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Dragon Age: Origins Review

5
  • PC
  • X360
  • PS3

Even the most nostalgic Infinity Engine stalwarts will find a lot to love in this story-heavy RPG.

Nostalgia is a terrible adversary, especially for tactics-based RPG lovers. So when BioWare officially started calling Dragon Age: Origins the "spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate II," you could almost hear a large sigh being let out from the role-playing contingent who worshipped that seminal game and have been disappointed time and time again by similar claims over the years. While a large part of that uproar was imaginary, fingers were validly pointed towards the non-party-based focus of Neverwinter Nights and the gradual loss of complexity in BioWare's trio of console-first RPG franchises--KOTOR, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect--released over the last decade. After spending some 60 hours with Dragon Age, the only bit of soothing calm I can offer towards that worry is that this game is not only the deepest, most story-focused title yet from BioWare, but one you will instantly want to replay.

The classic isometric viewpoint is available in the PC version. 
At its core, Dragon Age is a traditional party-based tactical role-playing game where you command a party of four characters with varying abilities though large dungeons as you move through a grand story arc. Actions and spells are assigned to each individual party member by pausing the game mid-battle and issuing orders. Although the game comes with a fairly robust tactical AI editor that lets you set some basic if/else scenarios, you'll probably spend a good portion of time in pause mode, manually issuing commands to your entire group, especially if you're working with more than one mage or if you're the type to obsess over the survival of each party member.
 
When it comes to comparing Origins with BioWare's PC RPG past, the biggest change is that Dragon Age takes place in its own universe, rather than working within the familiar confines of the Dungeons & Dragons license. Instead of the Forgotten Realms, DA:O is set in the world of Ferelden. While the names have changed, Ferelden is as traditional a fantasy setting as you can get. It's a world populated by elves, dwarves, and humans who all have varying opinions on the merits of good and evil. While there are subtle shifts in roles here (elves, or "knife ears," for example, are a recently liberated slave race), the trappings of Dragon Age's lore still feel familiar and rooted in the standard fantasy archetypes. But just because it's familiar in spots doesn't mean that it's poorly executed. There are a lot of subtle touches--like the way humans from the neighboring state of the Orlesian Empire speak with a French-tinged accent--that help make the world work.

The basics of the plot are that you're a newly minted Grey Warden, the newest recruit of an ancient warrior caste entrusted with keeping the impending Darkspawn threat at bay. Depending upon your character creation choices, you'll start with one of six origin stories that define the first hour of your game. In my playthrough as a mage this meant I was an apprentice within The Circle, an order of mages who are watched over by a company of Templars. My origin not only impacted how others would react to me, but it also gave me new dialogue choices and introduced characters I would see again later in my journey. After starting a new character--the son of a dwarven lord--it was surprising to see that this character's origin fit into stories that the mage character heard about while visiting the dwarven lands. The way the different aspects of the origins are referenced help make the world feel like a more cohesive place. Getting more specific would likely spoil your fun so just know that your origin, along with the different dialogue choices you'll make throughout the game, make separate playthroughs feel decidedly unique.

Dragon Age features superb voice-acting, with Morrigan stealing the show. 
Dragon Age excels because its story is driven more by the needs of your party than by the overarching plot-lines they witness. For example, it's possible for your primary character to become completely overshadowed by the deeds of a fellow party member. Personally, I attempted to stick to a very altruistic path throughout the game, but it's not as easy as simply picking the obviously "good" dialogue choices. You'll be presented with tough scenarios where none of the options at hand seem particularly good, leaving you to choose what may seem like merely the least evil choice. In the weeks after completing the game, I still feel sincere regret about how some of those decisions played out and am already making plans to handle them differently in my next playthrough. The choices cut deep. 
 
The combat in Dragon Age is where the game feels closest to its computer RPG roots. This is a classic "pause-and-command" type of game, and it comes with all of the difficulty and micromanagement that, if you're familiar with old games in this genre, you'd expect to see. The changes from the old D&D system that the developer has employed are mostly in its easy-upgrade spell tree, along with a World of Warcraft-like cooldown system on many abilities. While combat may have been simplified a bit, it's offset with significantly longer fights. The game's boss fights, in particular, get extremely tough and require proper mana management, some well-timed potion-chugging, and a keen eye to watch out for scripted events. The long dungeon crawls feel like you're controlling every character in a five-man World of Warcraft instance. It's not so much about out-battling your opposition, but outlasting them.
 
