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Dragon Age: Origins
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: DVD-ROM, BD-ROM
Release: US 11/03/09



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What would an RPG be without Elves?
 
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This looks like it'll hurt tomorrow.
 
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Fox News better not see this!
 
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Yes, the game is very bloody.
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Eric Farand
Hands-On Preview
09/04/09
Eric Farand

Fans of the classic Baldur's Gate series have been waiting a long time for a similar game to come out of BioWare. In the last several years, we've been blessed with great games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and Mass Effect but for some people, a return to a more classic fantasy setting was something they desperately wanted. In August, we had a chance to visit BioWare in Edmonton and we got to play their latest game. With the release of Dragon Age: Origins on November 3rd for the PC and Xbox 360 (PS3 version to follow later that month), it looks like these fans will finally get what they wished for.

In Dragon Age: Origins, you play the role of a Grey Warden, one of the last of an ancient order of guardians who have defended a world that is corrupted by a race of creatures called the darkspawn in an event known as the Blight. The Grey Wardens are the only force that can keep these enemies at bay and protect the world; so when the darkspawns come back to threaten the world again, you have to unite various groups and races, who don't always like each other, against this enemy to ensure the survival of humanity. Obviously there's a lot more to it than that, but that's the very general storyline of the game.

As with most BioWare RPGs, the story in Dragon Age: Origins is epic and features many twists and turns that will leave you wondering who is a friend and who is a foe, at least from the parts of the game that we've played and seen during our visit. The storyline is also very much dictated by your various actions and decisions throughout the game. We've often seen games promising freedom of choice and branching paths depending on your actions, especially former BioWare titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect. This time however, BioWare claims that they are going one step further and making things a lot more ambiguous with less clear-cut "good" or "evil" choices. The player will be faced with some very hard decisions that will have serious repercussions throughout the game while also affecting the ending. Party members are not beholden to the hero completely, and can disagree with the actions that the main character makes. Party members can go as far as abandoning or even betraying the leader of the party, should he go that strongly against their morals which is something we've seen before from BioWare in the Baldur's Gate series for instance. These complex moral choices should make for some pretty interesting situations as we witnessed in our playthrough of the game during our visit.

Now, before we get any further, let me just say that Dragon Age: Origins is not a game for the faint of heart. This isn't your happy fairytale type of fantasy RPG; this is what BioWare calls "dark fantasy." They created a very grim world that is on the verge of annihilation and you will be forced to make heart-wrenching decisions. After only a few hours of gameplay, I had already experienced more tragic events than I usually see in an entire game. If that wasn't enough, the game is very violent and bloody. I would say it's the bloodiest RPG I've ever played. Every enemy encounter in the game results in a bloodbath that will end up with your character smeared in blood from head to toe. The game also features some pretty brutal finishing moves. You don't actually control these more elaborate killing moves; rather, they are triggered automatically once in a while, making you feel like an ultimate badass. Especially noteworthy are the finishing moves for more dangerous boss enemies–which are pretty gruesome, not to mention totally awesome. The violence is even more graphic when it comes to the various cut scenes throughout the game. All this to say that the game is definitely aimed at an older audience, further evidenced by the fact that the game will be rated M for Mature.

The first thing a player does when starting a campaign in Dragon Age: Origins is create a character. The character creation screen in Dragon Age: Origins is pretty standard fare. You get to choose between Male or Female, then you choose your race (Human, Elf or Dwarf) and your Class (Warrior, Mage or Rogue). After that comes the face customization, which is pretty elaborate and looks similar to the one found in Mass Effect. You can modify more than 40 features to really create your own unique hero. Finally, you get to assign points for your attributes, skills and talents. Your attributes consist of the following categories: strength, dexterity, willpower, magic, cunning, and constitution. Every time you level up, you get 3 points to distribute among those attributes. As for skills and talents, there's a wide variety of things to choose from. You can use your points to gain more spells or skills, to allow your character to do more damage when dual-wielding weapons or get more proficient at creating potions, etc. There are plenty of ways to spend your points, though some skills and talents are dependent on your class. For instance, a human warrior can't use the lockpick talent while dwarves cannot use magic at all. There are plenty of ways to customize your character to your liking, but it doesn't stop there. The choices you make at the beginning will also affect another important thing in the game.

Dragon Age: Origins allows you to play any of six prologues depending on the race and class that you chose. For instance, if you chose a Human warrior, you would get the Human Noble prologue but if you chose a Human Mage, you would get a completely different prologue. These prologues serve as backstory for your character. Instead of just explaining the story of your character at the beginning of the game, you actually get to play it. Each of these six prologues takes an hour or two to complete and allows you to get a great feel for your character as well as playing being a factor in various events throughout the game.

