Epic Incarnate: DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS (PC)

        

Introduction        

Originality.  It’s what’s missing from most modern fantasy.  Certainly there have been some exceptions, but most authors and filmmakers seem content to imitate Tolkien, Lewis, Leguin, and more recently Martin and Salvatore.  Fantasy has become several hundred thousand variations on the same theme, and I’ve been waiting for years (and am trying myself) to introduce something new into the archetypal mix.  If something revolutionary was to come along in the world of fantasy, I assumed it would take the form of a novel or film.  Little did I know that a video game would put years of lacking literary and cinematic creativity to shame, successfully fusing the realistic, political realms of George R. R. Martin’s work with the high fantasy of Tolkien to create something fresh, new, and entirely original.      

Enter Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware’s “spiritual successor” to my self-proclaimed “favorite game of all time,” Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn.  Set in an original fantasy world (the Baldur’s Gates and Neverwinter Nights occurred in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting), it establishes itself as more than worthy of such a title, easily donning the mantle of its predecessors while simultaneously introducing us to a living, breathing place at once familiar and wholly different than what we’ve seen in the past.  The nation of Ferelden is a political wasteland filled with civil war, squabbling lords, inept royalty, and an inexplicable nationalist pride.  The Dwarves of Orzammar live in a rigid caste-based society rife with betrayal and strife, though all look for hope in the most unlikely of places.  Elves, once proud and immortal, have been tainted by humans and lost virtually all semblance of their millennia-past identity, becoming short-lived servants, second-class citizens, or gypsy-like nomadic wanderers.  All who practice magic risk possession by the demons and evil spirits that walk within the eldritch realm from which they channel their powers.  A zealous religious order militantly polices such magic-users, slaying all who stray.  And atop this massive heap of despair and hopelessness comes the Darkspawn Blight, countless legions of corrupted demonic minions flowing forth into the land of mortals, killing all in their path.  Only the Grey Wardens, an ancient order of warriors drafted from peasants and nobility alike, can stem the tide.      

Revved, ready and raring to go...

  I’ve never wanted to save the world so much in my life.     

    

Origins       

The word “origins” is in the title for a reason.  According to Bioware, it alludes to the company’s return to its high fantasy RPG roots.  “Origins” also refers to the six origin options available for players at the onset of the game that establish a back-story for your character and color the ways in which characters interact with you forever more.  These origins include the following, some of which are considerably more impressive than others:       

Dwarf Noble:  You are the middle and favored child of King Endrin Aeducan, king of the dwarven city of Orzammar.  You have lived your life amongst the intrigue, blackmail, and power struggle that is dwarven politics.  Brother often turns against brother, and on a day of celebration in your honor, betrayal strikes.  This is a very strong origin, as the writing truly establishes your character as royalty.  Your character is accompanied at all times by his/her servant Gorim, who may be asked to speak to commoners in your stead.  Dialogue options are almost always appropriately arrogant.  The conclusion of this origin is tragic and quite moving, and Gorim is the most fully realized companion available in these origins.  The Dwarf Noble origin also showcases the magnificently rendered city of Orzammar, amongst the most graphically impressive areas within Dragon Age: Origins.     

A Dwarf Player Character

Dwarf Commoner:  You are a member of the Casteless, dwarves born and branded as the lowest of the low.  Having fallen in with the powerful crime lord Beraht, you and your sister Rica are forced to do his bidding as your ailing alcoholic mother withers away.  While Rica trains to become a concubine, your character does the muscle work for the crime ring.  Ultimately, an unlucky job goes awry and the authorities within the Warrior Caste get wind of your transgressions.  The Dwarf Commoner origin is very well executed, and probably includes the most combat-oriented gameplay.  There is far less roleplaying here than in other origins, though RP aficionados will still be delighted with what they’re offered.  Dialogue can also be quite amusing at times, as dwarf “street talk” is explored.  Additionally, the conclusion of this origin had a bit too much closure for my liking.  The primary antagonist is essentially dealt with, which lessens the urgency of the game to come.  This origin also takes place in Orzammar, though in different districts than the Dwarf Noble origins.

Dalish Elf: You are amongst the few Elves seeking to preserve their ancient, long-lost culture; a reclusive nomad who strongly resents the transgressions humans committed against your kind many centuries ago.  You and an old friend encounter and intimidate human salvagers who direct you to a cave wherein lies an ancient evil.  The Dalish Elf origin is without a doubt the weakest of the origin stories.  With no primary antagonist, there is little opportunity for emotional investment.      

