BioWare have recently been on a bit of a holiday from their classic game themes, what with space-opera Mass Effect and their Sonic RPG Dark Brotherhood, but they’re back with something that’ll certainly make some traditional fantasy fans’ heads turn: Dragon Age: Origins.
The fantasy RPG was BioWare’s bread and butter in yesteryear, with heads Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk having grown up on Dungeons and Dragons and eventually becoming inspiring them to create well-loved titles such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.
The success of the aforementioned games and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic playing huge parts in creating a love for the company. They were one of the first teams to lead the way in the highly revered spat of isometric role playing games that came out in the early 90s.
Their new title Dragon Age: Origins sees the company looking back their old work with fresh eyes, now a more learned company BioWare have chosen not to use the D&D rules they previously relied on and have instead created a system of their own to govern this new title.
As you could probably guess-this is an origins story, detailing characters in an entirely new universe. Apparently there’ll be a lot to it too, with what should hopefully be at least 50, and possibly up to 100 hours long. DAO is also set to pride itself on the replay value it so clearly boasts, as playing with different characters will get you a completely new storyline detailing the beginnings of their tales.
If you’ve not yet had the chance, and own a PC, then take a look at the game’s character creator, which has been released already as a promotional but useful bonus. As you might hope, it’s possible to transfer your new character from the standalone creator to your main game, which should help you get stuck in a little quicker once playing the game proper.
Character classes available include warrior, rogue and mage, along with a choice of gender and class. There are a number of options for customizing appearance and a chance to dish out some attribute points to core stats. The Character Creator also allows you to take a look at how the skill and talent trees will work.
Once the game has begun proper there’ll be more chance to hone your abilities. When your character reaches level 7, and then 14, they’ll receive a specialization point. These are necessary to learn new specializations though aren’t enough to do so on their own (more on that shortly).
Specializations are class-specific, and include variations such as Berserker for warriors, Duelist for rogues, and Arcane Warrior for mages. Learning them will require either a companion who favors your character enough to teach you or the purchase of a manual from a trader. There may be other ways to find details of these but we don’t yet know. It’s worth noting though that it’s only possible to specialize in a maximum of two areas at a time.
There’s a lot to be playing with before reaching those harder to find specializations, with the chance to assign points to assist in learning spells and abilities at every level up. If playing as a warrior or rogue then you’ll be choosing between weapon and class skills, while a mage is given options within four schools of magic.
As you’ll know from any RPG it’s not all about combat though, and the skills that aren’t based around fisticuffs are almost as important as those that are. These include non include Survival, Stealing, Herbalism and Coercion amongst others.
It’s also important to pay attention to you're attributes, which are where you define the more basic strengths of your character, and consist of Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Magic, Cunning and Constitution.
What makes Dragon Age a little more unique in terms of the fantasy RPG is its emphasis on player choices. There’s a huge focus on really allowing the player to make a difference in terms of where the story goes. Small decisions that come up from time to time will impact major events in the game as well as those blindingly large ones. BioWare are trying to enable the player to create their own legend. It’s called Origins for a reason; this is your character’s history, and you’re a big part of it.
The emphasis on story and the possible differences between each play become apparent particularly when repeat-playing with a different race. Each has its own back story to play through before entering the major or minor quests. The idea here is that you’ll feel a little more attached to your character by both creating and knowing their past. It’s a mechanic that certainly brings a lot of replay value to the game, especially considering how much those decisions throughout will also add variables to events.
These beginnings aren’t about learning to ride a bike with daddy or playing ball though, no, quite the opposite-they’re pretty dramatic affairs. You play as a member of the Grey Wardens, a special force who’ve been protecting the planet from the Darkspawn (a nasty bunch who keep trying to kill everything) for hundreds of years. The beginning of the game maps your route to joining them and will last roughly a couple of hours before unleashing players into the main game. Your character will always be someone that championed their race in some way or other, helping them to achieve something, usually escaping some kind of oppression. A fairly political affair then, which helps to create a context for what’s an entirely new and carefully fleshed-out world.
Once you’ve played through your Origin story, there’s another fairly linear section within which you’ll be playing as a fully-initiated Grey Warden. This is path which leads the team to becoming so heavily involved in the fight against the Darkspawn.
There are a series of playable characters the team meet while playing through this quest line that sometimes stay for the long haul. One of these is a sexy and slightly reluctant witch known as Morrigan, the other is named Alistair, a slightly dippy but dedicated Grey Warden.
After the prologue, which takes a good few hours to get through, players are given much more freedom and a chance to explore the world proper, choosing their own path. There’s the option of choosing to progress with one of four main quests or a number side-quests scattered around the map.
It’s quickly apparent that conversation is a driving force in Dragon Age, with combat taking a fairly equal measure of your time throughout. While plot may be important, it isn’t shoved in your face in the kind of “wham bam” manner so many games, or films for that matter often do. Haven’t said that, the drama is still high, and sensitive, more mature subjects are touched upon regularly.
While it’s possible to take the action-adventure approach by plowing through with your AI companions set to automatic (an “Easy mode” exclusive option), you’ll most likely want to be putting a little more time into thinking about who does what, especially in harder modes (or if you’ve been playing RPGs since they were exclusive text-based).
Adding to the “pause and play” or “run-through-and-bash-bash-bash” methods of combat a third option allows players to set a number of automatic responses to various conditions. These are known as Tactics and work much like the Gambits system for anyone who’s played Final Fantasy XII (or “if-then statements” for all the programmers out there).
Variables in Tactics include, amongst other things, checking for an enemy’s status, picking the nearest baddie or choosing the one with the lowest health. Once an enemy is picked, for example’s sake let’s say the “Nearest Visible”, you’re able to set another variable to help decide what to do next, we’ll go for “Health <25%” (which tells our companion choose this character if their health is under 25%). The third and final option is what action your companion should take in this circumstance, perhaps “Shield Bash”?
You’re able to set up a priority ladder of sorts, meaning if the tactic you’d like your player to perform isn’t possible (for example, no enemy’s health is under 25%) the next Tactic in line will be selected.
The use of these Tactics proves to be a very effective method for winning a lot of battles, and is a nice middle ground between running through without thinking and pausing to choose who does what on a regular basis. If this all sounds like it ain’t your bag then don’t worry, it needn’t take up any of your time and can either be entirely ignored or set to class-based presets.
Something that might come as a shock to anyone who came from an MMO background is how you’ll need to really manage story events and character choices as the level of depth here is something BioWare have clearly put a lot of time into.
Relationships need to be looked after, with each companion having their own approval level for your protagonist, which, when very positive will give a boost in battle, and when extremely positive can lead to friendships going that little bit further.
Dragon Age: Origins is looking pretty polished already, it could well be the game to grab if you’re looking for somewhere to start in the world of role playing and for older fans certainly somewhere to pick up on from an area BioWare have recently been quiet in.