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Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360) artwork

Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360) review

"Dragon Age: Origins is grand in every sense of the word. The land of Ferelden and its associated legends and lore create a strong, if slightly predictable, high-fantasy setting that will quite easily consume in excess of forty-hours. As the land prepares for an imminent blight – an invasion of twisted creatures known as darkspawn – your character is recruited into the legendary order of the Grey Wardens, warriors from all walks of life who have came to the world’s aid in blights past. "

Dragon Age: Origins is grand in every sense of the word. The land of Ferelden and its associated legends and lore create a strong, if slightly predictable, high-fantasy setting that will quite easily consume in excess of forty-hours. As the land prepares for an imminent blight – an invasion of twisted creatures known as darkspawn – your character is recruited into the legendary order of the Grey Wardens, warriors from all walks of life who have came to the world’s aid in blights past.

Depending on the race and class you decide to be, you’ll embark on one of the six origins stories; these are relatively short sequences that allow you to familiarise yourself with the basics and get a sense of the issues that plague Ferelden. The City Elf origin illustrates the discrimination that the elves are subjected to, and you’ll see first-hand in the Dwarven Noble origin how political scheming and underhand tactics are common play in their culture. Far from the gimmicky tutorial that it could have been, your origin paints the picture for the rest of your experience. For example, playing an elf will result in more snarky and underhand comments from humans, but you’ll receive a warmer welcome by the clan of Dalish elves (a wild tribe that refuse to bow to human oppression) than a human or dwarf would. The other great thing is the continuity across origins (which you’ll only start to notice at the tail-end of the game or during a second run): if you choose the Dwarf Commoner origin, the other origins still ‘happen’ with different outcomes than if you would have choose them.

The events in your origin and throughout the wider game are portrayed through fully-voiced conversations and cut-scenes, which do a great deal to help immerse yourself in the world. It achieves this in a number of ways, mainly through interactions with your party. Rather than a good/evil bar, each companion has an approval meter which is affected by their perception of your actions. Alistair, the witty templar, looks favourably on you helping out the poor and victimised. But the social pariah that is the mage Morrigan would interpret such acts as a sign of weakness and a waste of time. Characters can actually leave the party if they disagree with the player on certain things, but these events are telegraphed so you’ll be able to see them a mile off.

And that’s the main problem with your companions: the interactions are great but the system is too easy to cheat. You can give gifts to win back approval if you’ve upset someone, which contributes to the feeling that there is no real sense of consequence. You can’t keep everyone pleased, but you can keep them in a state of acceptance without any real problems. The only incentives you have to retain high approval are mild stat bonuses and romance plotlines, which by the way aren’t handled too well. The culmination of these ‘maturely presented’ relationships is an awkward and unconvincing love scene; for the record, both parties are clothed in the appropriate areas and are seen together in suggestive positions, complete with generic and corny music playing over the top. ‘Mature presentation’, as described by developers BioWare, presumably means to convey the love between the two characters: awkward visuals and cheesy music doesn’t achieve that, and it does leave the feeling that it’s a token ‘sex’ scene to stir up a bit of interest.

Unfortunately, the poor visuals that failed to portray said emotions in the romance plotlines are present throughout. This isn’t an ugly game by any stretch of the imagination, but textures are low-res and facial expressions convey little expression. Higher-quality visuals would have really given Dragon Age a boost to the sense of immersion that it’s already established. Recent titles far exceed it in terms of prettiness, and even Oblivion released in 2006 trumps it.

As underwhelmed you might feel by the visuals, the extensive combat system suffers no such problem. Similar to the Baldur’s Gate franchise but adapted to console play (it plays out a lot like the Knights of the Old Republic franchise), you control a party of four in real-time, commanding a single unit at a time. Combat can be paused on the fly to switch characters and micro-manage their commands, but proper use of the AI tactics system can eliminate this if you so wish. The power you’re afforded when assigning tactics is huge, and include using a health poultice when you drop under a certain health percentage or auto-attacking with a certain talent the enemy that targets your healer. There are literally hundreds, probably thousands of tactics you can create, and as your companions level they’ll gain more slots to aid you in creating more comprehensive strategies.

And the class you choose way back at the beginning will be crucial in determining how you fight. A warrior will want to focus on dishing as much damage as possible, but you can also use talents to knock enemies of their feet – perfect to circle around and gain a damage bonus from a backstab. Alternatively you could act as a tank by using talents to attract ‘aggro’ (enemy attention) and keep them away from companions. Rogues are less direct and more suited to stealth, archery, and trap-setting, although they can mix it up in close-quarters with an additional backstab bonus. Mages are more versatile and can act as damagers and support units thanks to the range of spells at their disposal, and the great thing is all three base classes have specialisations (such as champion, assassin, and spirit healer) to further refine your battle strategies.

Even if you’re a micro-manager by nature, you’ll probably at least dabble with different tactics and talents thanks to the challenge that combat poses. The default difficulty will be manageable for gamers experienced in the genre, but don’t think you’ll be able to run into a skirmish without consequences. You’ll often have to plan ambushes and co-ordinate your companions’ attacks to avoid being overwhelmed. If you do fall, you’ll be automatically revived after the skirmish with a penalty to your stats (which can be remedied with an injury kit). But if you dare attempt the nightmare or insanity difficulties, you’ll have a lot more to think about. Enemies hit harder and take more hits, and you’ll also have to deal with friendly-fire, particularly a problem if you have a mage casting large area-of-effect spells.

If you’re into RPGs, Dragon Age: Origins is a must have simply for its giant scope. Although it bears more than a passing resemblance to Lord of the Rings in places, it does more than enough to create a world that you’ll look forward to revisiting in the inevitable sequel. Although the poor visuals and occasionally inconsistent voice-acting don’t do it any favours, they won’t spoil your enjoyment of this engrossing fantasy RPG.


PAJ89's avatar
Community review by PAJ89 (December 01, 2009)

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fleinn posted December 01, 2009:

Good review. I like the matter of factly style that simply describes the game, although the language is melodic as well. There are a few breaks, but since what you've written in those paragraphs actually means something, it only makes the review better, in my opinion. :D

"with different outcomes than if you would have choose them."
..than if you would have chosen another?
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PAJ89 posted December 02, 2009:

Much appreciated, glad you enjoyed. I've been out of the writing loop for some months and desperately want to re-enter; normally I wouldn't choose to write about such an expansive game considering the circumstances (which as you can see is clunky and awkward in parts), but its the only thing I've played over the last few weeks!
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CoarseDragon posted December 02, 2009:

Given the scope of the game you did a very good job of covering the basics and giving information someone might need to know if considering a purchase. I would like to have seen mention of the the downloadable content Bioware plans on giving Dragon Age: Origins both currently and in the future. There is also a construction kit available for download (free I believe) so fans of the game can make their own modules to add in extra content.
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EmP posted December 03, 2009:

Nice to see you're still alive, man. Nice comeback.
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WilltheGreat posted December 04, 2009:

The fact that I disagree with the content of this review does not change that it's exceptionally well-written, especially taking into consideration the scope of DAO. I tip my hat to you, sir.

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