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With the release of the next generation of video game consoles less than a month away, most of us are stuffing our bank accounts for the inevitable Day One money loss. As preordering was not fiscally an option for me before the number of consoles available practically disappeared, I settled in for the long haul, prepared, and popped my copy of Dragon Age: Origins into the Xbox.
For those who don’t remember, Dragon Age: Origins was an RPG from BioWare, our favorite RPG makers, released on November 3, 2009 in North America. Following two years after the success of the original Mass Effect, a Microsoft exclusive for the 360, Dragon Age was developed simultaneously with Mass Effect 2. Think that effected the quality? Be patient, you’ll find out.
Origins unfortunately took a few steps backward from Mass Effect’s improvements to the BioWare recipe for greatness. Graphically, the game is about on par with ME1. This would be a little more acceptable if Mass Effect 2, released just two months later, wasn’t such a gorgeous game to see. In addition, Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel and voiced player avatar was not carried over and BioWare opted to go with their traditional silent protagonist with listed dialogue options. It also hurt a bit that the characters referred to you as Grey Warden instead of by your name.
These downsides don’t break the game in any way, but there are some who would consider these things important, and thus they are mentioned. Now we move on to the good parts: almost everything else.
In Death, Victory
One thing BioWare never gets wrong is their stories. Set in the world of Thedas, a medieval fantasy setting, you choose your sex, race and a unique character origin backstory. After playing through a short but well crafted Origin quest, you are enlisted into the Grey Wardens, a group that serves to fight against the Darkspawn, subterranean monsters bent on destruction. Your timing is not coincidental for joining; the Fifth Blight, an event where a Dragon Archdemon rises and commands Darkspawn to eradicate the surface world, has just begun…
What’s great about this is the way your Origin continues to affect the story. You are now a Warden, which brings many perks and consequences, but the world sees you for everything you are; Elves are seen a second-class citizens, Mages are viewed with fear or disdain, Nobles are noted as such by their respective societies and certain characters will speak to you differently based on your gender. Your history matters beyond whether your actions have been vile or benevolent, and that’s something Mass Effect missed out on.
Gameplay is a callback to older BioWare games like Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights: in combat, select an enemy to smack him until one of you falls down. For dialogue, pick you choice and listen to the reply. Though these concepts are in some ways outdone by newer systems, fans of the classic games will be happy for the callback. New to the combat is the Tactics menu, allowing you to customize a growing number of slots that define your party’s or your actions when you aren’t actively controlling them, which means less of a chance your friends wasting mana at the wrong time.
The graphics/animations, while not quite as vivid as Mass Effect 2, but do have a gritty charm that fits the world better than more polished graphics would. Blood flows freely, even visibly staying on your armor and each new fight adds new patterns to you. Combat animations are basic but varied, and occasionally you’ll execute a wonderful finishing move on a defeated foe based on your weapon of choice.
Sound is one of those departments that is essential to making a game like this work, and BioWare always brings their A-game here. Claudia Black (Farscape, Stargate SG-1) shines as the sarcastic, enigmatic Morrigan, and Kate Mulgrew, Tim Curry and Peter Renaday (Al-Mualim from Assassin’s Creed) all contribute to audio greatness. But it’s Steve Valentine’s Alistair that steals the show as a wise-cracking but vulnerable Carth Onasi-type that gets most of the best lines in the script. You miss him any time he’s not in your party.
An intimidating factor of this game is the fact that there is so much of this new world to explore just in the Codex. Like Mass Effect before it, setting up a new setting and world was a task, but with the entries you’ll uncover along the way, you’ll know plenty about Thedas’ history if you take the time to read about it
Up to nine companions can join you in your quest, and each of them is equally appealing. Wynne brings magic and grandmotherly wisdom, Oghren is designed as a fun, archetypical Dwarf and Zevran is basically a more violent Puss in Boots from Shrek, complete with Antonio Banderas accent. The approval system is classic BioWare, though certain gifts you give are linked to a character and reveal more about them. This feature needs to carry on to future BioWare games.
With about 20-30 hours to complete and six different Origin stories that change the story in a myriad of subtle and not-too-subtle ways, this is the kind of game you can always come back to. And with nine characters, multiple growth trees for your characters and an epilogue that changes with every choice you make, it’s truly never the same game twice. Just remember to save your favorite save files: they import to Dragon Age II…