Well, it's done. I finished the Dragon Age campaign and I find myself feeling rather sad that it's over.
Before I continue I want to briefly say that although for some games I can see the value of DLC, far too often it's just a cash grab. Unfortunately for Origins, the DLC just feels completely out of place. It has been implemented in such a way that all of the DLC campaigns are set to take place before the final events of the game, so that after finishing it.. you can go back to before the end and complete additional dungeon crawls with your characters having no idea of some of the events that occurred during the main story? I suppose that's fine if you really have a desire to kill more things for loot you obviously don't need but without the story to back it up I just don't think the game is that compelling, and because they have no way of guaranteeing that everyone will play the DLC, any events that take place during the DLC content cannot be referenced in the main plot and therefore cannot have a meaningful impact on the story.
I would be immensely interested if they released DLC as episodic updates to the game, allowing you to advance the storyline from the point you left off bit by bit every few months, but adding what are effectively "filler" episodes to the game really doesn't entice me. Maybe some will feel differently, but I just don't see the point.Also, I have kept this spoiler free, as I know how annoying that can be.
Dragon Age: Origins is the first game in what will no doubt be a successful new franchise for Bioware. While it borrows design elements heavily from the Baldur's Gate series, they really have gone to great lengths to make sure that Origins is it's own game. Similar to Baldur's Gate, it is at heart a squad based semi-real time RPG with an emphasis on story, but at the same time it allows itself to be played more like a third person adventure game at times. In the end it ends up accomplishing exactly what it set out to do, draw the player into the world of Ferelden in such an engaging way that it leaves them eagerly awaiting more games in the Dragon Age series so that they can uncover more of Ferelden's rich history, and discover how the story they helped tell in Origins will influence the world in the future.
Mechanics & Design
Dragon Age takes places mostly in the third person, but if you're playing it on the PC you have the option to zoom out to a more overhead view during combat to direct your party's actions and positioning. I found this view to be invaluable in some of the harder encounters and I think I would have a hard time playing without it on XBOX or PS3.
You can control any of the characters in your party directly by switching to them/clicking on them, with the unselected characters then being controlled by a set of rules that you can define. The rule system is quite good, and if you so desire you can set up your other characters to be completely automated. I personally found it to be most effective/fun to set up their base functions to be completely automated, leaving me to direct their more situational abilities as needed. There are some annoying quirks with the system here and there, but overall it works quite well and allows enough customization that you can play it however you want to.
Outside of combat you will generally be running around in third person speaking with NPCs or Merchants and the like with the bulk of the game being based around the dialogue system. You can initiate conversations with your party members or other NPCs and you will be prompted to choose from a list of canned responses usually somewhere in the vague range of good, neutral, or evil. The system works well enough but it feels a little chatty at points where asking a simple question will result in a minute long response, after which you input two words and receive another annoyingly long explanation. This is fine when discussing issues that affect the main plot line, or at least are complicated enough that you're interested in what the character has to say, but there are times when you know that it is just flavor text, or can already see what the character is trying to say but they're just being long winded about it. I feel it would have been preferable to decrease the dialogue options, and make the responses more straight forward as opposed to having a huge number of dialogue trees that all result in vague answers as they are required to end up in the same place regardless of what you originally asked. Don't get me wrong, there are some major plot elements you can affect with your choices, but outside of those your choices seem to mostly just affect the tone of the game or conversation, rather than the actual events.
Long winded NPCs and having only the illusion of choice a lot of the time aside, the game is well designed and very well paced. There was only one part that I found boring and it was brief, the rest of the game remained fun and interesting the whole way through.
Controls and Interface
The controls in Origins will depend on whether you're playing on a console or a PC so I wont go into too much detail here. On PC They are well configured by default, and customizable which is about all you can ask. When controlling one character, it is just like playing an MMO, and when you zoom out to control multiple characters, it's sort of like an RTS/MMO hybrid. Imagine controlling a group of EverQuest players as if they were Warcraft 3 Heroes, and you have Dragon Age.
The interface is clean, and well designed. Skill icons are descriptive and detailed which is nice when you are often juggling many different abilities.
Something I really liked about the interface was the radial menu, instead of picking up an item and trying to drop it, throw it away, or drag it onto a character you simply hold down the left button and a menu pops up, each direction on the menu is another option: equip, view, destroy, use etc. so managing items is extremely quick and easy.
The inventory as a whole is just a giant list of your items, which can grow as you buy extra backpacks so there's no opening and closing bags endlessly searching for items. This is made even easier by a filter system that reminds me of gmail. You can choose to view all items, quest items, armor, weapons etc.
