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If it's possible to have your impression of a game changed after fifty hours of gameplay, Dragon Age: Origins is the game that did so for me. After completing my initial playthrough and dabbling with other storylines, I thought that in order to give a fair review of the game, I should play through one of the other storylines more fully. A few days later, I found myself back at the end of the game with my second character. Quite simply, Dragon Age: Origins is one of the most fun and addicting gaming experiences I have ever had, and I recommend it without any reservations.
To summarize the story of Dragon Age: Origins in a few paragraphs is actually insulting to the writers. This game is so complex, so rich, and so complete that I will refer to it as a "universe" for the rest of the review. In the same way that Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings have universes that were successfully developed by their creators, Dragon Age has been fleshed out from start to finish. After two playthroughs, I was still learning new things about my characters and the world by the boatload, and that's not an easy task. A dedicated player with OCD may never leave the universe, and I can't say I blame him or her.
Dragon Age: Origins focuses on the Kingdom of Ferelden at the onset of the first blight (war against darkspawn) in 400 years. These darkspawn are everything you imagine: dark orcs, ogres, and other nasty creatures. Defending Ferelden from these creatures is the duty of the Grey Wardens, who are nearly extinct after centuries of defending the kingdom. Our story begins with our hero being recruited for the wardens by their leader Duncan in anticipation of the great battles ahead.
The circumstances upon which the hero is recruited depends on the origin story selected. There are six in all, and they range from growing up as a privileged noble human who is catered to hand and foot to being born into slavery as an elf, whose sole purpose is to entertain humans and "pleasure" them in every way. Each story is compelling and leaves the player with an appreciation for the variety of ways to experience the Dragon Age universe.
After being recruited into the wardens, there is a watershed battle that sends the character into the rest of the kingdom, and each of the areas is equally interesting and well done: there are the dwarfs, who live in their last city of Orzammar, and who don't focus on religion but rather hold up their warrior paragons as heroes; there are the Dalish Elves in the Brecilian Forest, who are freed slaves now locked in a fierce battle with the werewolves in a tale of petulance and revenge; there is the Circle of Magi on Lake Calahad, who are corrupt because of a dark wizard's ambition; and there are the human towns of Redcliffe and Denerim, each with numerous characters with lifetimes of quests to fulfill. There is no way to summarize the world of Ferelden. It is something to experience, not to read about.
In Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare does not simply play lip service to their dialogue tree or the open-endedness of the game. I found this game much more to true to multiple results than Bethesda's recent Fallout 3. Unlike Fallout, this game really featured two different adventures based on my initial characters as well as the actions I performed throughout the game. Dialogue choices are different by race, by gender, by skillset, and even by the karma associated with the character you are talking to. There are multiple ways to play the game, to complete the game, and even to complete each main quest you are playing. Quite frankly, my second playthrough is what convinced me that Dragon Age: Origins is the most complete universe I have ever experienced.
The conclusion of Dragon Age: Origins was dramatic and worth every minute I put into the great world. The final battle was unlike anything I have ever experienced in a game of this magnitude. I found each of my two endings fair and interesting, and they blew away my recent experience with Bethesda's Fallout 3. Perhaps it isn't fair to compare the two of them, but when we look back at the best games of the decade, these two will often get compared side by side, and the biggest nod to Dragon Age is the way it plays from minute 1 to minute 1000. While Fallout completely collapses down the stretch, Dragon Age thrives. Bravo, BioWare. Bravo.
In addition to the great dialogue and approach to the general story arc, the other gameplay elements are flat out perfect. You gain levels by completing quests and fighting monsters, and each level up is absolutely thrilling. In addition to assigning attributes, you can assign both "skills" and "talents" based on the level, and each decision you make is crucial. These can range from trap making abilities that allow your rogue to set dire traps for monsters to run into to the blizzard cone for your mage to freeze any enemy in his or her path. Warriors can bulk up with two handed swings that can paralyze their foes, and your war dog can learn a move that allows him to pounce on his prey and bite them to death. Quite frankly, it is the most fun I have had in the level up and customization process in years.
At its heart, Dragon Age: Origins feels like a PC RPG experience. Even though the game allows parties of four, most of your time is spent in a menu screen setting tactics for upcoming battles. If you've played Final Fantasy XII, you know exactly what to expect in creating a lot of if/then statements for your allies. With that said, I appreciated not being limited to certain conditions at the beginning of the game (in the same way FFXII does). If you're adept at creating good strategies, you'll have your characters rocking and rolling in no time. If you're like me and new to PC RPG experiences, you'll struggle and even be tempted to tick down the difficulty a bit at times. And, you'd better save often. If you don't, expect for your gameplay to double in time and for your new HDTV to have a few cracks in it from throwing your controller at it.
While this game may not have the graphical prowess that some of its next generation brethren do, I didn't ding it as much as some of my colleagues have. It may lack definition and clarity in certain areas, but the variety of environments, monsters, and characters make up for it. From the dark, deep roads to the dreamy fade, each part of Ferelden is carefully and perfectly constructed. With that said, there are framerate drops, and this game does pale in comparison to a game like Valkyria Chronicles in the graphics department.
If the graphics are lacking in any way, this game's audio is a masterpiece, and makes up for it tenfold. From the dramatic voice work from the characters Duncan, Alistair, and Morrigan to the variety of battle music (which depends on the monster you are fighting) to the brilliant background music in each area, Dragon Age contains the most perfect audio I have encountered this generation. Throw in the clanking of swords and a few demonic noises and the PS3 has a new standard that will be tough to surpass.
I found the controls ok, but you may want to do some customization (something I didn't do before I began). As I mentioned, this game really feels like a PC game from the get-go, and I could tell keyboard shortcuts were intended for this one. I often found the radial dial annoying to use, and the load times into the menu screen were a minor hindrance. I had it all figured out by the end, but it often felt like a chore just to get in and out of the menus. The skill shortcut buttons were much appreciated, and I encourage you to assign them carefully.
While Valkyria Chronicles is still the gold standard for PS3 RPGs, Dragon Age: Origins is the most captivating universe I have ever experienced. From the developed characters to the history behind each race, artifact, and village, the writers to the game need to be commended for their thoughtfulness and the depth of their creativity. Even though I may have appreciated the game in my first playthough, it was not until I saw the world through another's eyes that I fully understood what I was experiencing. Quite simply, Dragon Age: Origins is the first true 100 hour console RPG I have ever seen. When it ends, you'll shed a tear. And if you don't, you may not be human.