To help give you a bit of an edge in battle, Dragon Age lets you combine some spells and abilities with devastating effects. Frozen enemies can be shattered by the brunt force of hammers or shields, and it's easier to give a foe nightmares if you've already put him to sleep. You'll need as much of an edge as you can get, too, because the combat gets tougher to keep up with as you progress into the back half of the story. Though players looking for less of a challenge can mitigate things a bit by turning the quest down to an easier difficulty, know that if you don't like the idea of having to pause the action to issue orders, you're probably not going to enjoy Dragon Age: Origins. Even with all of the work that's been done to improve on BioWare's Infinity-style formula, this is still a difficult game that requires patience and strategy. 
 
In addition to getting tough, it's also important to note that Dragon Age is not a short game. My first character (Mordecai the mage) completed his journey in just over 50 hours of game time, though if you were to be very particular about completing more side quests, that number could go way, way higher.
 
In general, the main quest is well-written, and it's backed up by excellent voicework. That said, if you stay up on your fantasy fiction, you'll probably notice some story elements that beat not-so-subtle similarities to the classic Arthurian saga or even portions of recent pulp epics, like George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. After your origin prologue and initiation into the Grey Wardens, you're essentially given free reign to complete the main plot in whichever order you deem prudent. While mixing this sequence can change the story slightly, it's mostly a linear affair on your way to the game's final two chapters. Shifts in the narrative are more drastic within the chapters themselves, and the choices you'll make regarding certain party members make the game immensely replayable. There are multiple endings to see here, and they feel more fleshed-out and satisfying than the hastily stiched-together conclusions of something like, say, Fallout 3.  
 
The radial menu used in the console version will feel familiar to fans of Mass Effect.
The main difference between the PC version of Dragon Age and its console counterparts are in the interface. The PC version sports a classic hotbar configuration and a more tactical perspective on the action, while the console versions opt for a Mass Effect-style radial menu and over-the-shoulder camera. The console versions certainly aren't bad, but if you're looking to pick the best version, the PC's layout is more elegant and functional than the comparatively limited radial menus on the console release. Also, the PC version is capable of looking significantly better than the console versions, though all editions feature impressive spell effects and environments. Though the PC version offers a more pulled-out view, I found myself zoomed in more often than not. In fact, the inclusion of things like skies and ceilings (which weren't exactly present in most previous games of this sort) make the environments complicated enough that the zoomed-out, isometric perspective gets a little clunky. 

In the end, Dragon Age: Origins feels like a real throwback to the good old days of PC role-playing epics. It also feels like exactly what you expect the makers of Baldur's Gate to come up with as a follow-up to that classic. While that means you could rightfully fault the game for not being especially innovative, it's this adherence to a classic style of gameplay that will ensure that it's welcomed by the legions of nostalgic RPG players that make up this genre's core audience. That said, this is definitely not the game for those frightened of the idea of micromanaging a game to the point where a large portion of it will be spent in a pause screen. However, as the sort of guy that has lovingly played an Infinity Engine game at least once every year for the past decade, I can think of no higher praise for this throwback than to say that Dragon Age: Origins leaves me feeling fairly confident I won't need to dig out the classics for this ritual next year. 
 
Disclosure: The game featured in this review is or was an advertised product on giantbomb.com.     Dave Snider on Google+
143 Comments
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Posted by AlexB

I approve of this review before I even read it.

Posted by emkeighcameron

Man, I am grabbing this first thing tomorrow morning. Thank god for preorders.

Posted by Sticky_Pennies

Truly, this is the age of 5-stars.

Posted by Yummylee

Holy hell, a video review so soon? I'm not gonna question why, just shrug it off and be glad 8)
Posted by masterpaperlink

lol

Posted by Xeiphyer

Awesome!!
 
Also, the review is attached to invisable DLC for the game, not the game itself.

Posted by ashbash

Argh, game looks too scary for me. I wish they had a demo.

Posted by Ramyun

I wouldn't mind a Dragon Age themed aesthetic for this page. Great review, but doesn't look like my kinda thing; I'm waiting for Mass Effect 2!!

Edited by Julius

Hmm.  Really liked Mass Effect, and I really like the way Bioware tells stories, but I'm not really into the art/graphical style and I'm not too experienced with this type of gameplay... I don't know whether I should buy this.  Maybe I'll pick it up used in a while.
 
