Say what you like about BioWare - the Canadian RPG specialists always did think big, and they've never thought bigger than they are right now. While the Austin-based offshoot prepares the company's maiden foray into MMOs with the huge Star Wars: The Old Republic, home base is about to make not one but two monster releases - Mass Effect 2 in January, and Dragon Age: Origins next month.
Given the popularity of Mass Effect the former's something of a home run, but there's much more riding on Dragon Age. Having spent a good six years exploring science-fiction, kung fu, SEGA mascots and console-led development, BioWare is returning to neglected roots with Dragon Age - PC-centric, trad fantasy roots, which drew on Dungeons & Dragons to grow Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights.
The scale of Dragon Age's ambition dwarfs those games, however, as BioWare debuts a new fantasy universe and RPG ruleset that are all its own work, and that will in time form the foundations of much more than this one game. One immense game, which estimates put at something between 50 and 100 hours in length depending how much of it you want to see, and many more if you want to explore the permutations of its narrative in multiple play-throughs. Then there's the unprecedented two-year plan for DLC releases which will extend Origins' lifespan (and, no doubt, help pay for its epic development).
It's an important game, then; we got an indication how important (and how big) when publisher EA started distributing a complete PC review version to press months before its release. That never happens. We've already had plenty of time to sink our teeth into it, and bring you this run-down of how it all fits together ahead of our review in the coming weeks.
Character creation you may already be familiar with; PC players had a chance to download the character creator for free last week, a naked promotional exercise that will nevertheless save you a good hour or two once the game arrives on 6th November, because there's plenty to think about.
The class choice, at least, is simple: three basic and familiar archetypes, warrior, rogue and mage. Choice comes later, when you get a chance to learn one of four specialisations at level 7, and another at level 14. These are interesting and powerful variations - examples include the anti-caster Templar for warriors, druid-like Shapeshifter mage and the marriage of the Bard's party-buffing with the close-combat skills of the rogue.
Acquiring these specialisations isn't necessarily straightforward - even the phone-book-sized guide provided by EA with the review copy is evasive, calling the process "difficult". Some can be taught by party companions if they like you enough, others bought as manuals from certain traders... The rest, we have no idea, but it will probably depend on certain questing and story decisions you make.
You're hardly stuck in a rut, though, as customisation within your class occurs straight away. You get all your spells and abilities from talent trees, with points awarded at the start and every level, so character development is a purely personal choice throughout. Warriors and rogues choose a blend of weapon and class skills while mages choose from four schools of magic, and these give you a loose framework within which to define a role.
You also have non-combat skills that encompass crafting and the like. Then there are your character's core six core stats, which you can also shape yourself at the start and every level, being sure to bear in mind that unlocking certain talents depends on a stat requirement. It's a good RPG system - complex relationships and plenty of flexibility, but built on a simple foundation. Exactly as it should be. If you have no interest in it, both the player character and party companions can be set to auto-level-up along preset paths.
Your other principal choice at the start - your character's background - is a narrative one. This will dictate which of the six origin stories you play through before your character joins the elite Grey Wardens and begins the fight against Dragon Age's antagonists, the Darkspawn, in earnest. Each of these short stories (an hour or two in length apiece) puts BioWare's new fantasy universe in a different context. Several have political undertones; the downtrodden City Elves rebelling against their human overlords, for example, or the struggle of the Magi to exist under the tight control of the devout Templars. It's worth playing through some or all of these to get a feel for this entirely new, and surprisingly detailed, fantasy lore.
After your origin, you're ushered through a linear prologue (itself a good few hours long), which sees your character inducted into the Grey Wardens, introduces two key companions - the mysterious witch Morrigan, and faithful Warden Alistair - and which covers, via a brief dungeon, your role in a key battle against the Darkspawn. Treachery leads to defeat, the Wardens are decimated, and your character and Alistair set about picking up the pieces and rallying the fight against the Darkspawn in the troubled land of Ferelden. It's only at this point that the real Dragon Age: Origins begins, the game opening out into four major quests and a plethora of side-quests, all of which can be attempted in any order you like.
