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Dragon Age: Origins

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Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB: M
Release Date: 11.03.2009











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PC Hands-On Impression

With my first glance at Dragon Age: Origins in motion, I knew it was something special. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Baldur's Gate is my favorite RPG series of all time, and Dragon Age is its spiritual successor. But don't be mistaken, that doesn't mean that any sort of Baldur's Gate-induced bias has led to my love of Dragon Age: Origins. It's just a very high quality game.

In contrast to RPGamer's other recent Dragon Age impressions, I was able to spend a sizable chunk of time with the game's PC version. The menu screen's operatic music alone starts to sets the stage by emphasizing the feeling of sadness in Dragon Age's mature, dark world. A notable addition to the game's menu screen was the ability to select DLC right out in the open, which makes sense considering BioWare's announced intention of supporting the game with DLC for at least the next two years.

"With my first glance at Dragon Age: Origins in motion, I knew it was something special."

Starting a new game brought me through a cinematic intro showing Dragon Age's basic history. A group of dark mages once cast out from society return as the first darkspawn, which results in the formation of the Blight: the game's major evil force. The Grey Wardens at one time pushed the Blight back, saving Ferelden, but now after four centuries the people ignore, or even have forgotten, this noble group. This leads us to the current time in Dragon Age's storyline.

Players then get started by choosing a race and class. Class choice is much simpler than in other hardcore RPGs, as there are only three to choose from: warrior, mage, and rogue. Race choices consist of human, elf, and dwarf, though races are also associated with a background or two, such as a Noble or a Commoner. Backgrounds alter your "origin," Dragon Age's first one to two hours (on average), but also have an effect on many other parts of the game. For example, I chose to be an elven mage. While the mage origin will play out basically the same with both elf and human, my choice to be an elf led to a conversation with one character about racial hatred of elves. These variations on each character class and race combination will likely lead to lots of replay value.

Now, back to class choice. As I said, I chose to be an elven mage. Character customization in Dragon Age begins with the plethora of ways to adjust looks: complexion, tattoos, hair (flock of seagulls for me), mouth, eyes, jaw/cheeks, ears, voice, etc. New to me was the ability to create my character's portrait. I was able to move my character's head up and down, rotate, and even alter his facial expression. I decided to give him a crazy face.

Class customization, something I was worried about after hearing that there were only three classes, is very deep. You can basically create any type of character, within each class type, that you want. Each class has a skill list and any combination from varying categories can be selected. The mage had a list of four skill categories — creation, primal, entropy, and spirit — that each contained four paths of four skills. Choosing the first skill on a path will allow the next skill on that path to be chosen when the character meets the proper level, but there are not restrictions on which paths can be entered like in some other RPGs. For example, my mage could use both spells from creation, mostly healing-type skills, with entropy, death-type skills. Upon reaching certain levels, characters can choose another category called a specialization, and at current max level (assuming it may increase with later game updates) characters will acquire two of these. Specialization examples for the Mage class are the Shapeshifter and the Blood Mage. From my limited time with the warrior and rogue, they also have similar types of customization choices, being able to combine melee, shield, bow, and other similar types of skills. So, Dragon Age: Origins despite its lack of named beginning classes, certainly does not suffer from lack of customization.

Onward to the elven mage origin story! Mages are extremely dangerous in the world of Dragon Age. They're cloistered in a tower until each is determined to be ready to leave. If they never reach that point, their powers must be wiped from their bodies. In the process, their minds basically get wiped as well. So my goal was to complete my final test — being sent into The Fade and coming out alive — rather than being magically lobotomized. Whilst in The Fade, I got my first taste of Dragon Age's combat. It's feels very much like Baldur's Gate mixed with World of Warcraft. Players can pause, queue up skills, and then unpause, but unlike Baldur's Gate characters have a World of Warcraft-style ability bar at the bottom of the screen. Abilities are used by clicking on the icons in this bar, and must recharge once used. It's very fun, intuitive, and strategic. I actually died upon fighting what could be considered the first "boss," which made me happy because I want a challenging game. I was playing on hard, actually.

Another level of fun I had with Dragon Age: Origins came from all of the dialogue options. There is a ton of dialogue in the game, with plenty of people to talk to and different choices to make. In The Fade, I encountered a tough looking spirit from which I required a bit of aid. I could have been receptive to its advice to gain this aid, but I was also able to be a complete jerk, piss it off, and acquire its help after a fight instead. Needless to say, I had quite a bit of fun angering this spirit and watching its eyes flare up as it reprimanded me for my disrespect.

Once outside of my origin story, the real meat of the game seemed to begin. After quickly exploring the first town, I set out with my beginning party into the wilderness to complete my first quests. Finding a dying soldier in the field, I was given the choice to either save him or ignore him, or even straight up kill him to put him out of his misery. Taking the psycho route, I chose to immediately murder the poor soldier, leading to a party member's disapproval. When party members disapprove, you can find yourself in a nasty situation, as we know from RPGamer's GamesCom demo impression from another section of the game. Dragon Age just made the choice seem so natural through the dialogue options, rather than giving me two bland good and evil choices that I was simply presented with.

Combat in the field picked up very quickly, as I found myself taking on groups of enemies of varying abilities. It started with a large group of wolves, and I mean between five and seven, that felt overwhelming but I survived. Next came a few melee humanoid attackers along with an archer or two shooting from behind them. I really had to employ a sound strategy through the pause-and-play combat system, because my enemies' arrows and swords were pretty painful. After dispatching these adversaries, I had to go up against a full group of archers on a faraway ridge. Trying to close the gap and cast spells on them before I was killed felt harrowing. Even later, I was nearly ganked by rogues that randomly unstealthed and backstabbed me!

Unfortunately, my experience ended within this zone, but not without showing me something important. Dragon Age: Origins appears as if it will be heavy on both story and combat. The game's story and dialogue options were deep and its combat was challenging and varied. I can only imagine that this will increase as players actually get into the meat of the story, and as they encounter new types of creatures in new zones. Dragon Age: Origins is without a doubt the spiritual sequel to Baldur's Gate, taking the strategic combat and deep story threads of the classic title, updating these aspects, and dropping them into a stylish game engine with modern day accoutrements.



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