First, I received a free copy of Dragon Age: Origins when the folks marketing the game for Bioware asked me to review it, but of course, this will not impact my review.
Second, the only Bioware game that I’ve played at any length is Neverwinter Nights. (I’m not even talking NWN2 — I mean the original.) We have copies of Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic around, though I’ve never played them myself. (I believe my husband has.) In anticipation of Dragon Age, I did pick up Mass Effect on Steam and played for several hours. So, I can make some superficial comparisons there, but nothing more. I certainly know of Bioware’s reputation for strong storytelling in their RPG’s.
Third, I am primarily an MMO player and my primary MMO is World of Warcraft. I have played a few other MMO’s recently and dabbled in some puzzle games, but I have not put solid playtime into a single-player RPG in more than five years. My thoughts will likely be most useful to those coming from a similar background. Below are my first impressions of the game and I’ll likely put together another review after I have played through it in its entirety.
The Grey Wardens and the Darkspawn
There is evil rising in your world, the history of which is nicely set up in the opening cinematic. Standard hero story set-up, but it’s neatly delivered. I liked the style and tone. I still rewatch this as each of my new characters begins their journey.
In choosing your character, you first pick the gender and race (human, elf, or dwarf), and then an available class for the race you chose (warrior, mage, or rogue). There are some limitations consistent within the game world. Only humans and elves can be mages, for example. There are a total of six backstories to play through, so in a few cases, you’ll have some say in your character’s origin. Were they a commoner or a noble, for example?
After this, you choose your character’s appearance. Dragon Age has a realistic art style, with customization that allows you to finely tune your character’s facial features right down to the width of her jawline. You can’t change the character’s body type at all, but if you like, you can give them a giant forehead, jutting chin, and beady eyes. Just scrolling through the preset appearances will give you an idea of the diversity possible. For each of mine, I started with one of the presets and tweaked it to my liking. (I didn’t go with the beady eyes, but one of my characters ended up with a prominent forehead and a bit of a chinbutt.)
A warning, too. You are selecting the shape and shading of all your character’s features by candlelight. I chose what looked like a nice healthy skin tone for my elf rogue when I was creating her. When she got out into the light of day, her skin was so light that it looked like she was running around in a white bodysuit. Same with some of the makeup on the women. What looks subdued in the creator is often much brighter in the game itself. My mage has some very unfortunate green eyeshadow.
You can preview the character creation experience by downloading the files linked here.
Story and Character Context
I have played through all the origin stories now and I think they’re pretty well done. You immediately get a sense of who your character is through conversations with characters that already know them. Right from the start, your character is interacting with friends, mentors, and/or adversaries. I have heard some complaints about the originality of the stories themselves, but I thought they were fine. Fairly typical birth-of-a-hero stories, but each compelling in their own right.
As you meet new characters and learn about the world, information is collected in a Codex, accessible through your Journal where your quests are also kept. There is a lot of collectible information. I’ve found that in some cases, you can still get the info in your Codex even if you skip the conversation. You do not have to have the same “What are the Darkspawn?” conversations with every new character, for example. If you speak with the character that would have given you that info, very often you end up with the story in your Codex anyway. In your Journal, there is also a conversation history if you want to go back and review all the choices you made in conversations.
From what I have heard, Bioware RPG’s are notorious for putting your character in situations where they are forced to make difficult choices. Betrayal seems to be a common theme, sometimes with devastating consequences. I can’t say how much most of it effects the overall outcome, but I found myself caring about the NPC’s enough to get swept up in it, wondering who to trust and whether I was doing the right thing.
No Going Back
My husband and I made a character and played the game together for a few hours one evening. Knowing I’d play quite a lot on my own, I let my husband “drive” and make decisions about what the character said and did. When one of the NPC’s asked for help, rather than go with the positive answer (as one does if one actually wants to do quests and gain xp), my husband chose the smartassed “Yeah, whatever… good luck with that” answer, blowing her off to see what would happen. She looked very sad and withdrew from the conversation, causing my husband and I to make frowny faces at one another. So, of course, my husband approached her again after the encounter cinematic ended so he could offer to do the quest. No dice. She wouldn’t talk to us any more.
I remember a point in my WoW career where I felt an emotional connection with the NPC’s. I felt terribly guilty if I declined or abandoned a quest. That feeling is long gone now. The NPC’s never seem to remember you anyway. (Heck, I’d think Thrall would remember me after Wrathgate, but I’m pretty sure if I popped by the throne room, he’d welcome me to Orgrimmar and ask if I’ve come to serve the Horde.) I’d forgotten what it was like for there to be such consequences in my gameplay. Sort of refreshing, actually.
(Later, when I was making another character, my husband told me I could delete the one we made together. “She’s mean,” he said.)