EDIT: also, really liked the (first for Dave?) video review.

Edited by coaxmetal

Excellent! I had my doubts, but It looks they did manage to pull off their spiritual successor claim. I think I have probably also played either BG2 or PS:T (infinity engine at its best) at least once a year, so I certainly fall under the nostalgiac gamer category.  Also liked the Song of Ice and Fire link, as that is probably my favourite book series.
 
Great review dave. I think they should have you on the bombcast. It needs this perspective.

Online
Posted by Symphony

Great review, Dave!
 
Though unfortunately it didn't help me lean one way or the other in regards to whether or not to purchase it. Old school micro-managing RPGs have never been my cup of tea but the game does look really good and the comparisons to WoW made it certainly sound like something I could enjoy... Augh, decisions, decisions!

Posted by EgoCheck616

Woa, early review! Good work, GB!

Posted by Psyx2

My only concern about this game is its difficulty, since I tend to suck at most RPGs and most people say it's very hard. Hopefully that's not the case though - I can't resist buying this game.

Posted by atomic_dumpling
@Symphony said:
" Great review, Dave! "
If you guys wouldn't mention it in the comments, I would have know idea who reviewed this. Apparently it's obvious in the video review, but not on this page.
Posted by kitsune_conundrum

this is like the second coming for gaming to me. Dont let me be disappointed!

Posted by Axdemon

Dave's reviewing games now? What's going on?

Posted by Spacetrucking

Thanks for the informative review Dave. I was on the edge and a little pissed off at the bad marketing decisions by BioWare but  your review made the decision for me. I'm probably going with the PC version inhope of future mods, even though my system is probably not upto snuff to max out the graphical details.  
 
BTW thats 2/2 for Claudia Black this year ( VO for Morrigan). I thought she was a standout in Uncharted 2 as well.
 
PS:  Why does it say ",an add-on" in the banner under the video review? I can guess you're trying to say that you reviewed the addon as well, but isn't there a better way to present that ? The current wording seems odd and somewhat confusing. Anyway, its just minor nitpicking. Cheers

Posted by Undeadpool

Preloading...preloading....preloading...:D:D:D:D:D

Posted by vidiot

 Disclosure: The game featured in this review is or was an advertised product on giantbomb.com.      

I like the disclosure, but what does it exactly mean? Was stuff in the review changed for the sake of the advertisement? Regardless, I approve of it and I wish other sites to try and do the same. It's good to have a sense transparency between the context of review and the reader. 
 
Forgot to mention: GO DAVE!
Posted by Knives

I guess it's just that Jeff makes video reviews look easy.

Posted by MrGetBonus

Nice 5 Star pic.

Posted by TewDee

Dave, put your hands down man. It's cool to have hand movements, but you don't have hand movements. XD

Posted by DrRandle

I just can't care about this game. I played it for a while at GenCon and just was not impressed. I thought it felt like a huge step back from Mass Effect, and even that was full of problems. I dunno. I just don't care about this game. Granted, it's advertising campaign has only gone further in destroying my interest. Blood and sex and violence just aren't necessarily my thing when they're that glorified and highlighted. It doesn't seem mature, and in fact, seems quite the opposite. "Dude check out all that blood, that's wicked sick, yo." No. No it's not.
 
But whatever, that's just me. I hope the rest of you do enjoy this game, I can see why it would appeal. It's just not for me. I'm waiting for my Shattered Memories and Assassin's Creed Dos. Oh and the unfortunately titled New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
 
Pro tip: Maralyn Manson has no place in fantasy. Not even a little.

Posted by GagnarTheUnruly

I'm prepared to retract everything bad I ever said about this game, based on the reviews I've read so far.  I think I'm gonna have to pick this one up at some point.

Posted by Valru
game of the year.
Posted by Matfei90

WOOT! DAVE VIDEO REVIEW!!!

Posted by Arrested_Developer

Dear eight pound six ounce newborn infant Jesus, don't even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddley but still omnipotent, we just thank you for what looks to be an awesome game.  Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day and we look forward to Powerade's release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry.  Amen.

Posted by ToastMan

 Fantastic review! I'm glad that Dave got to review this as he's the most fitting for this type of game. Consider me even more hyped up.

Posted by CharlesAlanRatliff

Great review. I hope to be able to pick it up soon.

