Sunday, October 22, 2000

Dragon Age: Origins PC | 9.5

Dragon Age is a kind of game that is becoming increasingly rare: a deeply immersive single-player RPG with an interface clearly designed for the PC. It's easy to sling around the word "immersive" at any game that looks pretty, but DA isn't messing around - the world of Ferelden shows a unified sense of design and depth that blows even famously vast games like Oblivion out of the water. Coupled with consistently excellent writing and across-the-board quality character design even down to relatively unimportant NPCs, the game truly does feel like it's reacting to your choices dynamically from the very beginning, and how you play your character can have amazingly subtle effects on the way the story unfolds.

Graphically, the game's a little uneven. All the design elements are there, and it has plenty of high-quality textures and strong environmental visuals - particularly fire effects. The polygons themselves, particularly on character faces, are a little simpler than you'd expect from a 2009 game. Overall, the game looks about on level with Oblivion, although the visual distinctiveness and design ethic of areas and characters are significantly better. Animation stands out as a strong suit here, particularly during the game's frequent dialog sequences, with none of the dead-eyed staring or bizarre walk cycles that plagued other RPGs like Fallout 3.

Gameplay is pretty straightforward, and very much in keeping with previous Bioware titles like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. You control a party of up to four characters, each of whom develops a plethora of useful abilities to keep track of. The inclusion of a minor programming element (very much in keeping with the gambit system from Final Fantasy XII) will let you set up a few default actions on each character so you're not stuck frantically switching between them to make sure they drink their healing potions, but battles frequently require some degree of tactical planning. Setting up ambushes and planning your party strategy to play to strengths is necessary to get through some tougher areas. The interface is, shockingly, clearly tailor-made for the PC (the console versions have their own interfaces designed from the bottom up and are apparently easier games to allow for the sacrifice in easy access to skills). You have an insane number of quick-access slots, and nearly the entire keyboard is bound to one thing or another. It's the kind of interface that hasn't been in vogue since before the PS2 came out. The game is extremely linear, although the frequent and varied dialog options give it the feel of a more free-roaming game, and it's very tempting to go back and replay huge chunks of the game just to see how the complex and dynamic conversations will play out. The main downside is that there's no easy way to level-grind, which is to the game's benefit to a point (no tedious circling around killing wolves) but occasionally means you can get in over your head.

What the game sacrifices in terms of sandbox free-roaming it more than makes up with in the excellent writing and characterization. An absurd attention to detail and across-the-board excellent voice acting breathes a lot of life into the game's conversations, which make up a significant chunk of gameplay. Characters are extremely varied and the interplay between them is a major draw, a trademark of Bioware's games, but Dragon Age has some of the most likable characters I've ever seen in a video game and the excellent performances from talents like Tim Curry, Kate Mulgrew and Claudia Black really put the game a notch above. Even the game's fairly generic-on-the-surface fantasy world is livened up by a few critical details - for example, the elves in Dragon Age are a massive underclass of servants.

It's actually difficult to find things to level complaints against in this game. One petty gripe is Morrigan's visual design - her character is one of the game's strongest, and she has great personality and some very clever writing, but visually she's a pair of giant breasts with a cloth draped improbably over them. Other women in the game are treated with a bit more restraint, though, and female armor is gratifyingly sensible. Another issue is that it can be difficult to manage battles on the fly, and accurately targeting enemies with skills frequently requires tactical pausing just to line the cursor up over their relatively small active areas. It's a petty annoyance, but the game clearly wasn't meant to be played Diablo-style anyway.

A few other things to know about the game:
-The game is mostly DRM-free, and ships only with a simple disc check. EA has a reputation for fouling up its customers' computers with DRM malware, but DA seems to be free of those problems.
-If Dragon Age were a movie, it would be rated R. I don't remember ever seeing any swearing, oddly, but the game is rife with violent imagery, extremely dark themes and frank sexuality (including a handful of relatively tasteful sex scenes and occasional demonic nudity). The game handles all of it with maturity and depth, but it's clearly not meant for children, and even parents of younger teens should be cautious.

Overall, Dragon Age is one of the strongest games to come out in recent memory, and is another installment in Bioware's increasing resume of superbly-written RPGs. Players looking for a fast-paced hack-and-slash "rpg" should look elsewhere, but anyone who likes deep and elegant plot development, memorable characters and excellent role-playing will love this game.

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