Dragon Age: Origins Updated Hands-On - The Origins of the Human Mage

Developer BioWare suggests that Dragon Age: Origins will be a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, and we just got our hands on the first few hours of the wizard's origin.

Dragon Age: Origins is an epic fantasy role-playing game that tells a tale of a swords-and-sorcery world at war to stave off an invasion of corrupted monsters. It's also sitting right here on the hard drive of our PC. We started a new game to watch an elaborate cinematic sequence that began with animated pictures on what looked like aged vellum paper--a throwback to the introductory cinematics of Baldur's Gate II. The paintings gave way to a vicious in-engine battle between Duncan--a swordsman who presumably acts as your advisor at least in the early going--and a pair of hideous darkspawn, the monstrous humanoids who are invading the land. By starting a new game, we went straight to the character generation screen to play through an "origin" story. This early-game content begins after you choose a combination of the game's races and classes, which include humans, dwarves, and elves, and basic classes of fighters, mages, and rogues--and from there, you can choose a specific background for that class. We chose the human mage, whose only background is as a student in the mage guild, and away we went. Please note that this article pertains to a hands-on play session with the PC version of the game, and be advised that this article may contain minor story spoilers about the early part of the game.

Starting a new character as a mage will take you through an elaborate creation process that lets you allot statistic points to your character's ability scores. These include strength (which affects your melee attack ability), dexterity (which affects your speed and defense), willpower (which affects your maximum magic pool), magic (which determines how effective your magic spells are), cunning (which affects your stealth abilities), and constitution (which affects your character's overall health). Dragon Age's human mage characters begin their lives with statistics in the 10- to 20-point range, with points primarily clustered in the willpower and magic stats. At the beginning, you can allot five additional points (and with each experience level, three more points). Increasing your attributes to certain levels will not only make your character more powerful, but will also let you access higher-level skills along the game's elaborate personal skill tree. Like the pen-and-paper role-playing systems you might have seen, Dragon Age has a list of miscellaneous personal skills to which you can allot points. These include coercion (which lets you flatter or threaten your way through a conversation), stealing (which lets you pick other characters' pockets), trap-making (which lets you create deadly traps), survival (which helps your character better deal with animals and survive harsher elements), herbalism (the game's version of herb-collecting alchemy), poison-making (which lets you create various types of venom), and combat tactics (which lets you set specific scripts for your party members who aren't in action).

Should you decide to follow the path of wizardry in Dragon Age, you'll begin with a mage's origin and explore the mystical Fade.

Once you've chosen your skills, as a mage you can choose your character's spell specializations from five different options. These include arcane spells, which appear to be the most stock-standard of the mage's spells (including such selections as arcane bolts, with which you begin the game, and a continuous magical shield); the "primal" line, which includes elemental damaging spells of fire, ice, and lightning; creation, which includes various healing and defensive spells; spirit, which contains spells that pertain to manipulating your own or your enemies' spell power (or "mana"); and entropy, which contains various curses that "de-buff" your foes. We chose to start with the spirit line with the close-range "mind blast" spell that stuns nearby foes, but there are a great variety of different spells here that will let you create either a powerful specialist or a well-rounded generalist. And fans of the Baldur's Gate series will be happy to see analogs to classic tactical magic spells from Baldur's Gate II, such as fireball, grease, and Otiluke's Resilient Sphere. We then moved on to the customization of our character's appearance, which lets you choose different voices, as well as different hair and facial features (or choose from a series of premade looks). After selecting our appearance, we were off and ready to start our adventure, which began with an argument between Irving, the senior wizard at our mage tower, and Gregoir, the angry sergeant who leads the templars that guard the tower. According to the setup, the mages study in seclusion to better learn to use their powers, but they are guarded closely, if not imprisoned, by the templars, who are authorized to cut down any wizards who are corrupted by the Fade--a magical netherworld that people visit when they dream, and from which mages gain their power, but which also houses demons with connections to the darkspawn. There's clearly a great deal of tension between the two parties that's conveyed well in the dialogue and that sets the stage for more political conflicts in the game--as you poke around the mage's tower, you'll even encounter characters engaged in political discussions, such as one group of senior mages who suggest that there are multiple factions of wizards with different ideas on how close mages should live to the world of non-mages.

