Dragon Age: Origins Review

  • First Released Nov 3, 2009
  • X360

Incredible storytelling, great characters, and exciting battles are just a few of the things that make this fantasy role-playing game so great.

When was the last time you felt totally lost in a fantasy gameworld? When was the last time you played a game with such a well-crafted and enjoyable story that you knew you’d remember it for a long, long time? Dragon Age: Origins is that kind of game, so rich and involving that you are powerless to resist its wiles and whims, so touching and triumphant that your mind and heart will be moved. In the fictional land of Ferelden, you meet memorable characters and fight for a cause you believe in, and it's this backdrop that makes developer BioWare's newest role-playing game so extraordinary. Dragon Age is more than a well-crafted story, however: It's a lengthy, intricate, and thoroughly entertaining adventure that's easy to fall in love with.

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Dragon Age's plot, which deals with the impending invasion of a horde of demonic creatures called the darkspawn, isn't where the story's biggest surprises lie. The shocks, the joys, and the disappointments spring from the repartee among a number of remarkable characters; they lurk within books of lore and stories of martyrs; and they burst forth during spine-tingling moments when you must choose from a selection of difficult choices that affect the tale's direction--and the way your associates interact with you. Ferelden is a colorful and fascinating kingdom that takes enough cues from well-known fantasy tropes to be familiar, but bends enough conventions to feel original. Dragon Age features dwarves, but their caste-based society and the social paragons that rise above it twist the norms enough to keep you intrigued. Mages remain under the constant watch of templars, a restriction that doesn't sit well with those who view such policing as virtual slavery. The role of religion in human circles is of particular note. Chantries provide refuge to those worshiping the all-powerful Maker, and chanters recite the holy word near their houses of prayer. But lest this world sound too serious, don't despair: One such disciple slides food references into her chant, and a few dwarves warn you not to fall into the sky. Small, humorous touches like this are plentiful. Even if you aren't the literary sort, Dragon Age may inspire you to read every note, every character bio, and every creature description, thanks to the richness of the world and the consistency with which it's presented.

You'll learn even more from the companions who join you, and you'll grow to care about them on your quest for glory. There's Morrigan, the cynical apostate mage bound to your cause for reasons that become clear only late in the journey; Sten, the strong, silent type who isn't so quick to reveal his innermost thoughts; and Zevran, a darkly mischievous would-be assassin with a wild streak and a playful disregard for the law. There are others too, including Alistair, a wisecracking, vaguely insecure member of the Grey Wardens, an elite group of champions that recruits you early on. Great dialogue and fantastic voice acting make these characters leap off the screen as if they were real friends, and the way they interact with one another feels authentic. Morrigan and Alistair banter about the role of templars in the lives of mages, and the sweetly devout Leliana tries to communicate with your trusty canine cohort in some amusing exchanges. You may even develop a romance (or two) before all is said and done. The course of love isn't always a smooth one, though it can be a bit steamy, in a PG-13 sort of way.

Pro tip: Focus on the spellcaster first.
Pro tip: Focus on the spellcaster first.

Relationships must be nurtured; in the world of Dragon Age, love doesn't develop at first sight. Rather, you must improve your standings with available party members by giving them gifts and fulfilling quests in ways that please them. Doing so opens more dialogue options and may even reward you with unexpected gifts beyond the private pleasures of your tent. Your personal relationships aren't all you need to worry about when facing a difficult decision, however. On significant quests, you'll encounter complex choices that force you to weigh the risks against the rewards, even as you try to stay true to your own vision of your character. Are werewolves heartless killers, or is there a method to their madness? Should you wholeheartedly embrace a political candidate, or will some unexpected information have you playing double agent--or just killing the opposition? Such open-ended quests have become staples in many similar RPGs, but few make these decisions feel so momentous. The anxiety that results when you encounter important choices is a result of superb writing and character development: When you care about your destiny, decisions have more weight.

