When BioWare proclaimed that Dragon Age: Origins would be the spiritual successor of its classic 3rd person RPG, Baldur's Gate, the bar was instantly set high. Those unfamiliar with the 1998 title may not understand the weight behind that proclamation, but it meant that Dragon Age have to be a massively immersive. Things have moved along a lot since Baldur's Gate arrived, and Dragon Age is set to contain BioWare's signature morality system as well as a world that constantly changes, developing with the growth of the player. Does it raise the bar even higher?
Players taken control of a Grey Warden initiate who a single member of a group dedicated to eradicating a plague known as the Blight. Originating four hundred years ago, the Blight consists of the twisted forms of men and demons, warped by their own greed and bent upon ravaging the earth of all life. Through tragedy and circumstance players will eventually find themselves pitted against this vast force, with only a handful of allies ready to stand against it. To save the world against the Blight, players must then raise an army across Ferelden. No easy task considering the the land is torn apart through civil war and darker creatures are taking advantage of the chaos.
Where most games give an outlining story that a created character can neatly fit into, Dragon Age takes a much more involved approach. Players will define their experience from the creation process, choosing from three races (Elves, Humans and Dwarves) before selecting their combat class and social status. Depending on the selected social standing players choose, attitudes toward the character may completely shift. BioWare's morality system comes into fully into play and it is through this cause-and-effect gameplay that Dragon Age truly shines. Players may find themselves unwittingly plotting the death of their own brother, ruining their family fortune, or bringing vast amounts of fame to the family name.
Dragon Age also thrusts players into complex social circles, filled with ulterior motives and betrayal, and allows the player to work through it themselves. Many times the repercussions of decisions made, good or bad, will come back to haunt in future quests. This means the player is not only in complete control of their own development, but the development of the entire world including the interpersonal relationships made with party members. Quests can be completed numerous ways, be it by combat or persuasion, and each experience further shapes the world's view of the player's character. Conversing with party members helps develop relationships as well as unravelling a bit of history behind an extremely diverse and well rounded cast. This detailed sense of cause-and-effect, the knowledge that player actions actively affect other characters, causes a legitimate sense of caring and concern. It's this ability to evoke emotion, no matter how small, that makes Dragon Age an absolutely fantastic experience from start to finish.The game's controls are fairly straight forward. Attacks, items, and abilities are all usable through re-mappable buttons and secondary button assignments appear when triggers are pressed. This will freeze the game and allow the player to see a full list of abilities the selected character can use. In-game combat moves quickly, however, players have the option to freeze the fight as often as they'd like and plan ahead carefully. All the other elements of gameplay are very similar to a standard RPG, defeating enemies and completing quests gains experience which earns levels. Equipment can be customized to an extent, which includes placing enchantments and effects on weapons for a further combat upgrade.
Although solid in concept, the execution can be disappointing at times. Team members have varying AI and while sometimes they will follow orders precisely, they are also capable of completely missing the point. This can occasionally lead to an untimely death, which is quite annoying. Crowding and getting stuck in doorways, freezing during combat, occasionally looping cutscenes are some of the examples of NPC issues that show up. Other problems such as combat 'status' not ending occurs more often then not, leaving the player to stand around in a room filled with un-lootable enemies waiting for the dramatic music to finish so that health and mana will finally regenerate. Tactics allow for a bit of order amidst the AI's tendency to spam various attacks, but whether or not other party members utilize these tactics correctly can be hit or miss. Sometimes spells will be cast and potions consumed flawlessly, other times fights will be lost and the player is left wondering why. Just like the game's other bugs, the frequency is unpredictable, though strict micromanaging can generally overcome these issues. This does seem slightly contradictory though, since the tactics exist to allegedly ease the need to micromanage.
Graphically, Dragon Age is a bit underwhelming. It feels very reminiscent of older games (like Oblivion) rather then carving its own unique style. Loading times are quick, considering how often they occur and there is very little lag to be found either in cutscenes or in combat. The musical score, composed by the legendary Inon Zur, is very well done, and lends nicely to the overall theme - darkness and danger around every corner.
The game is literally bursting with content. Those simply interested in a unique story experience should find themselves beyond satisfied with the race, class and status combinations. For players who enjoy a 'one character' experience there is plenty on the horizon. It offers around thirty hours of gameplay (plus side quests) and with two years of downloadable content planned (and the first expansion already released) players should find no shortage of action to participate in. The various playable race-class-nobility combinations offer so much in depth, however, that not going through the game as an alternate combination is to ignore a truly unique and engaging experience.
Dragon Age: Origins is a superb game and it serves as a genuine example for the future of interactive storytelling. It's not without faults though, and with a bit more polish the gameplay would be flawless. These issues can easily be patched over time though and it doesn't detract from crafting a unique experience that should entertain both veterans of the genre and newcomers alike. It most definitely meets the standards it set, while at the same time raising the bar for future RPGs.