Politics aside, we dived right into our first task as an apprentice--completing a rite of passage known as "the Harrowing," which requires all stripling mages to enter the Fade. So, in we went, to find a hazy dreamworld where a handful of hostile spectral monsters attacked us so that we could get the hang of the combat system. Like in previous BioWare games, there's an auto-attack feature that lets you attack the nearest targeted enemy, though your other abilities, such as spells, work off a cooldown timer and can be tied to a hotkey bank, similar to the standard abilities you'd expect from a massively multiplayer game. The first enemies we faced weren't much of a challenge--the key characters we met were much more interesting. The first such character was a talking rodent who turned out to be an embittered apprentice mage that later took human form to speak with us. He explained that he, like us, had taken his test but had dallied too long in the Fade, which led the Templars to kill off his physical body, even though his spiritual form in the Fade had gained the ability to change shape. After a brief conversation, he joined us as a companion in the hopes of somehow escaping and suggested he could provide additional insight along the way.

But you'll need stout companions to handle what the game has to throw at you.

We then continued our test, meeting an ethereal spirit of valor, who was busy forging spectral weapons. When spoken to, the spirit openly questioned our character's courage--a dangerous mistake on his part, since we were equipped with Dragon Age's branching dialogue system, which let us use a willpower-based dialogue option to convince him of our conviction and persuade him to hand us a spectral staff. We also met a slumbering demon of sloth, a talking bear with bloodied jaws who spoke with us without bothering to lift his lazy head. Though the demon absently muttered something about devouring us both, our shape-shifting companion, Mouse, asked the creature to teach him how to change into a bear, and after some practice, Mouse was able to do so. The demon then explained that it was time for him to destroy us, though we were able to talk him down to playing a game of riddles in exchange for our lives.

However, we got the answer to the first riddle wrong, which prompted the monster to attack us. Our shiny new staff and Mouse's bear form helped us barely survive the encounter. In fact, we started feeling like we'd gotten the hang of things at this point and strode boldly toward our final encounter in the Fade, which was a powerful demon who blocked our exit. When we confronted this final creature, it suggested that it had made previous deals with Mouse to betray and devour other apprentices that had come before us, but Mouse stood resolute at our side and we leapt into battle, dispatching the beast with ease and ready to return to the mage tower. Just before leaving, Mouse suggested we could help him an additional time...by lending him our physical body, you know, just for a minute, to help him escape. We saw through the ruse more or less immediately and stated to him that his final favor seemed like it might have been the real test. Mouse agreed, changing shape to an enormous demon as everything faded to black.

As we found, you can't always trust your companions. Sometimes things will come to blows.

When we awoke in the mage tower, we found that we had gained an experience level and three attribute points to spend. We also gained additional slots for spells and skills, and got a glimpse at some of the more-advanced classes that human mages can eventually become, such as shape-shifter (a profession that changes to different animal forms), spirit healer (a healing profession), arcane warrior (a mage/warrior hybrid), and blood mage, a feared class of wizard that uses ghastly death-based magic in battle--though changing to a specialized class will happen long after completing a character's origin. Once we attended to our new skills and abilities, we spoke with a nearby initiate, Jowan to find that we had passed our Harrowing test all right but that Jowan was dissatisfied about not being tested yet himself. We excused ourselves from the conversation to begin searching for senior wizard Irving--who would give us our next instructions--but not before exploring the mage tower first. Running to and fro through the circular tower, level by level, and poking around in the odd armoire or chest (all of which were thankfully unlocked) for healing poultices and mana-restoring powdered lyrium (the most potent magical substance in the realm) seemed very reminiscent of our experiences in the original Neverwinter Nights' initial training hall, though Dragon Age's mage tower actually has ambient characters who start full-on dialogue tree conversations that aren't critical to the story but that contain useful bits of lore to help you understand the world better, such as the aforementioned senior mages and their discussion of mage political factions. After finally finding Irving and meeting up with the grey warden Duncan, whom we escorted to his room, we embarked on the final story-related quest to end our origin story.

Apparently, mages who don't wish to be tested or who (rumor has it) are considered to be a threat to the mages are instead sent to the Rite of Tranquility, which cuts those mages off from the Fade permanently, robbing them not only of their magic powers, but also of their dreams and emotions. Without giving away all the details, we'll say that we were given the opportunity to help our fellow apprentice Jowan, who was suspected of being a blood mage, escape this fate. In order to escape, Jowan must first locate and destroy his phylactery, which is a blood sample taken from all fledgling wizards that will let them be tracked should they "go apostate"--that is, if they escape from the tower and begin illegally practicing wizardry on their own. We opted to help our comrade in his illicit quest, and during the course of it, we traded words and official documents with a creepily "tranquil" storekeeper, slew a pack of spiders for a forgetful elf enchanter, and snuck into the basement of the tower, where clanking armored guardians and ghostly wizards attacked us constantly. Our ragtag adventuring party finally broke into the phylactery room from a back entrance, seizing hold of Jowan's phylactery and encountering a bizarre talking statue occupied by the spirit of a long-dead demigod.

