For RPG fans, saving the world from an impending evil just doesn’t cut it anymore. These days players want the choice on which allies to recruit, which techniques to master, and how many sidequests they want to finish in-between the main objective.
In fact, many power-hungry gamers might prefer to create their own empire of evil that rivals the said dark lords', slaughtering peasant and party member alike just to keep up virtual appearances.
When it comes to RPGs with multiple outcomes, one need not look further than BioWare. The critically acclaimed developer has popularized the concept of alternate choices in their monstrously large RPG games from pursuing the path of a Jedi or Sith in Knights of the Old Republic, to battling for good or evil in Jade Empire's fantasy depiction of the east and saving the galaxy as a by-the-books space soldier (or a violently aggressive lesbian, for those kinky customizers) in Mass Effect.
With Dragon Age: Origins, their newest multiplatform effort, players are given more options than ever before to save a massive fantasy world with noble heroism or plague it with unrestrained douchebaggery.
The story of Origins takes place in the land of Ferelden, which is being overrun by a malevolent evil known as The Blight which is dispatching hordes of creatures called darkspawn to overtake the land and eliminate all of its inhabitants. And you thought Swine Flu was bad.
It falls upon your created character’s shoulders to fight the darkspawn and defeat their leader, although naturally this task cannot be done alone. Your hero, along with his band of recruitable party members, must scout the different kingdoms and races across Ferelden to build an army formidable enough to counter the Blight and save the land.
How you go about gaining the trust of each faction and in what order you do so is up to the player, but thanks to the multiple dialog paths, depending on how you assist each faction during their personal plights can either sway them to aid you in your cause, or outright reject you due to your backstabbing and thoughtless nature.
Much of how other people react to you also depends on what kind of character you’ve created, and this is where the “Origins” in the title comes in - from the start of the game players can create their own personalized hero, choosing from a human, elf, or dwarf race, as well as their social status.
Choosing to become a human noble, for example, has you appear as trusting from your fellow brethren, while choosing to play as an elf slave will likely cause you to be shunned for being a “second class” citizen, but quickly accepted by your own kind. The customization isn’t merely story based, as you can also choose what kind of class you want to combat enemies with.
Choosing to play as a Warrior gives you great strength and defense, but keeps you from learning magic. On the flipside, Mages can conjure some devastating spells but also take far more damage from powerful foes. Rogues can use their stealth-like abilities to gain a critical advantage when attacking from behind, and also has a knack for pickpocketing and disarming hidden traps.
These starting classes can be expanded further by learning specialization classes, which can be unlocked by fulfilling various conditions or by talking to the right people, allowing for an incredible amount of customization.
Of course, the choices you make during conversations with NPCs is even more crucial than their reactions to your cosmetic preferences; like previous BioWare games your customized hero remains silent during cutscenes until a prompt window with selectable responses shows up.
These selections aren’t just a simple “yes” or “no” choice, but can accurately express one’s enthusiasm (or disproval) as a response, with several questioning choices opening up further lines of expositional dialog, and sometimes even optional outcomes. Further dialog paths can be opened with the proper Persuade or Intimidation skill which can often bring a speedy resolution to certain quests, and usually without spilling any blood.
Quests can also end prematurely should you choose to jerk your way through Ferelden, from outright refusing to help people in need to attacking them when their guard is down. Being cruel comes with a price, however, as you’ll lose access to the potential rewards, as well as gaining disapproval from your more good-natured party members; upset your allies too much and they may actually leave your group for good or even attack you in a duel to the death.
Not all decisions are laid out in black and white, however, as some choices may require you to ally yourself with a certain individual or group based on whichever side seems the most reasonable or most profitable.
Fans of moral quandaries found in games such as Fallout 3 may be disappointed to learn, however, that the majority of quests do feature a very split choice between “help this person and get a reward” or “be a jerk and get nothing”. Indeed, there is little reason to take the dark path in Dragon Age, as the lack of rewards and allies will only make things harder once the fighting begins.
