It's been a long time since Neverwinter Nights, and even longer since Baldur's Gate II. These days, BioWare treats the PC platform as a receptacle for console ports, albeit pretty good ones. With Dragon Age: Origins, the famed RPG developer is trying to do good on its legacy. Does the studio still have what it takes, or has it forgotten how to wield that PC magic?
The nation of Ferelden is not somewhere you want to be when the blight comes to town every few hundred years. As it happens, Dragon Age takes place just as one is starting to get in gear. A blight involves evil, bloodthirsty creatures called Darkspawn crawling up from underground to wage war on the surface, usually led by a super powerful archdemon. As for the whys and wherefores, you can refer to the in-game lore encyclopedia, but suffice it to say that their origin has something to do with a so-called old god, and some power-hungry priests.
Early on, your character is recruited into the Grey Wardens, a military order specializing in counter-blight operations that has a particularly gnarly initiation ritual. Soon after you play out your origin story, you find yourself among the last of the order's decimated ranks. Nonetheless, you're shouldering an immense task: to raise an army that can challenge the blight that's staring Ferelden down.
True to BioWare form, Dragon Age isn't so much about telling you a story as it as about immersing you in an exhaustively-cataloged world. Bits of history are scattered around every turn, to be gleaned from books, statues, bas reliefs, and NPCs. The net effect, after the several dozen hours it'll take for you to play through it, is a head full of Dragon Age arcana. What might seem like generic fantasy at first proves sticky indeed. BioWare's writers are as adept at riffing on Tolkien as the next cadre of dungeon masters, Forgotten Realms be damned.
Every region you visit has its own micro-crisis going down, and it's not uncommon to lose sight of the larger story after a few lengthy dialogue sessions with the chatterbox NPCs that live there. Your party members have their own drama, too, and when you're embroiled in all this, it's easy for your looming showdown with the archdemon feel like it's a million years away. But this is all by design. What Dragon Age lacks in narrative immediacy, it more than makes up for with the breadth of its world. By the time you're playing out the startling endgame, the events of your humble origin story will feel like the distant past, only partly due to the game's borderline absurd length.
At the start of Dragon Age, you pick an origin. There are six in all, each with its own intro sequence. They differ greatly in tone--the lowly, downtrodden city elf's origin is rife with rage and humiliation, markedly different from, say, that of a mage, who has to walk the line between obedience to the ever-vigilant church and the temptations of demonic power. They lay the moral choice on thick, allowing you to be virtuous or mercenary, but they all end the same way: with you being whisked away by the Grey Wardens, to endure the trials of initiation, and take an ill-fated stand against the advancing Darkspawn horde.
After you play through the prelude, Dragon Age opens up in a big way. You're armed with a stack of treaties that compel Ferelden's various power groups to contribute forces to the army you're mustering to combat the Darkspawn. It's up to you who to hit up first, and depending on how you play things, the composition of the army you field against the archdemon's forces can vary quite dramatically-you're just as likely to end up rolling with a pack of werewolves or a phalanx of golems as you are with a company of elves and dwarves.
Regardless of whose door you pound down first, you have to jump through some hoops before they hand over their best and brightest. It seems like the blight came at a bad time: the dwarves of Orzammar are on the brink of a war of succession following the death of their king; the Dalish elves are suffering from a bit of a werewolf problem; the Mages of the Circle Tower are snowed in by demon worshippers in their headquarters; and the good people of Redcliffe have a king indisposed by a mysterious affliction, and are quite busy fending off an undead invasion. Needless to say, you have to scratch their backs before they scratch yours.
All of this equals many hours of gameplay, in locales ranging from the vast ruins of an ancient underground dwarf kingdom and a hazardous, werewolf-infested forest, to the twisted dreamworld that demons call home. As a rule, there are tons of surprises, both in terms of where the game takes you, and the consequences of your actions.