It's really nice to see a game make such a well thought out UI, especially one that is made for both consoles and PC, as these multi-platform games often have horrible interfaces (see borderlands).
The character customization is typical of fantasy role playing games with no big surprises. You level up and earn attribute and ability points to spend on your attributes and abilities. You also have the option as you get to higher levels to train two specializations throughout your lifetime that open up new skill trees. I found it an odd choice with specializations however to associate them with the game, rather than the character. What I mean is that if you knew that making an evil choice would unlock a new specialization, you can save, unlock it, reload the save game and make the good choice but still have access to the specialization on any of your characters. I suppose this was done for re-playability purposes, but seems a little clunky.
The characters also have access to different skills, some being the standard trade skills like weapon training and herbalism, while others like trap making and poison making effectively give your characters additional abilities through items to help during fights. There are also a few that advance your ability to persuade people in conversation, or add additional rule slots for the character automation. They can be useful and you don't really have to ever put work into leveling them, sort of just a bonus to gaining a level that sometimes open up skill specific side quests for you to complete. I managed to go through the whole game without ever buying any of the upgraded recipes though, so take that for what you will.
The abilities themselves are well designed with each tree having it's own feel, allowing you to really turn each of your characters into exactly the type of character that you want and not being pigeonholed into the typical Warrior, Rogue or Mage. You are required as well to create a very strong party of players, rather than just one main character that can solo everything, and a bunch of moronic AI characters that make witty commentary, as happens in many other games.
As you can only have four active players in your party, but can have many more available to you at camp, the players not gaining exp with you will automatically level up to the current level of the main character once they're taken into the active party again. It's not a perfect solution, but it is a necessary mechanic as otherwise you would be stuck with characters trying to catch up or be forced to take characters you don't like just to keep them up to date, so it works.
Equipment choices are a little bland, but that actually makes the times that good items drop much more exciting. The upgrades are also not always obvious choices so that you are often forced to choose which item you think is best for that specific character or situation, rather than one simply being better in every single way than the last. In addition to items that drop from mobs, or are rewarded for quests, there are also a lot of chests. The majority of the chests have nothing useful inside them and are mostly just a monetary bonus for having someone with you who can pick locks, which is fine really but I think it would have been more interesting if it were handled in such a way where chests were more heavily protected by mobs, and had better rewards instead of just being easily picked and full of vendor trash.
It would have also been nice to see NPC's react to you going into their house picking all the locks on their doors, rummaging through their drawers and stealing their items, but at this point I think that's an accepted oversight in RPGs. The only other issue with loot is more of a technical one, in that mobs often don't become lootable until ten or more seconds after they were killed, leaving you standing around waiting for the sparklies to show up so that you can check the corpse.
I played through on hard, and for RPG veterans I would recommend no less. If you want to simply blow through the game you could probably take it down a little, but I feel like hard was a well balanced difficulty for me. It was frustrating at times, but still fun and perhaps more importantly it was truly challenging. Good tactics (crowd control, target selection, cooldown management) and a proper group makeup are required for the harder fights, and equipping/speccing characters so that they're well suited for their role is quite enjoyable if you're into that sort of thing (which I assume you are if you're playing an RPG in the first place).
There was really never a point at which I was bored of the combat. Even though many "trash" fights were more or less the same thing time after time, they would be tough enough and paced so well that I never felt like I was just grinding, or killing time until I reached the boss. The boss fights themselves are fairly straight forward, but still required you to learn and adapt. I could live with a little more complexity in the mechanics of some of the boss encounters themselves, but overall the combat remains fun and interesting throughout.
The story is really where Origins shines, and is what will keep you playing more than anything else. I don't want to give anything away so I wont say too much, but what is interesting about the game is that I found myself more interested in the characters and how they would react to the story than with the story itself. The main plot is standard fare, there is an evil that is going to destroy the world and you have to unite the world to destroy it. I'm over-simplifying it of course, but that's the basic premise. As the story develops, so do your relationships with the characters you meet, as well as the characters in your party and it's really interesting to see how they react to different events, and where their input or background story leads the main plot.
In addition to their involvement in the main storyline, they often banter back and forth with each other while you're running around, which in my experience in other games has only ever been for comic relief, but in Origins you will find them discussing religion, politics or getting into arguments all perfectly in line with their personalities. There were times that I stopped what I was doing just to listen to them talk.
Over time I found I actually started to like or dislike the different characters based on their personalities, so much so that often I would take a character who was worse for the fight I was going into simply because I liked them more which really speaks volumes not only towards how well their personalities were designed, but how much they are integrated into the game play.
