Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dragon Age Origins Review

I have said this before, and I'll say it again: I have never played a bad game by BioWare. And I think pointing that out is the best way to start this review.

BioWare is best known for their RPGs, and there are many reasons for this. In addition to creating games that are fun to play, BioWare has a knack for creating deep characters with complex personalities and huge, living worlds. This is especially true of their original IPs: they've created rich histories, local legends and complex politics for Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age that are every bit as fleshed-out as Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars even without the 30+ years of history behind them.

Dragon Age has all the hallmarks of a BioWare game. The Tolkein-esque story is simple: an uprising of creatures known collectively as Darkspawn are rising up in a "Blight" in the kingdom of Ferelden, and naturally it's up to the hero you create to save the world. Along the way you'll deal with werewolves, the undead, and other monsters, as well as betrayal, politics, and magic gone awry, as you seek to recruit allies in your fight against the Darkspawn. What makes the story unfold in such a gripping way is how it's told. You will learn about the history and culture of humans, elves, and dwarves of Ferelden. And if you take the time to engage your party members in conversation, maybe give them a gift or two, you'll also get to know a lot about them. They all have rich back-stories that make them engaging, three-dimensional characters that you will develop feelings for. This is furthered by the banter between themselves whenever they're in your party while your traipsing about the countryside.

As for the gameplay, I can't comment on the console versions, but anyone who's played an MMO like World of Warcraft will be right at home with the PC version. Although the PC version gives the option to pan the camera up for an overhead view similar to Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate, I've found it's easier in most situations to use the standard behind-the-back camera and the WASD keys for moving. Combat seems easy enough. You right-click on an enemy, and your character will attack that enemy. As your character levels-up, he or she will learn a number of abilities or spells based on their class. These skills can be placed on a quick bar. They require stamina or mana to activate, and just like an MMO they require a cool down period before they can be used again.

After getting a feel for the combat, it can actually be remarkably deep. Your party members all have tactics slots, so you can dictate what they should do in a variety of situations. If necessary, you can click on their portrait to take direct control of them, and at any time combat can be paused by pressing the space bar. While paused, you can still issue commands to characters, which allows you to set up combos. For example, you can have a mage cast Freezing Cone on an enemy, which will freeze them in ice. You can then have a character with training in bows use Shattering Shot for a chance at instantly killing the frozen enemy. Or you may have a Warrior use a stunning attack, only to have another party member follow it up with an attack that takes advantage of the stunned enemies lowered resistances.

The combination of gameplay, story, setting, and characters makes Dragon Age Origins a highly addictive game. For a good long while, if I wasn't sleeping, eating, or at work, I was playing Dragon Age. I couldn't put it down, and even when I was eating or at work, I'd be thinking about playing Dragon Age. The downside to that is that I started to look for other games to play on the side if I didn't think I'd have at least an hour and a half to devote to playing Dragon Age (which is how I was able to not just play Modern Warfare 2, but actually finish it first). Playing Dragon Age won't just take up a large portion of your free time for a few days, either. It took me almost 45 hours to finish the game, and BioWare included plenty of reasons to replay it. For starters, depending on the options you pick when creating your character there are a total of six unique origin stories to play through. And even after they merge, there's a lot that you can do differently on subsequent playthroughs. While there's no clear-cut good and evil paths to pursue, at many points in the game you'll be forced to make a choice. And they're not always as simple as A or B, either... sometimes you'll have many options available. Sometimes more than one will seem right, and sometimes you'll be forced to make hard calls to pick the least-bad choice. You can easily play through Dragon Age Origins twice and never make the same decision in both games, and even then you'll need to play through yet again to explore other decisions. If all that's not enough to keep you hooked, BioWare has an ambitious two years of downloadable content planned, with two quests and some armor available at launch and another quest announced for December.

In a year when a number of big games were moving into 2010, I've found a number of games that have been able to impress me this late in the year and be serious contenders for a game-of-the-year award. I'm happy to say that Dragon Age Origins crushes them all. It's not only the best game I've played this year, but it's easily better than anything I played last year, Fallout 3 included.

Final Score: A+


Jeremy said...

What about game of the year for Wii? I would think it would win that hands down.

Mike said...

If you mean Mario (your comment's in Dragon Age), then yeah, it'd be the Wii game of the year. But then again, it's up against... what? I could invent a game console, call it the MiiStation 360, then make a game that's involves kicking yourself in the nuts, and it'd be the MiiStation 360 game of the year by virtue of having no competition.