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Blood Mages and Mutes: A Dragon Age Origins Retrospective

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Dragon Age: Origins kicked off an oh-so-brief period in this generation where BioWare was getting the credit and attention that it deserved. For about a year, starting in late 2009, BioWare could do little wrong. DAO and Mass Effect 2, the one-two punch that showed us that BioWare could serve both its EA masters and its devoted fans in equal measure.

Looking back through the lens of Dragon Age 2, The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3, its been incredibly difficult for me at least to look back an remember anything about the original Dragon Age with a rosey-tint to everything. I've been doing this on and off with all of BioWare's more recent titles, checking in to make sure KOTOR is still as fantastic as I remember it being and reminding myself that there was a reason why I was never drawn to Jade Empire.

Dragon Age is the first of the games in my retread of BioWare's back catalogue that I've invested serious time into. With Neverwinter Nights, KOTOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect, I've dived in long enough to remind myself of the flaws, the slavish adherence to the classic BioWare formula and the characters before pulling out in the fear that I might get sucked back in again.

 

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DAO is the exception. I've been ensnared by a BioWare game for the first time since Mass Effect 2, I'd almost forgotten what it felt like. This is partly due to my previous experience with DAO. I'm not a member of the PC master race, but since starting a game with my elven mage "Rad" on the PC I've realised that my playthrough on the 360 was the inferior experience. Textures were rough, the framerate was rougher and one can only see so many radial menus in one game. The PC is the platform the game was designed for; it's prettier, tougher and easy to control, making what should have been a brief check-in a commitment to see it through to the end, all 60 or so hours of it.

Around ten hours in, it's finally dawning on me why Dragon Age Origins is secretly one of BioWare's best efforts. Nothing about the world, mechanics or story is particularly novel or original. Some elements like the relationship between the mages and the Chantry are intriguing, but on the whole DAO is unashamed homage to its D&D predecessors with a healthy dash of Lord of the Rings thrown in for good measure.

 

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That's not to say it's not enjoyable. It's actually shocking how well DAO handles the "there's an unstoppable evil coming and we must unite a bunch of different groups together to help fight it" conceit given how poorly structured and paced Mass Effect 3 was, a game with essentially the same setup. How does one emphasise a terrifying threat? Answer: have it beat the good guys into a pulp in the first encounter. As lifeless and uninteresting as the Darkspawn are as villains, BioWare does a great job in making them seem unstoppable. The devil is in the execution rather than the fiction with BioWare and Dragon Age Origins is a testament to that.

However, you can play a game within Dragon Age: Origins. It's called 'Spot the BioWare cliche.' One point if you managed to predict that the young nubile Leliana would talk about 'forbidden fruit' by your third chat, another if you guessed Morrigan was going to be a party member before she even spoke because someone obviously put a lot of work into that character model. It's like watching a Wes Anderson film, so many elements are exactly the same yet you don't really care because you're enjoying it so much. Then again, part of the reason why I've stuck with DAO for 10+ hours can been because of how deftly BioWare shift between being formulaic and being adventurous. Characters end up joining your party without the obligatory fanfare that leads up to Archangel taking off the helmet or rescuing Bastila, dialogue choices are rarely a choice of altruistic, murderous or painfully unfunny. It's like BioWare knows you're fan, knows you've stuck with them, and is constantly throwing out curveballs that make you smile.

 

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This doesn't mean that any of the flaws get much of a pass. They're generally minor in nature: the hilariously mute rictus of anguish my character's face portrays whenever something dramatic happens, the way a fight with a low-level bandit will cover you with the same amount of bodily fluid as a battle with a troll and the moments were clicking on a spell causes me to move it out of my hotbar, rendering it useless until I pause and dig through the skills menu looking for it. But if you think about the issues previous games from these developers had to surmount, these quibbles are all so very trivial.

For all its merits, Dragon Age Origins is still cut from the same cloth as the developer's previous work. It's just a more lovingly crafted, honed and refined BioWare game than its brethren. Their games' mechanics are generally serviceable, DAO's gameplay is quite fun. Their characters are often well-developed with their own specific dogma that you can help them out with, in DAO those issues are a lot darker without an obvious resolution. It's better BioWare, but for some reason it's not the game that I'm going to remember in the context of their glory days.

Mass Effect 2 is a flawed game. But it balances on a knife edge between being just another BioWare game and utter brilliance. Its shooting mechanics are stiff, the cover-system is awful and almost everything you'd associate with an RPG has been stripped out. It is, basically, the anti-Dragon Age in many ways. But, the highs of Mass Effect 2 are so high, trading the consistency of something like Knights of the Old Republic for a few dramatic moments that stand as some of high points of this generation for me.

 

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Returning to Ferelden in optimal circumstances, knowing now what I didn't know then, Dragon Age Origins seems like the last hurrah for BioWare's past. From that point on, it feels to me like they struck out along a riskier path that involved them trading what they knew in the hope possibility that their writing talent could carry very un-BioWare like games. With Mass Effect 2, they caught lightning in a jar. Dragon Age Origins isn't lightning, it's the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and iteration and damn does it show. A friend of mine adores DAO, and I'm afraid I can't say I share his sentiments even though it has invaded my life in a way that it previously had not. I do however, respect it not only as a piece of art, but as a piece of craft.

Recall at this point, that little mention has been given to its sequel. That's because in my mind, I'm imposing a moratorium on Dragon Age 2 for everything other than discussing the proverbial "beginning of the end" or the analysis of EA's financial position. There's only one real Dragon Age game to have been released and its the one that wasn't churned out in 18 months by the B-team while everyone at BioWare and EA frantically tried to end the trilogy that was bringing home the bacon.

At least going back, I know for sure what can be done with sufficient time, enthusiasm and money in the hands of a studio that seems to have lost its way.

 

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