Dragon Age: Origins retrospectacle – Grey Wardens and grey environments

Dragon Age Origins wallpaperOne of the downsides of having only recently (within the last year really) joined the PC master race is that I suddenly find I no longer have any excuse to avoid many of the games I wistfully daydreamed about for so long when I couldn’t run any of them. Pretty high on the list of games I was disappointed to miss out on at their release, and always told myself I would play it if I ever got the chance to, is Dragon Age: Inquisition. DA:I was Tim’s game of the year for 2014 (which, while admittedly not a great year for games, is a pretty glowing recommendation on its own) but I have never been one for jumping into series halfway through… So one of the things I was determined to do was to actually complete Dragon Age: Origins first. The first installment of the popular series, released all the way back in 2009.

Back in 2009 Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) was a huge success, yet despite that I actually only got around to playing it over the course of the last year and a bit (I made pretty slow progress with it). At the time it was billed as a “dark heroic fantasy set in a unique world” (thanks Wikipedia!) which was fair enough considering what else was available at the time. However, since the popular rising of games like The Witcher and TV series like Game of Thrones, I’d say that describing itself as “dark” is probably viewed in the same way as when a 14 year old girl describes herself in the same way; with a condescending and tolerant smirk.

As it is a game by Bioware then it really goes without saying that the world is unique, with an epic and sweeping lore which could fill several actual history books with interesting material. That said, it is also a game which could be said to be set in a “standard” fantasy world, which kind of goes against the core principle of the word “fantasy”. There are elves who like trees, dwarves who like mines and humans who build big cities and are generally viewed as dickheads. In essence, it’s Lord of the Rings, but with racism, swearing and sex (it is “DARK” fantasy after all). Of course, as I said, it is a game by Bioware, so even the cliché fantasy tropes are carried off with style and flair.

For those not in the know, Dragon Age is essentially Mass Effect with swords. It is a 3rd-person RPG where you are the hero who somehow ends up having to save the world from the impending darkness of a Blight, an invasion of the surface world by an army of Darkspawn. Normally stopped by an organisation known as the Grey Wardens, you are roped into the organisation near the start and then end up as the only remaining one and so are forced to gather an army to defend Thedas.

Unlike in DA2, but like in Inquisition, you customise your protagonist at the start of the game, choosing a race (out of Elf, Dwarf and Man), class (mage, warrior or archer) and some elements of your backstory. With these various customisation options there are in fact 6 possible prologues to play through, each an hour or two in it’s own right, which is both very cool in terms of depth but equally very frustrating because it means having to start the game at least 6 times if you want to experience each one, which one feels is a little excessive. It feels like a slightly cheap way to get one to replay the game as opposed to more naturally via allowing greater depth through interesting choices made later in the game.

Combat plays out with you and your party (of which you may choose three at once from a pool of eight or so companions) rushing around, using abilities in an MMO-ish way. You can give your companions commands directly in combat, using an action-wheel mechanic which pauses the game as you decide who should be using what on whom, and you can also alter the “tactics” of each companion so that they perform certain moves at specifics times (for example you may alter it so that your tank uses a taunt whenever any of your party takes direct damage from someone). The game supposedly tried to take some aspects from Baldur’s Gate and so some aspects of combat are a little different from what might be a perceived norm. Death of a character leaves that individual with a debuff which can only be removed through the use of finite (possibly? I never did work this out) and rare injury kits. If the protagonist is killed in combat then instead of instantly losing you actually switch to one of the other party members, controlling them for the remainder of the fight.

While the UI is certainly very different on the Xbox version, it still feels like a valid comparison.
While the UI is certainly very different on the Xbox version, it still feels like a valid comparison.

The tactical aspect of the combat is actually really rather good and there is a lot of options for the “tactics” you can make your party employ, allowing you to customise your fights to a far greater degree than in games like Mass Effect. The downside of it is that if you do die then playing as one of your party is inevitably rather tricky because one has spent the entire game learning one move-set and is suddenly thrown head-first into a completely different one. This might not be an issue for a player who has levelled up one of all three classes, but for someone who only plays as a one of the other two when my main character died I almost always had to refresh myself on my companion’s abilities before continuing the encounter. It’s a trade-off of complexity for a lack of accessibility (at the higher levels anyway).

As with any RPG you also are constantly micromanaging the items and equipment of each party member, checking the various numbers against the current item numbers and switching if the new item will either increase your party-member’s numbers or it will help him/her decrease the enemy numbers.

While both of these, the combat and the items, are very enjoyable and have so much variation that one can very easily tailor one’s characters to fit whatever gameplay style you wish, there is an issue in that there is actually TOO MUCH variation. Playing as a mage, I had eighteen different spell trees to choose from and with four spells in each tree I was actually a little overwhelmed and confused as to what would be of any use whilst simultaneously being very aware that a number of the spells looked utterly pointless (and upon checking online discovered that they WERE pointless).

This is a guide lifted from a Reddit thread, and is in no way definitive. But it certainly clarifies just how much choice one has.
This is a guide lifted from a Reddit thread, and is in no way definitive. But it certainly clarifies just how much choice one has.

