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BioWare's long anticipated spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate is finally upon us...
After courting with the consoles in more recent times and applying their collective thumbprint to Sci-Fi themed RPGs in galaxies far, far away (along with a brief bout with martial arts), BioWare returns to the more familiar stamping ground of dwarfs and elves with the long anticipated release of Dragon Age: Origins.
Set in a traditional world of dark fantasy, Dragon Age: Originss finds the realms of Ferelden in peril as the threat of the Blight covers the land at the hands of the powerful Archdemon. As one of the last of the Grey Wardens, an ancient order of guardians, the challenge is to unite the shattered lands, restore peace and slay the corrupted dragon - simple enough? Despite the clichéd stereotypes you'd expect from a dark fantasy setting, BioWare has done well to avoid these with plot arcs that feel genuinely fresh and absorbing. It's probably not as diverse as CD Projekt's The Witcher, another RPG based on BioWare technology, but between the main character's attempts to unify the various factions and indulging in the back story of the various party members that join the adventure there's enough intrigue to keep you going through the 50+ hours on offer.
Immediately the fact that Dragon Age has been targeted towards a PC audience is apparent. The ability to zoom the camera right out to an isometric view more akin to classic RPGs such as the Baldurs Gate series may be a whimsical trait, but the fact that the PC version heavily supports user created content is one fact that shouldn't go amiss along with the more traditional interface. TVG hasn't received the console versions of the game, but can't imagine that the Hotbar and general interface will translate too well - this is certainly a game designed around a keyboard and mouse.
But fundamentally, despite the change in setting and the more PC experience, this is a BioWare RPG that exhibits the components of choice and consequence through dialogue decisions that runs through the core of everything the talented Canadian studio creates. Albeit one that doesn't sacrifice depth or the interface for its console siblings. Having said this, Dragon Age does differ quite substantially from the start. Your choice of character, class, and profession will dictate the way in which the game starts and the way in which other characters will relate to you. The choice between human, elf or dwarf may seem a little limited, but the impact this has shouldn't be understated, as BioWare have somehow managed to create an experience that thoroughly rewards multiple plays, each of which feel distinctly different from the other in the way that other characters will react and subtle areas of the plot unfold.
Alignment isn't so much of an option and isn't necessarily tracked in a 'good/evil' manner akin to the likes of KOTOR or Mass Effect. Nevertheless, there's a strong sense of choice and consequence, such as making the decision to help the depleted militia of a small village fend of nightly attacks from the undead, or leave it to fall and come to plunder the riches afterwards. Like KOTOR and Mass Effect before it, getting to know and understand the various characters that make up your party is a worthwhile exercise. There aren't many games that make dialogue choices a necessity, but somehow BioWare constantly manage to create believable characters that provide enough intrigue to make it all worthwhile. You'll also miss out on various side missions and perks if you decide to ignore this aspect, so do so at your peril!
Further evidence of the game's slightly more sophisticated experience than more recent BioWare titles is evidenced by the more tactical nuances of the party system. Combat is similar to most PC RPGs, with actions linked to a Hotbar and the various classes providing a wide range of techniques, covering a warrior's powerful might to a mage's mastery of magic. Learning the individualities of each character that comes into the fold is paramount to success, particularly if you're playing on the higher difficulty level. To this extent, the game offers Tactics slots, which allows you to sculpt the way in which each character will perform according to the rules you determine. A stronger and deeper skill-tree compliments this sense of individuality, providing the means to shape each of the party characters into very different roles.
Ultimately it's BioWare's panache that shapes the entire experience. An early voyage into the dream-like world of the Fade, a realm that exists between life and death, provides a puzzle quality not typical for an RPG. Encounters with 'boss' characters are a genuine highlight throughout the entire course of the adventure, and provide some moments where you're genuinely playing on the edge.
But there were a few things that slightly niggled at our overall enjoyment. Our first encounter against a monstrous ogre seemed like an insurmountable challenge, particularly when the only party member remaining was a pretty feeble Mage. Running around, desperately trying to find the space to use a health potion, we somehow managed to tuck into a bit of the environment that proved to be a wall of invisibility. The ogre couldn't do anything, as we chucked feeble spells at him and eventually (after a very long time) emerged victorious. It's a little glitch and nothing that's going to detract from the overall enjoyment, but we were a little surprised that it wasn't highlighted during the testing stage.
We'd also say that the game can at times lack a sense of drive and direction. Dragon Age: Origins is a wonderfully open game for you to explore and shape as you so choose, but it does in turn create situations where you're not entirely sure about the correct way forwards, instead exploring each location to cross each one of the list until you've finally discovered where you're supposed to be heading.
It should also be noted that Dragon Age: Origins is a tough game unless you choose to slide the difficulty down dynamically during the game. Due to the way in which the game scales adversaries around you, you never get to a point where you feel as though you can wade through areas without a challenge. Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing particularly given its stance as a more PC centric RPG experience. It's also worth remembering that Dragon Age is a game that will last, with anything between 50-80 hours of gameplay depending upon how many of the side missions you choose to take on.
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