I don’t have much time. I’m being hunted for the crime of practicing forbidden magic, outlawed by the vigilant, self-righteous templars, pawns of the Maker as they are. If I reach the border of the country before they catch up to me, I am free, but I fear for my life, and thus I write this. Someone must know of my time in Ferelden, a place at once darkly beautiful and politically corrupt, a land of legend and myth, a country that stinks perpetually of wet dog and blood. Especially blood.
If you can’t visit Ferelden in the flesh, playing Dragon Age: Origins is almost as sufficient an experience and much safer. Even still, after ten or twenty hours of play, you’ll be a part of Ferelden without choice, and you’ll bid it farewell only with marked hesitation. While DA:O is short of perfect, BioWare has given us one of the best role-playing experiences of all time.
As I write this, Ferelden is in a time of political strife and imminent danger, for the fourth Blight has begun, an invasion of demonic darkspawn. These hideous, bloodthirsty creatures pillage and rape the countryside and march into the heartland of Ferelden with the abominable archdemon as the horde’s commanding officer. Let us hope the Grey Wardens, the stalwart champions of Ferelden, can dispatch the darkspawn and end their rapine and murder.
DA:O tells a fairly familiar tale, and the plot never strays from the initial story arc presented at the beginning of the game. Through competent storytelling, however, the developers manage to demand the player’s attention and satisfy narrative expectations. The game’s dark and gritty realism, political intrigue, and mature themes augment what may normally be an average story, although the writers substitute fantastical conflict where human conflict would have better served at times. For example, many of Ferelden’s problems result from demons, blood magic, or the darkspawn instead of relatable human faults. The bulk of the plot consists of gathering an army by visiting four different factions. This may seem contrived, but at each turn of the story, the player confronts challenging decisions made all the sweeter by the lack of an alignment system.
One of the smartest design decisions in DA:O, the lack of an alignment system liberates the player in ways never before explored in BioWare’s games. DA:O offers some of the most difficult moral choices yet, and the consequences for the player’s actions can be either uplifting or incapacitatingly depressing. Never before has a game made me feel more sorrow for acting like a spoiled child possessed by several demons. As the player constructs his moral compass, he senses admiration, pride, avarice, or hatred. Depending upon his actions, the player palpably feels the honor or revilement of those around him.
Ferelden’s inhabitants are wonderfully realistic, with complex motivations, real emotions, and minds of their own. Even minor NPCs have agendas and temperaments all their own, but recruitable party members are the most interesting characters to converse with for their unique personalities and backstories. These unique personalities come laden with specific values and perspectives. If the player’s morality weighs too heavily on a party member’s soul, for example, he or she might start a quarrel, and it could lead to blows. Companions might even bicker amongst themselves, for the protagonist attracts individuals of varying dispositions. Inter-party dialogue is often hilarious, but occasionally worrisome and disturbing. One’s traveling companions are at times unbelievably persuasive and often strike where it hurts: love.
Romances are now a tenet of BioWare’s formula, and those found in DA:O illustrate just how effective the game’s characters can be. I felt myself grow attached to a particular character little by little, until I silently vowed my faithfulness to him, and I felt the pangs of jealousy when he flirted with other party members. Romantic relationships in DA:O are just as complicated and confusing as those in real life, and I commend the developers for achieving such a state of realism. The inclusion of a homosexual relationship, treated frankly and seriously, compels me to regard BioWare with even more respect than before.
Ferelden boasts a startling history of violence and oppression as well as great perseverance and liberation. Its people are gruff and arrogant, but capable of great compassion and cooperation. Ferelden is also home to dwarves and elves, their cultures rich with tradition, and a multitude of less intelligent denizens, including dragons. Ferelden is overflowing with history; it’s as if every mountain holds a tale, every tree a myth.
DA:O’s most impressive feature may be its setting. The folk at BioWare have created what may be the most fully realized video game setting to date with copious detail and realism. The game inundates players almost immediately with history lessons, folktales, and poignant legends. Those that take the time to learn about the world are rewarded and their experience with DA:O is all the more satisfying. Most impressively, Ferelden’s cultures are some of the most complete seen in video games. Elves, dwarves, humans, mountainfolk, other fringe races, mages, and the Chantry (or church) each feel exotic and foreign in turn. Not merely a hodgepodge of music and language, each culture encompasses an entire ideological framework. These often bring thoughtful themes into the game: colonialism, kinship, theology, separation of church and state, and the importance of duty to name just a few. Although the setting borrows occasionally from other fantasy worlds, Ferelden is far from “generic fantasy,” and it is a place to get lost in.
Ferelden may offer ample material for scholars, but it is largely a place for warriors, for Fereldens love to fight. They fight darkspawn, they fight other countries, and they fight each other.
DA:O may destroy the competition concerning role-playing aspects, but is the game any fun to play? In short, absolutely. Upon starting the game, the first task is obvious: character creation. By choosing a combination of race and class, the game assigns to you one of six origin stories, which determine the first couple hours of gameplay. Races and classes are traditional (following the popular warrior-mage-rogue paradigm), but specializations open as characters gain levels, allowing for more customization. Gaining levels earns a character points for ability scores, skills, and talents. Skills cover potion-making and the like while talents represent actual combat abilities and spells for mages.
