EA is showcasing a number of games at its winter event, hosted at its UK office in Guildford, Surrey. The lineup includes The Godfather II, Red Alert: Uprising (the new expansion pack to the just-born strategy sequel), and BioWare's latest project, Dragon Age: Origins, which is heading to the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in 2009. The PC version, which is the lead version, was shown off by BioWare's CEO, Dr. Ray Muzyka. Though the game is based in an all-new fantasy setting, Muzyka is touting Dragon Age as a "spiritual successor" to the company's classic Baldur's Gate series, and it looks like fans of fantasy are in for yet another treat.
Muzyka describes Dragon Age as a dark, heroic approach to high fantasy with a "mature, gritty" setting. Throughout the game you'll have to make choices with lasting consequences. From what we were told, the game is also full of racial hostilities between the various factions, including humans, elves, and cursed werewolves, and although there will be romantic relationships, there has been no word yet on whether there will be intimate interracial relationships (such as the now-infamous alien liaisons of Mass Effect).
The mission we looked at, Tower of Ishal Dungeon, takes places early on in the game, after the "origins" section of the game. In addition to potentially branching storylines and multiple endings, Muzyka explained that there will be six distinct origin stories at the beginning of the game, depending on the character you pick. The Tower of Ishal Dungeon mission takes place in the tower of the same name and had us leading a four-character party through several levels of the tower, battling through hordes of orcs before squaring off against a huge and unsavoury ogre--the level's end boss.
Our party consisted of four characters: the circle mage, a female level 5 mage; the tower guard, a male level 6 warrior; Alistair, a male level 5 warrior; and Winter, a female level 5 warrior (who was also the game's origin-related protagonist, of elf descent). We didn't get a chance to thoroughly test all of their strengths and abilities, but each seemed to be equipped with specific unique powers. We were told you can augment non-playable character AI in the game, although this wasn't elaborated on. You'll also be able to customise some of your party members' options, and depending on your preference of play, you can have quite granular control over specific party member settings or sit back and let the AI kick in and command your unselected companions. If you poorly manage your party and subject them to a gruesome death, fear not: Party members slain in battle can be resurrected once your immediate threat has passed; however, they'll suffer a hit to their health and won't be as much help to you as those still in fighting condition.
We were told by a member of BioWare's development team that the familiar "pause and play" mechanic, which appeared in Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, will give you the choice of playing Dragon Age in real time or queuing up tactical orders for your party members while the game is paused. The camera can also be viewed either behind your character in a cinematic behind-the-shoulder style or high up above your whole party, giving a more strategic overview.
The heads-up display in Dragon Age should be familiar to anyone who has played a role-playing game. There's a map in the top-right corner, party member stats in the top-left corner, and a customisable action bar along the bottom, which you can assign special attacks to. Menus and settings can be accessed at the top middle of the screen. A ring around each character's avatar will show you their HP and stamina/mana levels (for warriors and mages, respectively) as you engage in battle.
As it turns out, our American counterparts also had an opportunity to try out a different battle in the game, with a slightly different party consisting of Alistair, Winter, Morrigan (the shape-changing sorceress), and an elf scout with a mean backstab attack that kicks in any time he can get behind an enemy. They fared decently in a forest battle, taking on a handful of ferocious monsters by engaging them from the front with fighters, while circling to the rear with the rogue for backstabs and constantly pausing the game to use Morrigan's spectacular sorceries, such as cone-shaped frost spells, debuff spells that weaken foes in combat, and healing spells that kept the party in the fight. Baldur's Gate-style careful combat management seems to work quite well in Dragon Age, but as our American colleagues quickly discovered, combat isn't a cakewalk, especially when you have to fight trees that walk. While the standard humanoid foes were easy to polish off, the weakened party eventually fell to the assault of a small group of sneaky moving tree monsters, which were initially disguised as, of all things, a group of trees--though they immediately uprooted themselves as the party approached and pummelled them into oblivion.
The graphics are shaping up well, with impressive cinematic cutscenes filled with interesting characters and polished voice acting helping to set the scene for an epic adventure. The game engine seems pretty robust too, even through the environment we played, which was a mostly dark, atmospheric dungeon with the occasional lit torch. The characters were quite detailed and had some detailed animations when performing special attacks or magic. We cast a few special attacks during play, including the warrior's formidable shield bash move, which is a charging attack that takes a sizable chunk off an enemy's health. In addition to the cinematic visuals, Dragon Age's enchanting, classical score helps to further immerse you in the timeless action and heightens the medieval warfare.
Dragon Age: Origins should appeal to anyone who's a fan of Baldur's Gate, BioWare's previous games, or the fantasy role-playing genre as a whole, and it will be shipping for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in 2009. For more on Dragon Age, check out our previous coverage and check back later as we uncover more of the game, and the Dragon Age universe, over the coming months.