Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) A Critical Review of its Weakest Elements

Concept art for a few of the characters in Dragon Age Origins.
Concept art for a few of the characters in Dragon Age Origins.

Bioware's latest RPG effort, Dragon Age: Origins has some weak links that I'd like to discuss.

**SPOILER WARNING**
**No plot specific spoilers**

Dragon Age: Origins did so many things right, and in some cases demonstrated such mastery over their craft, that it may have been to their detriment. Almost all the reviews I've read or watched have been predominately positive (which is probably because it is a good game that they want you to buy). However, I was a little surprised I did not see this coupled with the criticism that seemed so obvious to me and my group. So, instead of reiterating the numerous things this game did right, because there is so much of that out there, I would like to primarily focus on the elements of the game I found lacking, weak, or in need of polishing.

In light of full disclosure: I played the game, finished the game (difficulty: Hard), on the XBOX 360, and for the most part loved it! So now that the fine print is out of the way, let's get crackin into this review!

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Choose your own adventure books for adults, but games, made by Bioware

Much of any experience is weighed against expectations. This fact alone could have also been working against Dragon Age. I expected the perfect game. Why? Well, it's a next generation, Medieval Fantasy RPG, created by Bioware, who has a proven track record and ties with original D&D titles, and was heavily prefaced in anticipation with things like: advanced tactical combat systems, intricate character interaction and involvement, and a story we all expected to blow us out of the water. RPG Nerds all over the world have been hoping, and praying, for years, for that game. I wanted Dragon Age: Origins to be it. But, in this critical review you'll learn why this game is sadly, not it.

Oddly enough, the story is one of the weakest part of this game, for sure. Now, let me clarify.

There is a pretty cool "origin" feature, which means the first hour and half is going to be different based on the type of character you choose to play. Pretty cool. Then, you're launched into the main Story Arc. There are several instances throughout the story where dialogue and events are slightly altered to accurately reflect your origin story. It is the main Story Arc in Dragon Age that is so weak.

The Flashbacks are cooler than the movie/book!

There are not really any flashbacks in this game, and it is not a movie, or a book, but the title to this section reflects a common pitfall in story telling - especially in the Fantasy genre. In the Fantasy genre you have to have a world. Worldbuilding is a huge and daunting task that you end up putting a lot of work into. So what happens? Well, naturally you want to tell everyone about the world. How do you do that? With exposition, narrative summary, or in the case of Dragon Age, a lot of exposition, and most of the gameplay.

Most of the gameplay in Dragon Age is spent in sub-story arcs that have little or no bearing on the overall Story (Recliffe, Brecillian Forest, Frostback, mage tower). Granted, each one of these stories are very interesting, and very cool, but are structured in a way that seriously takes away from the main drive of the game; The Blight.

Turn to page 214 or 172 ...

You died. Ha! Just kidding. You guys remember those books? The choose your own adventure books? Well, that is kinda how these Bioware games feel to me a little. They have an opening scene, then the middle of the game is a choose your own adventure book, then you play the end-game scenario which is modified by some of the various choices you made earlier.

Subsequently, each encounter feels very binary: are you going to do A, or B with this event? One might be good, the other might be bad, or it might be very gray, where neither looks very good but you have to choose. Either way, this redundancy in gameplay decisions had the opposite affect on me that I think Bioware was intending.

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Dragon Age is Medieval Fantasy RPG, well, not really Fantasy, but more Medieval ...

By now you probably think I hate the game, or think it sucks. I really do not. I enjoyed it very much. But that doesn't mean I'm going to reserve my criticism, especially when I saw SO MUCH potential. Plus, I felt like this article needed to be written. So much of what is out there about Dragon Age is all praise and flowers, and doesn't really seem "real".

"Fantasy."

Just uttering the word conjures into the mind, magical landscapes, wondrous environments, mystical creatures and societies, and the possibility to bend imagination into shapes previously unimaginable. Sadly though, Dragon Age: Origins does not capitalize on the possibilities of fantasy, at all really. Maybe that was Bioware's intention, I don't know. The closest this game gets to fantasy is: magic, some monsters, and a couple pretty cool sequences.

This game, environmentally, really feels like Earth 2 + Magic, but 800 years ago.

Let's see ... we have a human township, one forest, a couple caves, a temple, some ruins, one mountain, an underground Dwarven city, a mage tower (human), another human township, lots of churches, some buildings, a castle, some plains ... and well, that's it really. Hell, that doesn't really feel that fantastic to me. Feels well, very underwhelming and ordinary.