An Elf Player Character

 City Elf:  You live in the Elven Alienage, a walled-off ghetto within Ferelden’s capital city of Denerim.  It is the day of your arranged wedding, and your best friend since childhood will also be joining you.  Before the ring-giving can occur, the human Arl’s son claims his right of primae noctis and takes the brides and bridesmaids to his estate.  If your character is male, you must mounta rescue of the young elven maidens.  If female, you must escape the vile man’s clutches.  Racial tensions explode as the proverbial pauper must defeat the prince.  I think the City Elf origin is perhaps the most original of the lot.  Having Elves as second-class citizens has never been done before in fantasy, and the writers of Dragon Age: Origins do an incredibly vivid job of depicting the racial tension and resentment between humans and elves.  Vaughan, the Arl’s son who abducts your character’s bride, is written very well.  The only origin character I hate more is Rendon Howe from the Human Noble origin.  Upon the conclusion of this origin, there are strong feelings of loss and regret, further immersing the player into the game world.     

Mage:  You are an apprentice of the Circle of Magi and one final test away from becoming a full-fledged Mage.  All that remains is the Harrowing, where you must venture forth into the Fade (the realm of dreams and magic) and confront the demons that lurk within its twisted, muted paths.  Upon completion, you are asked by an old friend to aid his escape from the Tower of Magi.  The Mage origin is the most visually beautiful, as the Circle Tower’s high, arched ceilings, stacks of bookcases and magical spells are nothing short of breathtaking.  The Harrowing itself is quite an enjoyable adventure, though the events that occur afterward are rather dull in comparison.  Why follow up an epic battle against demons with a basic “I want to get out of school” plotline?  Still, the origin establishes the world of the mages with absolute clarity, which is crucial should you decide to play a spellcaster.       

Davyn Cousland, my Human Noble character, with the companion Wynn to his left.

 Human Noble: You are the younger child of Teyrn (Lord) Bryce and Teyrna (Lady) Eleanor Cousland.  As your father and elder brother prepare to join the King against the Darkspawn, a covetous and traitorous rival nobleman named Arl (Earl) Rendon Howe (voiced by none other than the great Tim Curry) finds the time ripe for betrayal.  I found this origin to be the best of the lot, partly because it was the first I tried and the only origin I played all the way through to complete the game.  I have a more “personal” connection with it.  The Human Noble origin offers a larger variety of companions than the other origins as well, which includes your faithful Mabari war dog (who helps you on the proverbial rat hunt).  Your character’s relationship with his/her family is firmly and believably written, and each voice actor does a superb job of conveying the chivalric virtues and noble intents of each family member.  Tim Curry is wonderfully seedy as the insidious Howe, his voice dripping arsenic with each delivered line.  It’s a truly “epic” origin, the easiest to become emotionally invested in, and probably the most immersive as well.       

Also of note are subtle dialogue adjustments in each origin based on the gender of your character.     

Plot     

With your character’s origin complete, they are tasked with traversing the civil war embroiled lands of Ferelden to invoke ancient treaties that demand the aid of human lords, elves, dwarves, and mages against the Blight.  The stakes are set high, and the importance of this task feels real and urgent.  This is amongst the first games I’ve played where the side quests, while often interesting, pale completely in comparison to the game’s mission itself.  Yes, it’s fun to get extra armor, rescue captives, or rid a town of an undead plague, but fetch quests are simply silly when compared with the gravity of your primary task.  I never actively sought out a fetch quest, though if I circumstantially fulfilled the requirements along my travels, I’d certainly collect.  This speaks volumes about the quality of writing within the game.       

Story and character are what propel this game forward

It’s this intensity of story that propels Dragon Age: Origins forward.  While I loved Oblivion and its world of seemingly endless exploration, its main quest was somewhat lacking and character development of NPCs was nearly absent.  DA:O has a significantly more linear storyline, but its characters and writing are absolutely top notch.  While certain aspects may seem derivative, as the plot unfolds, its originality shines forth.  For a first-part game in a potential series, the plot of Dragon Age: Origins is as good as it gets.   