In gameplay if not dramatic terms, then, Dragon Age is a slow-burner. Throughout the origins and the prologue, combat happens in brief bursts, while storytelling happens in great spools of meandering, branching conversation as the world, the plot, the forces at work and the principal characters are mapped out in loquacious detail. It's not until you get stuck into your first major quest that you will spend as much time fighting as you spend talking, and by then you could be a dozen hours or more into the game. You will also have spent much of your time fighting accompanied by bit-part-players rather than the long-term party companions, interaction with whom - both on and off the battlefield - defines the game.
When it does eventually reveal itself in full, Dragon Age proves to be a flexible RPG that accommodates a wide range of playing styles. Baldur's Gate veterans will be happy pulling the camera back to a top-down view, pausing the action with the space bar and micro-managing the party's actions and placement in a quasi-turn-based mode. World of Warcraft players might prefer to zoom in close, let AI take care of party behaviour and punch out skills in real time, flicking between characters for variety. It's perfectly possible to smash through the game in this way on easy mode (the difficulty can be adjusted at any time) without ever hitting pause or needing to think, but even the normal setting is a significant step up that will require the occasional moment of reflection.
Or you could choose to do this reflection in advance - if that's not an oxymoron - by using Tactics. Tactics are a smart lift from, of all things, Final Fantasy XII. They are a version of that game's Gambits, a brilliant system of programmable rules for party behaviour that had the potential to revolutionise the single-player party RPG, but that we'd given up hope of ever seeing again after Square Enix dropped it. Happily, BioWare has had the good sense to revive it.
Using Tactics, you can tell a party member to always attack the target of the player-controlled character, for example, or always assist the healer if it's attacked, or use a certain skill on enemies with less than 25 per cent health, or always heal party members with less than 50 per cent health. You can also choose to stick with that character's presets, or use one of a handful of standardised setups, or expand either of those by investing in extra Tactic slots. Or ignore the system altogether. It stops short of FFXII's extreme automation - you must always maintain control of one character - but still, with a good, hand-crafted Tactics setup it's possible to play Dragon Age: Origins entirely in real-time, even on higher difficulty settings.
What Origins doesn't share with FFXII is that sense of a large, contiguous over-world populated with wandering monsters, MMO-style. This game is defined by events, not places, and the locations are relatively contained, with travel between them happening on a small, windowed world map. Sometimes random or plot events happen on the road, and once you're in the game proper, you can jump to the party camp to use the trader and talk to your companions.
There's no doubt that events in the game's main storyline can take a dramatic turn depending on your choices in conversation. At the end of the Broken Circle quest line I chose to play first, there was a decision that would lead to either the Mages or the Templars joining the Grey Wardens, which might also alienate an important party member. But there isn't much fluidity to these instances, and most of the time you sense that you're talking your way down a guided path with occasional forks in the road.
However, companion interaction is more variable and more subtle. Some companions the game forces on you, but most will join your party or not depending on choices you make - and they could well leave, if you suggest it, or if they disapprove of you enough. Their approval rating is influenced by giving them gifts, but also by how much interest you show in them in conversation, whether you say the right things, and whether you make decisions they like. Approval can also give them a gameplay buff, and a combination of approval and gameplay and conversational choices can allow you to strike up a romance, get them in bed, or unlock a personal quest. Alistair and Morrigan in particular play an important role in the game's story, so how you handle them will shape how your game develops.
Dragon Age: Origins is certainly pure, distilled BioWare, and it doesn't seem the developer has lost anything by shrugging off its ties with D&D, or had its understanding of classic fantasy adventuring clouded by a few years of Sonic and spaceships. As an RPG, it's engrossing, easy to grasp, and moulds itself to how you want to play it (as long as that includes a willingness to invest time in its characters, story and the wider setting of a new fantasy world that, it must be said, struggles to assert a strong identity - there doesn't seem to be much new about it).
It's also beautifully presented, with a superb interface, crisp graphics, and a stable, smooth and scalable engine. If only all PC games were this well sorted this far in advance of release - or even at the point of release, come to that. For once, the tables are turned, and the question mark hangs over the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions that we haven't seen yet (aside from one brief glimpse) and that, to be honest, we find difficult to imagine. Perhaps that's no more than an indication of how perfectly this version has been tailored to its format; it feels like the consummate, traditional PC RPG. BioWare has come home.