Bioware returns to the style of RPG that made them famous and while doing so, turns the gaming world on its ear.
Though small in number, there are many in the hobby who don't see it that way. As one such RPG "Elitist", I lost my appreciation of Bioware when they began to release watered-down, extremely easy, laughably short RPGs and pass them off as "epic". Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic all failed to capture my interest and in the eyes of my kind, were seen as the harbingers that heralded the end of an era. Bioware left the hardcore gaming community behind and never once made an effort to bring us back. We demanded tactical combat, huge dungeons, and profane amounts of micro-management, whereas Bioware fled from their Dungeon & Dragons roots to the more mainstream friendly crowd that preferred complex narrative over complex party combat.
In the run up to Dragon Age's release, Bioware made it a point to compare their new RPG to Baldur's Gate. While they did a horrible job of marketing it to their long forgotten hardcore fans (Marilyn Manson songs used in trailers? Hyping up the sex scenes?), Bioware kept reminding us that we were about to play the a game that was for all intents and purposes the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate 2.
As incredibly unlikely as I thought it was at the time, I feel ashamed to have doubted them.
In the RPG hobby, there are two kinds of gamers. One half prefers a deep story and the other half only seeks challenging, statistic-laden combat. In rare instances these two groups find a game that meets both their needs, and with Dragon Age I feel such a game has once again appeared before us.
To put it bluntly, Dragon Age is a new type of RPG. A game that throws out old stereotypes and introduces a dark, gritty realism that goes against established norms. Old RPG staples such as Elves and Dwarves are no longer the same creatures we are used to dealing with in other games or movies. In Dragon Age, these races are imperfect and broken. They struggle to live in a world that doesn't want them but yet needs them in order to survive.
The Elves, for one, are a slave race whose glory days are a thousand years behind them. While more than half of their kind live in slums where they are literally raped and beaten by the humans, those who still retain their freedom live secluded in the forests, forced to travel as ever wandering nomads on the fringe of society. These elves have a strong hatred of other races and see the human god as a false creation that has tainted their land and brought about their downfall.
Dwarves, on the other hand, have a much better relationship with the humans. Though this is primarily due to them living underground away from the xenophobic races that dwell on the surface. Dwarves are a very insular people, denying anyone who is not a part of their community entrance to their lands and venturing above ground only when the desire to sell their wares overrides their fear of the surface. Dwarves, unlike the other races, subjugate the poor and keep them in separate areas of the city that no one else ventures into. Their unfair and borderline criminal caste system makes them seem barbaric and without compassion, especially when you see that political disputes are often settled with a brawl in the middle of the street rather than a democratic vote.
This morbid view of life reaches into spell casting as well, since mages are viewed as dangerous entities and they are forced into a life of solitude where their actions are heavily monitored and controlled. Mages who resist their "enlistment" into the Circle are hunted down and murdered by the church's Templars whose job it is to kill unsanctioned spell casters before they can abuse their powers. As you can imagine, this makes mages outside the circle very distrusting of outsiders and often influences their attitude towards mages who *are* part of the circle.
This idea of breaking stereotypes seeps in to the game's story as well. Although the plot itself is nothing new, the decisions you make while traveling through it are.
At the game's start, you are given several different character race and class combinations each with their own opening vignette. Much like Temple of Elemental Evil, Dragon Age's first quest is tailored to what kind of character you created. Picking a City Elf sends you to the slums where your best friend is kidnapped and raped by a nobleman. Dailish (Forest Dwelling Elves) find themselves infected by Darkspawn and watch in horror as their childhood friend dies. Humans find themselves betrayed by a family member and their lands stripped from them, while Dwarves get to enjoy being ruined by their people's outdated class system. Nearly every origin story is dark and depressing, which sets the tone for what is a very morose and bleak game.
After your origin story, you are made a member of the "Grey Wardens", a group of warriors whose sworn lifelong duty is to fend off the Darkspawn horde that for centuries untold has plagued the lands. Coming from the caverns below, these Darkspawn endlessly search for long forgotten ancient gods whom they then corrupt and turn into arch-demons. These Darkspawn, whose corrupted touch can not only kill but turn men into monsters, have come back to the surface after locating a new arch-demon and have begun to wage war on the cities of man. The Grey Wardens, their duty to destroy the Darkspawn menace their only reason for existing, make one final stand at their fortress in Ostagar...and they lose.