Oh yes, don’t let the thousand pages of dialog fool you, there’s plenty of fighting to be had in Dragon’s Age. Combat occurs in real-time while navigating deep dungeons, sprawling forests, a city under siege or a simple tavern brawl. Your main character auto-attacks each targeted foe, while an additional list of skills and items can be thrown into the mix.
An on-screen radial wheel lists a character’s complete commands and inventory, but can also be assigned to one of three button shortcuts for quick access. Allies who are currently in your party act independently, but can also be manually controlled one at a time should the situation demand an immediate healing spell or armor-piercing skill.
The combat is simple enough to learn, but a more advanced and ultimately crucial strategy is the managing of your allies’ Talents; similar to Final Fantasy XII’s Gambit system Talent slots can be used to give your AI partners a list of pre-determined commands to follow in battle such as using a healing potion after a certain number of health is depleted or using a certain spell against an enemy using a ranged attack. It isn’t perfect, however, as your computer-controlled characters will occasionally break their commands to chase after an enemy instead of keeping close, or fail to activate a certain skill to save their lives.
Even with full understanding of the Talents system as well as other preparations, death can come swiftly and often for you and your allies, as Dragon Age: Origins can prove quite challenging, if not frustrating at parts. The difficulty is rather inconsistent, with some skirmishes that can be finished with little effort, to sudden encounters that can completely obliterate you in a manner of seconds, which makes frequent saving an absolute must.
Despite the inconsistent difficulty, the combat is fun and addictive, and always yields rewards through looted corpses and experience points to raise each characters attributes to your liking.
Speaking of the characters, Origins features an expansive cast of allies and enemies that evenly flesh out the lengthy, twist-turning story. The bulk of party members can be recruited under certain conditions and could even be skipped entirely, but each one carries their own unique personality and skill to the party.
From the nihilistic shape shifter Morrigan to the silent, allegedly murderous warrior Sten, to the religious songstress Leliana and witty knight Allistair, each character is memorable through their constant (and often amusing) observations and interactions with one another, and each has their own story that is slowly revealed through one-on-one conversations.
Like with all other NPCs in the game, your actions and dialog choices factor into how much a fellow ally will like or dislike you, although giving them gifts that catch their fancy will also raise their affinity for you, which opens up more potential conversations as well as bonuses to their attributes. Play your cards right, and you can also woo your allies of the opposite sex (or even a couple of the same gender, if you so choose), eventually building a relationship that can lead to a night of comically awkward virtual action.
As bizarrely animated as the love-making sequences appear, Dragon Age’s visuals are still quite impressive. Texture and lighting effects build a convincing fantasy world, albeit one you’ve likely seen several times before in similar games.
While not entirely original, the sheer size and scope, along with the numerous details and effects make for an immersive setting, especially during the more epic battles that feature dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of warriors and darkspawn squaring off at once with rarely a dip in framerate (or any of the other graphical problems that have plagued BioWare’s recent console games).
The music also adds to the aesthetics, much of it drawing inspiration from a certain fantasy film trilogy, while competent voice actors fill in the many, many lines of spoken dialog, though dialog during combat can prove repetitive from time to time.
Gamers eager to learn the extensive lore of this new world can also read the collected codex and journal entries, which go onto great lengths in detailing the religion and politics of Ferelden, although this knowledge can also be learned through character interactions.
With a huge and expanding world map that will take over 30 hours just to fill a quarter of it, along with a seemingly limitless amount of quests, as well as alternate endings and outcomes depending on your race and decisions, Dragon Age: Origins is well beyond lengthy, and then some.
Yet the balance between dialog and dungeon crawling is much more evenly paced than in BioWare’s previous effort Mass Effect, and the inventory and gameplay is much more streamlined, and thus quicker to pick up and play (yet also requiring commitment and patience to master).
Featuring a ton of content and lots of ways to play through it, Origins is one of the best RPGs released thus far this generation, and is one epic journey that must not be missed.