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Dragon Age: Origins (PlayStation 3) artwork

Dragon Age: Origins (PlayStation 3) review

"Part of me will genuinely smile when people talk about video-game "auteurs" - as individual studios, if not just specific game-designers, put their characteristic mark on a particular genre or type of game. But then again, it could very well be that the "auteurship" is just a sign of how the game-developer has now achieved full serial production. In Bioware's case, that would be spinning their "personality generator" to decide what possible motivation any of the many characters that litter the g..."

Part of me will genuinely smile when people talk about video-game "auteurs" - as individual studios, if not just specific game-designers, put their characteristic mark on a particular genre or type of game. But then again, it could very well be that the "auteurship" is just a sign of how the game-developer has now achieved full serial production. In Bioware's case, that would be spinning their "personality generator" to decide what possible motivation any of the many characters that litter the game-world should have for sticking around until the game ends. While walking you through a world painted with the same themes (and giant spiders) as before.

Depending on what you are looking for, this game could be both good and bad news.

Dragon Age: Origins is set in Ferelden, a game-world invented from scratch by Bioware. It also uses an original ruleset, that put together with the original game-world is a first for Bioware. The setting is closer to Wizards and Knights (in Dungeons and Dragons), while the rule-set approaches Light-sabers and recharging force-powers (from Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect). But you can tell that Bioware has designed the system from the bottom up, and makes a genuinely convincing attempt at translating the spells and ability rules that make sense on a board-game into something that approaches the same flow in a video-game. Basically, they are hiding the dice-rolls even more than in the earlier games in terms of animation, and creating more action-oriented abilities.

But the game still has the same "hit once, pause, get hit, hit again" animation cycles during the fights. And expand very little on that except a few times with a few finishing moves that trigger if you finish off a creature with a critical hit, for example. These paired up animations look extremely good, though. At least when they don't trigger backwards, or only for one of the creatures.

Meanwhile, the control system is adopted to work with a game-pad as well as a keyboard and mouse. And this generally works well - in the locked third-person perspectives available on the console-versions, and in the more familiar zoomable overview (from Neverwinter Nights) on the PC version. Some creative things had to be done with the layout and button-mapping, but essentially the console-versions have a custom-setup that you also could choose on the PC version if you wanted to. Because of the game's pace, this is not really problematic - it simply becomes about preference between two different layouts. It annoys me that they did not keep the floating menu with the rotating power-categories from Knights of The Old Republic, though.

In fact, the strange thing about the system in the console versions of Dragon Age is that it has a relatively steep learning curve. I had a few difficulties trying to figure out where everything was, and how to keep track of the info. This is really equally befuddling whether you have a mouse or a game-pad, simply because you don't have categories of powers - instead you have active and passive abilities. This sounds reasonable, but there's nothing really distinguishing them in an active context. So everything becomes a "trigger" effect, that may or may not be placed on the menu you wanted.

And since you are unable to simply hit space to pause the game in the console-versions, and then distribute the actions for all the party members, you need to plan a lot more to really be able to play the game. The tactics slot system is not exactly intuitive - you expect that you will be able to stock a couple of actions during the paused action. But no, you can't do that. Instead, you will pause the game - and if you issue an action, the game will continue. It is apparently intended that you should replace the micromanaging with scripts (that can be unlocked by choosing particular abilities called "tactics"). But of course no AI can predict the moves you want them to make in any situation.

So the playing style on the console-versions is intended to be a more passive, protagonist-centred experience. While the PC version keeps the 3rd person "party" approach to the exploration. It's a curious choice, but no doubt one that Bioware made consciously - for better or worse. It does help give the game a more cinematic, video-game like presentation from the start, I'll easily admit that, along with how I prefer to play the ps3 version on the TV over the PC version. And the more action oriented rule-system, along with the dialogue presentation helps this work better. But on the other hand, it makes any plan during the actual fighting haphazard, and any difficult battle a slow and painstaking process. That is a mistake, because it is as if an essential part of the game-mechanics was removed for the sake of simplicity.

It is therefore a bit curious to find that same design-duality in the story-telling. The dialogues and narrative flow is definitively designed to be a 3rd person detached perspective, where the party makes input, and you choose a dialogue path from an outside view, rather than exclusively your avatar's personal viewpoint. But you still find mechanics here that belong neither here or there between the two modes, and you often find yourself wondering why the game-world does not react to your choices - when what you really should have been looking for was how a particular person in the game-world will respond, referring to a specific instance from earlier. The interactions with your party members suffer from a similar problem - you are always expecting that the dialogue should have more of a director's approach rather than a personal one. But your party, and game-world characters very often respond to particular words and small, seemingly unimportant dialogues. Which means that you will not be choosing the approach or the direction of the scene, but instead play the "guess the right dialogue-choice" game, to get the responses you want in the immediate contexts.

