Unbiased Dragon Age Origins Review

Baldurs Gate what?

Here we have it, BioWare's latest and greatest RPG based on a seemingly new IP. However dig a little deeper and you'll discover that Dragon Age: Origins is the spiritual successor to previous RPG, Baldur's Gate 2.

But how does this new incarnation bode against its ageing brethren?

Quite well, in fact. A lot has changed since September 2000 (to those new to the franchise, the Baldur's Gate 2 release). Dragon Age: Origins borrows themes from popular MMOs and previous BioWare titles such as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect.

Story

The premise of BioWare's new fantasy epic is that of demons rising from inside the earth, led by a powerful Arch Demon. Tale has it these demons were the creation of power hungry magi attempting to enter the heavens to live a life of fulfilment. Instead, they somehow managed to destroy the heavens by a slight miscalculation, becoming the disfigured invaders they are portrayed as in the game: Darkspawn. It is said that every few hundred years, the Arch Demon awakens and rallies the Darkspawn hoard into a powerful army set on destroying the world above.

There are six beginning paths for the player to take depending on race and class chosen. By some way or another each leads to you becoming a Grey Warden: Sworn vanquishers of Darkspawn. This involves a rather... crude secret initiation followed by being thrown into the thick of danger.

At first Dragon Age: Origins story may seem a little cliché. Good defeats evil, evil returns, good defeats them again, ad infinitum. But upon closer inspection you will notice the sheer scale of lore and detail that has gone into making the world. From religions to mythical anvils with the power to give stone life, there's something for everyone, and a lot for all.

Without revealing too much it is fair to say BioWare do not disappoint with the fantasy epic they have created with Dragon Age: Origins.

Story score: 9/10

Graphics

Dragon Age: Origins features a solid game engine, bristling with all the usual next-gen features. Being an RPG it has to deal with all multitudes of armor needing to fit organically to each character without looking out of place (remember Morrowind's 'modular' limbs?). It achieves this superbly. There is only one time which I remember a certain armor taking up a distractingly large amount of screen-estate during a cut scene.

Talking of cut scenes, the major ones not featuring your characters are pre-produced video, often featuring thousands of Darkspawn which obviously could not be done real-time on even the meatiest machines available. The more small scale cut scenes are rendered in-game with your characters appearing as you've dressed them.

Although the graphics are good, they are not spectacular. Not bad, but not Crysis benchmark setting. This is easily forgiveable as many battles feature a high number of detailed characters and the game is definitely aesthetically pleasing. I noticed some slow down on a Radeon 4870 occasionally: mostly when switching between third person and top down view, or keeping the camera at a certain angle where by the game renders multiple rooms of a dungeon that would not usually be visible in either of the view modes. Not everyone will notice it, and you'll need a keen eye to see the FPS drop.

Graphics score: 8/10

Sound

This is BioWare we are talking about. As you would expect, the sound is spectacular. Epic cut scenes have epic soundtracks with brutal sounds of battle. The voice acting is also fantastic, with many accents featuring. The characters sound believable and you will empathise with them: In many games I found myself simply skipping through conversation and simply reading the subtitles to progress quicker instead. Not so here. Throughout Dragon Age: Origins I listened intently to almost all of the conversations on offer.

The music of the game shifts from calm ambience to intense combat notes a little too often sometimes, but overall the sound engine fits what is happening on screen near perfectly. There are some heart-moving scenes in the game, and the music holds its ground lining up with what you're feeling in an almost uncanny way.

Spells sound 'realistic' and if you have an idea of what an RPG "Fireball" spell is like from current MMOs: You'll likely redefine that idea upon playing Dragon Age: Origins. Swords clashing sound satisfying, along with the occasional shield bash feeling quite meaty indeed.

Sound score: 9/10

Gameplay

The gameplay of Dragon Age: Origins takes elements from MMOs and previous BioWare titles such as Knights of the Old Republic andJade Empire. So by that alone the gameplay would be good. Dragon Age: Origins however, expands this greatly. Many of the spells on offer feel a lot more powerful and spectacular.

There are a few kill x, or return with y side quests which may sound like your typical MMO fare, but I can assure you that they don't feel tedious at all. Most you will complete along the main story, and serve simply to bolster your experience gain. Those that don't, generally have their own areas on the world map. So don't worry, no kill 10 Kobalds here!

Unlike the console versions, the PC version has friendly fire enabled for AoE spells at the default difficulty, making tactics a lot more important later in the game rather than simple AoE fests. You can set tactics for each of your 3 party members -- plus your player if you're not currently controlling him or her -- allowing them to perform an almost unlimited set of tasks based on a huge variety of criteria. As far as I can tell you cannot link multiple criteria to a single ability: something that would be useful for the Mage classes' Group Heal. Other than that, sky's the limit!

One of the main negatives I personally feel is the reliance on potions at the higher difficulties. You'll find yourself chugging mana and health potions almost constantly in boss battles, which seems an awkward way to keep you from accumulating too much gold throughout the game.

Some may find the power of the mage companions, and also enemies to be imbalanced, however my personal view is that in the lore of Dragon Age, mages are extremely powerful. They pay the price for this by attracting spirits, primarily demons. Whatever your opinion on this, you will probably find yourself keeping both the mage characters in your current party after you find them as it does make the game significantly easier. This is also true of the beginning of the game: Being a mage makes things a lot easier.

You'll find yourself dying, or to MMO folk 'wiping' multiple times in some areas until you come up with a solid tactic. Sometimes having you feel like a SWAT team commander with a few multiple door 'breaches', flanking your enemy to successfully defeat them. I recommend being quite liberal with your F5 auto-save pushing, as the auto-save can sometimes leave you wasting a lot of play time.

Gameplay score: 8/10

Conclusion

BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins is a solid, rewarding, sometimes frustrating (in a good way) RPG which will appeal to a large audience. Be you a Baldur's Gate 2 fan eagerly waiting these nine long years, a fan of the KotOR series, or new blood to the RPG genre you will almost certainly find something to like. Be it the story and expansive lore, the challenge of the higher difficulties for the tacticians amongst you or those pyromaniacs out there experiencing their mages' first Fireball.

Overall score: 9/10

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