“Realism,” Immersion, and Missing Voices
All of this sets the stage for a wonderfully immersive gameplay experience. It is immersive, for the most part. There are two things in particular that take me out of the story on a fairly regular basis, however.
The first is the blood splattered all over everything. At first I thought, “Wow, that’s different.” Aside from a few drippy raid bosses in WoW, there’s not a lot of blood squirting around. In Dragon Age, sometimes the killing blow decapitates your enemy, causing blood to shoot out of their neck. So, I suppose it’s natural that your character might become bloody if they’re in the fray. The problem is that in the brief cinematics after a battles, your character continues to stand there with blood all over their armor, weapons, and their faces. There are little specks of bright red blood on everything. I suspect it’s intended as part of the “realism” of the game, but it’s just a bit over the top, in my opinion.
The second (and probably my biggest criticism of the game) is the lack of a speaking voice for you, as a main character. When your character is deep in discussion with others and you choose what she says, she doesn’t actually say anything. If everything were text, that would be one thing, but the cinematics are otherwise fleshed out with voice acting. This may not have stood so much had I not played Mass Effect briefly. In Mass Effect, you make conversation choices and then your character actually talks to the others. She doesn’t say precisely the text you chose, but conveys the essence of it in a way consistent with her demeanor. I realize this would have required many more hours of voice acting, but I absolutely loved this in Mass Effect. I think it would have brought the Dragon Age play experience to the next level. Not sure why it wasn’t done. You choose a voice at the beginning, but it just determines what your character yells passively in battle.
Basic Controls , Tactics, and Navigation
One thing that took some getting used to was the combat system. It may be second nature to those accustomed to recent single-player RPG’s, but I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out how to coordinate all my characters at first. You choose the character central to the story, of course, but you’ll often be fighting side by side with characters of other classes that join your party and help you fight. As part of this, you gear them and can control them.
There is AI, of course, and you can define elements of your party members’ fighting styles through the Tactics interface. Until I figured this out, I died a lot. (In between dying a lot and figuring this out, I was pausing the game a lot. Turns out that using the Tactics system is far superior. ;)) You can set your characters to heal themselves if they get too low, use certain attacks based on enemy proximity and health, and so forth. Very handy.
Navigating the world is intuitive. Your map features quest locations and the minimap has a pointer on it to lead you in the general direction of your quest objective. Another complaint I’ve heard from MMO players is that there are invisible walls. This is true, there are. You cannot always go to the places that you can see in the distance. With a few exceptions, this hasn’t been too immersion-breaking for me. As I’m moving through the world, I just try to stay on task. The urgency with which the quests are usually assigned means I probably shouldn’t dally exploring the fields or romping in the rivers anyway, right?
As with WoW, I use a combo of WASD and the mouse to move myself around. (There is click-to-move, but I don’t use it.) It’s pretty smooth and the running animations look fairly natural. There is, however…
No Jumping Allowed!
I don’t think I realized how much I jump around in WoW until I started playing Dragon Age. There’s no jumping at all in this game. (I suppose it would make you look uncivilized.) In WoW, I am constantly moving and jumping in fights while I’m casting. Part of this is because some of the raid encounters require constant repositioning and running around, and as part of this, I jump. My priest almost always hops up in the air before slinging Prayer of Mending at the tank, too — it’s just a habit I picked up. (She looks like she’s having a great time when she’s healing.) So, in DA:O this means that I hit the space bar and pause the game repeatedly. I see a pile of rubble and want to jump over it. *pause* *grr*
(So, only rogues in Dragon Age. No rouges.)
But, Pause is Your Friend
It turns out that pausing in battle can be really helpful, however. This kept me alive before I figured out how to use the tactics properly and now I pause just when things get too chaotic. My tactics are mostly set up to just let the AI do its thing, but occasionally some intervention is required.
I confess that it’s also refreshing to play a game that I can pause it all. I can leave the game at a moment’s notice and nothing will happen without me.
And F5 is your BEST Friend
Save. Your. Game. Do it often. There is autosave, but nothing kills a play session like accidentally dying and then realizing you’re going to have to repeat your last 30 minutes of play. If it were just fighting that would be one thing, but it sometimes means redoing conversations, watching cinematics, etc… aaargh. Not that they’re bad to watch, it’s just frustrating when you want to move forward in the story. So, right from the start, get yourself into the habit of saving the game regularly.
First impressions? Dragon Age: Origins is excellent fun. It’s reminding me of the old days when I looked forward to long, immersive play sessions with my games. I’d dim the lights, put on the headphones, and completely focus on the story being told to me, soaking in the experience. It has made me realized that so much of what I do now is socializing and character maintenance rather than play. It is fun, but it is definitely a different kind of play than a single-player RPG can offer.
Looking around the blogs, lots of MMO players (particularly in WoW) are bored or in a rut right now. Looking for something fun to do before your next patch/expansion comes out? Consider joining the Grey Wardens.