Canadian developer BioWare made waves last year with its futuristic role-playing game Mass Effect, but the studio made a name for itself with its more-traditional fantasy-themed RPGs for the PC, including 1998's Baldur's Gate, 2000's Baldur's Gate II, and 2002's Neverwinter Nights. The studio is apparently going back to its roots with Dragon Age, an all-new fantasy-themed game intended to revive the spirit of its classic fantasy games in a brand-new world with new characters and a brand-new story. Most of the details of this story remain under wraps, but we had a chance to take an updated look at the PC version of the game as well as to share the details of a brand-new, as-yet-unannounced character.
BioWare's approach to Dragon Age seems to be taking the game's story and wrapping it around your character. Like in Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, you'll start your game by creating a single character from what appears to be a predefined list, including such career paths as "human noble warrior" and "elf mage." After you've chosen which sort of character you'll play, you'll then go through an "origins" prelude section that should take two to three hours to complete. This prelude will naturally familiarize you with the game and its controls, and also with your character's abilities and his or her place in the world. The world of Dragon Age is currently being torn apart by war against an invading horde of monsters, and though your character has, by virtue of completing his or her origin storyline, become a "Gray Warden" enlisted by the nation's king himself to help fight the good fight, you won't always be given preferred treatment. For instance, elves are essentially treated as second-class citizens, so if you opt to play an elf character, you can expect to receive shabby treatment from humans.
Our updated demonstration time with the game included watching several dialogue scenes and two different battles. As we've discussed in our earlier coverage, Dragon Age's dialogue takes place by way of Neverwinter Nights-style numbered responses that may be insulting, polite, or humorous--or give you the opportunity to use your characters' speech-related abilities, such as persuasion or intimidation. You may also find yourself connecting more closely with certain characters depending on both your character's conversation skills and your character's origin. For instance, the human noble warrior might get a better reaction and receive some additional reconnaissance info from the Ash Warriors, an elite canine corps that fights alongside the Gray Wardens, whereas the elf wizard may be dismissed out-of-hand by the brusque warriors. By the same token, the elf wizard may connect more closely to characters such as Wynn, a mysterious sorceress in service of the king, who confides more closely in the elf because of the common bond of sorcery.
We also had a chance to watch a few different battles in action. Battles will be action-packed and seem reminiscent of the melees of BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic: small-scale, heated skirmishes between your party members and small squadrons of enemies. Like in Knights of the Old Republic (and BioWare's previous fantasy RPGs), you'll be able to pause the game at any time to give orders to your characters. Each character will have various skills and abilities that can, in the PC version of the game, be assigned to various hotkeys that also appear along the bottom of the screen, as with many massively multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft. These abilities can include combat skills, such as melee stun attacks and shield-bash attacks that knock opponents down, as well as magic spells. Like with those games, different attacks will have different properties, and some will have cooldown times that must expire before you can use them again.
Both battles took place in the Korcari Wilds region, which is an enormous open area that includes forests and grasslands peppered with settlements and encampments. Both took place against small squadrons of darkspawn, the monstrous humanoids that have invaded the land. The darkspawn that we saw seemed to come in two varieties: a shorter, squatter version that occasionally carries bows and arrows, and a taller, beefier version that comes running at your party with broadswords. However, neither version of these critters is immune to the hacking of a good, sturdy sword, and if you finish one of these foes with a critical hit, you'll often be treated to a zoomed-in, slow-motion killing blow, such as a beheading. Other enemies may go down in similarly spectacular fashion in death scenes that recall the Sony PlayStation 2 God of War series.
The first Dragon Age battle that we witnessed took place at night on the walls of a tower with a party of five characters who all carried melee weapons into battle. This first one clearly required some thought going into, given that we took some casualties in our first time through. Our second time through the battle saw us approach the fight more carefully in terms of choosing priority targets and hammering on them one at a time, similar to the way tough enemies in the Baldur's Gate series sometimes needed all the attention of your sword swingers just to bring down.
Our second battle took place in a forested area of the Wilds, and this time, we took our elf mage into battle. As we saw, wizards can keep their distance while the warriors keep your foes at bay, and in such cases, wizards may even have the opportunity to use "spell combos," wherein one magic spell heightens the effect of the next one. The example we watched started off with was perennial Baldur's Gate favorite spell grease, which creates an oily, sticky mass on the ground that slows the movement of anyone walking through it. This was followed by another perennial favorite, fireball, which, when hurled at the grease patch, exploded and dealt additional damage to everyone in range (including our party members).
However, the game will apparently offer many other types of magic spells that have powerful tactical uses for players who are bold enough to get a bit closer in battle. Aside from area-effect spells such as grease and fireball, Dragon Age will also have spells that affect only an individual enemy that you must target, as well as spells that affect enemies along a forward line extending from your character, and even spells that will affect enemies within a cone extending outward from your character. If you don't mind doing a little stick-and-move, your wizards will be able to weave in and out and serve up some freshly seared monster carcass, though if they're not careful, your foes will draw a bead on them and pummel them silly. Fortunately, given that Dragon Age will have many different schools of magic (which have not yet been announced), you'll actually be able to customize and specialize a magic-using character along a specific path, and even recruit multiple wizards in your party for the specific purpose of setting up spell-combo chains.
Once we hacked through our enemies, we advanced on a clearing and met a new potential companion in Morrigan, the new character we're exclusively revealing on GameSpot. You may recognize her lithe, tattooed, and barely clothed self from some of the earlier Dragon Age promotional art that BioWare has released previously, but we have the first details on who she is. The short version: She's a sorceress as well as a shape-changer, and yes, you can recruit her to join your party.
Here's the long version: Morrigan is a Witch of the Wilds--a clan of sorceresses who, at one time, terrorized the Korcari Wilds. Her own mother was a witch who had taken the name "Flemeth," which apparently belonged to a legendary and fearsome personage that walked the wilds centuries ago, but Morrigan herself is dismissive of these tales. She's also not very keen on the race of men, either, and has observed them from her distant forest home and found them lacking, yet she also finds them strangely intriguing. With the outbreak of the war, Morrigan's curiosity finally gets the best of her, and she emerges from her forest home to make her services available to your party.
Dragon Age: Origins looks like it could be the role-playing sequel that serious RPG fans have been looking for ever since Neverwinter Nights. The game will clearly build on everything the studio has created, tweaked, and learned from its previous games, including the expressive "digital actor" character models from its most recent project, Mass Effect. We'll keep you posted on the game's progress as we continue to approach its release date early next year.