What comes to mind when you think of a typical fantasy game? Whatever your answer, Dragon Age: Origins has anything you could think of. Elves that live in the forest and have pointy ears? Check. Dwarves that drink a lot of alcohol and live underground? Check. Humans that lord their wealth over the others and generally act like arrogant pricks the whole time? Check. Dragons? Check and double check. Although Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t do too many new things, it does the familiar so well that it is more than worthy of being called “a role-playing game made by BioWare.”
Dragon Age: Origins takes the role-playing aspect and runs wild with it right out of the gates. You create either a human, elf or dwarf and play one of six origin stories that give the game its namesake. How you play out these stories will end up shaping your entire game to a varying extent. Basically, the more important your character is, the more impact their past has on the game. A human noble has a lot more clout than an elf peasant, for example. For the most part, the origins stories start the game with a great opening act that really does a good job at pulling you into the rest of the story.
Once the origin story is out of the way, however, all the different paths come together, and the whole rest of the game remains the same story. Your character, referred to as The Grey Warden (in a similar “generic name” strategy used for Mass Effect’s Commander Sheppard), is on an epic quest to join all the forces of the land to defend against a gigantic army of invading darkspawn (orcs) and their leader, The Archdemon (a dragon). The story follows a been-there-done-that fantasy story to the tee, but the story is far from Dragon Age: Origins’ main selling point, anyway, so it can be forgiven for it.
What is the bread and butter of Dragon Age: Origins — and all of Bioware’s games — is the masterful creation of the characters. From Alistar, the whiny but valiant Templar, to Morrigan, the powerfully cynical outlaw spellcaster, to Shale, the flamboyant pigeon-hating golem, the cast is a colorful group, and you’ll quickly become attached to your favorites. There is an uneven distribution here, as some characters don’t have the same depth as others, but they all still have charm. Even the minor characters get their personalities across and really show off the massive number of voice actors BioWare has at its disposal.
The gameplay gets a passing grade from me. It does what it is supposed to: ensures you are playing a game rather than a series of conversations. You have your basic warrior/rouge/mage separations, with each class having its strengths and weaknesses. You have full control over how your character fights and what abilities they will use. However, character-building is cheapened by the obvious nature of picking skills. For a warrior, pick the shield skills for a tank, the dual-wield skills for dual-wielding and two-handed weapon skills for using two-handed weapons. Rouges follow a similar pattern. Mages have a much more robust choice of skills, but the best skills are so much better than the others that the choice is easy here, too.
Control of your party members is accomplished through tactics, basically a fancy version of “If ... then ...” statements. You would give a “If warrior HP<25% then cast Heal” tactic to your healer, for instance. The AI will accomplish what you want it to pretty well, with some stupidity coming in every now and again. Healers are prone to rush in to death at times, and rouges will sometimes insist on attacking that ogre head on rather than backstabbing, for example. Most of the time, though, you’ll be happy knowing you die due to bad strategy rather than to dumb AI party members. And you will die. This game doesn’t like you. The difficulty can easily turn RPG neophytes off this title. Every encounter has the potential to kill you if you rush blindly into it. There will be a lot of pausing and adjusting tactics on the fly.
Although, I wouldn’t really count a game forcing you to use that squishy thing between your ears as a negative. I will count its love of mages as one, however. For all the stats, dodge rolls and daunting numbers the game boasts, winning in battle can be summed up thusly: Be a mage. A mage can kill eight enemies at once in about five seconds. This is no hyperbole. Given that health and mana also restore after every fight, a party of one warrior and three mages is the thing of nightmares to your enemies. Mages can summon tornadoes, blizzards and swarms of locusts. Seriously, just play as a mage.
The characters are great, and the combat can be epic. However, what really seals this one as a “Buy” rather than a “Rent” to me is the length. At about halfway through the story, I was entering hour 30 and I still couldn’t stop playing. You will play this game for hours and suddenly realize you forgot to eat or you have a term paper due in two hours. You will get a whole lot of bang, pow and even a zowie out of your buck from this game. It pulls you in and never lets go. This game is deep, addicting, has a great personality and is great value. I like Dragon Age: Origins. I really like Dragon Age: Origins. If you want to play the best RPG on the Xbox 360 this year, this is it. End of story.