    

Characters     

 As in most Bioware titles, your companions are an essential component of the gaming experience.  However, there has never been a game with such fully realized NPC companions as Dragon Age: Origins, which shames even Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate II with its eclectic assortment of party members.  Within the entire span of the game, it is possible to recruit ten unique characters (one of which is a secret so they won’t be revealed), all of whom have different morals, opinions, histories and dialogue.  Friendships can be forged, “romances” experienced, and even duels declared depending on your character’s actions throughout the game.  These characters feel more like fully fledged book or film characters, due in no small part to the voice actors and brilliant writing.  Main companion characters include the following:     

Morrigan - "I have prowled shadows that you never dreamed existed...am I an unnatural abomination to be put to the torch?"

Morrigan – Morrigan is the “flagship” character that Bioware has used to exemplify Dragon Age: Origins and with good reason.  She’s a mysterious beauty, bitter, often Machiavellian in her philosophy and a wicked witch to boot.  Claudia Black’s voice work for Morrigan is of a top-notch quality rarely even seen in animated films.  Her dialogue is elegantly written and often beautiful, with many Shakespearian flourishes that Black delivers with relish.  In the game itself, Morrigan is a wonderfully useful character, adding a massive offense of destructive magic.  She is also a “romance” option for male characters.   

   

Alistair - "Now that the warm fuzzy part is over with, we can get back to the ritual dismemberment. Oh wait, it's not Tuesday is it?"

 Alistair – According to the writers of DA:O, Alistair is roughly inspired by Xander of Buffy the Vampire fame.  The witty comic relief companion, Alistair is also morally sound and loyal to the bitter end.  Steve Valentine does some wonderful voice work here, bringing a naive cheekiness to such a grim game world.  In addition to his comic and dramatic merits, Alistair is also extremely useful with a blade.  He just might be my favorite character in the game.  Alistair is a “romance” option for female characters.   

   

Dog - "Happy bark!"

 Dog – In the Human Noble origin, Dog (you have the option to name him in the game…I called him “Jasper”) is the first real companion you can recruit.   Other origins find him later.  A Mabari War Hound, Dog is fiercely loyal to his owner and quite useful in a fight as well.  Other party members will react differently to the dog, adding a degree of comedy.    

   

Leliana - "Walking corpses? Do you think it's something in the water?"

 Leliana – A “lay sister” of the Chantry (the Church of Dragon Age: Origins), Leliana has not yet taken her vows when she joins your party.  Eventually, it is revealed that her past is far more colorful than expected.  Leliana hails from the nation of Orlais (essentially medieval France), and has a beautiful French accent.  Through dialogue, she reveals the culture and politics of this foreign nation in such detail, one wonders whether a Dragon Age sequel will be set in Orlais.  Her voice-over artist, Corinne Kempa, does a magnificent job conveying the dual natures of religious purity and roguish tendencies.  If your player character isn’t a rogue, Leliana may be the most useful member your party can have.  Adept at ranged or close combat, she is formidable in battle and equally comfortable scouting ahead for traps or unlocking treasure troves.  Leliana is a “romance” option for either a male or a female character.   

    

Oghren - "Let's show them our hearts, and then show them theirs!"

 Oghren – An alcoholic, down-on-his-luck dwarf, Oghren is the stereotypical, red-headed member of the “stout folk” used so often in fantasy…but with a twist!  Voice-over artist Steve Blum thankfully eschews the usual Scots accent for a very mid-western one and delivers a convincingly drunken performance.  In-game, Oghren is useful as a support warrior and is somewhat interchangeable with Sten in regards to functionality.

   

Shale - "Death to all pigeons!"

Shale – Shale is a Golem who despises birds because they defecate upon it.  Inspired by the hit character HK-47 from the Knights of the Old Republic games, Shale is quite amusing but also intriguing.  Its dialogue and plotline are written extremely well, and Geraldine Blecker delivers a hilariously sarcastic voice-over performance.  Shale is also very useful in a fight, bashing any and everything that assails it.  

 

Sten - "I like swords. I follow orders. There's nothing else to know about me."

Sten – A steadfast, cold, introverted member of the Qunari (an original race to the Dragon Age world), Sten is a convicted, confessed murderer who is on a mission from the fanatical rulers of his people to discover what exactly the Blight is.  Sten is one of the most multi-layered characters within Dragon Age: Origins, due in no small part to Mark Hildreth’s excellent voice work.  Also useful in combat, Sten is a mighty mystery of a companion and an original contribution to fantasy.  

  

Wynne - "I'm not the sort of person who leaves things unfinished. I'll see this through. I promise."