I can't find much if any dynamic approach inside the scenarios themselves either. You explore the information available to you at the beginning, make a few completely random choices to explain to the game what character you are currently role-playing as, and then you go on the quest. The game then references what you heard earlier in the mission, and makes you choose a number of different paths that branch out near the end of the scenario. That essentially boils down to whether you are a psychopath, a naive saint, or really want to use that persuasion ability and "cunning" you might have chosen. Which more often than not dictates a particular dialogue path rather than open more up.

I said it is curious, because the narrative gives off the impression that a lot more choice was intended to be in the game. For example, in the introduction to the scenario where you meet the Brecilian Forest Spirit, you are given a lot of information that creates the setting very effectively. During the somewhat carefully structured middle part they have then written into the dialogue paths two separate narratives - but the characters you talk to do not respond to one of them. It is as if the dialogue path where "Swiftrunner" is apologetic or at least approachable only exists on the player's dialogue side in proto-form. And it was then just included, like any number of other dialogue paths, to let the player be softly insulted for not going along with what the director intended to be the primary narrative trail. Even as the middle of that chapter - like all the other middle parts in the quests - seems to have been structured for multiple direction of the same event, depending on your choices.

If Bioware had pulled that off, it would have raised the immersion factor a very large amount, and gone quite the distance to redeeming the Single Player video-game experience, as MMOs and online supposedly takes over.

It's unfortunate that it does not, because this is where Dragon Age truly could have been a brilliant game, owing to how good the writing that is there actually is. The overall story, the unique approach - and the very well written characters you will meet are both expressive and entertaining in several ways. Meanwhile, you are also unlikely to see a character fresh out of Bioware's standard personality generator in this game - that isn't either killed off during the opening segment, or is stuck somewhere in the background where you need pay it no attention.

In fact, you are in for a treat if you can ignore that the characters are machines that play back a set piece as you approach them and put on a quarter. Whether it is the exaggerated and emotional blacksmith "artiste", the impressively sexual female duelist with the untraditional training regimen, or the faithfully misquoting heralds at the churches around Ferelden - the characters are all both amusing and interesting. They are also what paints the texture on the game-world, and give it life outside of the main story events. During an "incident" with the circle of the Magi, the Templars sent by the church to clean up the mess will be tasked with carrying bodies across the lake. The voice of one Templar imploring another echoes down the hall: "why bring the corpses across the water - the lake is right there!".

Here Bioware succeeds with adding ambiance that does not feel scripted, and which explains context described more straightforward in the quests, the collection of written texts you find in libraries, and the dialogue elsewhere. In the same way, the quests are all tied to this lore in some way or other, so that the quests make sense.

Apart from this, the interjections from the members of your party are often pricelessly appropriate, scripted carefully as they are, and their personalities really come forward during some of these segments. Which, unusually, is a good thing. They are, for the most part, interesting and deep. We are also seeing, for the first time in any Bioware game, characters with actual character development. Shame it is hidden under a mini-game of "find the right gift to make the character magically attracted to you", but still..

It seems this is where Bioware spent most of the time with the writing, and while it was definitively not wasted, some of that time might have been better spent elsewhere in my opinion. On completing the multiple narratives, and on surgically removing the occasional bits in the story-telling that do not make sense within the context of Ferelden - but instead rest too exclusively on a real-world allegory knit up into current (political)events. It's is honestly not something that will stop your enjoyment of the story, but good fiction can not rest on outside context like this to make sense.

Still, the few critical parts of the main quest pieces are free of this problem, and are engaging and feel significant. This is also where you can role-play your character and end up actually having an impact on the game-world - you can choose a fair amount of options as you are trying to raise an army under the Grey Wardens. And the only real requirement is that some sort of conclusion happens, that establishes a new ruler, or settles a situation. So suddenly you are given all sorts of options (at least for a time) that will reflect on the game-world what sort of person you are - as well as impress on you how important the motivations of the different groups in the world will be for the character of the rule you may wish to help establish in the future.

Dragon Age: Origins is a somewhat well accomplished role-playing game that attempts (or at least flirts with) many interesting things in terms of direction, story progression - and a better game-system adapted to video-games. But it is still unfortunately just a game. It is a well written game, with personality and character that will occasionally surprise you very positively.

But for the majority of the game, it is only a game-world with mechanical characters that speak at you as you pass them by. Sometimes the same line, as suddenly the dialogue tree is reset. And you are left with the impression that the game could - with some success - just as well have been a long and more carefully scripted cut-scene. While battles, the swords and the exploring bits were just added in there for the sake of appearances.

Played through the game one and a half time. One playthrough should take about 25-35 hours, but you can mess around for a lot longer. Of course, no matter what you do, Morrigan always disapproves!


fleinn's avatar
Community review by fleinn (June 14, 2010)

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