From there, the story only gets darker. As one of only two Grey Wardens left in the land of Ferelden, you are then given the task of eliminating an entire army of Darkspawn. As if an inexperienced recruit had enough on his plate already with such a burden, you'll find that every place you visit has been utterly destroyed in some way and it's up to you to somehow clean up the damage that those in power have done to the land. This sets the tone for some of the bleakest quest choices you'll ever encounter in an RPG.
Many "elitists" such as myself bemoan the loss of grey area morality in our RPGs. Back during the days of Ultima 7, and later with the first Fallout game, it was considered fairly standard to have quests that did not have "good" solutions. In Fallout you would continually encounter situations where the only available solutions to the quest all resulted in one or more people unfairly perishing by your hand. Ultima even toyed with the gamer during one infamous scene where you had to murder a group of children to progress forward. Sadly, this has become uncommon and is never seen in today's mainstream, mass market RPGs.
Thankfully, Dragon Age has brought this RPG staple back from 12 years of uninterrupted slumber.
There were several times in Dragon Age where I found myself unable to select a dialog option due to me fretting over the possible consequences that would result from it. No place was this more apparent than the time when I found a child that was possessed by a demon. This child had come upon his mage powers very early in life and lacked the ability to control them. Sensing this, a demon possessed him and began torturing not only his parents but his kingdom's citizens as well. In the end, I was faced with a terrible decision. Give up his mother as a blood sacrifice to save the child's soul or slit the child's throat to end the threat once and for all. Of course, there was an even more disturbing solution that involved forcing the mother to murder her child for you.
There were many more quests like this, such as the dispute between the two nobleman fighting over the throne in Orzammar and deciding whether or not to kill a very important character's father. So many more of these quests that I feel that they truly delivered on the promise of crafting a "Dark Fantasy" RPG.
This depth in story writing also affects those who you recruit into your party as well. The decisions you make on these quests directly affect how each party member feels about you, which in turn alters your experience. New quests may open up that further your relationship with someone, or certain main story quests may never appear due to you killing someone important or making an unpopular choice. The sheer number of possibilities makes this one of those games where you can literally play through it a dozen times and never have the same exact experience. Not since the first two Fallout games have I ever encountered a game that was so non-linear and open ended.
Adding to the robust story is a character interaction system that is absolutely unrivaled by any other electronic RPG. Party members can fall in love, come to blows, or even storm out of the group during cutscenes depending on certain choices you make. This greatly affected my first trip through the game, since I ended up killing two of my party members and having a 3rd one leave me near the end because I offended her. By game's end I had only five people besides myself, whereas on my second trip I did my best to please everyone and had nine. Though manipulating each person's emotions and trying to please them all at once is possible, it's actually more enjoyable to get into the spirit of the game and not be afraid of their backlashes. A huge part of the fun in Dragon Age is communicating with, and sometimes disagreeing with, your companions. Most of the game's truly intense moments occur aqround the campfire, where disputes are settled or created, and lifelong bonds are sometimes forged.
Like Baldur's Gate 2, Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic before it, Bioware has managed to incorporate a relationship system into their game that will reward you with some of the games best (and most awkward) moments. Anyone who romanced a character in those games knows what to expect, only now it seems as though Bioware has became a bit braver and doesn't hold back as much. Yes, you'll have the chance to romance two women or two men, but you'll also be able to pursue a homosexual relationship as well. Though Mass Effect allowed a similar relationship, the fact that in this game the bisexual character is a man may invite more criticism than they did when it was just a blue female alien.
Still, the relationships play out rather naturally and are the best I've seen in an RPG since Baldur's Gate 2. Though I miss Jahiera and Viconia's volatile and sometimes disturbing romance plots from Baldur's Gate 2, I felt Dragon Age did a much better job of handling inter-party love affairs then anything they've made since. Even the idle chatter and so-called "Party Banter" that your allies engage in while traveling around the map is leaps and bounds above anything Bioware has done since Baldur's Gate 2, which is quite a feat considering that many gamers had written Bioware off and assumed they'd never create anything as good as that again.
