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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Dragon Age: Origins

Where be dragons?

The subtitle says it all - and BioWare isn't exactly trying to disguise its ambitions, either. The E3 demo of Dragon Age: Origins we saw was presented by Dan Tudge, pointedly introduced as executive producer of the franchise. Days earlier, Greg Zeschuk had confirmed the nascent series will come to consoles in some form, after this PC game. This one will run and run, if BioWare and EA get their way; we may now know that the studio's in-development MMO is no Dragon Age, but we'd be surprised if that idea wasn't already twinkling in someone's eye.

To be fair, this isn't quite the hubris that it seems to be. Despite being an all-new game in an all-new universe, Dragon Age has a long and distinguished history: that of Baldur's Gate, the series of role-playing games that made BioWare's name, to which Dragon Age is a "spiritual successor". The title looks back as well as forward: Origins refers to the game's "origin stories" system that will "change the way the world perceives you, and how you perceive the world" - in other words, you'll define your character and the story by your words, actions and moral choices, choosing to be a "hero, martyr, or tyrant". Vintage BioWare, then.

In fact, Dragon Age: Origins is such a straight-down-the-line fantasy RPG - it finds BioWare in such a respectful and conservative mood - that despite filling a small cinema screen with insanely high-resolution images of massed eldritch combat, the demo barely raises an eyebrow. It is all exactly as you expected the first time you heard about it.

Red circle = bad. Yellow circle = good.

Warriors and mages? Check. Fire and ice schools of magic? Check. Ogre boss? Check. Charging, roaring army of fang-faced orc-a- likes? Check. Trios of conversational options, neatly split between obsequious, wary and rude? Check. Raven-ringed spires? Ponderous council-of-war cut-scenes? "Will you kill the prisoner or set him free?" Check, check, check. Dragons? Actually no, we didn't see one. What a gyp.

This, however, is a "realistic" dark-fantasy setting distinct from the high-fantasy of Baldur's Gate, so we wouldn't expect them to be swarming all over the shop. The game focuses on the war with the Darkspawn, that numberless mutant horde. We're introduced to the game as a human warrior who belongs to the Grey Wardens, a neutral order of wise men dedicated to the eradication of Darkspawn, which inspires equal amounts of reverence and mistrust in the more politically-minded characters that we meet. It's not clear if all players will join the Grey Wardens, however; play later switched to a female elven mage, and one cut-scene did show a council of mages opposing the Grey Wardens' advice.

You'll choose between three basic archetypes - warrior, wizard and rogue - and presumably specialise within these, though there were no details on that. Dragon Age is an entirely single-player game, but you'll often be leading a party of four. This party is neither entirely pre-ordained nor left to you to select from a pool; events and conversations will often give you the option to add certain non-player characters to your party, like the fresh-faced tower guard seen in the demo.