The world of Ferelden has been beautifully created through lore, second only to the character personalities this is definitely one of the most impressive parts of the game. They really have created a living world with interesting history, not just a continent filled with quest hubs and main cities. There are books and statues all over that add entries into your journal of events in history, religion, legends and myths. Sometimes these elements bleed into the main storyline or lead you in the direction of a secret area or side quest so it is often not only interesting to read them, but useful as well.
The lore comes in small chunks so that it rarely feels like a chore to read, and as it is added to your journal you can usually spend some time reading through the new entries when you feel like it, rather than being forced to do so right when it pops up.
The world truly feels alive more than any RPG I have played before. Not only do the characters and places have background stories, but some special items do as well that explain the history of the item and how it came to be in the place you found it, which adds a definite sense of wonder. Instead of the world being your playground, you are just a small part of the massive history of Ferelden which really makes you feel as though you are on an epic quest taking you to places long forgotten by the world at large.
The only real problem I had with it from a storyline point of view was the ending. Again, in an effort to not give anything away I can't say too much. Suffice it to say that with a game this large and varied I'm not sure that it would be possible to have an ending that truly left things feeling fully resolved, but even so I would have liked to know more.
The technical aspect of the game is perhaps it's worst attribute. To put it simply, performance is bad. On a high end system you will be fine, but if you have anything less than a current generation gaming system, expect low frame rates and regardless of your computer, horrific loading times (made worse over time by an apparent memory leak problem that has yet to be fixed).
Once you have the game running, you'll run into a lot of graphical issues where characters seem to be unable to naturally interact with each other or objects around them. Whenever characters hand items from one to another it's almost always off camera, leading me to believe that the developers were well aware of this shortcoming and tried to hide it as best they could.
There are also a number of areas where the dialogue of certain NPCs seems to have not been updated to reflect current events. Especially if you miss something, and come back to it later, the NPC will be unaware of a major plot change, or a quest that they offer will still be marked as available but you will have no way of triggering the dialogue to accept it. Oddly enough, earlier in the game these issues were often resolved by marking a quest inactive and adding "The person is still missing but your travels have taken you elsewhere" or something along those lines to the quest journal indicating that you can no longer complete the quest, but as the game progresses it seems more and more of these little mistakes start to pop up.
During combat there is a curious feature where at certain times your character will do a non-standard "finishing move" leaping onto an ogre to impale him through the throat, or knocking back a goblin to take a massive swing and decapitate it. I'm not entirely sure if there is a specific cause for this, and it is definitely a fun feature but can cause your character to be stuck completing this finishing animation, while the battle is still taking place without them, and more than once caused one of my other characters to be killed. It also created this amusing bug where I had a conversation with a decapitated NPC. It's really a non issue on easier fights and doesn't happen enough to be worried about but felt a little sloppy, as if it was added as an afterthought, and not fully integrated.
None of these issues really cause major problems, but they are distracting enough that the game would feel a lot more polished and immersive if they were resolved, or at least improved. The overall quality of the graphics is good, but really nothing to write home about, and for a game with as much dialogue as this the facial animation and lip syncing are extremely poor. Now and then there will be some great character animations, but overall it's decidedly average at best in this department.
As you can see it has more than it's fair share of technical issues but there are some redeeming qualities. The sound and music is quite good and the voice acting is excellent, and downright creepy at times. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly in a game like this, your characters never get stuck, or lost and are always quick to carry out your commands.
The best way to sum it up is this: Origins has fantastic technical design, but poor technical implementation. There are many great ideas and features they are just integrated into the game poorly. It's unfortunate, but thankfully not game breaking.
In the end, Origins really is a fantastic RPG. The characters and story are interesting, the world feels large and alive, and the combat is fun and challenging. It does an amazing job of setting the scene for future Dragon Age games, so if you're an RPG fan and you don't mind the odd technical issue you really shouldn't miss this opportunity to get in on the ground level of what will no doubt be a great franchise. I am sad to see it end, I miss my party members and find myself wondering about the possibilities of what could come next, and daydreaming about the alternate choices I could have made throughout the campaign. I'm sad that I can no longer see how my party members develop, but still hoping that future games will continue from where we left off, rather than with an entirely new set of characters. Either way, I'll be first in line for the next Dragon Age game, unless it's useless DLC!
- The characters!
- Challenging game play
- The lore
- Voice acting
- Loading times
- Some annoying technical issues
Would have liked to see
- More complex boss encounters
- More involved ending
- Dragon Age: Origins is a fantastic RPG, if you're an RPG fan you will love it, and if you're not you will probably still end up enjoying yourself but might want to turn the difficulty down.