Unlike many modern role-playing games, which tend to shove players into the action head first and throw in a morsel of dialogue here and there, Dragon Age: Origins (360/PS3/PC), the long-gestating fantasy RPG from Edmonton-based Bioware released Tuesday, places enormous value on the story being told, the characters we meet, and the history and culture of the civilization in which we find ourselves.
The nation of Ferelden is beset by invaders known as the Darkspawn; orc-like creatures led by demons who seem to get it in their hellish heads every few hundred years that they ought to try to take over the planet. The world's first defense is an ancient sect known as the Grey Wardens; heroes who have a secret connection with the Darkspawn and hold the power to unite humans, elves, and dwarves as a single, massive army to fight off the blight.
Clearly, there are plenty of parallels to other fantasy tales-most obviously J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and John Boorman's classic Arthurian film Excalibur-but Dragon Age churns out enough chronicles and lore to feel its own. Indeed, I've managed to amass nearly 200 entries in my codex-sort of a Fereldenian encyclopedia-each loaded with information about the game's creatures, types of magic, cultures, and personalities. And that doesn't include many of the stories I've heard during hours of discussions with non-player characters.
Put plainly, this is a game with the depth, imagination, and richness of a Neal Stephenson novel.
And don't worry that all of your time spent reading and listening will result in nothing more than knowledge of some obscure monsters and made up history. There's some emotional and philosophical meat attached to this dragon's bones. Casual discussion topics range from women's equality and racism to slavery and same-sex relationships. Indeed, there are plenty of interesting ideas to chew on here.
Of course, none of this is new ground for Bioware. The storied developer has a history of creating rich characters and tackling interesting sociopolitical topics in recent games like Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Jade Empire. What is new is how so little of it is black and white. There's no morality meter, no dark or light side leanings; just people, their actions, and the consequences of those actions.
In fact, even if you want to do the right (or wrong) thing you may find it difficult to recognize it when it comes along. While trying to convince a stubborn dwarf that he should help defend a village from invading ghouls I tried to intimidate him a bit to get him to see reason. He attacked my party. My guys defended themselves, and before I knew it had slain the dwarf and his friends. It felt wrong, and I wished I would have tried some other avenue of persuasion, but it was too late. Still, it's scenes like this that might make the world of Dragon Age Bioware's most realistic yet.
Of course, there's more to the game than just non-stop talk (even if at times it doesn't feel that way). There are epic fights to be waged and lengthy dungeons to be crawled. And the tactics inherent in these battles are anything but simple and arcade-like.
Our party begins fighting automatically when enemies appear, with the player able to step in to cast certain spells and use various items. The outcome is controlled by the results of dice thrown off screen. That means the real strategy takes place before the fighting begins as we navigate a complex set of radial and tab-based menus, sorting through scores of equipment pieces and items, creating lists of if/then scenarios for each character when they are in combat (example: if surrounded by three or more enemies, use sweeping slash), and assigning spells, abilities, and items to battle menu shortcuts.
There's an awful lot to take in. Luckily, we can do it gradually. The game's difficulty ramps up very slowly; all you need know at first is how to equip a weapon and attack, and as the hours pass we slowly learn about active and passive abilities, how to flank and cover, how to add magical properties to our equipment, and how to create and use traps and potions, among many other things. So deep and multifaceted is this system that I still feel as though I'm learning its intricacies, and I'm more than 30 hours into the story.
The best term for this sort of play is old-school. Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG for people who enjoy paper and dice-based games like Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, it's actually been described by Bioware as a spiritual successor to the studio's D&D-based Baldur's Gate games-and as anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons knows, there's loads of learning to be done in order to fully appreciate the game.
And while our erudition may be slow and measured, we can still see everything that lies in store via the game's many menus. It can seem pretty intimidating. This, combined with all of the lengthy narrative and dialogue sequences, means that Dragon Age has all the mainstream crossover appeal of a fan at a Star Trek convention dressed as Kahless the Unforgettable who will only speak to his fellow attendees in Klingon. To be sure, it will be ravenously devoured by a niche group of fantasy RPG gamers (like me and probably many of those who read this blog), but casual players likely won't have the will or tenacity to crack it open.
And it would be hard to blame them. Depending on which of the game's six titular origin stories you choose (they're based on the race and background you select for your character), you may not even have occasion to pick up a sword within the game's first hour. It's not difficult to imagine someone whose gaming experience has been limited to Halo and Madden NFL giving up long before then.
Still, I can say with some confidence that it will be pure manna for the sword and sorcery set. What's more, it ought to keep them playing for weeks, if not months. As noted above, I've spent over 30 hours with the game so far and according to my in-game statistics I've only seen about 45 per cent of the world. And that's to say nothing of the extra $7 quest I've already downloaded and into which I'm just itching to dive.
There's still more than a month left in the holiday gaming rush, which means I probably won't be able to find the time to finish this epic RPG until closer to Christmas. But when the season settles and I have a chance to go back to the games released this fall that I enjoyed the most, this one will be near the top of my pile.
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