There's also plenty of stuff to do outside of the main quest. You'll find tons of MMO-style side-quests in most of the areas you visit, though many are disappointingly true-to-form: retrieve X, kill Y, or investigate Z. There are some standouts, though, particularly the ones your companions send you on once you curry enough favor with them. Depending on your tastes, these can lead to romance if you play your cards right, and as for the payoff, well, let's just say you shouldn't get your hopes up unless you fancy watching Barbie dolls getting down. Given some of the wild combinations that can occur at the right place and the right time, though, you're probably going to want to explore this aspect of the game fully, anyway.
Dragon Age is simply huge. A no-frills playthrough will easily crack 60 hours, and you can tack on a few dozen more if you decide to get obsessive with it.
If you were weaned on Baldur's Gate and have a longing for its methodical treatment of combat, then you'll be in your element in Dragon Age. The game is quite amenable to the so-called pause-and-play approach to battles; it also actually feels kind of impossible to get through some of the bigger fights without resorting to this kind of micromanagement.
Party members left to their own devices will play out tactics that you can program. The system is robust and deep, allowing you to automate reactions for almost any contingency. If you get good at assigning tactics, you'll have an easier time focusing on controlling your favorite party member in real time during most fights. But when that last-minute heal can mean the difference between success or a reload, you're going to do the pause-and-play thing, guaranteed.
Once you peek under the hood, it'll become clear that Dragon Age is informed by MMO design in more ways than its approach to side-quests. If you're familiar with MMO concepts, you'll have a leg up when it comes to allocating skill points with the intent of building the most durable tank, able damage dealer, or responsive healer.
Dragon Age's home-cooked game system is a far cry from the D&D-inspired rules that drove Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, and it's very involved. While there are only three classes, there are countless ways to develop your characters from the multitude of skill trees each one offers, not to mention the unlockable specializations. You'll likely feel a little overwhelmed at first, especially if you don't field a well-rounded party--health potions may be cheap and easy to craft, but they don't hold a candle to a well-built healer. And when they're at their toughest, the fights in Dragon Age will mercilessly punish a hasty approach.
There are few, but significant gameplay changes in the console versions of Dragon Age. The biggest is that you can't zoom the camera out to an overhead perspective. If you're especially tactically-minded, this will certainly bug you; for one thing, it will prevent you from exploiting area-effects for all they're worth. The console versions mitigate this by turning friendly-fire off by default in the normal difficulty, which certainly helps, but alters the pace of combat. In other words, it doesn't discourage you from playing sloppy, and play sloppy you will. You also have to contend with a multi-page radial menu, in lieu of the massive action bars on the PC version. Still, if you don't have a PC capable of running it, Dragon Age is still very much worth playing on a console.
Dragon Age looks convincing, if not exactly beautiful most of the time. The aesthetic is straightforward, no-frills fantasy; every environment you visit will feel like it was pulled straight out of one fantasy franchise or another. Though some of the environments look cool in their own right, the technical aspects of the game don't always hold up well under scrutiny. Textures that look right when viewed from an over-the-shoulder perspective appear downright crude when shown during a close-up. And the gore-splatter that persists on your frontline party members looks like cheap stage blood in dialogue sequences. The effect is downright goofy.
When it comes to voice work, though, you can't touch BioWare. The production is great, and astoundingly comprehensive. We've come to expect this much, so it's no big surprise. Since main characters don't talk, though, they'll often adopt nothing more than a baffled or vacant look after a particularly heady line of dialogue. It's enough to stir you out of your suspension of disbelief.
BioWare has made good on its promise to reprise Baldur's Gate, and the result is excellent enough for you to forgive the company for not haggling its way into the D&D license. Dragon Age: Origins is a monster RPG that spares no expense, and is very likely the beginning of something great. If you've been waiting for the next great PC RPG, then jump right in. Just make sure you have 60 or so hours to spend on the low end.
Reviewed on PC, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony Playstation 3.