Even Dragon Age's initial moments present important decisions that affect how your adventure plays out. You'll customize your own avatar's look from a variety of presets, but more importantly, you'll choose a race and class. The choices may seem initially limited, but your options eventually expand. Later, you can choose up to two subclasses once you reach the necessary level requirements, and there are a few different means of unlocking additional skill trees. Your initial race and class choices don't just determine the kinds of skills and spells you will have access to, however; they influence how the first few hours of the game progress. You will experience one of six different "origin stories" that follow the events that lead you to the elite Grey Wardens. Every origin story leads to the same place, but that doesn't mean you leave these events behind for good. Characters you met early on will cross your path again, and crucial moments of your origin story will continue to haunt you. The varied origin stories not only provide plenty of replay value, but allow you to see familiar characters from a different angle. A prisoner you meet within a dank dungeon may not have much impact on you if you are playing as a Dalish elf, but if you play as a human mage, this encounter is a bittersweet reunion.

A cackling old hermit offering an acorn. How will you respond?
A cackling old hermit offering an acorn. How will you respond?

You aren't a lone adventurer, however. You can take up to three companions along with you, and eventually you will meet more willing (or unwilling, as the case may be) darkspawn slayers. You can switch out party members back at your camp or in other friendly areas. Party members you don't use will remain at camp, though they thankfully level up even when you don't take them along. Your comrades aren't just AI-controlled henchmen; you can take full control of any party member at any time, though how you do so depends on the platform. PC owners get the most versatile and rewarding experience in this regard. You can zoom the camera in to a close third-person view when exploring and conversing with non-player characters, or pull the camera back to a tactical view, which makes it a breeze to quickly and easily micromanage every spell and attack, in true Baldur's Gate tradition. On consoles, you always view the action from behind a single character, and you use a shoulder button to switch among them. It's a great way of experiencing the buzz of battle, though occasional pathfinding quirks are more apparent in the console versions, simply because you experience the action from a single perspective at a time, rather than while managing four characters simultaneously.

If you've played a BioWare fantasy RPG in the past, you'll feel right at home with the combat system. By clicking on your target or pressing the attack button, you don't just swing a sword, but you approach your target and queue up your attack. Once your party has gained access to a good number of spells, stances, and skills, battlefields explode with bright colors and raucous sound effects, and it's a lot of fun to switch back and forth between party members, managing your abilities and taking advantage of various spell combos to wreak havoc. There are dozens of different types of enemies to slice up, from giant spiders and darkspawn, to ghosts and walking trees, to demons and, of course, dragons. Allies will join you in the biggest battles, and the best of these, particularly those toward the end of the game, are thrilling. On the PC, they're particularly challenging, and many battles benefit from frequent pausing and tactical thinking, so that you can queue up attacks across your entire party. The same battles on consoles are noticeably easier.

Nevertheless, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions have their challenges, and no matter which platform you choose, you can customize your cohorts' AI behavior to be more effective in battle. Using the tactics menu, you can set characters up to drink potions when their health gets low; have Morrigan cast helpful crowd-control spells when enemies are clustered together; and program sturdier characters to draw enemies' ire when more vulnerable party members are under attack. As you level up, you will earn additional tactics slots, allowing you to implement even more intricate actions. You can also apply basic behaviors to your team members, making them more aggressive or defensive, and you can switch them around on the fly if an experimental custom tactic isn't working as you intended. When things come together as you plan--such as when Morrigan freezes a hurlock in place and Alistair smashes it to smithereens--battles are even more rewarding.

All of these elements coalesce wonderfully, making for a memorable and exciting adventure that keeps you on the move. The flow of loot and pace of leveling are both highly satisfying, and because you have four active characters to consider (in addition to others back at the camp), you spend a lot of time poring over armor and weapon choices. The tempo is even quicker than the Dungeons & Dragons games that preceded Dragon Age, thanks to important tweaks that minimize downtime. For example, you do not need to rest between encounters to replenish your health and recharge your spells. Instead, health and stamina are replenished quickly once the skirmish ends, allowing you to string encounters together without unwanted breaks in between. Should a party member fall during battle, he or she will be resuscitated once the battle has ended, albeit with a stat penalty applied (though it can be cured with an injury kit). These factors, and more, give Dragon Age an excellent sense of forward direction.

