Dragon Age Updated Preview - Rage of Mages
You say you want to cast magic missile? You're attacking the darkness? Fine, fine, there's an elf in front of you, and he's going to explain how magic works in Dragon Age.
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Dragon Age: Origins is the upcoming fantasy-themed game from our friends at BioWare, a wholly owned subsidiary of Electronic Arts and the Canadian studio responsible for such role-playing games as Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Mass Effect. It's also a game we haven't had a chance to cover very often here on GameSpot, so we're happy to finally have a chance to post a new preview story covering the use of wizardry in the game. In Dragon Age, you can choose to play as a mage class, which starts off with the mage tower origin story that we've covered previously and then leads to a tale of sorcery-powered high adventure and zapping bad guys with nasty zappy spells.
While Dragon Age's list of skills is universal for characters of all professions (including such abilities as conversational coercion, potion-brewing herbalism, thievery, and combat training), the game has a unique set of "talents" for mages. Mage characters have a single line of mage-specific skills that include a basic attack spell, an arcane bolt, an improved ability to zap people using a magic staff, personal shielding magic, and an overall boost to wizardly power. This basic line of skills never seems like a bad choice to spend talent points in as you gain experience levels, except that there are four other talent lines (or "schools of magic," if you prefer) with plenty of other interesting and useful spell abilities that are worth exploring.
The four additional talent trees for mages are primal (elemental damage spells); creation (healing and protective magics); spirit (which focuses on countermagics and controlling enchantments); and entropy (which focuses on hindering magics). Primal, for instance, includes four different talent lines for fire, ice, lightning, and earth, each of which has four levels of abilities, including the classic fireball, lightning bolt, and cone-of-cold spells you may remember from BioWare's previous Dungeons & Dragons-based games. However, the primal talent group also includes certain spell abilities with combinatorial effects. For instance, the most powerful talent in the earth line, petrify, briefly turns an enemy to stone and makes that enemy vulnerable to instant death by shattering if attacked with a concussive spell, such as the earth line's stonefist spell. As it turns out, certain spells from the ice talent line can also freeze enemies solid, rendering them similarly vulnerable to being shattered. The primal line also contains two different weapon enhancements for all characters in your party; the fire line causes weapons to deal fire-based damage; and the ice line causes weapons to deal cold-based damage. The remaining spells in the primal talent lines are generally powerful damage-dealers with large radii that can also damage your teammates if they get in the line of fire. Careful micromanagement (or combinatorial strategies, discussed later) is crucial in using these talents, lest you blast your own party to smithereens.
The creation line of talents is a straightforward set of healing and protection (or "buffing") spell abilities, including on-the-spot healing and over-time regeneration, and full-party regeneration, as well as offensive and defensive team boosts and the Dragon Age version of "haste"--which makes you and your team attack more quickly but drains away your character's energy. The creation line also includes a set of "glyph" spells that affect a small chunk of territory with various magical properties, including defensive skills like canceling magic or increasing your teammates' defenses, and offensive glyphs that can repel or paralyze enemies that stumble into the radius. Finally, the creation talents also include a miscellaneous line of spell abilities that enhance endurance regeneration and include a precious few attack spells, including an "insect swarm" spell that continuously damages its target, and a "grease" spell, which, just like in Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, causes an area of ground to be covered with a slippery grease that hinders movement. However, in Dragon Age, an area affected by the grease spell can also be set alight by fire spells, burning up any enemies or friendlies in the area.
The spirit line of spells also contains four sets of talents, each with four abilities. The spirit line is focused more on canceling magic and draining "mana" (magic energy) from your foes, though it also has some powerful attack spells. Among others, spirit includes a line of talents to protect against or dispel hostile magic; a line of talents that interferes with your enemies' mana and limits their ability to cast spells of their own; and a line of talents that deals with death by magic and replenishes spent energy from corpses, animates fallen enemy corpses as allies, and includes a "walking bomb" effect that causes an enemy under effects of the spell to explode if killed, damaging everyone in the radius. The spirit line also has a psionics-based set of talents that lets casters enhance their parties' weapons, psychically blast a single foe, encase a single target in a protective bubble (similar to Baldur's Gate II's Otiluke's Resilient Sphere), and contain an enemy in a cage of crushing force that will also shatter any frozen or petrified foes. The spirit line seems to be the most subtle of all the mage's talent trees, and from what we've played of the early game, it won't necessarily be needed to dispatch the enemies you encounter at first.