Equally, it appears that Bioware did indeed take more than a few hints from old-school and tabletop RPGs in that there are so many different stats that it’s sometimes rather difficult to make any sense of what is better. A perfect example is that towards the end of the game I was trying to equip my rogue party-member (Leliana) with a bow and I had several options, two of which seemed practically interchangeable. They had similar DPSes (which is always what one looks at first) the difference being that one had a stat of +Attack and the other had +Damage. I mean… Seriously? What the hell is the difference there? Worse even, each bow dealt a certain amount of damage (in this case around 9 each), so one has to wonder what the difference between the Damage stat and the +Damage stat is…

Don’t get me wrong, this much variation is usually fantastic, especially in an RPG where item and spell variation can be a key factor in customising one’s play-style and I personally always enjoy the micromanagement aspect. However, it is very clear that the game could use a good deal of stream-lining and balancing to remove useless abilities and superfluous stats which overlap with others.

For all its 7 year age, DA:O still manages to look pretty good. However, this comes with an addendum in that it doesn’t really grab the imagination in the way that other games in the same genre do. Games like Skyrim and actually also older games like WoW and Oblivion, succeed in looking better and contain far more memorable settings, not exactly due to the graphics style or anything along those lines, but more to do with the design of the game. For some reason Origins seems to use the Spunkgargleweewee colour palette and so everything, from the armour to the buildings, is all in a mix of shades of brown and grey. Its all very drab and not particularly eye-catching or exciting. I’d even argue that some of Bioware’s older games like Mass Effect and Jade Empire manage better to look exciting and fantastical.

In-game it feels like the graphics have not aged too badly, but looking at screenshots almost feels painful!
In-game it feels like the graphics have not aged too badly, but looking at screenshots almost feels painful!

That said, while none of the settings have a truly amazing feel to them I also don’t think I can complain about any of them, they all at least look meticulously and carefully designed. People actually often mention The Fade and the dwarf kingdom of Orzammar as being boring or frustrating levels, but honestly I never had any issues with either of them, for whatever reason.

While on the subject of looks as well I have to mention something that was pointed out to me and since noticing it I simply cannot stop noticing it. So I want to pass on the horror of this and ruin it for everyone else too. Basically while Bioware designed multiple faces, hairstyles and so on, they only designed two body types for each race “male” and “female”. With humans as an example this means that absolutely every male character is a toned, buff, he-man, whilst every female character is a curvaceous, chesty, amazon. Not exactly an issue, except that this carries over into characters like Wynne, who is supposed to be almost grandmotherly. And I’ll tell you something, the grandmotherly effect wears off in a rather disconcerting fashion when you are eminently aware that the old woman has the exact same pair of smashing norks as the main love interests.

So... Underneath the clothes she looks the same as someone much younger than her...? I could do without this image thanks... *shudders*
So… Underneath the clothes she looks the same as someone much younger than her…? I could do without this image thanks… *shudders*

Speaking of the love interests, I have to admit that the plot of Dragon Age is definitely more than a little cliché. Darkness encroaching on the land, only you can save them, gather an army (it’s dangerous to go alone, take this). Much of the over-arching plot feels fairly standard for a fantasy world. After all, in essence the plot boils down to: there is one big bad guy who you need to kill, and if you kill him, everybody wins. It’s the sort of fantasy story I came up with when I was 12, so not exactly inspiring if you like interesting narratives.

However, along the way the story takes a few unique twists and turns, providing a few exciting and intriguing aspects, almost always these parts of the story are centred around your companions, making the game more interesting for its characters rather than its overarching plot. I have to admit I did also absolutely live for the variety of side-missions and quests you have to undertake as you progress through the game. I liked the characters you meet, I liked the political intrigue, again I especially liked the companion stories and progression through them (love or otherwise). In short, despite some exceedingly worn-out elements, I pretty much loved everything about the story of Dragon Age. Of course, this practically goes without saying, because it IS a Bioware game and so saying it has good writing is kind of like saying a Telltale game has… Well… Good writing…

Morrigan also holds the current trophy for being rather un-romancable despite having the most immediately attractive character model that I've seen in many games.
Morrigan also holds the current trophy for being rather un-romancable despite having the most immediately attractive character model that I’ve seen in many games. I mean… DAAAAAAYUM!

Speaking of the story, I also quite liked the decision making (usually done via dialogue) of the game. This is primarily because, unlike other Bioware games, there is not inherently “good” or “evil” response. True you do TEND get a semi-standard “nice-guy”, “dickhead” and “sarcastic funnyguy” response but there isn’t always an option along those lines, making the game that touch more realistic than those which always have dialogue at the extremes.

One issue that can be brought up is the lack of any sense of impending doom in the game. Despite being constantly reminded that the Darkspawn are around and are being rather pesky blighters (pun intended) one never really feels any sense of urgency from anyone in the game to solve this supposedly looming catastrophe. People simply get on with their lives and you can take time out of this apparently urgent and vital quest to hunt down apprentice mages and get super-nice armour forged.

For all its flaws with its attempt at a “gritty” design and its absolutely uninspired central plot, it has to be said that Dragon Age is simply an extremely immersing game. It’s so easy to become lost within the world and its lore, only to emerge many hours later and not regret any second of it. The combat is actually fun, the tactical aspect and variation something that I actually felt was distinctly lacking from the later incarnations of Mass Effect. In short, I feel that the game has aged pretty well and is still absolutely well worth anyone’s time who enjoys a bit of classic high fantasy RPG.

Rating: B+

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