All the spells, tactics, and skills sound like a lot to organize, but the interface does a great job of helping you keep track of things. The PC interface is brilliant, letting you browse through your inventory and tweak your quickbars quickly and easily. The console versions do a surprisingly great job as well, making it simple to sort through your quests, and to queue up actions while battle is paused. One particularly useful feature is the ability to identify inventory items as trash and sell them all with a single button press once you're back in town. There are some console-specific interface irritations that could have been cleaner, however. For example, identifying new codex (that is, lore) entries can be troublesome, because the list doesn't scroll down until your highlight cursor reaches the bottom of the window. As a result, you can't always distinguish new entries from old ones, which is an issue that doesn't plague the fantastic PC interface. The consoles' radial menu, on the other hand, is an excellent way of letting you access every battle skill, and it works somewhat like the similar interface in Mass Effect--albeit with a few more layers.

The differences between versions aren't limited to the interface. Dragon Age doesn't look amazing on the PC, but it's an attractive game nonetheless. Zooming from an isometric view to a third-person perspective is slick, and while environments don't hold up quite as well when viewed up close, they're consistently lovely when viewed from above. On the flip side, the Xbox 360 version looks positively disappointing. Textures are highly compressed and colors are washed out, though the upside is that this version maintains a smoother frame rate than on the PlayStation 3, where things might get jittery when swiveling the camera around. The PlayStation 3 version features higher-quality textures than those on the Xbox 360, better color saturation, smoother facial animations, and shorter load times. Minor visual hiccups, like corpses that disappear and reappear, are a bit more common on the PS3, however. The PC version is the superior experience, but if you're choosing between the two console releases, the PlayStation 3 has the upper hand. Some minor glitches are shared between the console versions, however, such as rare occasions when the soundtrack or voice-overs disappear. We also ran into a few quest malfunctions that could be replicated on all three platforms, though they were relatively minor and did not interfere with the progress of the main quest.

What Dragon Age lacks in visual prowess, it makes up for in pure fun.
What Dragon Age lacks in visual prowess, it makes up for in pure fun.

No matter which version you choose, however, there are plenty of audiovisual details to note. In many ways, Dragon Age looks and sounds like other high-fantasy games, but while the towers, forest paths, and underground caverns are what you've seen before, the art style is attractive, and a few sights, such as an underground dwarven city, are particularly eye-catching. Character models don't exhibit Mass Effect-level expressiveness, but they look good and animate smoothly enough. Also of note are the splatters of blood that appear on your party members after battle. It's a nice idea, but the splotches look like they've been splashed across you with a paintbrush. The crimson stains are a cool thematic touch, however, because blood plays an important role in Dragon Age. The sound effects are excellent, console glitches notwithstanding, and the soundtrack, while typical for a fantasy game, swells and murmurs at all the right moments.

Few games are this ambitious, and even fewer can mold these ambitions into such a complete and entertaining experience. You might spend 50 or more hours on your first play-though, but there are so many paths to follow, so many details to uncover, and so many ways to customize your party that you'll want to play again as soon as you finish the first time. PC owners even get an extra dash of depth via the downloadable toolset, which lets you create new levels, spells, skills, and even cutscenes. But any way you slice it, here's the fantasy RPG you've been waiting for, the one that will keep you up late at night, bleary-eyed, because you have to see what happens next. Like the best fiction, Dragon Age will sweep you up in its world, so much so that when you're done, you'll want to experience it all over again.

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The Good

  • Intricate, involving storytelling
  • Amazing dialogue and voice acting bring characters to life
  • Rich fantasy world filled with interesting lore
  • Enjoyable questing with plenty of twists and surprises
  • Lots of spells and abilities make combat fun

The Bad

  • Drab, underwhelming visuals
  • Some glitches and interface irritations

About the Author

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.