Dragon Age: Observations - The Story

Written by Stuart Thomas on Fri, Jan 8, 2010 2:06 PM
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Dragon Age: Origins was just too much game for me to review in one sitting. Here's the fourth part of my series of observations on the newest fantasy RPG from Bioware.

You really don’t need to know anything about Dragon Age other than the title to get a mouthful of what it tastes like. We’re firmly in the land of elves, dwarves and poorly-disguised orcs. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen – it’s another fantasy epic!

They’ve come in many varieties over the years, but Bioware insists that here we’re looking at “Dark Heroic Fantasy”. Is there such a thing as unheroic fantasy? Regardless, there are unwanted pregnancies, matricide, son-in-law-o-cide, torture, betrayal, and a healthy handful of dark plot devices to drive things into gloomy-town.

 There’s never been a fantasy game that doesn’t owe a couple of gold pieces to Tolkien for his masterwork ‘Lord of the Rings’, but few are such obvious homages as this to the great fantasy bible. Or, to be more exact, to the recent movie trilogy. The Darkspawn – the monstrous villains of the piece – look alarmingly similar to Peter Jackson’s orcs, and the plot isn’t all that dissimilar either.

 It is, however, distinct from most character-based fantasy RPGs, in that the story drives pretty much everything. You’ll not just happen upon a bunch of caves, and wander in for the sole purpose of finding the phat_lewt. Underlying all of your actions is a greater storyline. And what a storyline it is. It starts out intensely (regardless of which background you choose) and then plunges you into the midst of an all-out war, with some of the most gripping and cinematic battle scenes I’m yet to see in a videogame.

 The world is detailed to an immense degree – it’s clear that Bioware have taken the development of their setting extremely seriously. Which is wise as I’m sure we’re going to see a trillion sequels using the same setting. Snippets of information relating to your quest, or to the greater world that surrounds you, are made available through codex entries, eerily similar to the Mass Effect codex. It’s a great system as the developers are clearly proud of the work and imagination they’ve put in to world-building, but understand that it’s not going to be interesting to each and every player. You could play the whole game, AND understand what’s going on, without even opening the codex. But when every awesome new sword doesn’t just have interesting powers, but also its own codex entry with its history and background, it transports you back to what made Baldur’s Gate so good.

The NPCs who join your party feel like supporting roles in a story rather than just meat shields. Each has a distinct personality as well as a closetful of dark secrets and mysterious motivations which become clearer as the plot develops. And listen to this: Not one of them was annoying. Almost all of them made me laugh at least once, and three or four of them had me thinking “THIS is my favourite companion”. The scripting is thoughtful and clever, and the voice-acting is as good as I’ve heard in a game.

 The thing that gets you about Dragon Age: Origins is the immersion. When I sit down and click that ‘resume’ button, there’s a world of things to think about: The coming blight, the problem of succession to the throne, the life-span of a Grey Warden… Far too much for real life to interfere.

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