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Dragon Age Origins: PC Version Review

Updated Thu, Nov 12, 2009 by Medawky

There are a few things in life that are safe bets: the sun rising in the east, the Yankees winning one out of four World Series' and BioWare making the best damned RPGs in the business. That’s probably why anticipation levels for the newest offering from the storied developer were near record highs as November 3rd, or DA-Day as it is now know, drew near. Now that launch day has come and gone, it’s time for gamers to decide whether BioWare still reigns supreme, and whether Dragon Age Origins lived up to the hype and delivered just the type of story rich immersion that is the hallmark of a BioWare game. 
The game features a combat and character advancement systems that are MMOG-like in both feel and execution, although adding a party of characters to the mix means you will spend more time queuing up the action in a turn-based environment. The truly remarkable aspect of the combat system is that even the turn-based scenarios still retain a real time feel that doesn’t diminish the action and makes for some epic encounters.

From the opening cut scene to the final epic battle, I was living in the game world, it has been years since a game followed me into my dreams. Read on for a complete review of the latest smash hit from BioWare, from the minor annoyances of party micromanagement to the glorious highs of demon slaying, it’s all in our review of Dragon Age Origins.

Cautions

Dragon Age carries a Mature(17+) rating:

Blood 
Intense Violence
Language
Partial Nudity
Sexual Content


Not since Age of Conan has a game had a warning box this big, Dragon Age managed to pick up just about every caveat available, Jack Thompson is foaming at the mouth over this one I’m sure. While often times the warnings can be overly cautious, this game delivers the guts and the glory and will leave your armor soaking in blood for most of the game’s duration. There is currently no setting in the game to tone down the elements that garnered this rating, and for good reason; Ferelden is a bloody land and no amount of candy coating can change that.  Parents will want to pay attention to these warnings and save game time for when the little ones are safe and snug in bed.

Gameplay

95Outstanding
Gameplay is, and always has been, the hallmark of a BioWare RPG, and Dragon Age is no exception to that rule. From immersive storytelling to a world that really feels alive with well developed characters, all the necessary elements are in place to make this an instant classic. That said, however, there are some detractors present, that while not game breaking, could have been done differently

Pacing, to me, is an important aspect of a game and can push a game all the way from magnum opus status to unplayable or anywhere in between.  For Dragon Age, the pacing of the game leaves it just a hair below the former. Several aspects of the game hinder its pace and two of them are directly gameplay related, while the other is more of an audio issue that I will discuss later on.


In an earlier review of Borderlands, Dalmarus lamented the inability to freely save his game. That element is present in Dragon Age as well, and due to the game’s difficulty it basically has to be, but the onus of saving is still put almost 100% on the player. The game does offer an autosave option, and I suggest enabling it, but the save points are far too infrequent. While this not being in charge of your own “save destiny” may sound blasphemous to a hardcore RPG player, the change in the way these games are made and played has shifted the paradigm and PC games need to adopt a more console-like approach to the game save mechanism. If this game were not so riveting and immersive the need to constantly remember to save would be less of an issue, and if combat, even on the lower settings wasn't so intense, then it would be a complete non-issue. The ability to save your game quickly and at any time other than the middle of combat is both a blessing and a curse, but after one slip up where you get set back a couple of hours of grueling combat it will be a burden you remember to bear.

The second issue that slows the pacing and detracts from the fluid feel of the game is party management. The tactics system is amazingly detailed and offers players the ability to set up beforehand detailed instructions for their party to follow in almost any combat situation. Once you have mastered this system it becomes a set it and forget it element that enhances overall gameplay with only the occasional glitch. They say the devil is in the details and here is where the system has some minor flaws, even when set to do one specific task no matter what the situation there are many times when your party members simply won’t follow the preset command and you will be forced to pause and set them back onto course. I suspect that this will eventually be addressed through a game patch as the AI gets minor tweaks and upgrades.

Short of those two issues, which really are minor, this is a fantastic game to play. The combat is epic feeling and adds to the storyline, and the cut-scene storytelling immerses you in the world in ways that prior games could only dream of.  The world is non-linear and scales your group’s level so you are free to explore it at your discretion without worry of being over- or under-powered.

Character development is a bit clunky at first as it is almost too wide open. As you level, however, you will find your focus becoming narrowed as your needs become more defined. Another great aspect of the game is that with three unique starting points, each with their own story, you won’t feel any tedium when starting a new campaign with a more refined eye with which to develop your characters.

Don’t be discouraged by my two warnings, they truly are minor and due to the game’s depth they diminish over time. Dragon Age is able to overcome them with ease where a lesser game could be overshadowed by them.

Graphics

95Outstanding

The graphics of Dragon Age have gotten a fair amount of criticism for not being bleeding edge or as ultra-realistic as some of the game’s counterparts, and while I don't disagree with those assessments, I will tell you this - they don't need to be. Dragon Age graphics fit the game to a tee, they make you feel a part of this fantasy world in a way that no "realistic" graphic model could.

The game is filled with cut-scenes that help tell the story and move the plot along. The scene graphics have the exact same look and feel as the in game graphics which wraps the whole thing into a cohesive package. The creatures are unique, the demons are frightening and the dragon is awe-inspiring. If you’re picking up Dragon Age purely for graphics punch, then you’re probably not its story-driven target audience. Even so, you won’t likely be disappointed.

Sound

95Outstanding

Dragon Age has excellent overall audio quality, with voice acting, background sounds and music all at the level one would expect from BioWare. The music seems classic without feeling like a rehash of scores from other fantasy games or movies, a feat harder to accomplish than you’d think these days. With the staggering numbers of fantasy RPGs both single and multi-player (or massively multiplayer for that matter) it is not at all uncommon to hear a fantasy game score and get a sense of Lord of the Rings or Braveheart déjà vu.

The sheer amount of voice acting here is staggering. Not only is every single cut scene fully voice acted, but you’ll even hear background interactions amongst your party mates as you traverse the lands. All of this vocal talent ultimately leads to a rich and immersive experience, but every once in a while the dialogues and monologues break into a near Shakespearean tempo that drags down the moment. Fortunately these scenes are few and far between past the first main gameplay area and if you do encounter them you can turn on subtitles or hit the escape key to move past them.

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