It brought us the highly revered Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate franchises, Jade Empire and, of course, Mass Effect. Now the Canadian-based developer BioWare has lovingly crafted an entirely new franchise with which to deliver another of its masterful modern role playing games (RPGs).
Just as Mass Effect created a whole franchise with a canon that took cues from the Star Wars universe, Dragon Age: Origins looks set to do the same, this time based on the Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy. There are many similarities between the two intellectual properties, and that’s not just to say that both feature elves, dwarves and orcs (or in this case, Darkspawn). The plot, for instance, sees the aforementioned Darkspawn horde threaten to overrun your homeland of Ferelden unless your party can unite its fragmented peoples against the common foe. There are several set pieces and cut scenes that will feel familiar, too… However, to dismiss the game’s story as a Lord of the Rings rip-off isn’t entirely fair, nor is it accurate, since much of popular fantasy shares these elements.
You’ll begin your quest by crafting a character from one of three factions – dwarf, elf or human – and you’ll then choose one of two backgrounds for your character. The combination of these initial choices will dictate the ‘origin’ story that you will play through (from six available) before it links up to the main quest. From the word go, your adventure can pan out in so many different ways; your origin story and the choices you make in it also affect how other characters will react to you in the broader quest. It’s nice to recognise such replay value so early on in an RPG.
The game world of Ferelden is suitably diverse, filled with many interesting characters. Some respond well to kind actions, while other, more jaded types will respect bluntness or someone who takes what they want by force; it all depends on how you want to play the game and which character types you choose to align yourself with. Rather than utilising the ‘morality bar’ popularised by Knights of the Old Republic – where the difference between the ‘good’ points and ‘bad’ points accumulated dictated which kind of character you were – Dragon Age: Origins employs a system where your standing with others is on a more individual basis. You’re not necessarily good or evil by definition, but some in your party may be a little put off by some of your actions; sometimes to the point where they choose not to open up to you, or even to the point where they might leave your party.
Your party can consist of up to three other characters (so four in total) of the many that you’ll meet along the way, and these can be switched out at any time. They’re a varied and interesting bunch with their own skills, stories, and agendas. During the game’s real-time combat, your party members will generally act automatically and fairly intelligently, although it pays to ‘pause’ the action to issue direct commands. But you can also ‘program’ fairly detailed strategies for each member that they will conduct automatically under the right conditions. For instance you could, say, arrange for your mage to heal another party member any time their health slips below 25%. The strategic possibilities are rather impressive, and while the mechanics of the combat system are fairly deep, the player can progress with a fairly basic understanding of it.
The combat and dialogue are all tied together with some immaculate production values. The story is presented in a manner that outshines any of BioWare’s previous efforts, with character interaction no longer limited to ‘talking head’ close-up shots. Countless hours of incredible adventure lie ahead, and with so many forks in the road, there are plenty of reasons to keep coming back.