This victory was short-lived. We emerged from the phylactery room right into an antechamber where Irving, Gregoir, and Duncan stood in wait for us, and we were found guilty of any number of magely crimes on the spot. In a fit of desperation, Jowan escaped--further adding to our crimes because he went apostate without a phylactery to track him. Irving also noted that we'd discovered a brand-new magic staff in the basement that was slightly better than any others we'd had before, and though we could have tried to lie our way out of the situation, we decided to simply relinquish the item since we'd been caught red-handed. Nevertheless, while Gregoir was furious, Duncan was impressed by the lengths we were willing to go to help a friend (let's face it, we were only in it for the experience points) and recruited us for the grey wardens--a singular honor, since the wardens typically recruit so few mages into their ranks. We agreed to our new charge to complete our wizardly origin story and couldn't wait to move on to the rest of the game. But that will have to be a tale for another time.

We've barely explored the Dragon Age experience and look forward to bringing you more updates in the future. If we survive.

Though we've played through only the first two hours or so of the game, Dragon Age seems like it offers many nostalgic references to Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights and also seems to have an intuitive interface and plenty of bits of hidden lore buried in the game if you care to dig them up. From the looks of things, the branching schools of magic for the mage class will also give you a lot of different ways to approach this profession, either as a full-on wizardly artillery unit who hurls fire and lightning, a tactical supporter who protects allies and hinders enemies, a healer, or some combination of the three. Dragon Age seems like it will have a lot to offer, and we can't wait to bring you more about the game. Stay tuned to GameSpot for our next hands-on update, next week.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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134 comments
I_HAS_A_BUCKET
I_HAS_A_BUCKET

its mow onl £23 in that online shop thats not amazon (hint) if anyone is looking to buy this game but is put off by the price!

Frostwol9f
Frostwol9f

Siarhei- Spirit healer is basically the opposite of blood mage.

korns
korns

there is no multiplayer in dragon age

Ekkoe
Ekkoe

@sushiroll and siarhei: I'm actually pretty sure it supports on line multi-player, but only story mode.

siarhei
siarhei

@sushiroll: one player only Mage origin sounds great. I wonder why there's no pure mage specialization which opposes the blood mage.. I guess I'll have to find out when I get the game.

sushiroll
sushiroll

how many players does this game support??

Schwarte
Schwarte

The part about the "Fade" makes it sound a bit like Jordans Wheel of Time.

omar1315
omar1315

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Zopath
Zopath

Hmm. Bioware has yet to let me down with an rpg. If this is half the game any of the previous rpgs they've made, it is more than worth the money.

deatheaterjahan
deatheaterjahan

i think they want to make an epic game like mass effect in the middle ages of dragon wars can't wait to play it oh GOD !!

siarhei
siarhei

Ah.. Neverwinter Nights.. What a great game it was. If DA:O is anything like that, I'm definitely getting my hands on it. Overall, sounds like a good solid RPG.

konradak
konradak

Sounds great, can't wait to get it on the 360;

gibbin1
gibbin1

They all say this is like Baldurs Gate and Champions of Norrath but what made those so great was the co-op element to it. SO WTF arent they making it co-op, they have stuffed up big time by leaving that out!!!!!!!

lochini
lochini

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

forhekset
forhekset

I like the idea of taking on numerous non-essential group members. I hope that persists through the entire game and not just the origins section.

Megadeth-X
Megadeth-X

i'm really looking forward to this

Kelteel
Kelteel

I was just checking out some images and they have an awesome looking dragon that I hope shows up in the game!

Dr_Manfattan
Dr_Manfattan

@ ISuPrEmAcY32I well i know some people would disagree, obviously 4 people did, but i would prefer the voice overs just to make the dialogs more cinematic, and im sure that bioware will be able to give this games dialog voice overs as well as keeping a wide and varied selection of dialog options.

Vargre666
Vargre666

Not just yours Marv...mine too. Cant wait to get my paws on this bloody game. I waited 10 years for FO3 and was terribly excited to get it, but truth to tell, i think im more excited to see this game. The ONE thing, the ONE complaint...we've seen dwarves and humans, many monsters....CAN WE PLEASE SEE SOME ELVES!?

thefencemarv
thefencemarv

I have been replaying Oblivion. I believe it will get retired in November. This game looks like my hearts desire.

Joesocwork
Joesocwork

@WiseAsh Party control was one of the coolest things I liked about Baldur's Gate; I've seen it duplicated in RTS's like the Total War series but not in RPG's since. I find it fun to strategize & direct different units in combat. But micromanaging can definitely be annoying. @Born Lucky I hope that the Bioware doesn't fall into the trap of thinking that today's games have to be about sex and gore and obscene language in order to convey adult themes also. Titillation doesn't equal maturity. Regardless of play style or content, I'm still very eager to see how this game turns out!

