Like most of the rest of the world, I am totally freaking hooked on Dragon Age: Origins. My one line summary is that it feels like a campaign GM’d by Fred Hicks. Fred is a mean bastard of a GM, so this is high praise indeed. That sense of a GM’d game is one of the hallmarks of a Bioware game, creating a world that responds to the actions of play, and Dragon Age really turns this up to 11 – the technology for the graphics and stuff is nice, but the real benefit of the tech can be seen in just how many choices the game can now support.
So, with about 40-50 hours of play under my belt, split between a few characters, I feel like it’s time for a list of 10 things to know about Dragon Age:Origins.
1. Fighter’s are the simplest class to play, and there’s a lot to be said for starting with a fighter to try out a starting background and to get familiar with the rules and controls (especially if you’re on X-Box because the manual pretty much exists to convince you to buy a strat guide). Once you have that familiarity, you can try a rogue or mage. So far my sense is that Mage is probably the most interesting to play.
2. This is a Bioware game, so get the intimidation/persuasion skill. Lacking it will greatly diminish your options in play. Also, as a Bioware game, do not buy into the idea that there is some “right” decision the game is expecting you to make. There isn’t. There are rails, certainly, but they are very wide, and your leeway within them is much more than you might expect.
3. There is no way I won’t be trying all the backgrounds, and I expect this game will probably get 2 or 3 playthroughs out of me at a minimum. I’ve tried 3 so far (Male-Human-Fighter-Noble, Male-Human-Mage-Circle and Male-Elf-Rogue-City, my primary) and every now and again something from one of the other backgrounds shows up in play, and it really makes the world feel more organic
4. Oh, God, Backpacks. I have bought every backpack I could afford and I am still short on inventory space. This gets really annoying because I tend to be deep in a dungeon when I’m running out of space. The soldier’s peak expansion helps with this, but it’s still pretty maddening.
5. The resolution of one of the big plot knots involved a lot of watching two NPCs talk to each other. As it turns out, this is not much more fun on the console than it is on the tabletop. It’s well written and interesting, but it comes off as a bit of a sour note. I don’t mind watching cut scenes of events taking place elsewhere in the game – that’s part of the genre – but watching my character watch a scene makes me wonder why I’m there.
6. It’s the small choices that kill you. I have yet to have any huge, sweeping choices that were particularly hard (or even terribly moving), but I have had innumerable small choices that left me staring at the screen, paralyzed, totally invested in the result. Bioware’s always been good at this, but this takes it to a whole new level.
7. The game combines of a lot of voice acting talent, quality writing, and an engine that allows them quickly generate visually distinctive characters. That’s all well and good for the heroes, but it’s much more important for the support characters. It is far harder to play “Spot the named character” by looking for the one with better graphics or voice acting, and that’s fantastic, because it really drives home the sense that things can change at the drop of a hat.
8. The downloadable content has been worth the price (though I got some of it free for pre-ordering). Soldier’s Peak adds an extra dungeon that has a solid story to it, which also serves as a base once you’ve cleared it out. Sadly, I have not been able to recruit people to come work there, so my dreams of this being Dark Suikoden have not yet come to fruit. The more expensive pack, which adds the golem, Shale, is possibly even more worth it. First and foremost, it’s not a Bioware game until you throw in a killing machine with a dry wit. He’s fun to have in the party, and he’s incredibly useful. I have so far had at least two boss fights that I’m pretty sure I would have lost if he had not been tanking for me.
9. I am pretty sure I’m missing a lot by not reading every codex update, but honestly there’s just too much, and the console is not ideal for it, especially since when I get a codex update I need to go track it down deep in the menus. In theory, this is helped by new things being highlighted, but the way navigation works, if I have to scroll down to something new, I un-highlight it without realizing it. This is a pain, and while I recognize that there are limitations to the interface that come from playing on the console, this (and some inventory management) are close to genuine frustrations. This is exacerbated by the gameplay being so fun that I already resent needing to drop out into the land of menus, so having that be a kind of rough experience is unfun.
10. I’m pretty happy with the graphics. I can niggle about things like the palette or compare it to other games that do this or that better, but the simple truth is that the graphics are good enough to convey a strong sense of place without impeding on the gameplay, and they are capable of generating the occasional moment of wow from a surprising vista or a unique animation. Sound is similarly impressive, though I find I greatly miss hearing my hero speak, a la Mass Effect.
I’ve been sick for days, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to marathon this game and I am hooked enough that my wife has started developing a deep loathing for it. Likely I’ll have to drop to less frequent play now that I’m starting to recover, but I look forward to working through it. So far I’m really excited – I’m a console RPG nut, and so far this has blown a lot of previous contenders out of the water in terms of play experience. But I am also well aware that I’m not done yet, and it’s entirely possible that it could all come crashing down, or end with a whimper rather than a bang, but for the time being I will hold out hope.