Wynne – A grandmotherly mage of the Circle, Wynne is kind, compassionate and the best healer in the game.  Her plotline and dialogue, as well as her concern for the well-being of your companions are solidly written, and Susan Boyd Joyce lends a calming, maternal vocal interpretation.  In game, Wynne was possibly the one character I almost ALWAYS included in my party while travelling.   

  

Zevran - "We all do our fare share of murdering around here, don't we?"

 Zevran – An assassin and philanderer, Zevran sounds like Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots from Shrek.  Like Leliana, Zevran is not originally from the nation of Ferelden.  He is from Antiva, a land of merchant princes and cloak-and-dagger politics that sounds a heck of a lot like Renaissance Italy.  During his very well-written dialogue, he reveals a great deal about this nation.  Zevran is unabashedly immoral, crude, and shamelessly details his life of debauchery.  Beneath it all, though, is a sensitive character forced by circumstance into his murderous life.  Jon Curry’s voice-over work has flawless timing and inflection.  Zevran is a “romance” option for both male and female characters.      

In addition to well-written characters, Dragon Age: Origins is also a shockingly progressive game.  Within the core companions, issues of racism, morality, sexuality, religion, and even philosophy are addressed and discussed at a highly adult level.  Conversations between your companions are superbly written, often hilarious, and surprisingly thought-provoking.  Including bisexual or homosexual “romance” options and the depth and breadth of topics addressed during conversations raises the bar in video game subject matter.  I’ve never seen such richly drawn and developed characters in a game.      

      

Gameplay       

Basic gameplay is excellent, and includes elements of past and present games to create something at once nostalgic and fresh.  Controls are intuitive and simple, with a quick bar for spell and potion access, well-displayed health/mana/stamina bars and a decent map system.  Like most Bioware games, your decisions will determine your companions’ opinions.  Should their approval rating reach a certain low point, they may leave your party or challenge your leadership.   Party selection for exploring and missions is similar to Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, in that a screen appears where you can create combinations for your four-member team of adventurers.     

The Party Selection screen

Development of characters is quite intuitive, influenced significantly by the Knights of the Old Republic series rather than Dungeons and Dragons or the Oblivion leveling systems.  The three basic start classes each allow for nearly endless combinations of abilities and talents.  Additionally, you may add up to two specializations depending on class, which further narrow and refine your character’s strengths in combat and conversation.  Thankfully, there is no level cap in Dragon Age: Origins.  The pace at which one levels up is brisk and generous, as are the rewards garnered from gaining experience.  It’s a near-perfect character progression system.

Combat, even on easier settings, is very challenging (which is how it should be, dang it!).  Area of effect spells allow for friendly fire.  Terrain is crucial to executing well-timed attacks and counter-attacks.  Boss battles actually feel like boss battles, and may require reloads and re-assessment of strategies.  Of essential note: DO NOT try to tackle a dragon until you are at least Level 15.  Death is handled in a way similar to past Bioware titles – each time a character falls in battle, they will not rejuvinate unless the last enemy is dead or a suitable spell is cast upon them.  Additionally, trait-reducing wounds are added to a character each time they fall unconscious, which is remedied either with healing or returning to the party encampment.  This is a significantly better system than the usual “rest it off” solution experienced in most RPGs.     

Combat is tough, fast-paced, and brutal. The Top Down camera angle is a significant tactical dvantage in such situations.

Camera views are handled very well.  While most of the game is easiest to play from a third person perspective, you always have the ability to zoom out into a Baldur’s Gate-style top-down view.  This is most advantageous during combat situations, where a tactical view of the battlefield is crucial.  The Top Down view is a PC-only feature, and it is absolutely INVALUABLE.  I cannot imagine the game lacking the feature on platform versions.

Most impressive, however, is the replayability of Dragon Age: Origins.  The game world around your character changes drastically depending on factors as crucial as your origin to elements as seemingly insignificant as a dialogue choice in a merchant conversation.  This allows for a near-infinite number of plotline permutations, creating the most fully realized game world I’ve yet experienced in a single-player game.

      

Graphics

When the Darkspawn are horded together, the appearance is a bit derivative of the LOTR films.

