SAN FRANCISCO--The Game Developers Conference is a time for those who make games to come together and share ideas, and few studios are as renowned for their craft as role-playing game powerhouse BioWare. The Edmonton-based studio boasts a back catalog of critically acclaimed games such as Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and later this year it will be adding Dragon Age: Origins to its list of completed titles. During the show last week, BioWare gave journalists the opportunity to see an updated build of Dragon Age for the PC. This demo was a roughly 30-minute quest narrated by lead gameplay designer Mike Laidlaw, and it focused on a few new characters, the pros and cons of diplomacy, and a tactical combat feature for the hardcore crowd.
Before the quest got under way, Laidlaw took a moment to introduce us to the four-person party onscreen. The party was led by a custom-made protagonist named Kinsley, a rogue sporting a pair of swords and a savage goatee. Like in previous BioWare games, designing your lead character to be as lifelike or ridiculous as you want is a big part of the experience. Joining Kinsley was an archer named Leliana, a tall silent gentleman in heavy armor named Sten, and the shape-shifting sorceress Morrigan. At first glance, they look like the usual assortment of fantasy adventurers you'd find in a straightforward RPG, but it's when you get into the game's branching dialogue system--a hallmark of any BioWare game--that you discover each character's personality and how their backgrounds can affect the course of your adventure.
With introductions out of the way, the quest was ready to begin. The party arrives in a forest village called Redcliffe, which is under siege by the Blight, a suitably dark and mysterious force of evil that makes up the gameworld's primary threat. After speaking with a village official, Kinsley agrees to take on the quest and attempt to stave off the forces threatening to destroy Redcliffe. It's here that things get complicated and the level of depth present in Dragon Age comes into view. Rather than immediately jumping into action, you can survey the town and do all you can to tip the odds in your favor before the battle begins.
One thing that is immediately obvious is that the village militia is woefully underequipped. You spot them practicing with wooden weapons and little more than everyday clothing as armor. With this in mind, one option you have is to go to the local blacksmith and see what you can do to right this wrong. As it turns out, the blacksmith is a miserable drunk who stopped doing his job after his daughter became trapped in the castle thanks to the dark forces threatening the town. You can talk to him and offer some help--but at a certain cost.
As it turns out, Sten and Morrigan aren't very charitable personalities. They'd prefer to avoid all optional and risky side quests and just stick to the job at hand, reacting poorly to your benevolent offer to save the blacksmith's daughter. Their opinion of you is measured in an approval stat, and it'll drop a few points with every decision you make that they disagree with. If teammates have a high approval raiting, they'll gain combat bonuses that increase their fighting, defense, and magic skills. But if their approval drops too far, they'll become snide, more openly hostile, and in some cases either cut and run from the party or stage a mutiny to take over leadership.
Right after this, the BioWare rep controlling the demo loaded a later save point after he had rescued the daughter, which caused the blacksmith to get back to work and equip the town with better weapons and armor. You then talk to the town's mayor and elect to wait until nightfall for the big siege. That's when the combat kicked into effect. We've previously talked quite a bit about the combat in Dragon Age, but the tactics menu is something we haven't covered in great detail. Essentially, it's a system that lets you assign a series of responses to specific conditions in battle--a sort of "if X happens, character A performs Y action." A basic example is having your mage automatically cast a healing spell on you when your hit points drop below a certain threshold, but the scenarios allow for a lot more specificity than that. It's a complicated system to be sure and one that BioWare made no bones about describing as something designed for "battle generals" rather than the casual player.
Fast-forwarding a bit, the battle was won, and the town of Redcliffe was rescued. Your prize for this charitable deed is the Helm of Sir Ferris the Red, whom we won't even pretend to know about--but with a name like that you'd assume it's quite a sturdy helm. At any rate, this shows you a good idea of the consequences your decisions have: Now you're sporting a sweet new helm and the town of Redcliffe has been saved, but your diplomacy and charitability have cost you the approval of some of your more prickly teammates and thus their ability to obey your directives. It's a give-and-take system that doesn't focus on good or evil decisions necessarily, but rather on your immediate versus long-term survival needs.
Right now, development on the PC version of Dragon Age is winding down and the team at BioWare is beginning to shift its focus to the console versions of the game. We should have information on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions in the coming months. The game is expected to arrive in November.