The characters you can recruit in Dragon Age range from the mundane (such as a war dog that mindlessly follows you) to the utterly fascinating (such as a half-naked and suitably horny swamp witch) and everything in between. Each has their own likes and dislikes, and will not hesitate to chastise you for your decisions. Each character's affection level to you is kept visible in their stat sheet and depending on how they feel about you their performance in combat will change. If you are fortunate enough to endear yourself to one of your party members, you'll be treated to special abilities or bonuses applied to their base statistics. In time, if you are devoted to pleasing them, you'll enjoy huge bonuses that greatly affect their combat ability.
It isn't just about stat bonuses though. Each character is a separate entity, and by game's end everyone will undoubtedly have a few "Favorites" that they rely on.
Besides the aforementioned surly witch and war hound you have an elderly grandmother who is unreasonably kind and even offered once to knit me a cape to keep me warm, a shy knight who is as sweet as he is powerful, a monosyllabic berserker who constantly berates you for every choice you make, a foreign spy-turned-bard who tries to atone for her past mistakes by following the church and has an incurable shoe fetish, a dwarf with a penchant for scatological humor and sexual harassment and a bisexual hired killer just to round out the bunch. Each character is completely voiced and done so competently by some very talented actors. Though some (such as Allistair, the shy awkward knight) might grate on people's nerves, I enjoyed them all and bonded easily to them.
While the story, the NPC interaction, and the dark atmosphere all combine to create a very strong and well written narrative, gamers like me are only interested in combat. We want micro-management, lots of stats, the ability to min/max our characters and extremely difficult fights that push our planning skills to the limit. We want huge dungeons, insanely difficult bosses, and borderline impossible quests. In an era where such challenge is frowned upon and companies endeavor to create games that are easily finished by even the least skilled gamers, I was afraid we'd never see such an RPG again. I figured that Wizardry 8, the Gothic series and Temple of Elemental Evil would be the last of their kind and I'd never again know the joy of dying twelve times in a row to the same monster.
Well, those days are over.
Dragon age is tough. Extremely tough. Even on "Normal", Dragon Age punishes you with large groups of level-scaled enemies that not only outnumber you but will frequently outclass you. Dungeons are usually excessively large and filled to the brim with ungodly powerful beasts that are situated in such a way as to either unfairly ambush you or cast debilitating spells on you before you even unsheathe your weapons. Battles take immense amounts of pre-planning and proper positioning to win, even more than Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 ever did. Using the right equipment, the right spells, and the right skills isn't just necessary for boss fights, it's necessary for every single fight in the game. Though I died a few dozen times in my first trip through the game, I couldn't help but feel a sick sense of satisfaction whenever I saw the game over screen. If anything, those lost fights taught me how to properly play the game. It wasn't very long until I had become so good that during my second trip I declared normal mode to be too easy and began playing on hard. I found it refreshing that a game could be so incredibly tough yet so easy to manipulate once you understood its mechanics. Similar to the D&D Goldbox games I grew up on, Dragon Age is a tactician's delight. They even brought back the optional "Dragon Fights" from Baldur's Gate 2, where you can test your skills against a super powerful boss dragon and win rare items if you succeed. Yet another reason to read up on character builds and obsess over your stats.
So with an impressive story, strong character interaction and a keyboard-slamming level of difficulty awaiting those brave enough to challenge it, how is the more "technical" side of the game?
Dragon Age was designed first to be a PC game. This is fairly evident too, since the GUI itself is extremely easy to navigate and provides a lot of information in a rather small space. Unlike Oblivion, Fallout 3 or Mass Effect, the inventory and statistic screens are full of mathematically based information that should please even the crankiest nerd out there. Combine this with full use of hotkeys, totally customizable controls, mouse button 3,4, and 5 support as well as a the "little touches" like the clean and organized journal screen and you have to wonder how anyone can play this game on an Xbox 360 controller. They even brought back the famed tactical camera from their earlier games, letting you zoom all the way back with the mouse wheel to see a bird's eye view of your party. This is invaluable when determining where to place area-of-effect spells and is probably the best reason to buy the PC version other than the obvious visual upgrades you get.
