“From the creators of Mass Effect”. This disclaimer alone is enough to bring a tear the eye. I understand that Dragon Age is a new game for a next-gen console, and to be fair Mass Effect is the last great thing Bioware ever made, but it really does both the game and its long history a disservice, and glosses over everything that makes Dragon Age such a good game. Also any one under the age of 20 may just never venture back further in time than 2007 and that, is truly sad. From the creators of Baldurs Gate and Planescape Torment, comes Dragon Age- an old-school D&D role-play adventure through and through.
Unlike recent forays into pseudo action- role playing games, namely Borderlands or even Mass Effect; Dragon Age is unabashedly old-fashioned. It does take some more modern elements of 3rd person fighting and action, but above all else this is about using the right weapon in the right situation equipped with the right specific armor and micromanaged skills. Dragon Age spends more time with character development and dialogue than it does with actual fighting and rather than a 'large open' world, areas are divided along a map and sub divided into buildings and 'dungeons'. Everything is scripted and has a specific place and purpose in the world, nothing is randomly generated. Zones are linear and enemies will re-spawn, however true to form; choice is key in how every and all events unfold.
It’s almost impossibly hard to talk about Dragon Age without saying 'Baldurs Gate' in every second sentence, or without gushing over the personal differences in your characters story. Bioware along with Black Isle Studios broke into the Dungeons and Dragon rule-set way back in 1999 with Planescape Torment and then Baldurs Gate later under the moniker Obsidian Entertainment, Star Wars: Knights of the old Republic would be made. In fact Planescape Torment still holds a record for the most number of lines of scripted dialogue, and Dragon Age doesn't disappoint. In BG you could engage your npc and even over time evolve relationships to the point of copulation in camp. After Mass Effects steamy sex scenes, Dragon Age is some what mute but not without the requisite bi-sexual characters along with the chance of a 3-some or 4-some at the local brothel.
Now how does this relate to gameplay and why is it worth spending so much time talking about; because despite the linear nature of the story, the restrictive environments and lackluster graphics, it is the supporting cast of characters which help you to develop a unique story all of your own. To the point that players can log into EA Bioware site and see their entire playthrough, written out in journal logs as their own fantasy story, not to mention the 400 page codex that can be bought for the game just to manage the relationships, skills and dungeons.
Ever since Baldurs Gate was unable to be finished, due to its length and even longer expansions, gamers have wanted another similar, but different story, and Bioware have finally delivered. That said, for this next-generation, they have borrowed heavily from recent staples such as Lord of The Rings and streamlined and simplified gameplay elements almost to the point of other action games that purport to have role-playing elements.
In the past, up to 5 or 6 characters were able to be controlled, on screen at once. Now only 4 player parties are possible and, somewhat limiting. Considering there are ½ a dozen npc to choose from in your travels, it comes down to personal choice about weather you pick the healer or the elemental mage, the archer or the rouge, the heavy or your pet dog. At times you may wish to swap regularly to have different characters in your party for different stories or you may just stick with the first three you meet. The choice is yours.
For the first time the 'pet dog' is a fully fleshed out character, you can upgrade him, level the stats even give him amour and health with special points of interest around the map for him to find. This is just one example of the depth of character development Bioware has built in. If this all sounds more like Fable, than an actual role playing game, it's not, simply because the writers have a tight grip on the direction characters can go and how things evolve and development is limited to character interaction and not about food, housing or family.
The world map of Thedas and the Kingdom of Feralden is large and quests plentiful. The lands are ravaged with blight and 'dark spawn' (read orcs) and there is a lot for an aspiring adventurer to do. Enlisted as a Grey Warden; an uber-night outside any laws and constitution, your task is simply to unite the different faction in the land so that they might come together under you and defeat the evil dictator.
Simple, it is indeed. For all the lengthy and long winded conversation you have in this game, and there are ever so many; for every single character- the plot is rather straight forward. In particular, it fails to live up to the memories of what Baldurs Gate was. Although darker and more 'realistic', after some time, the worlds map feels restrictive, the areas repetitive and the task simple: travel to X city, find city in peril, solve problem, and enlist help, rinse and repeat. For as good as my memory is, I can't ever remember the point of Baldurs Gate, just an overwhelming feeling of it being so engaging.
Once again, the personal plight of each character comes into play as the reason to go anywhere and does anything as the pleas of your npc brethren put you in the most awkward of positions. Make one wrong choice and a character may leave your party, hate you or love you forever. On a scale of 0-100, some characters will never warm to you such as the 'Wild Witch' (hot in leather) Morrigan if you’re female.
Translated, Bioware have really stuck to what they know here, as the mix of npc available is almost identical to that of Baldurs Gate. The angry dark mage, the sexy bi-curious bard and the stoic quiet knight. Not to mention the naive innocent Templar companion Alister. The game is literally electric with sexual tension as characters banter during gameplay and joke around.
The two biggest innovations in this latest epic saga is that of only the 3 playable races, each one can start as either a noble or a commoner; dwarf, elf or human; but- each of the 6 scenarios has a wholly unique story to start with and it takes about 5 hours to complete.
Faithful as ever, Bioware have crafted a long game. Streamlined and simpler in execution with less spells than the previous 200 and a more basic tech tree that can go in many different directions, but long none the less. On the PS3 and 360 there are achievements for completing each back story and that alone is at least 20-30 hours. The whole game- 80 or 100+hours.
Secondly, the 'camp' location has been expanded; rather than just a sleep mechanic for a weary character, it provides a spot to build your party, talk to them, flirt, engage in private conversations, swap out your weapons and army and even buy DLC. Similar to an MMO instance or portal, the camp site is a fully interactive 'level' of its own.