A note on the underground Dwarven City or Orzammar: A fellow Hubber mentioned he felt this zone was rather fantastic, and groundbreaking in comparison to other games. That might be true, but from a fan of the Fantasy Genre (Table Top, Games, Book, Movies, Etc ...) Dwarves living in a massive underground (inside a mountain) city is well, pretty dang standard : /

On the flip-side, it may have felt like Earth 2 + magic, but man they did a good job of bringing that world to life through legend, history and characters. One thing that is for certain, is that they did a superior job of making the locations, the NPCs, and the events feel real. Everywhere you turn there is telling of legend, and history, and codex entries. Unfortunately, it just all felt really, well ... ordinary.

So it's definitely Medieval, and it is definitely an RPG, but I'd say putting it in the Fantasy category is more out of necessity than because it truly lives up to, or pushes the genre.

What's the superior platform to play Dragon Age: Origins?

  • XBOX 360
  • Playstation 3
  • Personal Computer (PC)
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Drag Age Origins Tactics are really ... well, "ok".

I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on gameplay mechanics, or graphics, or any of the stuff that you've heard a millions times, but what type of review would this be without at least a brief mentioning?

The tactical strategy engine on the XBOX 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins is almost completely broken. Some of the most fundamental and basic commands you could issue are just simply absent in this version. For instance: Move there, Marching Order, Flank, individual hold positions, change camera elevation (perspective), and avoid friendly fire - are completely absent. It's crazy, but true.

I will note that the "move there" command, and the "change camera elevation" are both present in the PC version, from what I hear.

The gameplay mechanics are pretty good, but DA:O is a pretty buggy game on the 360. Also, there are a couple of decisions they made concerning the skills (called Talents in this instance) that I would have done differently. The one coming to mind now the "combat stealth" talent for the rogue. If the rogue is engaged in one-on-one melee combat and has high stealth stats, he can literally disappear (actually becomes invisible). Personal taste: that should not be possible without the aid of some sort of item, like a smoke bomb or something. It is just a little too over the top. Also, crafting potions in combat, and then chaining said potions in mid-battle seems a little - "eh, ok ..." to me also.

"Wait, wait, wait, hold that sword for a second ... oooooh yeah that's a good potion. Wait! Not quite ready yet, gotta rub this balm on my-- ooooohh yeah! Okay. We can resume. Rar!"

Dragon Age: Origins ... And all that could have been ...

And all that could have been ... Anybody get that reference? Oh well.

Dragon Age: Origins did a lot of things right, but a little too many things wrong. And when all of this is put in the modern Bioware / EA perspective, it certainly seems like DA:O falls short of what I consider to be: reasonable expectations.

Big, HUGE! But, kinda small, now that I think about it ...

The game is super massive. Hundreds of side-quests, a myriad of possible character interactions, plot choices, and various endings and scene outcomes, but in the same light it feels strangely small: Go here, here, and here, to unlock the boss fight, then win. Even if you skip the majority of the side-quests, even with near instant over-world traveling, it still feels like the pacing in the game is very sluggish (50+ hours).

A book without page numbers ...

But, I guess it is pretty hard to tell a compelling, cohesive, story when you're not numbering your pages. I get that. [edit: this sentence has been removed by the author: "I felt it was unnecessarily harsh"]

Dragon Age: Origins is either very focused, and I'm just looking for something else, or slightly confused, like a young adolescent, is getting lots of sleep, and eating like crazy so it can be a really good <INSERT THING HERE> when it grows up.

Was that too harsh? I hope not ... Like I said earlier. I didn't want to reiterate some gushy article about DA:O. There are plenty of those out there. If you can't handle the truth? Leave some hate mail. No big deal. If you can handle the truth? Sweet! Leave some love mail.

Be peaceful on your way,

Time_Spiraling

Another very important question ...

Should I expand this article to include the myriad of things this game did right? Would you like to see more balance in the article?

  • Yes.
  • No.
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Comments 9 comments

rebekahELLE profile image

rebekahELLE 6 years ago from Tampa Bay

nice hub! and artwork. I'm sure this will help many Dragon Age fans. Jon wants to read it! :}


Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Alas I am XBox challenged, but this is a tremendous review of Dragon Age that I'll share with my friends and family. I always look forward to reading your well researched hubs TS!


SimeyC profile image

SimeyC 6 years ago from NJ, USA

Yep - now I think of it you pretty much sum up the major flaws (that I didn't think of) - although they would have been critisized for being too linear had they had a lot stronger plot arc - it's a fine line for them I guess. I had the PC version which was a lot less buggier!

