Version tested: Xbox 360
BioWare is fond of saying that it takes its time tailoring its games to be the best they can be on the formats they're released on. Since its seduction by consoles - beginning with the Xbox-first release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic back in 2003 - it's been as good as its word.
You can debate whether the extra time taken to adapt KOTOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect to PC was cover for exclusivity arrangements with Microsoft or genuine format-specific perfectionism, but the end result has been the same each time. The company's long-standing, PC-gaming faithful was rewarded for its patience with excellent new versions, and sometimes new content to go with them.
That just makes this console version of Dragon Age: Origins all the more disappointing. A return to the company's Dungeons & Dragons roots (if not the D&D licence and ruleset itself), often called the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age was always a PC game at heart and by design. In fact, for the first few years of its development, it was exclusively so.
Interface and technical limitations make the voyage from PC to console - from an open book to a closed one - more difficult than the reverse. But with the simultaneous release delayed while a complete PC version of the game did the rounds - presumably to allow the Xbox 360 to catch up, with the PS3 lagging behind by a couple of weeks - we hoped the extra time would allow BioWare's multi-format standards to be upheld. It hasn't.
Reviewing the PC version of this sprawling single-player RPG, I found a studious, staid and worthy epic. Dragon Age is a huge and thoughtful game, smothered in detail and founded on a flexible yet solid RPG system which boasts absorbing character progression and tactical combat challenges.
Steering your own highly individual course through it - directing the ebb and flow of its plotting and its characters' relationships through word and deed - you'll be enticed by its openness. Unfortunately, you'll also be alienated and a trifle bored by its dry setting, rote side-quests, lifeless and bloated dialogue and clumsy attempts at edginess, like a college professor trying to act cool. That it draws you in regardless is testament to its craft.
All of that remains true of the Xbox 360 version tested for this review, so I'm not going to repeat it length here. The game's raw material - the acres of stuff pumped out by BioWare's prolific content factory - is just the same, but the overall experience is dealt quite a blow. The conversion's failings make some of the game's flaws a little harder to forgive, but even worse is how badly it undermines Dragon Age's strengths.
Let's be charitable and shrug off the poor-quality audio compression. There's a tinny, scrambled edge to the dialogue now, but that can only be because there's so very much of it to be accommodated without the benefit of a hard disk install. And whilst I might take issue with the script's pompous, long-winded exposition and lumpy characterisation, I'm certainly not going to complain that I have so many conversational options, supporting so many permutations and combinations of party companions and their unpredictable moods. That's what brings Dragon Age to life, sometimes in spite of itself.
The 360 game suffers visually too, however, and that's harder to let pass. On PC the game is reservedly handsome, enlivened by atmospheric lighting and a fine finish on the game's virtual actors. On the Xbox, though, Dragon Age looks just plain ugly and out-of-date. It's plastered in muddy textures, washed-out colour and bad shadowing, giving it a grimy look that doesn't suit the classical art style at all, and exposing the rough-hewn, low-detail environments in a harsh light.