E3 2008: Dragon Age: Origins Gameplay Impressions

We meet with BioWare and check out an almost 45-minute demo of this promising role-playing game.

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At an event as busy as E3 it's not always easy to work a last-minute appointment into your schedule, but when BioWare invited us to check out an extended demo of the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins earlier today, we knew that it was time to drop everything and race across downtown LA to their hotel. When we got there we were treated to a big-screen demo of the game's opening scenes and some early combat sequences. To say that we came away impressed would be a massive understatement, and if you keep reading you'll find out why.

We're not sure how Dragon Age's storyline is going to play out at this point, but what's clear is that at the start of the game you'll be assuming the role of a recruit signing up with the gray wardens--a group of paladin-like warriors tasked with defending humanity from enemies such as the orc-like horde they refer to as the blight. The demo got under way at a picturesque though somewhat ruined city that appeared to be the wardens' headquarters. The heavily tattooed player character (you'll undoubtedly get to customize your appearance before playing) was being shown around by a high-ranking warden named Duncan and was even introduced to the king--a would-be hero who likes to fight on the front lines alongside his subjects.

The gameplay proper kicked in when Duncan instructed the player to meet him at a tent on the other side of the city to undergo some kind of initiation, but encouraged the guy at the controls to explore first. Given that this is a BioWare game, it came as little surprise that it wasn't long before a moral dilemma presented itself. A starving prisoner being kept in a cage awaiting sentencing pleaded for help as the protagonist approached and offered to exchange the stolen key that put him in there for food and water. After some interactive conversation, three options presented themselves: help the guy out, ignore him, or kill him and take the key. Our BioWare rep opted for the last choice and, after a somewhat heated exchange with a guard who witnessed the act, walked away with the key. Having seen what was in the chest that the key unlocked, we can tell you that it was well worth the effort, but we won't spoil the specifics for you.

Next up we were treated to an in-engine cutscene in which Duncan, the king, and a couple of other characters were planning how to deal with an imminent blight threat. The cinematic camera angles did a great job of showing off the detailed character models, as well as how great the lip-syncing in the game is already. The upshot of the meeting was a plan involving the lighting of a beacon at the top of a tall tower, and the protagonist was among those chosen to do it.

After a Hollywood-worthy setup, the attacking horde showed up on the horizon and, accompanied by a superb orchestral score, began their charge toward the city gates. The king ordered the archers to open fire and followed up their arrows with a pack of rabid-looking hounds. As the hounds went about tearing the enemy apart, the infantry charged forward and chaos ensued. The tower with the beacon was the first thing targeted by the horde's siege weapons, but that didn't prevent the game's hero from attempting to complete his part of the plan.

The BioWare rep showing the game took control of the protagonist as he stood on the battlements overlooking the epic battle. Heading toward what was left of the tower, he went from something resembling a traditional Baldur's Gate camera view to a third-person view more like that used in action and MMO games. The control interface was also reminiscent of those featured in many popular MMO games, since all of the character's moves appeared to be bound to a row of 20 buttons along the bottom of the screen.

In Dragon Age you won't be controlling just a single character. Rather, you can lead a party of up to four characters that, at times, will include guys as generic as the "tower guard" who offered to help with the mission, alongside characters who can presumably stay with you long term.

When the party entered the tower, the guy running the demo opted to swap out one of its number for an elven mage with an impressive arsenal of spells at her disposal. The reason for that became obvious, when moments after stepping through the door into the tower the greasy floor was set ablaze by an enemy hurling a fireball at it. The mage was able to extinguish the fire by calling down a swirling blizzard that left a thin layer of snow on the floor. That was impressive, and things only got better when we were shown how Dragon Age, like other BioWare games, gives you the option to pause combat at any time and give instructions to your characters while time stands still.

When the camera was manually panned around the scene at one point, we could clearly see both an arrow and a fireball headed toward the protagonist. There wasn't much that could be done about either of the projectiles, unfortunately, but it's clear that employing the "pause and play" technique could be invaluable in some situations.

Progressing through the tower and battling a number of enemies en route, the mage showed off a number of other spells that included a lightning-like tempest that engulfed the entire room, a flamethrower attack, a glyph of paralysis that slowed down enemies, and her ability to heal other party members. Oddly, she was also able to cast a grease spell that coated an area with the same flammable substance the party had almost been killed by earlier. It's an unusual spell for sure, but it's an extremely effective one when used in conjunction with a well-placed fireball.

The demo reached its climax when the party entered a room and found a large ogre with horns inside. The ogre was quick to attack, and as the fight progressed, it became apparent that it had access to a range of moves almost as impressive as the playable characters'. The first thing the ogre did was hurl a boulder toward the mage who was keeping her distance, and then it pounded the ground to briefly knock over the rest of the group who had moved in for the kill. The ogre's most impressive attack saw it grabbing a member of the party and punching him repeatedly. We're told that characters armed with shields will have a chance to free themselves with a "shield bash" move when this happens, but it didn't appear to do much good on this occasion.

With the ogre defeated and the beacon atop the tower lit, the party members were probably feeling pretty pleased with themselves. We can't be certain, though, because the moment the beacon was lit, the camera returned to the battle outside where a second ogre had managed to get hold of the king, and barring some kind of miracle, the royal's life appeared to be nearing an end. The demo ended before his life did, though, so we'll have to wait until next time (or maybe until the game is released next year) to find out what happened.

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