Version tested: PC
This is a review of the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins. We'll tackle the console version separately soon.
I can scarcely remember the last time I played a game in which I didn't level up. Forza Motorsport 3's racecars grind out experience points with every lap. Borderlands is a gluttonous hybrid of hair-trigger silliness and accumulating stats. Call of Duty has conquered online shooting with persistent character progression. Even the Space Invaders cannon - the humblest, most primal collection of pixels in gaming - now gains ranks and power with every kill. In 2009, the role-playing game is everywhere.
But where, in its traditional form, is the role-playing game? The genre's biggest recent hits are the futuristic action crossovers Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, and online scion World of Warcraft. In Japan, Monster Hunter's weird sub-genre of handheld multiplayer grinding has swept aside the fantasy epics that were once a national obsession. Although German developers valiantly keep the flame alive with the likes of Risen, Sacred and Drakensang, you have to look back to 2006's Oblivion to find the last globally significant solo adventure in swords and sorcery - and even that game was scarcely traditional.
Small wonder, then, that super-studio BioWare's return to the realms that made its name has attracted such intense, devotional interest. It might have shed the formal connection to Dungeons & Dragons, but otherwise Dragon Age: Origins might as well be a sequel to Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, and the world is willing it to be a classic. Over half a decade in the making, vast in scope, neck-deep in loot, lore and labyrinthine plotting - if classics were measured by the yard and made out of man-hours, Dragon Age would stand head and shoulders above them all.
But they're not. And although it's a work of great accomplishment and craftsmanship - and no small amount of ambition - Dragon Age is sorely lacking in the things that make a truly great role-playing game, or any game for that matter: vision, inspiration, soul.
Somewhere in its journey back to its roots, BioWare has got lost in the dense tangle of what it was trying to accomplish. It hasn't been able to see the wood for the trees. It has summoned an entire world into existence in the most meticulous detail, but failed to give it an identity beyond the blandest cliché. It has created living characters that respond like humans, but speak like dictionaries and move like mannequins. It has engineered solidly absorbing RPG gameplay and character progression and stranded them in a succession of hackneyed and hide-bound scenarios.
Much of the best and worst of Dragon Age: Origins can be found in the six origin stories that serve as a prologue, depending on the race and class you've chosen. (You can find more information on these, and on the game's systems in general, in our recent hands-on.) They strive hard to work plausible political depth into the straight-laced high-fantasy set-up. Elves are in touch with nature and live in the woods - but some of them are oppressed by humans. Dwarves live undergound and like mining - but their society is riven by class war. Mages toy with dangerous power beyond their control - so they're controlled by an order of zealous, drug-addicted holy warriors. An ancient evil called the Blight is rising - but infighting and scepticism are undermining the fight against it.
Each origin sketches out a complex corner of the land of Ferelden with laborious care, and each of these miniature stories will find a pleasing echo, a ripple of consequence later on in the main campaign. Each offers an interesting twist and half a chance for the player to take things in a different direction. But they're so laden with interminable exposition and storytelling artifice for its own sake that the game itself - the small matter of levelling and combat - barely gets a look-in. The same carries through to the first chapter of the campaign proper, in which your character is inducted into the Grey Wardens, an ancient organisation that fights the Blight. As if encumbered by its own sheer mass, the game takes a long, long time to get going. You'll be half a dozen hours into Dragon Age before you get the measure of it.
When you eventually get there - after a brief spate of questing, more exposition, a lightweight dungeon, a big twist and a limp starter village - you'll discover a polished, thoughtful and flexible party-based RPG that will undoubtedly please fans of the style. If they can hack their way through to it, it will win over a few converts too. That's thanks to its remarkable flexibility.
Dragon Age can be played in real-time, or quasi-turn-based, pausing the action with the space bar to queue up skills. You can use a third-person camera or a tactical top-down view, WASD or mouse-click for movement. You can micro-manage every move of your four-man party, or stick with one character (whether it's the player character or one of the roster of companions) and let the preset or programmable Tactics system take care of the rest. This isn't quite as effective or as boldly automated as Final Fantasy XII's Gambits, but it's still a great alternative for players who like to do their thinking in advance and then watch the action play out. It's all controlled through a superlative PC game interface - attractive, accommodating, simple and precise.
Mechanically speaking, then, Dragon Age does a pretty good job of being all things to all men, and brings the best out of itself with some challenging and well-designed encounters with bosses or large groups of tough enemies. Unfortunately, it undermines this good work to an extent with its difficulty settings.
There's a huge gulf between the completely mindless Easy and the demanding Normal. On the latter, you'll either have to be a Tactics genius or prepared to pause and micro-manage frequently to get through tougher fights, and even veteran RPG players with a full command of the game's skills will find some regular pulls or mini-bosses turning into epic wars of attrition that will drain their stocks of consumables. That's all fair enough, of course, but without a smooth step up from Easy, it cramps what should have been an expansive middle ground for novice players who wanted to get deeper into the game. Dragon Age is either a pushover or a hardcore RPG.