Finally, the entropy line of talents includes a series of debilitating spell abilities, including a set of talents that weaken or paralyze foes; a set of "hexes" that curse any enemies in range with a specific affliction; and a set of nightmare-based abilities that can freeze enemies in their tracks and that includes powerful analogues to Baldur's Gate II's sleep, horror, and chaos spells, which immobilize enemies in slumber, cripple them with fear, and completely confuse them into performing random acts, respectively. As it happens, sleeping enemies who are then targeted by a horror spell suffer maddening nightmares that deal severe damage to them, instantly killing most weaker foes. The entropy talent line also has a set of death-magic-based spell abilities that drain an enemy's health or summon a damaging noxious cloud to hang over an area, not unlike the classic cloudkill and acid fog spells of Baldur's Gate II.
Each of these talent groups has powerful, useful abilities, but it seems that BioWare didn't intend for players to fully specialize in any individual one, and in some cases, except possibly creation (which will set you up as a solid combat healer with good protection spells, a minor hindrance spell, and a single damaging spell), you'll actually limit your mage's overall ability if you focus on only one school. Considering that you won't be able to take every single spell talent in the entire game in a single play-through, you'll most likely want to do some experimenting and then think about focusing in a certain direction. In addition, since several spell abilities have combinatorial effects with other spells or other professions' talents, it pays to start thinking and get strategic.
For instance, properly specialized mages are excellent at controlling individual enemies as well as crowds, using such talents as the spirit line's force field or primal's petrify to remove a single enemy from play, while using other talents such as entropy's sleep, horror, and paralysis spells or creation's glyphs of repulsions and paralysis to render groups of enemies helpless. This kind of strategy seems useful not only to stop an enemy charge, but also to divide and conquer--when facing a paralyzed battalion of enemies, you and your troops can pick off and eliminate choice targets one by one. In addition, fighters who are specialized in two-handed weapons can learn the "indomitable" warrior talent, which makes them immune to talents and spell abilities that would otherwise knock them off their feet, so concussive spell talents like earthquake and glyph of repulsion are a great setup for a party packing two-handed weapons, since the fighters can rush right into the area of effect, immune to the magic, and begin hacking away at the monsters lying on their backs.
Alternately, proper talent selection can make your mage a strong support character that softens up tough bosses for your fighters. Abilities such as the entropy line's hex spells and creation's glyphs can reduce these formidable foes' resistances to damage; the spirit line's talents can eliminate any boss character's protective magics or drain them away; and both primal and spirit have weapon-enhancing spells that can help you deal additional damage. The spirit line's walking bomb talent (and its upgraded version, virulent walking bomb, which spreads the effect of making foes explode when they die to any nearby foes) works especially well against large groups or bosses with smaller minion critters. And of course, when fighting powerful bosses, it's important to keep your team up and running with the creation line's various healing and buff spells.
Another very viable way to specialize a mage in Dragon Age is to focus on controlling territory on the battlefield by first entrapping enemies and then bombarding them. (If you've used the web spell followed by area-damage spells such as cloudkill in Baldur's Gate II, you'll know what we're talking about.) Several of the mage's different talent lines have large-radius abilities that can incapacitate your enemies--the creation line's grease spell and glyphs of repulsion and paralysis, and the entropy line's mass paralysis and sleep spells--and nearly all of the primal line's ice spells can make sure a group of enemies in a certain area either get stuck or are forced to move extremely slowly. From here, you can have your party's archers either feather your enemies with arrows or start bombarding them with magic. Dragon Age has several high-end bombardment spell abilities, such as the primal line's high-end fire-based inferno or cold-based blizzard and the entropy line's high-end death cloud.
But be advised that snag-and-slag isn't as easy as it was in previous BioWare games, since many incapacitating spells can affect only enemies within a certain distance from where you're casting them, though you can at least lay down the glyph spells off in the distance and then lure your foes into them. Also, be advised that even though magic is extremely powerful in Dragon Age and casting spells really does get results, it isn't the rapid-fire experience it was in BioWare's previous fantasy games. As we've mentioned in our previous coverage, the way Dragon Age's spell abilities work is much closer to how magic spells work in a massively multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft. Your mage has a set amount of mana in a bar that gets expended with each cast of a spell, and several spell abilities are modal--that is, they are toggled on or off and provide a persistent effect, such as enhancing your party's weapons--at the cost of constantly draining mana. Also, every time a spell is cast, it has a cooldown time that completely restricts you from spitting it out again, and the most powerful, high-end spell abilities in the game generally have the longest cooldown times. Finally, all of the most powerful combat damage spells (inferno, blizzard, and so on) deal "friendly fire" damage to nearby teammates, so you have to take great care to line up spells carefully without zapping your teammates, and this can be a lot more challenging than it might seem, since most enemies, if not incapacitated, will make every effort to sprint out of range.
That's our in-depth look at the different talent trees available for the mages and at some of the higher-end strategies you can use in Dragon Age: Origins. Stay tuned to GameSpot for any additional updates--considering how little we've covered of this game so far, there may indeed be lots more to come.