After thirty years of gaming and hundreds of written reviews, I am still having a difficult time putting the experience of Dragon Age into words. A portion of the problem is related to the game’s enormous scope- with six distinct stories each branching into thousands of directions over a sixty hour quest, seeing the entire game is a near impossibility. However, the bigger predicament emanates from the game’s feel. Having immersed myself in interactive entertainment for so long, I can typically perceive a game’s internal structure; every reaction by the player is countered by a game’s reaction. This cycle becomes a game’s logic, and if you play any title long enough, it becomes painfully visible. It’s usually when a game stops being interesting.
Standing in sharp contrast to nearly every game I’ve ever played is Dragon Age: Origins, a title that feels remarkably organic. Unlike say, the moral dilemmas presented by Fallout 3, choices in Dragon Age are subtle and influence a range a consequences. Not only do decisions directly affect players, they influence the protagonist’s relationships with other NPCs. While the main storyline follows a fairly linear path, it’s the small interactional deviations that give’s Dragon Age its natural vibe, and make the title a must-play experience for role-playing aficionados.
At the game’s commencement, players pick a gender, race and class. Depending on the adventurer’s choice, one or two or six available backgrounds will be become available. These are the game’s ‘origins’, three hour prologues to the title’s main story. Each of the back stories are remarkably different in tone, but serve to show the variety of backgrounds that compose the Grey Wardens- the game’s diverse band of heroes tasked with the elimination of the nefarious Darkspawn. Bioware’s deft handling of emblematic fantasy tropes is especially fascinating, as dwarves have a rigid caste system, and elves are part of a subverted underclass.
Once players have completed the game’s preface, the adventure opens up exponentially, as players are tasked with creating (and maintaining) an adventuring party. Each of the different factions in Dragon’s Age’s world has its own priorities that must be attended to before they can commit to the gamer’s militia. These recruitment quests are both stirring and amazingly intricate, as players are lead through boundless tests of allegiances, where each decision is superbly murky.
One of the fundamental components of any RPG is its combat system- its quality can make or break a game. Few gamers are willing to trek through a protracted adventure if battles feel unfulfilling. On the upper skill levels, Dragon’s Ages skirmishes are consistently challenging and gratifying. Although conflict plays out in real time, it’s mostly statistically-based, examining the difference in attack and defense scores to inmate a successful strike. Players can pause the action at any time to bring up the game’s rotary command ring, which can order team members to quaff a potion, or even alter their tactics. While most of the game’s sword and arrow fodder are easily dispatched, larger foes will require a healthy dose of micro-management to slay.
Role players with an insatiable loot fetish, should find gratification in Dragon Age: Origins. Defeated foes, chests, and other treasure-concealing containers offer an eye-catching shimmer to entice inspection. Players will find the requisite collection of weapons, armor, potions, and coinage; only in the game’s later hours does the plunder ever edge on redundancy. As is typical to the genre, weapons and armor have powers that alter the player’s statistics, or even be augmented with a found rune.
Visually, Dragon Age seems stifled by its single disk of content. While the game’s characters and settings are competently rendered, sporadic close-up shots can look blurry or pixelated. The title’s single signature effect is an enduring blood splatter on characters faces and armor, which seems to convey the savagery to combat. The game’s aural palette stands out as an RPG exemplar; both the game’s stirring music and voice-over work are of the highest caliber.
Dragon Age: Origins offers one of the most expansive and intricate role-playing experiences ever presented to console gamers. Although novice adventurers may be overcome by the title’s complexity and duration, RPG veterans will bask in the game’s dazzling discursiveness. From the title’s exceptional voice-work to its consummate weaving of narrative fibers, Dragon Age: Origins stands as one of most immersive gaming experiences on the current hardware generation.