Speaking of Graphics, they aren't as good as I'd hoped. Though the character models, faces, and armor textures are some of the best I've seen in an RPG, many of the static objects in the game look like they came out of the 90s. Several background objects are flat and featureless, creating a huge disparity between the incredibly detailed armor and model textures and the lackluster static placeables that dot the landscape. You can see this right away in your camp area when you speak to the dwarven merchant. While he is well rendered, the wheelbarrow behind him looks like something out of a Playstation 1 game. It's jarring and tends to take me out of the moment, but it's a small solitary speedbump on an otherwise perfectly smooth road.
One thing that really struck me as impressive were the animations each character uses both in combat and out. When speaking with NPCs, each character gestures accordingly, and does so in a wholly believable fashion. After playing both Neverwinter Nights games for years on end, I'd become accustomed to canned animations and shrugging of character's shoulders while they stood in laughably unrealistic poses. Thankfully, Dragon Age does away with that and keeps your immersion level high by making each movement look as fluid and realistic as possible within the game engine. Even the attacks themselves look beautiful, with each skill, spell and attack having its own unique motion depending on the race of the character using it and the weapon they are performing it with. It all combines to make each character appear far more authentic than we're used to, which helps add to the story as well.
Plus it's really nice when you are treated to slow-motion death scenes where your character beheads a monster or leaps onto their chest and stabs a sword through their brain. Who wouldn't love that?
Also adding to the narrative is the music of Inon Zur, composer of the Baldur's Gate games and creator of the original Fallout soundtrack. While Jeremy Soule gets all the credit nowadays, I have always felt Inon Zur was the better of the two, and after listening to Dragon Age's music I'm feeling pretty confident in my belief. As if we needed any more of a link to Bioware's past, Inon Zur crafted a soundtrack that is very much like what we've heard in Baldur's Gate 1 and 2. It has the same heavy, pounding drum beats as well as the wispy fairytale-like singing that is just medieval enough to fit the era but menacing enough to still fire you up for a battle. My sole gripe is that there are only 18 tracks, and only half of those are used more than once. With Inon Zur's Baldur's Gate 2 being my favorite RPG soundtrack of all time, I expected more variance in his score for Dragon Age. Though I'll admit, what *is* here is actually quite good.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the downloadable content. Though I've railed against so-called "DLC" in the past, I was actually very pleased with what was being offered on launch day and how well integrated it was within the game. I was especially happy with the DLC party member, Shale the Golem, who was a minor character in the pre-release novels. Though he looks like a big brute, he is a rather complex character that actually has a few key interactions with other members of your party. He doesn't feel like "DLC" and fits in rather nicely with the rest of your group. Overall, I like the idea of an in-game DLC store and though I was resistant to the idea, I like that the purchases are downloaded through the game itself and not through Games for Windows live or some other third party program with unnecessary DRM or protection schemes.
In closing, I'd like to say that Dragon Age was a game that surprised me. As an old school RPG elitist and self-professed hard to please gaming grognard, I never thought this game would last more than a few days on my hard drive. Like Mass Effect, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 before it I assumed it would be another "One week and you're done" RPG that would be forgotten soon after I finished it. In what was an unexpected turn of events, halfway through my first trip I had already rolled up a second and third character. Then halfway through my second trip I rolled up a fourth character. After almost two complete trips I can honestly say that no game has caught my imagination more or caused me to become as addicted to it as Dragon Age has. Not since Baldur's Gate 2 have I been so excited to come home and plop myself down in front of my PC for a marathon session of a game. As the hours stretch by and midnight comes closer and closer, I realize that I have finally found "My Game". The perfect game where deep story-telling meets high levels of party micro-management and disturbingly difficult combat. The wonderful "have everything" RPG that meets my every need and lets me lose myself in its world.
I can't imagine anyone not walking away completely satisfied with Dragon Age, unless they detest challenging combat and a 60+ hour quest. Dragon Age is filled to the very top with content and has so many pathways and multiple endings that you'd have to play it half dozen times to see absolutely everything.
I used to wonder if Bioware lost their ability to make these kinds of RPGs, but I see now that they haven't.
Though you'll never hear me say this again, I'm really glad I was wrong about this game.