Joesocwork
Joesocwork

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

NavIGOtoR25
NavIGOtoR25

Bioware make wonderful game - I love it!

floopsie666
floopsie666

Well BioWare hasn't dissaopointed me in the past and hopefully not for this game either as I love RPGs and I have been looking for a good RPG since Oblivion so hopefully this will fill that void.

Born_Lucky
Born_Lucky

If Dragon Age turns out to be a great RPG - instead of the junior high sex-n-gore fest that they're advertising it to be, I'll be happy. Everything I've seen so far, however, tells me this is NOT the spiritual successor to BG. It looks more like the stupid little brother of BG - I hope I'm wrong.

gormo4
gormo4

sounds like it's gunna be great for the more hard core RPG players, hopefully it will convert some of the non RPG players as well ^_^

TrippingOnWords
TrippingOnWords

@WiseAsh The footage from E3 showed that the party controls itself, but you can switch to any character as many times as you wish during battle, in case you aren't happy with the AI's decision making. xD

AntonFC1248
AntonFC1248

This is one im definately getting :)

mrbojangles25
mrbojangles25

ohm an i cant wait i cant wait this is gonna be so awesome wish i had my copy of NWN 1 or 2 to hold me over

SOADToTheMax
SOADToTheMax

I'm digging this, gameplay looks pretty intense and if Bioware is behind this you know the story's gotta be good.

WiseAsh
WiseAsh

I hope the party can handle itself well, I hate having to control the whole group. That was the only thing I didn't enjoy about the Baldur's Gate games. I want to feel connected to the main character and have others join me, not meet people and take over their every action like a puppeteer. Honestly in games like Dungeon Siege where you can control your party size I power level to avoid having to add too many people to the group.

Vasot
Vasot

The battles look epic !! I love this :)

ISuPrEmAcY32I
ISuPrEmAcY32I

I am definetly getting this. I just watched some gameplay videos from a bunch of different sites and i am worried I might have to get it on my computer for the mouse and keyboard approach. My laptop doesn't fit the system requirements so that concerns me. It looks like some of the controls are almost MMO like. Ahh, the controls had better work great on my 360 so i don't have to buy an entire new computer. @Dr_Manfattan I prefer it without voice over to be honest. If you look at games like oblivion, dialogue choices were severly limited because all the NPCs had voice overs. compared to games like morrowind, where the options were incredibly and nearly limitless. i find myself reading through the subtitles faster than the person speaks them anyways. That may be just me but i definetly prefer to read the dialogue just so that there's more choices

Chronikas
Chronikas

I think this is my most anticipated game of 2009. After I play this and Diablo 3, I can die happy.

illmatic87
illmatic87

looks like Bioware took it to another level with the battle system, the combat just looks so epic & cinematic.

Dr_Manfattan
Dr_Manfattan

did they just say you could choose your voice??? in all the gameplay videos your character doesn't speak, so does this mean that in the full game he can speak? or is it just in the cut-scenes? not being able to speak was one of the only small problems i managed to find about this game and if its actually not a problem any more then this will no doubt be the greatest game of the year.

custerke
custerke

This game looks freakin mad, definitely getting it. Loved Baldur's Gate so I'm sure this will be a gem too.

caradhras
caradhras

Really looking forward to this game for a long time. I hope November 3 will be an awesome day for RPG gamers.

pollob13
pollob13

awesome .. superb ... amazing ... another legendary epic rpg game is waiting this november

AlienOverlord
AlienOverlord

I love having tons of options when creating a character. There seems to be a lot of choice within just one of the character classes. Awesome.

ehuman
ehuman

The characters kinda look off to me. The community can solve that problem! Here's to all the modders out there, giving the developers a hand in the game experience!

dawson1234567
dawson1234567

This game looks and sounds awesome!!!!!! I hope i can play it over and over without it not getting boring and i think thats what it'll be like!!!

The_Game_Jr
The_Game_Jr

Looks impressive..... But my problem is I always get sruck in RPG games.

Gornax
Gornax

Got to quit my job to play this full:O Gonna be so awesome!

bigunit17
bigunit17

I can't wait to try this game out. I truly hope its something like BG2 where I play it over and over again.

Unheard-Volume
Unheard-Volume

This game is looking fantastic. I'm looking forward to learning more about the game soon. But is there any cooperative play?

Uga_ruga
Uga_ruga

I'm really excited about this game, especially being a big rpg fan. Can't wait until it comes out.

Gladestone1
Gladestone1

Origins will be very interesting indeed..Bioware knows games..Sounds like baldurs gate a bit..Cant wait for this game..Eighty hours of game-play..