At least you can't really say that of the classes. Although the mage, warrior and rogue archetypes are basic - and though warriors and rogues share a lot of common ground in weapons skills - there are multiple tiers of customisation in each. The powerful and flavoursome specialisations are nicely embedded in the game's storyline and characters to the extent that it would be a spoiler to say how you can pick them up.
Even without them, the shallow-but-wide talent trees and common passive skills - including coercion, which unlocks more conversational options and story possibilities - give plenty of scope for crafting an individual character. Levelling is well-paced and so are the loot rewards (so long as you like them occasional, and meaningful).
All of this you will begin to appreciate when you undertake the first of the four main branches of the plot, which can be attempted in any order as your character aims to recruit four important factions to the Grey Wardens' cause. By this point, you'll also have Alistair and Morrigan with you.
Although everyone will have their own favourites (I'm partial to the hilariously terse warrior Sten, purely because he seems to enjoy making an impossible, contrary mockery of the game's careful art of conversation) these two are the stars of the game's cast of companions. Likeable, open-hearted Grey Warden Alistair and irascible vixen-witch Morrigan are as charismatic as the stars of, say, Uncharted 2. That's remarkable, considering not just the complex depth of interaction with them, but also, sadly, the endless tracts of wooden script they have to battle through, their stiff and lifeless animation, and their contrived storylines.
The voice cast does well, and the quality of dialogue lifts noticeably in its rare lighter moments. But perhaps it's just the sheer amount of time you spend paying active attention to these virtual people that allows them to work they way into your affections. Each companion has an approval rating for the player character, and manipulating these through conversations, decisions and gift-giving - eventually unlocking personal quests, romance and even sex, portrayed with all the sensuous passion of the database spreadsheet that underlies it all - is an engrossing game in itself. Although it can be clumsy and mechanical in the details, overall, evolving your relationship with the companions has a volatile unpredictability that makes for quite a credible simulation of human interaction.
It's the most convincingly organic part of the game's story, which doesn't so much branch as spread across a sprawling, tangled inland delta before narrowing back down to one or two defined outcomes. In fact, there's a huge amount of permutation and flexibility to how your own Dragon Age campaign matures, and it's happily devoid of heavy-handed moral dichotomy. But all this freedom is partially obscured.
Meaningful choices are lost in a near-infinite number of meaningless ones, consequences are only vaguely defined before the fact, and the cold machinations of the cast stir admiration for the game's clever, systematic plotting, but seldom emotion. Uninvolved, you make calls with your head and not your heart, and you never feel like you can escape the gravitational pull of the game's design the way you can in, for example, Bethesda's RPGs.
It's a shame, because there are fascinating alternate routes through Dragon Age to be discovered. Getting a sense of them halfway through your run through the game, you conceive a desire to play it again to explore its possibilities with more freedom and foreknowledge - and it's true that despite running 50 to 100 hours in length, this game has tremendous replay value.
But any desire to play it again is ultimately squashed, for many reasons which can be boiled down to one. Although the systems which make up Dragon Age's world are all interesting and well-realised - the companion interaction, the plotting, the character progression, the combat - the world itself is neither.
Side quests are perfunctory and unappealing filler, usually boiling down to a treasure hunt or a long explanation for a short scrap. (There is hope that downloadable content will serve the game better in the long run, with the Stone Prisoner launch pack offering a short but satisfying episode in a new location, some tasty items and an amusing new companion.) Dungeons are designed with care but mostly without imagination, only occasionally leavening the maze-like, monster-infested ruined temples with the odd puzzle or dimensional warp. The game's locations are cramped, dull and devoid of atmosphere, surrounded by invisible walls and fractured by loading times. There's no sense of a contiguous, believable world out there, which is one thing in a linear action game - quite another in a sprawling, supposedly franchise-founding RPG.
Things are better when BioWare settles into the intentionally dry Machiavellian world of the human capital Denerim (especially in the game's conniving climax) or the Circle of Magi. But when it's at its highest fantasy - especially in the dismally conventional and ugly woodland world of the Dalish Elves - Dragon Age is lowest on charm. The artwork across the board is polished but generic, with strong character designs giving way to bland architecture and lifeless landscapes.
There aren't many working in high fantasy who can lay claim to total originality. Nor is there anything inherently dull and derivative about elves, dragons and dwarves. But there's something missing from Dragon Age. There's no alternative to the eeriness of Elder Scrolls, the colourful exuberance of Warcraft, the gritty savagery of Warhammer, the classical lyricism of Tolkien.
In its desperation to infuse this setting with "maturity" - be it of the sober, political kind, or the game's painfully clumsy gore and sex - BioWare has forgotten the key ingredient of any fantasy: the fantastical. Without it, you're still left with a competent, often compelling, impressively detailed and immense RPG, but it's one that casts no spell.
8 / 10