Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age: Origins
Dragon Age: Origins Cover
Platforms Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows
Genre Grand Western RPG
Score 8  Clock score of 8
Buy from Amazon

I don't like to give up on a game I'm invested in. I'm fine with quitting after an hour, and maybe even a few hours after that I can safely move on without second thought. But when the clock strikes double digit hours, I'm in for the long haul, or I have to make the usually difficult decision to stop for my own sanity. Back in January 2010, I made the bizarre decision to start playing Dragon Age: Origins immediately after I finished Knights of the Old Republic and just three weeks before Mass Effect 2 was released. Suffice it to say, I didn't get very far, and the call of Commander Shepard was too strong.

Almost exactly a year later, I finally returned to Ferelden to finish job. I booted up my old mage and rediscovered the hilarity of my party members and utter deepness of the gameplay. I'll admit right here and now, the first thing I did was crank the difficulty down to Casual. I wasn't playing again to make some sort of statement to nobody that I was any good at this type of game, I just wanted to experience everything Dragon Age: Origins had to offer... in terms of story and world building.

I was actually pretty hyped for Dragon Age before it was released, I read the first book, The Stolen Throne, and Grant and I checked out the web-based spinoff, Dragon Age: Journeys. My first hour review of the game went decently well, but the origin story of the Dalish Elf was kind of dull which encouraged me to try another origin when I was ready to play for real. And while it took way too long to finally beat the game, it was well worth the wait in the end.

Here's my review of Dragon Age: Origins on the Xbox 360. While I would normally write a many thousands of words on a BioWare game, I'm going to try and move at a bit swifter pace. If you're interested, Ian also reviewed this game a few months ago, this is strictly my opinion.

BioWare's legacy

Dragon Age: Origins get its title from the six different origin stories the game features. Through a combination of character races and classes, the game starts out differently. Mages start in the mage tower, the wandering elves start in the forest, etc. The origin stories kick the game off in its own unique way and sets the stage for the main character joining the Grey Wardens and eventually becoming the hero of Ferelden. The mage origin story I played provided excellent background to what it meant to be a mage in the game while giving me my first taste of tough moral decisions which would have repercussions for the next 50 hours.

If this game had been developed by a studio within Ubisoft or Activision, Dragon Age: Origins probably would have been just that, the origin stories. But they end up being less than 10% of the finished product. Origins is a long game, sprawling like Knights of the Old Republic with about twice as many quests. It's very easy to be distracted from the main story with everything going on, but the game features a decent quest guide that keeps everything organized.

The main quest is quite the tale, though, and receives the full BioWare treatment with great locations, writing, and characters. Since I read the prequel novel, I was familiar with a few of the characters (though The Stolen Throne is set at least 20 years before the events of Origins), but that familiarity only made me more susceptible to the twists and turns they had cooked up. The first few hours after the origin stories is straight up Song of Ice and Fire with the amount of physical and political death blows handed out.

Something BioWare has always excelled at is juggling huge, serious stories with light-hearted humor and this is no exception. The world could be ending and there's a civil war brewing, but our motley crew of heroes is always willing to crack a joke. Alistair and Morrigan in particular are my favorites, they're on the opposite spectrum of morality, but play off each other well. The rest of the cast also comes complete with sprawling backstories and questionable motives.

Dragon age Origins Ugly Ogre Battle

Some issues

Along with the writing, what really makes the characters work is the voice actors behind them. The number of speaking roles in Dragon Age: Origins is gigantic, but the main cast is stellar. My only complaint is that the main character is once again unvoiced. I can understand why they did this, some people feel more immersed if they can imagine their own player character's voice (I don't), but more likely it was simply due to there being many different permutations of genders and races. Dwarves don't sound the same as humans in the world of Dragon Age, and elves would probably be a different set of voice acting, too. I'm personally just bugged by the absence of one whole side of the conversation, and probably spoiled by games like Mass Effect.

Speaking of technical limitations, you can assign spells and attacks to hotkeys on the keyboard (PC) and controller (Xbox 360 and PS3), but obviously on the controller you're going to be limited on how many actions you can save. I was only allowed to assign six spells for my mage, which I believe affected my playstyle quite a bit. Why bother to check out new moves when they're such a pain to assign or use? I mostly just stuck with my core set of spells and upgraded within those trees. I imagine if I had played on the PC I would have tried a lot of different combinations, but I probably would never have finished the game (I'd much rather spend 50 hours on the couch than in my computer chair).

