Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dragon Age: Origins review

    In the months leading up to the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I've decided to do a retrospective series of reviews on what I think of as my second favorite fantasy setting after the Elder Scrolls. I refer, of course, to the Dragon Age series by Bioware. The spiritual successors to the Baldur's Gate series, Dragon Age incorporates much of what I loved about Knights of the Old Republic and transplants it to a mostly-original fantasy setting.

    I say mostly-original because Origins, like Mass Effect, wears its inspirations on its sleeve. The Darkspawn have a place in the setting similar to Tolkien orcs (with their theme even resembling the one from Peter Jackson's movies). The role of mages and their relationship to the Fade is similar to that or Warhammer's magic users. Also, it's still a fantasy setting where the predominate races are elves, dwarves, and humans.

    And you know what? I like it that way.

Quite a few fascinating stories for each of the Grey Wardens. Sadly, they have little effect past the beginning.
    There's nothing new under the sun and I have no problem with continuing the tradition of fantasy established by Tolkein before being popularized by Dungeons and Dragons. I've played D&D for twenty-years and have no intention of stopping now. If this is a D&D setting then it is a very good D&D setting. The writing is fun, crisp, and full of humor as well as drama.

    So what more do we want?

    In my case, nothing.

    The premise of Dragon Age: Origins is that you are a Grey Warden. Somewhat similar to the Night's Watch only infinitely more respected and cool, the Grey Wardens protect the continent of Thedas from the Blight. The Blight is a combination Orc/Zombie plague which results thousands of mindless evil monsters rising up from underground to kill everyone they encounter.

The combat system is fun yet sometimes clunky.
    The player character comes from one of six origins (Mage, Human Noble, Dwarf Noble, Dwarf Commoner, City Elf, or Dalish Elf) to join the Wardens before things go off the rails. Each of the Origins is unique and I recommend playing them all, even if they have little effect on the game past the opening Act.

    Gameplay wise, Dragon Age: Origins functions like Dungeons and Dragons with turn-based combat that is done in "real time." You control both your main character as well as a party of four supporting characters which he or she leads. You rise in levels, stat your characters, and equip them with ever-increasingly good weapons that will make your characters tougher as well as able to dish out more damage.

    It's a fun system but grew tedious after time, constantly shifting weapons and armor for slightly better examples thereof. Worse, some of the equipment and armor, particularly the hats, are hideous. Your character is more likely to wear the best armor, regardless of what it looks like, than appear as you want them to.

I love the characters. All of them.
    The big appeal of Dragon Age: Origins, though, is definitely the characters. This is a game filled with dozens of incredibly memorable NPCs. The best ones, of course, are your companions who are incredibly deep and well-written. I can't think of a single party-member in Origins I didn't find to be fascinating. Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana, Wynne, Sten, and others were all delightful. My least favorite was Zevran the Elf Assassin and I still liked Zevran. All of them have plot arcs and stories which make me think this would have been just as much fun to read as a novel as it would have been to play.

    The storyline is very well-written with lots of intrigue, morally ambiguous characters, and twists. The character of Teyrn (Duke) Loghain, his daughter Anora, King Calian, and all the intrigues thereof were as interesting to me as the larger story of the Blight. The game is divided into several "zones" each with their own overarcing storyline. These zones can be completed however the player character likes and that sort of freedom is enjoyable to have. Different party members will have different reactions to events so the game has replay value too.

    One of the elements which makes the game great is it's widely believed, and justifiably so, to have had the best romance system in Western gaming. While I don't play video games for romance, it's a basic part of storytelling and it's nice to see the interaction between the characters rising above "rescue the Princess." Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana, and Zevran are two straight and two bisexual options that offer humorous yet touching story arcs. You can even marry your way into monarchy if you play your cards right.

The Archdemon, who serves as the main villain, leaves much to be desired. It lacks any dialogue and is nothing more than a large ugly dragon.
    My favorite storylines from Dragon Age: Origins are probably the possession of Connor in Redcliffe and the search for the Urn of Sacred Ashes. The former shows a remarkable imagination and several twists I wouldn't have normally expected. The second is more or less Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only you take the role of a skeptical Indy. The rise and fall of Loghain is also a fascinating story, showing a multifaceted villain who is much-more than he could have been. Players are still debating whether it's the right thing to execute him or not.

      The protagonist of Origins isn't voiced and you can only respond in text but the breadth of choice deserves to be applauded. You can play an evil schemer, a freedom-loving mage, a hateful racist elf, a snooty dwarf noble, or a greedy assassin all with each validity. Some choices are questionable as I can't imagine anyone picking the werewolves over the elves, for example, but I still liked they existed. The epilogue shows a shocking number of choices have consequences and not enough games do that anymore.

    Really, though, it's the breadth of stories which makes Origins so much fun. You deal with social injustice like elvish prejudice, dwarvish classicism, bigotry against mages, freedom versus security, religious fanaticism, and a dozen other topics during the game. You can alleviate some of these problems but others are impossible for one man to change. Aside from a few quests which run a bit long like the Deep Roads and Fade sections, Origins doesn't have a single boring section either.

     In conclusion, Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best RPGs I've ever played. it isn't as original as it could be but the world-building, characters, and storytelling more than make up for it. I've replayed the game three or four times, which I never do other than in Skyrim so that says everything which needs to be said I think.


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