This review is unlikely to be of a great deal of use to most people who will have seen the word ‘Bioware’ associated with it, ignored the EA also associated with it, had a happy accident in their pants and bought it anyway. For those of you who’ve been a little bit slower off the mark or have hung back unsure whether to buy it, without having the money spare or who are curious without being curious enough to spend money, hopefully this will offer something useful.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Dragon Age: Origins is the kick off of a new CRPG franchise for Bioware, divorced from their D&D associations (Baldur’s Gate) and that of their old game engine. Dragon’s Age has been sold as a glorious, sexy, blood-spattered romp that tears down preconceptions about fantasy games and worlds, plays about with them and offers a more mature and visceral entertainment ‘sausage’ at the end of it all.
The version I’m reviewing is the PS3 one, though I would image the console versions are largely the same and any differences are more likely to be found in the PC version.
The story is fairly standard fantasy tale, but with a darker twist. I’m almost inclined to assert that Dragon Age is, in fact, a horror game rather than a fantasy game per se, just to stir up some controversy but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Your character is the hero of a grand tale that sketches out the world – and most particularly the land of Ferelden, which is threatened by a terrible event called a ‘blight’, wherein an arch demon (in the form of a dragon) brings forth an army of darkspawn (pretty much orcs) to the surface and lays waste – unstoppably – to everything for miles with no purpose other than destruction. You gather an unlikely band of heroes and… yadda yadda yadda, lots of side quests, build up experience and ultimately save the day. Huzzah!
The main storyline is pretty hackneyed, standard fantasy fare for the most part, you find yourself calling out some of the plot twists and events like you’d call out lines from a favourite film you’ve seen a million times… “Gordon’s alive?!” …and it never quite plays with your expectations enough to shock or compel you. The far more interesting sides to the story are all the little side plots, schemes and favours for the other members of your party, but you’ll have to work hard at buttering them up to get to all those.
The trailers and clips initially suggested a fairly free-flowing and cinematic fighting experience, but that wasn’t the vibe I got from the combat at all. You have your basic fighting moves and then you have access to special moves, accessed as you level up and then slotted into your remaining action buttons (on consoles this means you can only ever have quick access to six of these powers at one time, I don’t know if this is the same on the PC version). This isn’t free-flowing and cinematic, much like a D&D CRPG it’s a matter of picking a target and leaning on the basic attack button, occasionally triggering a special ability.
The two games that Dragon Age brought to mind while playing were Final Fantasy 12 (with the tactics selection for your companions) and any MMORPG of your choice for the combat itself. Countdown timers on special attacks and timing management definitely brought World of Warcraft more to mind than anything cinematic or immersive.
Otherwise everything was largely as you’d expect, though after playing Mass Effect the old style dialogue trees felt a little old fashioned, as did much of the rest of the game! I did spot a couple of minor bugs, characters appearing in strange locations with dialogue that belonged with them being somewhere else, but overall there wasn’t too much problem with that.
The game does create its atmosphere fairly well. The graphics hold it back from really drawing you in completely and the animations could have been better but the dialogue is fairly faultless and it’s worth mixing your party around a lot from encounter to encounter just to hear the banter between the various members of your party. Morrigan’s scathing wit is particularly well done and I think only Sten (a qunari, a token new warrior/honour race) ever caused her to stumble.
The world is brought to life but the settlements can’t help but feel a bit empty most of the time, in a game world that includes the crowded, busy and bustling cities of GTA and Assassin’s Creed everything feels a bit staid, dead and dull in the towns of Dragon Age with people standing around waiting to deliver a couple of lines of dialogue or feed you a quest chain.
The game unquestionably has a deep set of background lore and material, on paper it’s very well realised and the story of it certainly draws you in but this is a computer game, not a novel, not a tabletop RPG and while the material is there, is weighty, engaging and interesting the game fails to adequately convey it. It tells you rather than showing you – with a couple of exceptions such as in the Mage’s Tower where you get a first hand lesson on how dangerous magic is.
For a new game on a next gen console the graphics are unforgivably crap. I’ll often go off on one about how graphics aren’t all important and gameplay should be king but, really, this looks like a PC game from a few years ago. The textures don’t bare up to close examination, many of the buildings and streets look flat and if you compare it with – even fairly modest – other titles it doesn’t hold up. In my opinion it doesn’t even match up to their older game, Mass Effect.
The characters look somewhat wooden, their motions aren’t quite natural and flowing enough and the underwear makes the character models look even worse during the ‘sex’ scenes!
Dragon Age: Origins is a good game, despite the average score I’ve given it and it lays a solid foundation on which to build a franchise but, after loving Mass Effect so much I was left disappointed by Dragon Age. Perhaps, Mass Effect being SF, there were no preconceptions or requirements to the game world and they could play around with what they were making, leading to a superior product. With Dragon Age, despite playing with fantasy preconceptions it never quite paid off, just as the sex scenes never quite pay off. In a blog post while I was playing still I referred to this – somewhat crudely- as: “All boob and no nipple” and this does make a fairly good metaphor for what it is that ails this game.
There’s sex, but not really, it’s neither tender nor titillating. The dwarves are different, but not different enough. The elves are different, but not different enough. The qunari are ‘new’, but klingons with cornrows aren’t really new. All the standard pseudo-medieval claptrap is there, just not necessarily quite where you’d normally expect to find it. Dragon Age tries, but it always stops just short of being truly brilliant.
A sequel, with more effort on the graphics and world and pushing things just that little bit further, could be a truly great game. Roll on Mass Effect 2!
Overall: A high 3.