A captivating RPG experience that easily stands shoulder to shoulder with classics like Fallout and Planescape: Torment
I'll get the bad things out of the way first simply because there are so few of them. First of all, there is tons of combat in this game. That's both a good and a bad thing, though. The combat system is, in fact, extremely well designed, interesting, and most importantly loads of fun. The problem is that there's sometimes too much of it which can feel like a bit of a slog on occasion, especially during some of the lengthier travel segments. My second criticism is that sometimes dialog choices don't actually make any difference during conversations and lead to the same generic response from an NPC. Thankfully, this is largely the exception.
And that's it, really. Everything else about the game is absolutely stellar. The hallmark of the RPG genre is meaningful choices and consequences, and DA:O excels in this area. Quests have multiple solutions, conversations often play out radically differently depending on player choice, and your decisions during quests and conversations have an impact on your companions' relationships with your character. Consequences can be minor, such as lowering a companion's disposition towards you, while others are more substantial, affecting and sometimes limiting your available options later in the game. It all feels very natural and dynamic, and you'll often find yourself wondering what would happen if you had made different choices which contributes to DA:O's excellent replay value. Quite often these choices are not black and white with obvious "right" and "wrong" paths laid out before you, and you'll often find yourself trying to untangle a moral quandary. For instance, when a young boy is possessed by a demon, do you defeat the demon by killing the boy, or by allowing his mother to sacrifice herself in a blood magic ritual? There's no easy answer to that sort of dilemma, and many of DA:O's quests hinge on such decisions.
The lack of moral certainty is refreshing for this genre, because it allows you to play a nuanced evil character, offering role playing choices that are deeper and more interesting than the usual "evil guy = jerk" one-dimensional characterization that many RPG's tend towards. It also happens that the morally good choices do not always bring the best rewards, so the player isn't at an automatic disadvantage for not walking the straight and narrow.
DA:O features an epic story that could possibly be criticized for riffing on Tolkien, but then, what fantasy story doesn't? However, BioWare added enough of their own unique twists to the setting and narrative that they can legitimately call it their own. One area where DA:O shines in particular is how well realized the game world is. It's clear that BioWare put a lot of time and thought into this aspect of the game and developed a detailed and plausible society. Everything from history, local politics, national politics, religion, cultural divisions, and the plight of the common man is fleshed out in considerable detail making Ferelden feel more like a real place than a fictional world. I personally found the dwarven culture with its rigid caste system to be particularly fascinating. To give you an idea of the kind of attention to detail we're talking about, BioWare doesn't just declare that it's based on a caste system and that's it but actually delves into ancient dwarven history to explain exactly how the system developed in the first place. Much of this information is conveyed through codex entries which unlock as you progress through the game, and there is, in fact, quite a lot of reading to be done in DA:O, but it's well worth your time and perhaps even necessary to get the most out of your experience.
And what an experience it is. The main game will take you around 60-hours to complete, and if you get the Ultimate Edition (and you should) you can add another 20-hours for the Awakening expansion plus several more besides for some of the smaller campaigns like Witch Hunt and The Dark Spawn Chronicles, so there's around a hundred hours of gameplay for your first play-through, and with its branching storyline, interesting moral choices, and 6 unique origins stories based on your choice of character, there's plenty of incentive to play again and again.
Trust me, this is one you do not want to miss.