Combat in the game could be described as "party-based semi real-time turn-based strategy action." Okay, I just made that up and it's probably confusing as hell but let me try to elaborate on that. The game is party-based because you can pretty much take control of any characters in your party during the course of the game, including combat. The combat is actually real-time, but you can pause the action at any time to look around, think about your strategy, give orders to other characters, change your equipment etc. That's why I call it "semi real-time." I would also say it's turn-based because you don't actually control the swing of your sword like an action RPG. On the PC version, you simply click on the enemy you want to attack and the game actually takes care of the rest. From there, your character will attack the enemy, and then the enemy will strike back, and so on. As such, it feels like it's turn-based. However, you also get to control when you use skills or magic. On the PC version, you have a quickbar at the bottom of the screen in which you can assign spells, skills or items. To use the spell, all you need to do is click on the icon representing your spell. On the console versions, since you don't have access to a mouse, you are limited to six triggered abilities that can be mapped on your controller.

As far as strategy is concerned, this comes in the way of advanced AI for your various characters. There is a screen in which you can customize various possible actions for your computer-controlled characters. For instance, you can set up a rule that says that when the character is at 50% of his health, he casts a healing spell. You can set up another rule that says that when a character is being attacked up close by an enemy, he uses a skill that knocks down the enemy allowing the character to back off and go back to attacking from a distance with a bow. All of these rules can be set up in a certain order of preference and the AI will take this into consideration when controlling your other characters. For example, you could have five or six different rules set up for each of your characters that takes into account any possible scenario that could happen which then allows you to always be sure that the AI will not do something stupid like having your healer cast an offensive spell when you're in dire need of healing. This adds an extra layer of depth and strategy to the battles.

Another cool aspect of the PC version is that you have many camera angles to choose from. You have the classic third-person view, but with the use of the scroll wheel on your mouse, you can pull back the camera more and more behind your character until it actually raises up in the air to give you a top-down view of the action (similar to Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights). From there, using the mouse, you can easily rotate the camera to see more of the action. Unfortunately, the console version didn't seem to have that option and you have to stay with the more standard third-person view.

As with most RPGs, you get to accumulate a lot of items and equipment throughout the game. Most of the time, you'll be able to loot the corpses of the enemies you've killed to find money, weapons, armor, items and more. As such, your inventory screen will fill up pretty fast. You have a limited number of things you can carry with you (around 70 at the beginning of the game) but you can acquire items that will allow you to carry more later in the game. For weapons, you get your classic plethora of swords, knives, bows, staffs, axes, etc, to chose from as well as other standard equipment like armor, boots and helmets. Although armor provides great protection, safety comes at a price. Anything heavier than regular clothing causes fatigue, which increases the mana or stamina cost of spells and talents by a percentage. Thankfully though, some talents can reduce the effect of fatigue.

During the game, you also have access to a journal. Your journal tracks updates to your current objectives and records the results of prior exploits. This includes quests completed as well as codex entries that describe the world around you such as the history and descriptions of places you visit or people you meet. There is a huge amount of information to be found in your journal and it should satisfy the curiosity of those who want to know more about the world of Dragon Age: Origins.

The graphics department in Dragon Age: Origins is a bit of a mixed bag. Some environments look stunning while others lack a bit of details and have sharper edges with lower quality textures. The game does not seem to have the same polish graphically as a game like Mass Effect or Oblivion, but it is definitely not a bad looking game. The minimum PC specs are also relatively reasonable, which means that many people will be able to enjoy the game without having the break the bank and upgrade their computer to the latest specs.

When it comes to the game's audio, BioWare never disappoints and Dragon Age: Origins seems like it'll follow that trend. Everything from sound effects to voice acting to music is very well done here. The music, composed by veteran Inon Zur, is fully orchestrated and wouldn't feel out of place in a Lord of the Rings movie, especially in the multiple cut scenes throughout the game. With the combination of the music and the great voice acting, many of the more emotional scenes we've seen in the game so far had more impact than what you usually see in videogames. I would have to say that it's very cinematic in feel and manages not to feel cheesy or overdramatic like a lot of other RPGs.

Another aspect of the PC version that we had a chance to check out was the Dragon Age: Origins Toolset that will come with the PC version of the game. The toolset will basically allow the modding community to create their own levels and content for the game. However, this toolset will be a lot more advanced than the Neverwinter Nights toolset because on top of creating stuff like levels, creatures and NPCs, you'll also be able to create your own cut scenes, quests, conversations and more. The toolset at your disposal is basically the internal toolset used by the dev team to create the game, so it obviously has a ton of possibility. We were even told that somebody could record their own voice and actually replace the voice acting in the real game with their own if they want to. From what we saw, it looks like BioWare will be giving the modding community all the tools necessary to create some very interesting stuff.

When it comes to the length of the game, BioWare is expecting a playthrough to take around 70 to 80 hours to complete for the average gamer. If you're a completionist though, expect the game to last 120 hours or more. Of course, this is just for the main game and BioWare says that they have over 2 years of post launch content planned for Dragon Age: Origins, so expect to spend a lot of time in the kingdom of Ferelden.

There are many aspects of the game I didn't get to talk about. For anyone wanting more information about every aspect of the game, the official website of Dragon Age: Origins has a section that answers almost every question you could ever have about the game: gameplay, plot, combat, technical questions, etc.

After playing the game for about six hours at BioWare's studio in Edmonton, we came back with a very positive outlook on the game. Dragon Age: Origins has all the making of an epic Fantasy RPG and if what we saw and played during our visit is any indication, it looks like we're in for a treat come November 3rd.



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