Dragon Age: Origins Preview
Dragon Age: Origins is a game that is currently and rather sadly living in the shadow of two other huge RPGs from the same developer. On one side is Mass Effect 2, the sequel to the hugely popular Xbox 360 and PC franchise and on the other is Star Wars: The Old Republic, combining the huge Star Wars franchise with Bioware's expertise attacking an MMO.
This is a sorry state of affairs, as Dragon Age is quite an interesting title. Described as the spiritual successor to the Baldur's Gate series, Producer David Silverman described it to us as one of Bioware's most mature, dark and violent games to date.
Mature and dark are themes also coursing through Mass Effect 2, but Dragon Age seems to have quite the monopoly on violence with swords, shields, magic and of course dragons being quite a recipe for blood spurting all over the place.
EA clearly wanted us to feel the medieval vibe the game carries, as the room we're in is kitted out with big wooden chairs and decor designed to look like its right out of the game. David Silverman is there with two Bioware employees to guide us through this short whirlwind tour of the title's features.
First we're shown some aspects of the relationship and dialogue system in the game as our hero toys with the emotions of a couple of characters in town. We're given a choice between a nice town girl with a French accent and the dark, brooding but strangely hot sorceress who lives on the outskirts of town.
Our character had already been in a romance with nice-girl Leliana prior to our demo, but now bad-girl Morrigan was also catching his attention. We're shown some of the dialogue options by making some choices and seeing how the characters react. Morrigan is reluctant to our advances, but after gifting her with a book of magic she'd been after, she's suddenly open to 'repaying' the player character.
With a grin Silverman cuts the sex-scene short, telling us we'll have to wait for the final game to see just how risqué said scenes get. Our character appears outside Morrigan's shed once more and then we head over to Leliana. Uh-oh - she knows, and she's mad.
Watching this segment demonstrates perfectly how this game handles the Bioware mantra of choice and consequence. In many ways, Dragon Age is more nuanced than Mass Effect is, as characters weigh up each action and response you make to them in a more meaningful way.
At first, we try to sweet-talk our way out of trouble with Leliana, but it's not working. She's angry and upset, and she tells us it's her or Morrigan. This is a pivotal point in the game, Silverman tells us - getting Morrigan to this point has taken many hours of investment, especially getting hold of the book - but Leliana has vital skills that are useful to the player. Which will you choose?
Unlike in Mass Effect there's no tracking of 'alignment' - no bar that shows how many good and evil decisions you've made. Instead, NPCs in Dragon Age will form opinions of you and react to you accordingly, meaning your actions not only affect the wider world but impact your character directly - so you'd better think long and hard about those decisions.
Next we're shown some combat - specifically, how the player originally got hold of that book that made Morrigan so willing to put out. It turns out the book belongs to Morrigan's mother, who she hates and wants dead. Our player goes through some more dialogue, and is offered the choice to spare the mother or kill her.
Silverman directs us towards killing her, as he wants to show us combat as well as dialogue. It seems sorcery runs in Morrigan's family, as she turns into a gigantic dragon. "One question I always get asked is if there's Dragons in Dragon Age. Now you know," Silverman laughs, nodding to the huge dragon on the screen.
The player party consists of several characters, and the Dragon Age combat system allows the player to switch between all of them on the fly. We watch as the player lands a few hits as the heavy-hitting knight before healing and casting some status spells as the mage, with computer AI taking over whoever you're not controlling.
The combat looks fun and dynamic and with the four characters fighting one big boss for a moment it looks very reminiscent of an MMO - except you're playing all characters and filling all roles at once.
Players have the option to pause combat to issue commands to the entire party to be executed simultaneously on unpausing, but in our demo every action is executed in real time. With the dragon weakened, the knight mounts it and slams his sword into its neck.
"People always ask me if you can ride a dragon in Dragon Age," Silverman adds as the dragon writhes with our hero atop it before he drives a killing stab into the dragon's head. "The answer is... briefly." Silverman quips, the dragon on-screen dropping to the ground, dead.
Sadly, that was the end of our E3 look at Dragon Age, but the game looks to be yet another fine effort from Bioware, the kings of Western RPGs. It shouldn't be written off just because The Old Republic and Mass Effect are getting more attention, as Dragon Age feels like a distinctly different beast to those two.
Like the era it's set in, it's more refined and old-fashioned, harking back to popular RPGs of years past such as Baldur's Gate, while still managing to retain many of the modern values that have made all of Bioware's recent efforts so great.
It may not be as immediately exciting and enticing as Bioware's other offerings, but this is definitely one to watch.