Graphics can range from somewhat derivative standard fantasy images to the truly grandiose, grotesque, breathtaking and beautiful.  Character, armor, weapon, and creature designs are often very original in appearance, though when a Darkspawn army approaches I cannot help but think of WETA Workshop’s Uruks, orcs, and goblins from Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy.  Environments are, more often than not, incredibly done and original.  From human cities to Elven land-ships, abandoned Dwarven colonies, caverns, forests and high mountain peaks, everything seems to have a “used”, often gritty, sometimes pristine quality.  The color palette is earthy, grounded, yet vivid, harkening back to the days of the Infinity Engine RPs (and consequently the Baldur’s Gates).  Combat animation is simultaneously brutal and beautiful.  My only major graphical complaint occurred during the much advertised “sex scenes”, which were awkward at best and hilariously terrible at worst.  The “choreography” was so blocky and unnatural I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit.  I’d have preferred for such scenes to take the form of a “fade to black” moment.  Additionally, occasional character facial expressions don’t quite match the tone of their intent (there is a scene where a character sings a lament, but it looks like her face smells an awkward passing of gas).  These are but minor complaints.  The majority of Dragon Age: Origins is magnificent to behold.     

However, scenes like this dusky dragon battle are nothing short of breathtaking...

Sound       

Bioware’s really upped the ante in the sound department with Dragon Age: Origins.  Not only has Inon Zur (composer of the original Baldur’s Gates) scored a beautiful and haunting soundtrack, but the battle effects, environmental sounds and voice-over work are rock solid all around.  As I mentioned in the Characters section, the voice cast is impressive.  Tim Curry, Kate Mulgrew and Claudia Black head an all-star cast that adds believability and emotional power to every character you encounter.  There’s a rumor that Bioware hired a different voice artist for each of the hundreds of NPCs in the game.  While I swear I’ve heard two or three instances of recycled talent, the majority of characters have distinct voices that truly add depth and realism to the gameworld.  This game may be the greatest aural achievement in video gaming yet.  Oh hyperbole.

 

Bugs     

There weren’t many bugs that I experienced within DA:O, especially considering that no patches were released during my playthrough.  The usual Bioware clipping issues are nowhere to be seen, and AI path finding is very good with few exceptions.  However, if you have an AMD processor like I do, there is a common problem that Bioware is working on fixing.  When playing the game for over half an hour at a time on a PC with an AMD processor, framerate decreases drastically even at lower resolutions and detail settings.  Load times also increase.  I didn’t mind all that much because it reminded me of the Baldur’s Gate days of CD swapping and Pentium 166 Mhz processors.  The problem’s easily fixable (save and restart), but still a bit annoying after the first few occurrences.       

 

Conclusion       

 
 

A glimpse of the final battle of the game...

Dragon Age: Origins is not simply an extraordinary game, it is a brilliant contribution to the fantasy genre itself.  Intuitive gameplay, sharp graphics, few bugs, and excellent sound contribute to the ultra-high quality of the game, but it is the story, characters, writing, and game world that will keep you coming back for more.  This is a brilliant game that deserves a place within the upper echelons of fantasy.  It’s as good if not better than Baldur’s Gate II.  Bravo, Bioware.  Bravo.       

      

In Short:       

Plot: 10/10       

Characters: 10/10       

Gameplay: 9.5/10       

Graphics: 9/10       

Sound: 10/10       

Overall: 10/10       

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2 Responses to “Epic Incarnate: DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS (PC)”

  1. Jigganaut Says:

    “Hyperbole” as you put it yourself, is the correct term to define your review.

    Being starving for a good PC RPG for years as many of us did still doesn’t account for giving a 7/10 (the very best I can give it) game a 10/10 score.

    By the way, it has far more bugs than your review suggests. Perhaps you’re not aware of all the stuff simply not working in the background as it should, because the game doesn’t supply enough feedback of it to the player.

    In sum, some perspective is direly needed here.

    Good game ? Yes. Epic game ? Nope. “As good if not better than Baldur’s Gate II” ? I don’t think so.

    • Sorry for the lack of response there, Jigganaut. I’ll agree to disagree here. Perhaps I’m just partial to well-written games and have a higher tolerance for (or below-average comprehension of) “buggy” games. Honestly, it’s been a year since you had posted this response (and consequently, a year since I’ve tended this blog – shame on me!) and Dragon Age: Origins still stands as my favorite PC game in recent memory. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste, as I was easily enraptured by the game’s storyline, production values, writing, and dramatic flair.

      RE: “Hyperbole”
      I can think of several situations that are far more dire than the perspective needed in my entry. If you disagree, that’s absolutely fine. However, I’d prefer to wage a debate that’s civil rather than snarky 😉

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