I also note that Awakenings has similar problems, although the plot is a little mor cohesive and a lot of the quests do add something to the main quests - shame it was just a little short for my likening - I honestly don't think we'll ever get the perfect game - but I look forward to Bioware trying again!


Morgoth 6 years ago

I found the review on the story unconvincing, and the redundancy of choose this ending, or that ending, to be unnecessary. How else can it be done? SOmetimes people ask for things without realizing that maybe, just maybe, IT IS NOT so obvious to come up with revolutionary ways to do things.

And so far, I think in the progression of mankind, choosing things has no other way to work that ACTUALLY CHOOSING THINGS> So instead of criticizing that you have to choose from a set of things to do at the end to get this or that ending, propose a new structure. If you cant, I rest my case.

And the whole fantasy thing was completely absurd, and shows your idea of fantasy is completely off. Just because towns and weapons dont look alien doesnt mean its not fantasy. Ive read these arguments before, but Ive only read them from emo Final Fantasy fans that have never in their life picked up a fantasy novel, and think fantasy means a big weird looking sword that unless you are told its a sword nobody would guess.

End of rant.


Time Spiral profile image

Time Spiral 6 years ago from Florida Author

@Morgoth,

I've heard this rant a million times too. Nothing new. The case is weak. The title of the article is this: "Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) A Critical Review of its Weakest Elements". Proposing a new system, or decision structure was not the purpose of the article, nor do I think the title builds that expectation (Nor do I think proposing a new system would have been received any better!).

I happen to love Fantasy novels, and am just as much, or more of a reader than a gamer. My point is simple: I found the fantasy to be bland, uninspired, and uninteresting. It did not feel fantastic, or magical, but drab and mundane. I realize that the goal may have been "Low Fantasy" and that is what I'm criticizing. I think that was a bad choice, and the game could have been much better served with some additional virtues of creativity and imagination.

No, I do not want laser swords, ubiquitous magic use, and ridiculously named characters. But to suggest it is either "Bland, dull, low fantasy, or 12' long gun-swords" is revealing about how much thought you've truly given this topic.

Bioware is great, and have developed some groundbreaking things, but we need less fan-boy rants, and more guts.

Thanks for the comment!


Completionist 5 years ago

I think the weakness of the review was that the criticism was geared around how the game was not exactly as you would have made it. Having thoroughly explored the game on PS3 and the PC I disagree that choices are strictly binary. It amazed me how often smaller details and side quests had unexpected consequences towards the ending. You could argue that ultimately every quest in the game is binary, but thats because you will always be able to group the outcomes into two main groups of which achievement is unlocked. I felt the details that modified these outcomes flavored the story sufficiently to warrant a lot of replay.

I also felt that your review was self-contradictory in a few select spots. There is not enough fantasy however there are elements that go beyond your suspension of disbelief? Give me a break. If an invisibility skill is unbelievable without an item what you are really saying is that you want more back-story. Unfortunately you also are annoyed at the sheer weight of codex and explanation. I have a hard time imagining your perfect fantasy story.

Personally I enjoyed the realism because with monsters, magic alternate civilizations and a bizarre parallel dimension so what I really need is some realism to help me relate to the characters so that I actually give a damn about them. Mission Accomplished.

The criticism most pertinent IMHO was regarding the combat system. A greater ability to customize armor (added in awakening iIrc) and an expanded character build (also clearly something bioware is working on) would have allowed better group design and strategic play. Were I to create my perfect fantasy game mash up I would most certainly take the DA:O story design and look/feel but probably match it with a more WoW item/armour system and a more Guild wars character build system. Throw in some nightfall/eye of the world scenery and I am sold.


daviddwarren22 profile image

daviddwarren22 4 years ago

Nice game.


corey 3 years ago

thank you for writing this article. I just happened to be curious and googled for an article that is critiquing (sp) origins instead of praising it. But I have to say I disagree with most of what you said, and it may be simply because you didn't really provide any substantial reasoning behind many of your arguments!! You didn't mention the terrible graphics, or how long it is, or the over-sold dlc's. And your whole fantasy section is just plain off!! You fight demons from the dreamworld. And your main enemy is a giant dragon with the spirit of an ancient god who's been raised from the dead by a massive army of orc-creatures! That is classic fantasy! It just didn't have mushrooms and fairies floating around. It is a little grounded. But that is probably part of what makes it so good...


Time Spiral profile image

Time Spiral 3 years ago from Florida Author

Thanks, Corey!

I enjoyed the game quite a bit and just wanted to share some of my thoughts about it. One can fairly presume an article like this will be poorly received by a community of avid fans.

All the points you made are good ones, in my opinion.

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