The battle system itself is technically realtime, yet the player must make use of the pause feature or die prematurely. Selecting an enemy causes a character to attack it, as one would expect, and up to three party members carry out pre-set tactics until all foes lay dead. The player can just watch the action unfold, or, with the press of a button, he can pause the game to issue orders and better command the battlefield.
All this works surprisingly well for a story-driven RPG in which one might not expect to find stunning combat. The origin stories offer replay value as well as moderately substantial in-game effects, mostly related to story and characters. A wide range of talents and skills allows for sufficient character customization, and the talents are truly useful and powerful. Making different types of characters, even with the same class, proves to be an easy task. Combat itself is surprisingly satisfying as well. Success in battle hinges upon the pause button and the player’s ability to strategize effectively. Even on Normal difficulty, battles get tricky, although to get the real effect of combat, I suggest playing on Hard. The console interface works surprisingly well, but it might deter some gamers who dislike the camera angle when compared to the PC version. Path-finding and ally AI is generally smooth, with infrequent hiccups. Combined with nuances such as flanking and hostility that make combat more complex than usual, DA:O’s battles are addictive and wildly entertaining.
And, traveler, do not forget to stray from the road when in Ferelden, for its greatest treasures are often in those out-of-the-way places common men are afraid to visit.
DA:O features some excellent classic dungeons reminiscent of the Infinity Engine games of yore. This isn’t Dungeons and Dragons anymore, but the game still has a bit of both, and both are glorious. Ferelden’s dungeons are deep and dark, complete with monsters, traps, and treasure for the adventurer in us all. Exploration is entertaining, if a bit linear, and a thorough examination of one’s surroundings yields many benefits.
Other than the main set of quests, DA:O includes a selection of optional quests. At times, the player receives a quest from an NPC with a problem while other times he receives them from one of several boards dedicated to assisting certain factions, such as the Mages’ Collective. While the former are adequately robust, board quests feel too MMORPGized and contrived. Reading a request from a board isn’t as thrilling as receiving one from a living, breathing townsfolk, and it harms verisimilitude. Other quests begin once the player finds a series of entries in the codex, DA:O’s in-game encyclopedia. Unfortunately, the player may never find that codex entry; new entries are frustratingly difficult to find due to poor design. Strangely enough, the rest of the menu system works fairly well, especially considering BioWare’s previous attempt. Thankfully, DA:O’s faults are relatively forgivable, even if they do hold the game back from perfection.
Traveler, Ferelden is a beautiful land, offering impressive vistas and cityscapes, but be warned: the humans that inhabit the country are a rather dirty folk.
The most apparent of DA:O’s shortcomings is its graphics. Undeniably dated, the game’s graphics may not showcase the power of this console generation, but they can be quite striking at times. Architecture in particular, as well as backgrounds, look fantastic, but textures are frequently muddy, especially for elements of the natural world: stone, trees, and ground. Character models vary from good to passable, but armor and weaponry almost always look excellent. Animations are well done and characters often exhibit facial expressions to augment dialogue. Unfortunately, the graphics occasionally limit onscreen actions (such as exchanging items) and had the graphics been more advanced, BioWare may have been able to create an even more believable world. Overall, the graphics are inconsistent, and the game is at its worst when two levels of quality are juxtaposed on screen.
The art design, however, rarely falters. Some gamers may complain that the darkspawn look just like Uruk-hai and elves and dwarves have never looked more prototypical, but the developers knew what they were doing when crafting the visual style of DA:O. The darkspawn look evil without precisely resembling anything to date, especially the monstrous ogres. Dwarven cities capture the atmosphere of the dwarven mindset: claustrophobic and closed to outside influence by a thick wall of tradition. And, the Chantry’s garb is symbolically adorned just as it would be in our world. The game’s locales exude an appropriate atmosphere for a dark fantasy world, and BioWare builds upon pre-existing stereotypes in creative ways.
Like all men, those of Ferelden love to talk about themselves…
DA:O features strong voice acting and an appropriate soundtrack to which to battle darkspawn and explore a fantasy world. Most of Ferelden’s inhabitants, and those from other countries with aberrant accents, are voiced proficiently, with the occasional misstep. As one might expect, major NPCs generally receive better voice work, and only one or two characters suffer from slightly melodramatic voice actors. To accompany the player’s bloody adventures, composer Inon Zur put together a Howard Shoreian soundtrack. While the music is hardly original, it suits the setting and the action onscreen. Certain tracks are also fairly effective at conveying atmosphere, particularly the opening theme.
I end my account of Ferelden here and hide it in the nook of this great oak near the border of Orlais, where it will become another piece of lost lore for some wayward traveler to discover in the years to come. Ferelden seems to turn even the most insignificant of men into legends.
Dragon Age: Origins is a rare game, one reminiscent of the PC RPGs of the past, and those who enjoyed those games will undoubtedly enjoy this one. With DA:O, BioWare ignored some of the recent video game trends to great effect. Unfortunately, the game may never receive appropriate fan praise for that very fact. After all, DA:O contains no multiplayer, it doesn’t look like a photograph, and it requires an attention span. Let’s hope BioWare doesn’t get discouraged because they’re the best we’ve got. And, by the Maker, they’ve done it again.