Online
Posted by enemymouse

Don't forget the toolset on PC and Bioware is also working on a social network for everyone to share ideas, talents and creations. 

Posted by Captain_Insano
@vidiot: I think the disclosure is so that people don't react 'Oh, he only gave it 5 stars because of the ads!'. I highly doubt anything was changed because of this reason
 
P.s I am pretty psyched about this game
Posted by dagas

Sounds good. I can't believe that ME2 is coming out soon as well. It will be several months of Bioware-mania between these two great games. Especially since I'm not going to stop playing until I have all points in both games. I'm going to have to play them through so many times it will be summer before I'm done ^^ Long live the WRPG, long live Bioware! Who knows, maybe FF13 manages to revive FF and the JRPG genre as well (I started my RPG gaming life with JRPG's after all) but I'm skeptical about that.

Posted by WinterSnowblind

The advertising for the game has been awful.  Highlighting sex and gore, awful metal rock music, poorly put together trailers, boat loads of pre-order and bonus items, and mass confusion over the collectors edition for different countries and the free DLC.  I really hope someone was fired over this and that EA never interfere with what Bioware do ever again.
 
That aside, it's great to see the actual game has turned out so well.  I played through the original Neverwinter Nights again recently and have really been itching for more games like it, can't wait to see a return to some real RPG's with some real difficulty and thought involved.  Mass Effect, in my opinion has been the best game released this generation.  Let's see if this can top it.
 
(Curse the November 6th release date).

Edited by ahoodedfigure

I'm wondering how it holds up on the second play-through :)

Posted by NT

Great video, Dave.  You told me exactly what I wanted to know.

Posted by Delta_Ass

So it requires pausing during combat? Ugh.
 
As Jerry Seinfeld once said, "That's a turn-off, man!"
 
Great review though Dave.

Posted by Senshaitian

I've been on the fence with this game for some time now for two reasons: 1) Because I haven't played the PC versions of Baldur's Gate or any of Bioware's big RPG titles on the PC other than a little bit of Neverwinter Nights. 2) There hasn't been enough X360 footage shown for me to get a good feel for the game. I am not a PC gamer, so seeing footage on the PC was nice but didn't give me the right sense of what to expect on the console version.
 
However, I've been playing RPGs for the longest and I've always wanted to try something new, different and challenging within the genre. Also, one of the things I really appreciate about Bioware is how well they tell a story. After seeing this review, I really feel like this game may very well provide what I'm looking for.

Posted by Fleatron

So glad they didn't 'innovate'. A well thought out old school RPG is just what I wanted (and I'm sure many people aswell). Great review!

Posted by Quint

WOOOO! Spit the truth Dave!
 
Nice to see the Snide doing a review for a big release like this one, anybody who is "the sort of guy that has lovingly played an Infinity Engine game at least once every year for the past decade" giving this 5 stars means I'll almost certainly adore this.

Posted by demonbear

My most anticipated game of this year reviewed by my favorite giantbomber. 
 
Truly, this is the age of Dave.

Posted by boyusmaximus

Comprehensive review - thanks Dave.
 
I'm in the UK so also have to wait until the 6th to get my hands on it, however I've booked everyday off work until the 21st so I'm gonna grind this like crazy.

Posted by aarlev

Great review! I knew Bioware would deliver. I can't wait to play this now. It's so unfair that we don't get it here in the UK before the 6th :P

Posted by Kohe321

Awesome, awesome review Dave. You completely sold me.

Posted by Oy

At the top, the review says it's for an "add-on" to Dragon Age.  Typo? 
Posted by nolanvoid

Pretty sure I'm going to buy this game now.

Posted by WinterSnowblind
@Captain_Insano said:
" @vidiot: I think the disclosure is so that people don't react 'Oh, he only gave it 5 stars because of the ads!'. I highly doubt anything was changed because of this reason  P.s I am pretty psyched about this game "
Tell that to all the comments in the ODST review.
Odd that so many people went crazy over that, yet have no problem with Dragon Age being a great game..  :/
 
And people had the nerve to call GiantBomb bias?
Posted by Death_Burnout

Two words: Death Animations
 
I might get this one day down the line.

Posted by harrified

I pray to the Dave for more PC-centric reviews.

Posted by eznark
@WinterSnowblind: I think that says more about the audience of the two games than anything else.
Posted by akcorr

Awesome review!! Great Job!!!
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