much from the extraordinary companions who join you on your quest, and you'll even grow to care about them as much as you have for other Bioware characters. I kept my team to a core group balancing the three companion slots between martial power, the magical arts and the skills of a sneaky ranged attacker. I had Alistair, a Grey Warden warrior and the joker of the bunch whom you may lead to a higher purpose, Leliana, a stealthy ranger who is dangerous as she is endearing ["I am a woman and I reserve the right to be inconsistent! "] and Morrigan, a wild witch in control of powerful magics who follows your cause for her own nefarious purpose. Bioware have developed impressive backstorys, dialogue and the impressive voice acting which makes them seem almost real and their constant interaction even among themselves [a mechanic not seen properly since Baldur’s Gate] adds an air of authenticity to your adventure. You have full control over your companions inventories and can upgrade all their weapons and armour as you see fit. Don’t worry about the expense of upgrading all the characters in your party camp, you can easily afford it by game’s end. You must keep them happy in order to retain their services. Making choices they agree with will impress them and gain their favour [as will presenting them with gifts] but ignore their complaints for too long and have them leave you for good! You can recruit three companions to take along on any quest with the frequent option of swapping them out for another of a pool of about a dozen in total. They’re not just AI’s either; you can take full control of any party member at any time. You can zoom in to a close third-person view when exploring and conversing with non-player characters, or pull the camera back to a tactical view, which makes it a breeze to quickly and easily micromanage every spell and attack, in true Baldur's Gate tradition.

Speaking of Baldur’s Gate, if you've played any Bioware fantasy RPG in the past, you'll feel right at home with the combat system. By clicking on your target or pressing “attack”, you don't just swing a sword, but you approach your target and queue up your assault. Eventually in time the battle will be illuminated with power and spell effects as you and your companions gain more knowledge. Enemies are diverse enough to remain interesting and you must often change combat tactics on the fly in order to maximise your effectiveness against different foes. NPC allies will eventually join you in the largest battles, and the greatest of these, particularly those at the climax, are exceptionally rewarding.

The games’ pacing is much quicker than it’s D&D predecessors and it seems that you’re almost in constant motion, gaining loot and levels as you go. You do not even have to rest to regenerate – once a battle or encounter is over, you and your companions slowly regenerate health and mana. If a party member “dies” during battle, they are but incapacitated and will automatically resuscitate once all enemies in the area are vanquished. Due to this it’s quite possible to play for hours without retiring back to camp.

So why didn’t Bioware just shoehorn this into the D&D licence though? Well much like they created a more mature sci-fi scenario in Mass Effect, free from the sex & violence restrictions of the Star Wars franchise; Dragon Age is the adult themed answer to Dungeons & Dragons and would never be sanctioned by Wizards of the Coast considering the fact that you can engage in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, suggestions of bestiality and take part in orgies – oh and then there’s the blood! Yeeeeesssss the blooood!!! The blood is truly magnificent. Every single swing of the sword that connects with a foe is rewarded by a satisfying splatter of liquid crimson that covers you and your companions. Every subsequent thrust and slice further releases torrents of blood until by the end of an encounter you look like you’ve been working in a abattoir for a month. Kills and critical hits are given special animations and often involve the removal of heads – delicious! It’s doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the BBFC slapped an big red 18 certificate on this!

Sound plays an important part in Bioware’s games and it’s something they’ve never scrimped on. The sounds of battle and death fill the air during combat, distant voices adding to the whole atmospheric experience. Characters are expertly voiced by some familiar names Tim It Curry, Claudia Stargate: SG-1 Black, Mark V Hildrith, Graham Rambo McTavish as well as Kate Mulgrew, Tim Russ, Domnic Keating and Dwight Schultz from Star Trek shows to name but a few. One of the highlights of the aural Dragon Age: Origins experience is an impressive score from Icewind Dale’s composer Inon Zur, one of the most prolific video game score composers out there. Zur worked with Aubrey Ashburn who provided vocals for a score that stands on it’s own delivering haunting melodies and hard percussion where required.

Now is there anything bad? I guess you shouldn’t expect to see anything visually that you’ve not seen before albeit in a different form. The architecture, the settings, the look and feel of everything is everything you know from D&D or Tolkien and things don’t deviate much from that staple. Everything here looks a bit washed and bleak which is an interesting style choice but it’s bleakness may not be to everyone’s liking. The engine itself is not up there with the highest standard of RPG graphics engines either and does not appear as powerful as you’d expect from a game of it’s calibre. The Mass Effect engine which is technically older seems to handle textures and models far better which seems strange to me. Still a good thing is that PCs older than last years models should run the game extra smoothly even on high settings. Another niggling issue is that while there is an impressive array of customisable in-game AI scripting, it doesn’t always work and your elite tem of adventures can quickly turn into the most impressive idiots in the history of RPG henchmen. Every so often a character will disregard your commands and make basic actions instead of their skills and abilities. Even with AI commands set up, companions frequently act on their own idiotic accord – choosing to enter combat with enemies you don't want them to or running blindly into traps that they should be able to see, let alone disarm. They’re also not the best pathfinders you’ll ever see, so be prepared to take a lot of control over most situations yourself using the pause command.

This is an extraordinarily ambitious game in comparison to most. Few other than Bioware can follow up that ambition with realised entertainment on this epic scale. If you spend time tracking down every quest you could easily spend over 90 hours to complete the game [my endgame save reads 96 hours], but then you may want to craft a new character with a new origin and I’ll bet you’ll find subsequent adventures quite different.

Final Verdict: One of Bioware’s greatest achievements, a high fantasy epic for a mature audience with a genuine hook for replay value filled with danger, humour, intrigue, betrayal and adventure.


Civilian Overseer said...

Colonel, you're charged with taking out aliens that pose a treat to the earth?, I've just been informed from a corporate donor Luthorcorp that the last son of Krypton has just renounced his US citizenship. As such, he is not only an alien but he is now an illegal alien. Without doubt he poses a clear and present danger. Do what must be done.

Civilian Overseer said...

Well Colonel, I guess we now know what you have been up to for the last couple of days. I guess the most appropriate expression for this occasion is Go Marines!. :)