Bioware aren't bad at this RPG lark. Since they set up shop in '95 they've given us Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights Of The Old Republic, and Mass Effect to name just a handful of their contributions to the genre. Dragon Age: Origins was touted as the spiritual successor to the much-loved Baldur's Gate series but a goofy name and uninspiring trailers resulted in there being much less excitement surrounding the game, especially when compared with the hype that has been building around Bioware's other projects: Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic.
I loaded Dragon Age up for the first time fearing an assault of dragon mythology with a Marilyn Manson soundtrack but blessedly it came to pass that dragons would be used sparingly and Mazza would be entirely absent. Instead there's an orchestral score and the deepest fantasy world since Tolkien put down his biro.
I've always preferred realistic or even sci-fi settings over ones with orcs and elves prodding each other with swords but I have to give credit where credit is due. David Gaider and his team must have spent countless hours crafting hundreds of years of history for Ferelden and its surrounding regions. There is so much story that they couldn't even fit it into the standard course of the game and you'll find books littering most of the environments you encounter which, when clicked, fill up a 302-item codex of backstory.
With as few spoilers as possible, the plot of the game focuses on uniting the races of the land to stand against the Darkspawn; an ancient horde of orcish, zombie-like monsters that rise up every few centuries to give the world a kicking. Far from being one-dimensional pantomime villains, the game does well to portray them as extremely malevolent so-and-sos; not unlike Mass Effect's Geth.
What makes Dragon Age's plot different is that it begins with the player character's own origin story. We've seen this before in Bioware games but it typically amounts to choosing from a handful of single lines of text that sum up a few years of your character's life and you're left to imagine how things went down. In Dragon Age you pick one from six possible origin stories and then play through it for the first several hours of the game before the eventual plot even begins! As a stout, beardy chap I naturally created a dwarf as my character and soon found myself in the middle of a fratricidal power struggle over the crown of Orzammar, an underground dwarven city. The events that occur in your origin story will have repercussions throughout the wider world and many hours later in the game you'll still be encountering characters who you knew in your formative years.
Throughout your time in Ferelden you'll encounter hundreds of characters – all brilliantly voiced – and a number of them can become your Darkspawn-decking sidekicks. You can only take a party of four (three of them, plus you) out on your adventures but between excursions everyone chills out at your camp where you can talk with them at your leisure. Each of your pals has an approval meter that fluctuates based on their assessment of your actions and your reward for being Mr. Popular comes in the form of stat bonuses for your biggest fans. Characters will also open up to you about their pasts as their fondness grows and high approval or the timely offering of a gift can trigger extra quests with remarkable rewards.
Shale is a golem who becomes available as part of the Stone Prisoner DLC and quickly became my favourite character; mainly due to the similarity with KOTOR's HK-47. Shale enjoys nothing more than crushing skulls and if given enough opportunities the resulting high approval rating will open up an entirely new area to explore down in the caverns of the Deep Roads. It really is must-have downloadable content.
Unfortunately a less welcome side effect of high approval is the potential for characters to want to get your kit off. Call me a prude but the trend for sex scenes in video games is starting to concern me. I think the problem I have with it is the knowledge that although the awkward animation and out of place soundtrack make me cringe and laugh in equal measure, somebody somewhere is watching the same thing with their trousers around their ankles.
In amongst all of the role playing, there's a game here. Dragon Age marks a departure from the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset used in the past but the mechanics will remain familiar to RPG players. Your character and party members have stats for strength, dexterity, willpower, magic, cunning, and constitution and the points piled into them each time you level up determine the rate at which you can make things die. Your stats can be bolstered with weapons and armour looted from the still warm corpses of your enemies or from merchants, or from the still warm corpses of merchants, and the range of items available is exceptional.
Combat offers the best of both worlds for RPG enthusiasts of all kinds. Battles play out in real time but with a slap of the spacebar you can pause the action and give direct orders to any or all of your party members. Depending on the way you play, you may find yourself watching cooldown timers and health bars more than you watch your avatar hack lumps out of orczombies but if you do keep an eye on the bigger picture you'll often be treated to fantastic little flourishes of combat animation as your characters strike killing blows. Killing my first ogre and seeing that wonderful creature-specific death blow animation goes down as one of those great gaming moments that will be etched into my memory forever more.
Difficulty largely comes down to how forward-thinking you are in your distribution of attribute points and skill choice. I've heard from others playing the game that with the right planning you can make it child's play but it's exactly that kind of planning that I lacked and I was begging for an option to respec within my first ten hours. For better or for worse that option never materialised but there is now a third party mod to add the functionality.
Despite some of my poor choices it was still clear that the difficulty curve wasn't entirely steady. You can take on the quests in any order but this means that despite the dynamic level scaling of enemies you can still get into boss encounters before you're ready for them. If you take anything from this review, make it this: when you go to the Deep Roads, count the number of health items in your inventory. If your immediate reaction is, “Golly! I have more health items than I could ever possibly use!” then continue. If you have any other reaction then you need more health items.
The camera defaults to a third person view behind your currently selected character but you can spin it around as much as you like or even zoom right out to a top-down view of the action if you really miss Baldur's Gate. The visuals when you get up close are great – not bleeding edge but plenty good enough. The game's art style as a whole is striking and distinctive. You can really tell it apart from other RPGs and that's primarily because of the game's iconic use of blood. Battlegrounds are left covered in the stuff after you've run through them but, notably, there'll be just as much splattered on you! Your armour and any exposed flesh get bathed in splashes of the red stuff and they remain until the next time you switch your equipment. My dwarf and his posse have held discussions with all of Ferelden's movers and shakers whilst looking like horror film extras.
Dragon Age performed flawlessly throughout, demonstrating the capabilities of the new Eclipse engine, and the number of bugs was very small for a game of this staggering size. The only significant error I encountered was a single crash that left me having to replay through some tough fights and I became an obsessive quicksaver for the rest of the playthrough. Often that sort of thing is enough to turn me off a game for weeks or months while I sulk but I just couldn't keep away from Dragon Age.
As a reviewer I have a reluctance to give ten out of ten scores. I believe it's very important to handle them with care and avoid awarding them too often so as to avoid cheapening the accolade. Dragon Age was a joy to play from start to finish and I was always tempted to give it that perfect score but the crash bug, slightly erratic difficulty curve, and one or two cringe-worthy character scenes threatened to bring it down to a 9.5. Then I finished the game. It had taken 56 hours, 22 minutes, and 53 seconds from me and yet the very first thing I thought about as the credits rolled was whether I'd make a mage or a rogue for my next playthrough. That's how you get a ten.