Bioware has quite a résumé as an RPG developer. They have released blockbuster after blockbuster, but it’s been several years since Bioware built an RPG around the Dungeons & Dragons PC style of the genre – a style which they themselves set standards for with the Baldur’s Gate series. Dragon Age is a glorious rebirth of the genre, and a spiritual sequel to Baldur’s Gate 2, but this experience is one that works better on some platforms than others.
Dragon Age’s story is similar to many of Bioware’s narratives. An army of evil creatures called Darkspawn is being led by Archdemons, threatening to destroy the world in a “Blight”. You, whoever you decide to be, are the newest of an elite order called the Grey Wardens, whose sole mission is to combat the Blight.
In narrative, Dragon Age may be Bioware’s greatest accomplishment. The story seems basic, but the twists, moral decisions, and pacing are all excellent. It’s also far less linear than their recent efforts in Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic. In addition, the game offers a dry humor not seen in Bioware games since the Baldur’s Gate series, and can be hilarious despite the dark tone of the story. Ferelden as a world is full of political and racial strife and an engaging and robust history.
The moral decisions are a big step up from previous games. Far more often you will be forced to make a decision between one life and another. Answers aren’t always black and white, and there are far more dialog options to shape the personality of your character.
In addition to improved choice gameplay, each character offers a unique personality, despite a larger number of characters than Mass Effect. Even more interesting than how the characters interact with you is how they interact with each other. Characters will talk to each other on their own as they are in your party, often resulting in insightful or hilarious dialog. Of course the infamous sex with party members returns from Mass Effect, but now with a full range of sexual (and racial) preferences available. Once again it’s not really a major part of feeling connected to the party, and the game would have been just as good without it.
The first thing you’ll do when you start Dragon Age is pick your character’s race and class. The races available are human noble, common dwarf, dwarf noble, dalish elf, and city elf. Each of these races has its own unique set-up for the journey to becoming a Grey Warden. Mages as a class also have a unique beginning. This means you can experience the first two hours of the game in six completely different ways. You’ll then pick your class and customize your appearance. There’s a good variety of options for character creation, but nothing mind-blowing. There are 3 base classes, which are Rogue, Warrior, and Mage. Each base class can also pick two of four specializations as they level, although some of them are a bit useless. The classes are fun, and there’s a pretty wide variety in play styles between them. Rogue is a bit underpowered compared to the other two at the moment (depending on how you spec it), because of a bug with the way daggers scale with dexterity and strength. This will hopefully be patched soon.
Anyone familiar with the Baldur’s Gate games will feel right at home with Dragon Age’s gameplay on PC, but it’s a very different experience between PC and consoles. On PC you can switch between either 3rd person over-the-shoulder view or a much more tactical isometric view. Combat moves can be selected from a skill bar at the bottom of the screen by clicking on them or using hotkeys. Combat can also be paused with the spacebar, allowing you to switch between party members and queue up actions. This is essential for survival on anything above normal difficulty.
Tactics are certainly the name of the game with Dragon Age. Careful combination of abilities such as freezing and shattering moves, and fire and oil traps will be necessary to surviving many of your fights. Often you will find your party outnumbered three or four to one, and poor micromanagement will get you quickly killed, even on normal difficulty. This combat system is engaging, and extremely challenging. Those new to the genre will absolutely want to start on Easy, at least on PC.
Consoles are another story. The isometric view is not an option, limiting you to the over-the-shoulder view. Instead of hotkeys, you use a radial menu to select your attacks, which works pretty well. You can also switch between characters, but without a wider view it can be hard to get them to perform the tactics you want. To compensate for this, the enemy AI and general difficulty of the console version is drastically reduced. Even the hard mode isn’t as tactically challenging as normal on PC, and friendly fire on spells is turned off by default. This makes for a game that’s fun to play, but feels more like an average action RPG than a challenging tactical experience.
On PC Dragon Age is pleasant looking, but not stellar. There is some nice detail in the armor and facial expressions, but you’ll often get the feeling that it was meant to be played in the isometric view, which the game looks impressive in. The environments are attractive and some of the settings are creative and interesting. I especially enjoy the Mage domain known as The Fade.
On consoles textures are significantly worse, and it suffers a lot from the lack of isometric camera angles. Even the colors are duller and less vibrant. Visually, it’s not even close to meeting current HD console standards. To top it off there’s also constant slowdown, and excessively long load times. The Playstation 3 version is better in every regard than the Xbox 360 version from a technical standpoint. The framerate is smoother, colors better, and load times shorter, but it’s still a far cry from the PC version. If you are picking between consoles though, the Playstation 3 version is the one to buy.
The voice acting is top notch, and the soundtrack is full of some gorgeous orchestral music. The music does at times repeat a little too often, but overall it’s an excellent and appropriate soundtrack, and sets the mood well for the game. On the console versions I’ve noticed the audio cuts out on occasion, especially during conversations with your party, but this isn’t all that common.
Dragon Age is an excellent value. It took me more than 50 hours to complete my first playthrough, and I didn’t come close to doing everything. For those completionists out there 70-80 hours is not out of the question. The different tactical strategies of different classes and the variety of choices and party make-ups make multiple playthroughs a tempting offer, but this is not as true on consoles due to the lack of smooth tactics and low difficulty. Those who buy new will also get an exclusive armor set for this game and Mass Effect 2, as well as a free $15 DLC mission and character. In addition there are excellent mod tools available for free on PC that will let you create your own spells, characters, cut scenes, and pretty much anything else you can think of. User created content is already showing up.
Dragon Age: Origins is an excellent RPG, but one that was clearly designed with a specific platform in mind, and thus suffers on the platforms it was ported to. The brilliant and challenging gameplay on PC will satiate the expectations of even the most avid PC RPG gamers, but the console versions represent a significantly reduced experience all around. Nevertheless, with the excellent narrative and great characters, this is a game worth playing no matter where you buy it.
Note: All screenshots are from the PC version of the game.