Okay, one more technical complaint before we get back into the good stuff, the text is way too small! Yes, I have an HDTV, though not a gigantic one, and it can be pretty difficult reading any of the game's text at times. It was mostly a problem in the menus and I had to frequently let my eyes focus. Annoying, but not a game breaker in this case.

Dragon age Origins Duncan Grey Wardens

The good stuff

Let's get to the gameplay now, Dragon Age: Origins is probably the modern pinnacle of western RPGs. No expense is spared in terms of equipment, consumables, crafting, gifts, skill trees, spell trees, stats, stat bonuses, and dozens of other factors. Yes, it will be overwhelming to a someone coming over from the Mass Effect or Final Fantasy fence, but the game does a pretty tremendous job helping out where it can. But it seems like it's pretty hard to go wrong and mess something up, especially when playing on Casual or Normal difficulty. All the options really mean everyone playing will have a different gameplay experience tailored to their liking.

For example, my mage allowed me to stand back in combat and survey the battle while nuking darkspawn from afar. I could provide support by freezing enemies, heal my tank in time of need, or simply deal out massive damage. Relatively early in the game I received a fire spell that had a huge area of attack, but this spell also made me appreciate the difference between the difficulty levels, also. At the lower difficulties, you can safely drop huge fire bombs on everyone in the battle and only the enemies will take any damage (though anyone hit will fall over), but on the high difficulties friendly fire is on and everyone will be hurt! Strategies are normally altered between difficulty levels but this is a new extreme!

You can have up to four party members at a time so balance is key: I typically had a dedicated tank, dedicated healer, and two damage dealers with me at all times. The game allows you to take over anyone in your group at any time, or queue up a list of tactics similar to Final Fantasy XII's battle system. Or you can just turn all that off and let them go at it, they're still pretty smart as long as you let the game know this guy is the tank and this woman is the healer. I appreciated all the help I could get!

There's no morality system built into the game like Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, or Mass Effect, instead, everyone in your group has their own opinion of you. Siding with one group during a major decision might bring you praise from the white knight but scorn from the wild witch. This lack of black and white decision making, especially on the major, over-arching plot point judgments, actually made things a lot more difficult. Instead of selecting whether I wanted to save or destroy the world, I was forced into picking sides with groups of people I may not totally agree with. And often I went into a particular area certain I would pick viewpoint, but when more details started to emerge I would switch over. The ambiguity and lasting effects of the "moral" decisions in Dragon Age: Origins was super effective.

Dragon age Origins Blood Splatter

The big issue

Before we go, my biggest complaint lies in the game's presentation. It's good at best, pretty shoddy at worst. Sound effects in cutscenes never line up with the action, helmets appear and disappear at seemingly random times during conversations and cutscenes, and NPCs will be placed directly in front of the camera if that's where they were standing. Overall, a much tighter direction of the game's variety of cutscenes is desperately needed. Then there's the game's numerous bugs, while I didn't encounter anything awful, plenty of weird bugs regarding quests kept popping up. Sometimes I couldn't activate the right object or quest-givers would appear at the wrong location and talk about something really bizarre. Just head over to a quest page on the Dragon Age Wikia site and you'll probably see warnings about bugs. Yeah, it's a BIG game and QA is hard, but the game has been out over a year and patches are possible, too.

They say it's the little things, and while Dragon Age: Origins has excellent gameplay and an epic story, outside of the voice acting, the general presentation just feels shoddy. Text can be too small, controls seem too limited on the console, cutscenes have weird sound timing issues, Origins never feels as smooth and directed as Mass Effect 2. But behind those issues, Dragon Age: Origins is a brilliant game with a ton to offer to the fan of Western RPGs.

Overall: 8

Dragon age Origins Dragon Mage Battle

Character Bio (spoilers)

  • Hannah the Female Human Mage
  • Level 20 Arcane Warrior
  • Romanced Alistair and Zevran
  • General party was always Alistair and Wynne, and then either Morrigan, Oghren, or Leliana
  • Sided with the mages in Broken Circle
  • Sided with the elves in Nature of the Beast (though freed the werewolves from their spell)
  • Defied the Cult of Andraste in The Urn of Sacred Ashes
  • Sided with Harrowmont in A Paragon of Her Kind (though after seeing the epilogue I would have definitely gone with Bhelen)
  • Destroyed the Anvil of the Void
  • Killed Flemeth
  • Personally executed Loghain
  • Set up Alistair and Anora to be married
  • Had Alistair perform Morrigan's ritual so we could both survive
  • Personally finished off the Archdemon
  • Finished the game in just under 50 hours