Thursday, February 04, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins review

OK, I have been stalling for long enough - it is finally time for my Dragon Age: Origins review. Bioware have a track record for consistently great RPG's that I believe no other company in the business can currently match, though each one since KOTOR has become more and more focused on console style games rather than the classic D&D licensed far such as Baldur's Gate II and Neverwinter Nights where they made a name for themselves. Dragon Age is something of a return to that style of gameplay - less emphasis on action, and more on challenging, strategic battles. This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which will have an impact on the scores given.

Format: Xbox 360 (PC, PlayStation 3 also available)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Bioware
Expect to pay: £30 - £40

Graphics: 7 out of 10
While I was in the middle of playing Dragon Age, I was hearing a lot of negative comments about the graphics from elsewhere, and I didn't really agree with most of what I was hearing at the time. However, I'm now 16 hours into Mass Effect 2 (by the same developer I must point out) and that game has highlighted just how rough Dragon Age actually looks. The list of complaints include the rather low resolution textures, the muddy brown colour palette and the plasticky looking humans, but could also include the rather clumsy GUI for the console versions of the game, compared to the tried and tested icon based point and click interface of the PC version (more on this in the Game Mechanics part of the review). Then there's the blood that sticks to your characters during a fight and stays there during conversations, which can look plain ridiculous at times.
The game certainly doesn't all look bad - most of it is perfectly adequate in fact - it just looks rather last gen in the current age of extremely detailed HD visuals.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Bioware have a habit of hiring some of the best voice actors in the business and then writing some great dialogue for them, and Dragon Age is no exception. Some of the more well known names amongst the cast include Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager), and Tim Curry (villain in many films and TV shows including the killer clown from Stephen King's IT and the murderous Trymon from The Colour of Magic), and there are plenty of well established voice artists filling out the smaller roles besides. The in game music was great, but I wasn't keen on the pop rock that played over the end credits - it didn't really feel in keeping with the medieval-esque theme of the game.

Here's a typically brown shot of the game - compared to the vibrant neon graphics of Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age is somewhat lacking

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
First of all, let's go back to what I was saying about the interface earlier.
I know certain concessions have to be made in adapting the game over to the 360 and PS3, but this was not the right way go about it - having to constantly pause the action to tell your party members to do something, and only being able to give them actions one at a time instead of queuing up two or three in advance feels like a step backwards. You can assign tactics to your NPC party members but that is a pain, and you have to spend precious skill points to be able to using them. A good example of how to do this sort of gameplay on a console is Final Fantasy XII - Bioware should have taken a look at the GUI from that game and learnt from it. Of course most of these problems will go away if you happen to play the PC version - you can switch between part members much more quickly by simply clicking on their portraits, and you have all of your characters abilities as icons along the bottom of the screen rather than having to map a few of them to button presses on the controller.

Apart from the interface, which really makes it hard to keep up with the punishing difficulty when playing the console version, the rest of the game design is as solid as ever. When creating your character you can choose between male and female, Human, Elf or Dwarf, and then Warrior, Rogue or Mage - so far so cliched - but you can also decide upon one of six origin stories, which is one of the major selling points of the game. The first few hours of the game will see these origin stories play out, and each one is significantly different to the last. They don't radically change the course of the rest of the game, but rather they effect personal quests and may introduce you to various significant plot related characters (such as Tim Curry's Arl Rendon Howe) much earlier than others.

As you level up in the usual way (completing quests and killing monsters) you earn skill points and ability points. Skills are the same for all character classes, and include things such as Stealth, Stealing, Survival (the ability to detect hostiles on the world map earlier than normal) and more. The abilities are specific to your class and there are quite a few possibilities. For example the mage could be a healer, a purely offensive mage, dabble in dark arts or have a mixture of all. If you do decide to mix and match it is likely that you will never be able to truly excel in anything however as ability points are quite scarce.

On top of the standard abilities, at certain levels you will be able to choose a specialisation for your character. These aren't just given to you as soon as you reach the required level however, they have to be earned in a variety of ways. Some of them you can simply buy in training manual form from merchants, others can be taught by your various party members once they like you enough, and others can only be learnt by taking a certain path in a request. The best example of this is Blood Mage - you have one opportunity to learn this, and if you do it will have serious ramifications with your story as blood mages are considered extremely dangerous and freaks of nature.

There are many decisions that you have to make throughout the course of the game that may just piss off one party member or another and make them leave the party altogether - in fact it's not possible to recruit every possible character in one play through unless you save just before a key decision and then go back and play things out the other way. This first time through I played as a generally good person, next time (if I can find any time to replay the game amongst the torrent of RPG's coming out this year) I will be as evil as possible. That's always the good thing about Bioware games, there are at least two different ways to play through each of there games, often more.

Having a chat, covered in gore.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
Innovation isn't really what Dragon Age is all about, being a return to the style of Baldur's Gate, but that's not to say that there's none to be found. Bioware continue to be the pioneer for modern multi path RPG's and the 6 different origin stories and their impact on the storyline must have taken a huge amount of time and skill to plan and execute. Then there's a section towards the end of the game which won't spoil the details of here, which is not what you would typically expect from this type of game.

Value and Replayability: 9 out of 10
Upon seeing the world map for the first time, I was a little disappointed that I couldn't roam the overworld as you can in something like Oblivion, and I thought that it didn't look like the game would last very long. My play through ended up taking about 55 hours though so you will get plenty of game to play, and of course you can start again with a different origin story and play as good/evil depending on what I you decided to do the first time through.

Overall: 8 out of 10
I was tempted to given Dragon Age a 7 out of 10 score in the light of Mass Effect 2, but it's flaws don't stop it from being a fantastic RPG. Disappointing graphics and a clumsy interface did detract from my overall enjoyment somewhat, but the character building, writing and story did keep me engaged all the way to the end. Bioware is going through a great time at the moment, and it will be interesting to see what the announced disc based expansion and the promised 2 years of DLC bring to the overall experience. In the meantime, I'm going to temporally swap my suit of armour and bow and arrow for a space suit and a really big gun. Look out for my Mass Effect 2 review soon!

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