Dragon Age: Origins Review
Xbox 360 | PS3 | PC
Dragon Age: Origins box art
System: X360, PS3, PC Review Rating Legend
Dev: BioWare 1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid 4.0 - 4.4 = Great
Pub: Electronic Arts 2.0 - 2.4 = Poor 4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
Release: Nov. 3, 2009 2.5 - 2.9 = Average 5.0 = The Best
Players: 1 3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
ESRB Rating: Mature 3.5 - 3.9 = Good
A New Standard
by Jonathan Marx

Dragon Age: Origins is an innovative, masterfully crafted strategic RPG from perhaps the greatest developer of such titles. Whereas most games in the genre fixate on level-grinding, Dragon Age emphasizes storytelling and tactical combat, while still providing deep character development. Many tired conventions have gone out the window or have been reinterpreted to bring about a fresh, truly engaging experience. This is the best fantasy RPG to drop since Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; more than filling the void left behind by that title.

Dragon Age: Origins screenshot

Though I'm a Diablo fanatic from way back, the days of such hack 'n slash mouse-clicking is no longer fulfilling. Dragon Age takes a completely different tact. Instead of having players button-mash their way to victory, you'll take control of a party of heroes and have to marshal them around the battlefield. As such, combat is quite reminiscent of that found in Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic. If you haven't had a chance to play those games, know that mid-battle pausing to issue orders to your party rules the day. Positioning, attack style, and character role all play a vital part in your success. This is especially true when you take on the many solo-bosses found throughout the game.

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In order to describe the combat system in action, let me take you through one of the first main plot missions. After arriving at the ruined city of Ostagar and going through a rite of passage called The Joining, my first task as a Grey Warden (an elite power group charged with hunting and destroying the Darkspawn blight) was to hail reinforcements by scaling a tower in the ancient city and lighting a warning fire. Along the way, a fellow Warden and I picked up a nameless soldier and a tower guard to help us get to the top of the spire, because an advanced group of Darkspawn had already taken it and entrenched themselves. You see, the Darkspawn aren't stupid. The tower was filled with barricades and traps that thwarted our advance. Also, a nice mix of archers, tanks, and rogues challenged us at every floor. Despite the enemy's preparations, climbing our way up through the soaring complex was relatively easy - I only got TPK'ed five or six times.

Dragon Age: Origins screenshot

What made things so easy is that I was able to assign all of my party members a succinct set of combat tactics. Combat tactics can be issued at anytime and serve to shape party member battle behaviors to suit your tactics. There are a number of preset roles you can give characters within the party, or you can create custom behaviors that better suit your needs. Molding the friendly AI in this way allowed me to focus fire on critical threats, slow down the defenders with key powers, and get healing to those that needed it without having to incessantly micromanage - except for a few big minion fights along the way, most of the time you can issue orders in real-time without having to pause the game. Being able to get through lesser hordes in this way (i.e. quickly) keeps the pacing up and makes your party seem heroic.

After making our way up to the top of the soaring structure, we were confronted by our first major test - an ogre. Throughout the game, solo-bosses like this one will challenge you tactically, completely changing combat. Rather than solely trusting the AI to perform their roles, you'll have to be far more hands-on. You'll constantly be hitting the pause button, selecting a specific party member, issuing an order, unpausing, pausing again, selecting a new party member, giving a heal command, unpausing again, moving a character to a new position, etc. While its description may seem a bit tedious, it actually is great fun. That's because the emphasis on tactical combat - setting up flanks, stealthily delivering backstabs, keeping archers and mages at range, etc. - makes you think, keeps you in constant fear of death, and lends an epic aura to these boss battles. The mix of multiple, fast-paced battles culminating in drag-out, balls-to-the-wall, anxious boss fights makes Dragon Age a complex delight to play through.

Dragon Age: Origins screenshot

For the most part, control in Dragon Age is very good. Being able to zoom in and out of fights on the fly allows you to tailor the game to an action-oriented or more tactical experience, depending on what the situation calls for. Also, issued commands and powers are acted upon immediately and executed quickly, keeping you in control of the party at all times. A major problem I found, however, had to do with hit detection issues, especially during boss encounters. On numerous occasions, I found myself having to load up my last save because I was dealt major damage to a character that had clearly managed to avoid an attack - and by "clearly" I mean I had scrambled 5 to 10 ft. out of the way. While this is infrequent, when it happened it cheapened fights and significantly raised my blood pressure. Finally, negotiating complexes and corridors is slick whilst in the withdrawn, tactical perspective, but once you get zoomed in, pathfinding can be troublesome.

Screenshots / Images
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