After the success of the Fallout 3 revival last year, is it possible that two years running gamers have more role-playing than they know what do with. There is a steep learning curve for newcomers accustomed to a life of console ports and less than perfect character development, and it is possible that a game of this magnitude may completely bore them, but for everyone else, Dragon Age delivers and is a welcome trip down memory lane.
It is almost fitting, for that an 'old' game steeped in older law, the graphics on the whole look, well, old. On the PC version the resolution is at least tight and the textures seamless but on the console, on a large screen, materials and textures look blurred and muddied and the seams of the polygons stand out. There is less obvious glow and lighting effects and the water wholly un-dynamic. All this would be a loss if it wasn't for the fact that the last few games Bioware churned out were isometric 3D and sprite based adventures. There is a very literal sense of taking the colorful pixels of yore and turning them into 3D but without any of the modern features. Pools of water are super shiny and glassy...but can not be walked over or through, animation is awkward and clumsy.
Perhaps this is a little harsh. Close ups of all characters are rather excellent and for the most part lip syncing works. Considering Bethesda’s' models in both Fallout 3 and Oblivion, the people of Feralden don't look half ugly. It's more a case of, that in trying to bring the game up to scratch with a modern audience, all the color and fantasy of older games has been sucked out and replaced with brown and a decidedly Lord of the Rings burnt and grainy look. The films, not the book. Even spells are rather lackluster.
Despite the boring skies and underdeveloped backdrop; trees literally stop and there are large patches of blank if you get too close to an edge, the game is so compelling that if you don't constantly compare it to Mass Effect, you get used to it very quickly. Despite the changes in location and setting and characters, every turn and pause in the story reminds you of Baldurs Gate and unfortunately for some but gratefully for others this is the same game but lighter in content and actually smaller in scope.
Ever since Neverwinter Nights and Icewind Dale, Bioware games have been getting darker, but even the deep purples and blues are gone. The menu system and splash screen are almost unforgivable as there is no excuse for an ugly interface. Again, the PC fairs much better with a fully integrated mouse and menu system and hot key binding. The consoles have to settle for a wheel menu ala Mass Effect and a convoluted system of the bumpers vs. the triggers. Armor and weapons are well represented in the game and as stated before it's a case of the right piece for the right job. Rather than 100s of different drops even a splash of color can make a difference in what your character will wear.
There is immediate free DLC of special red/white Armor for both this game and Mass Effect 2 although capped at 38 strength; your character won't be wearing it for a while. There is some real personalization for each character and your party to look just the way you want, with each one supporting each other.
Oh, and the blood. Ever so much blood. Laughably so; the splash and spray of blood will last long after the romantic fires have burnt out as characters talk all the while sheathed in sprays of red. But you can if you so choose always get the dog to lick it up.
When a game is sprite based and limited in the detail of the environment you can forgive it for lacking certain- ambiance in the more populated areas. But even previous games had more kids and cats and people running around the villages than this game. Sadly with better graphics seems to come a limitation in how engaging a large capital city marketplace can be. Thankfully the background noises of people and animals and the general bustle of life is excellent and adds depth where there is none. As with all fantasy RPG Dragon Age also takes its own spin on the 'Enya-like' spiritual theme tune and is perhaps more memorable than other games.
More over, a highlight had to be accidentally initiating a sequence whereby one of the characters in camp actually sung the whole song, ala Enya to all the camp members for about 2 minuets. And characters will sing. Not just sing; but fight with you, disagree, fall in love and generally crack jokes. It would take all 6 playthroughs as either a complete bastard or general nice guy just to see the differences.
Perhaps even more so than Mass Effect, it would be hard to count the exact number of lines of dialogue in this game. And while a number of the faces and hairstyles repeat themselves all the voices are well represented and subtly different. There are some sound glitches where lips are moving but no sound is coming out, or sometimes oddly, the wrong lines spoken but otherwise considering, it is excellent all around.
Without actually any MMOs on a console, Dragon Age might be as close as we get while still playing alone. On the PC the game still stands tall for its excellent story and choices in the face of so many MMORPGs. There are already at least two sets of DLC out, with a new character, new armor and new environment all ready for the exploring. With 6 unique origin stories to play through and over 100 hours of content, there is nothing not to like. Just as you think one area is clear or the dungeon explored, and abomination will appear and send you to a magical dreamland of mazes and puzzles all the while taking you further into but further away from your ultimate goal.
The biggest value lies in the nostalgia for fans and veterans alike, while new comers may just find a starting point for a serious addiction. Not as original as Mass Effect, with some dated graphics, for the price of other shorter games it is well worth it. Check out the 400 page companion signed by the Bioware team and full of artwork.
A recent Australian interview with Bioware revealed plans for at least two years of DLC in a similar model to Fallout 3. On PC there is a full developer’s kit for modding, social site, and again promises that the best fan mods will make it to XBOX Live as was the case with Oblivion.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if Michael Atkinson is to be believed we don't need 'violent violence' just to make great art. Bioware has always taken great care to never tread on the toes of their storytellers. Dragon Age defiantly ramps it up with more blood and more action, but first and foremost is the traveler’s tale, and the story of their friends. It's not quite how I remember it all, but its damn close.
AAG SCORE: 9/10
- Everything you remember about previous Bioware games and more
- Extremely deep character development and dialogue
- Pet Dog is now a fully integrated character
- Underwhelming Graphics
- The length may bore some before they finish it
- Still not an MMO, but close
Reviewed and Written by Ian Crane