It takes a lot of components to make a great game. You need glamorous stuff like lax unpaid overtime regulations, dangerous quantities of Diet Coke, and dozens of cubicles filled with half-built LEGO Mindstorm Robots. Also, throwing in a skateboarding chipmunk named Jimmy Lightning doesn't hurt.
But it also takes patience: vast reserves of patience. Consider Dragon Age, BioWare's latest blood-flecked, scaly, axe-battered moral playground: in order to get this one up and running, the development team first had to invent roughly 5,000 years of lore to give the game a genuine sense of depth. Then they had to build convincing digital actors, capable of delivering performances more nuanced than the average muddle of pantomime shrugs and fist-shaking that makes up most videogame cut-scenes.
Finally, before they've even had a chance to appear on Fox News to defend themselves from charges that they're trying to warp tweenagers' brains with loathsome interactive pornography, they've had to find a way to explain the massive scope of the entire enterprise to the games press. They've had to explain it to the likes of me, in other words: people whose brains have long been addled by constant sugar highs and too many Mini Cheddars, people who struggle to pay attention to any single subject for the space of even half an hour without being given either a free T-shirt or another donut to keep them ticking over.
BioWare's hit on an elaborate solution this time around. After the game's last showing featured a confusing couple of minutes of sexy slaughter speed-cut to strangely inappropriate sports rock, we're now getting a more serious look at the project the team's been working on for the best part of a decade. With the release creeping steadily closer, the developers want to show us that Dragon Age: Origins isn't just about whittling dwarfs into gooey chunks with flashy magic spells, or bedding sultry female minstrels for the price of a few groats. It's not even just about dragons. It's about choices: meaningful choices that really impact the way a gigantic story unfolds.
It's an agenda we've heard before, but developers have rarely gone to so much trouble to give us a taste of it in action. And that's where that elaborate solution comes in: our latest glimpse of a single section of Dragon Age on PC plays out on two separate machines wired up to two separate HD displays, while two separate party load-outs explore the same in-game situation with very different outcomes. It's taken a lot of cables, then, and EA has gone one step further, hiring eighties dual-keyboard wizard Howard Jones to run the complex presentation, too.
Okay, I made the last bit up. But it has taken a lot of cables. Luckily, the results appear to be worth it. Things start off fairly simply: the first thing our two parties - one containing a saucy, and fairly mean-spirited, female mage, the other rounded out with a hulking warrior - find themselves faced with is a guard who doesn't want to let us across a river. RPGs are filled with this kind of scenario. In fact, when was the last time someone stuck in the middle of a medieval fantasy world did want to let you across a river?
No matter - however your party's made-up, Dragon Age gives you some entertaining options, the first party using its mage's deadly feminine wiles to intimidate the guard into letting them past, while the second, predictably, lets the eight-foot warrior handle the negotiations. Rather less predictably, however, he turns out to be the softer touch of the two, choosing not to threaten the guard with violence, but bribe him with the prospect of some home-made cookies. Just to be clear: not making this bit up. Cookies and sex, eh? Three minutes in and it's already hard to tell which side of the Canadian border BioWare is generally found on.
Differing parties has given us a nice range of options, then, but it's hardly an earth-shattering example of game divergence. On the other bank of the river, however, events quickly get a lot more complex. Heading into a mysterious Mage Tower, fraught with all kinds of deadly supernatural hi-jinks, both parties are met by Gregor, the captain of the Templars. Depending on the choices made earlier in the story, players may or may not have already met Gregor (one team has, in this case, and one hasn't) and if they haven't, they won't be aware that he can't be trusted - an important piece of information that could result in a rather different interpretation of the wider mission.
From there, things get even more complicated, when both parties come across a powerful mage named Wynne further on in the tower. One of the two groups we're following is able to recruit her into the team - a bonus, as she's the most powerful healer in the entire game - while the other (it's all because of that pesky sexy sorceress again - and a couple of clumsy dialogue decisions) quickly falls out with her and has to fight her to the death. Clubbing a nice magical old lady into the ground is bad enough in any circumstances, but when Wynne finally expires, we're immediately shown a brief film detailing her potential impact on the rest of the game - what the world could have looked like, in other words, if we hadn't just put our enchanted shoe through her head. It seems we'll be missing out on quite a bit.
It's seamlessly done: small choices making invisible ripples that spread throughout the narrative, often causing the unlikeliest of consequences. But the real kicker comes at the end of the presentation when we realise what we've been shown: two or three decisions, some made early on in the game, some playing out in conversations, significantly impacting just 10 minutes of gameplay, in a game that eventually clocks in at about 60 hours. The potential is staggering.
Two PCs and two monitors is an effective way for the developer to make a point, but perhaps it's also a sign of nervousness on the part of BioWare - a move suggesting that the team isn't sure people have quite clicked with the property yet, confused by the muddle of sex and violence that's been shown so far, or unsure of what to make of the game's unusually dark take on fantasy. There's also the wider question of how, with its dozens of spells and handful of party members to control, the game will work when it's running on a console instead of a PC, and that, luckily, is where the next stop on our mini-tour of Dragon Age takes us.
If our stereoscopic glimpse at the PC version gave us a sense of the title's storytelling potential, hands-on with the 360 game allows us to gauge how it will play for those with their hands on a controller rather than a mouse and keyboard. Once again, it's a short demo - a single boss fight against a giant ogre - but it's also well-suited to the task of displaying the steps BioWare has taken in squashing dozens of hotkeys onto a pad's handful of buttons.
So while the PC version has a permanent tray of selectable moves mapped along the bottom of the screen, the console version has opted for something akin to Mass Effect's menu wheel. But the wheel has evolved: a squeeze of the right trigger pulls up the radial, showing basic actions - things like spells, skills and items - while each selection then pushes you out onto a second ring, where you can make more specific choices, such as which magic attack to unleash, or which trap to set. Bringing up the menu pauses the action, but you can also toggle between two trays of hotkeys mapped to the face buttons for more instant mayhem, while either bumper allows you to slip seamlessly between controlling the different members of your party.
It's a layout that can seem rather busy for the first few minutes while you try to get your head, as well as your hands, around it all, but the good news is that in the heat of battle it works brilliantly, allowing for quick switches between melee and spell attacks, and effortless transfers between your team members. Even better, the combat is as entertaining as it is elegant, with some dazzling spell effects on offer. Standard electrical and ice powers explode into action in a satisfying blur of particles, while more complex offerings, like the Walking Bomb, which inflicts incremental damage over time to any affected character before causing them to explode when they ultimately keel over, provide some really creative toys to play with.
The character models haven't been too damaged in the squash onto consoles, either, even if the camera is a little more sluggish on a thumb-stick, and the animation throughout is excellent, the giant ogre looming in, snatching team members and smacking them about with a real sense of weight and swagger.
Both epic and clever, then, Dragon Age: Origins appears to be shaping up well on both consoles and PC. Along with smart combat, a promising party system, and hints of a narrative that will deliver genuine replayability, there are flashes of humour and intrigue that are so often missing from Western RPGs. BioWare's been biding its time with this one, fitting in almost two separate jaunts across the Mass Effect universe in the space it's taken to get the basic pieces of its dark fantasy working together, but this is a company that's never been short on patience. The good news is that, for the rest of us, the wait is almost over too.