Exploring a Massive World
October 15, 2009 – Some video game developers build games. BioWare builds worlds. From the revered Dungeons & Dragons games of Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate to the gritty political, science fiction of Mass Effect, BioWare has a history of crafting deep, involving universes that feel like real places with rich histories and vibrant cultures. Over the last few years, BioWare brought three completely distinct worlds to consoles with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect – all titles that broke away from the developer’s roots of high fantasy PC games.
Now BioWare is returning to that territory with Dragon Age: Origins, an epic dark fantasy coming to PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 this November. Those gamers more attracted to the sleek sci-fi of Mass Effect than a world of sword and sorcery have nothing to fear; Dragon Age is a game for them as well as the longstanding BioWare fan. We were lucky enough to spend two straight days immersed in the world of Dragon Age and we simply cannot wait to go back.
It is difficult to convey the sheer size of Dragon Age with words alone. The game is so massive that after the initial character creation, the game immediately splinters into several directions. True to the “Origins” subtitle, Dragon Age has six separate openings, depending on which race and specialization you’ve selected. My character was a human warrior whose family was betrayed by an ally, setting me off on a quest for revenge. No matter what your origin, your character will eventually travel through a few key plot moments, including an induction into the ancient order of the Grey Wardens, a group devoted to battling Dragon Age’s primary antagonists: evil, corrupted creatures called the Darkspawn. After you join the Grey Wardens, the world of Ferelden is open to you – Primary quests involve invoking treaties with the elves, dwarves, and humans to find allies in the battle against the Darkspawn, and each location you visit is loaded with optional side quests that reward you with experience, treasure, and other loot. Even if you were to avoid all side quests and stick to the critical path, you’ll still find a massive adventure before you – the fastest anyone has completed the game so far is around 40 hours. BioWare estimates that it will take most players between 60 and 100 hours to finish the game.
On PC, Dragon Age’s gameplay is designed to be flexible and allow the player to play it the way he or she wants. The default camera is a standard third-person perspective, but if you prefer the traditional isometric RPG camera view, you can simply move the camera out with the mouse wheel and view the world from above. In either view, you can steer your character directly with the WASD keys or simply click the point where you want him to go with the mouse. In traditional BioWare fashion, your hero acquires a party of followers over the adventure, and you can switch between them all on the fly. Every character has distinct special abilities such as spells, attacks, ability buffs, and more. All abilities and items can be mapped to a hotkey bar for quick activation, and you can issue orders to your group while paused if you need a moment to think. If you prefer to focus on just your hero character, you can even create customized AI routines for your squadron, telling them exactly how to behave in incredibly specific combat scenarios.
The console versions of the game play and feel a bit different, with good reason. BioWare redesigned several aspects of the game for consoles, such as the user interface and the camera. The PS3 and Xbox 360 versions look more like a standard third-person action game, with an over-the-shoulder camera and a speedier feel to combat. Players can map six abilities or items to the face-button, using the right trigger to toggle between two hotkey sets. Pulling the left trigger opens a radial menu that pauses the action and allows players to choose from the complete set of available attacks and items at their leisure. The difficulty has been altered as well, with the Normal setting on consoles roughly equivalent to Easy on PC. Despite these changes, BioWare is insistent that absolutely nothing from the PC game was removed from the console versions, merely tweaked so that players on every platform experience it in the best way possible.
Fantasy games may not be as popular as they once were, but even gamers who roll their eyes at elves and dwarves owe it to themselves to delve into Dragon Age: Origins. While many familiar fantasy elements are present, most aren’t what you think. BioWare excels at turning the familiar on its pointed ear and presenting things in ways that are completely different than what you expect. The story we’ve experienced thus far is dark, bloody, mature, and surprising. Anyone who enjoys complex, compelling storytelling and deep RPG gameplay will find something to love about Dragon Age: Origins.
Epic Tactical Fantasy
December 27, 2008 – The folks at BioWare are masters of their craft. With fan favorites such as the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series setting the tone in their early days, this development studio garnered rabid support from RPG gamers in the know. Later, games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect have made this company synonymous with top-quality RPGs.
Their current project is Dragon Age: Origins, an original IP that is described as being the “spiritual successor” to Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Stepping outside of the Dungeons & Dragons universe, BioWare has fashioned a dark world and story that puts a premium on character development, complex, intertwining storylines, and intense tactical combat.
Amazingly, unlike most studios, BioWare has been able to tackle multiple gaming platforms with relative ease. The legendary Star Wars: KOTOR proved the company could develop for both PC and home consoles, Mass Effect reaffirmed this, and even Sonic Chronicles showed the company could take on the DS. With this coding expertise, BioWare will bring the Dragon Age: Origins experience PC and console gamers alike.
Dragon Age: Origins takes place in a world threatened by evil Dark Spawn. The kingdom of Ferelden is being terrorized by this menace, and it is up to the brash King Cailan and his Grey Wardens to protect the world from disaster. The Grey Wardens is an elite group within the Ferelden’s armed forces made up of warriors and magi of great ability and renown.
Players start the game from a unique perspective depending upon the race, class, gender, and origin story they have selected. Commensurate with these initial choices and the subsequent decisions players make, the story, NPCs, player growth, and party make-up will be ever-evolving. One thing that does remain constant, however, is that players will be inducted into the king’s army as a Grey Warden. As such, the game will follow an engaging main story arc that should act as a cohesive element regardless of your individual choices.
Still, the game should feel quite different depending on character customization due to its heavy emphasis on origin stories. After all, it’s even found in the subtitle of the game. Consequently, playing the game as a human noble warrior will be very different than if you were playing as an elf mage. For example, humans run the world, and elves are considered second class citizens. Human noble warriors not only fight differently, but they also command respect from townsfolk and military members alike. On the other hand, magi are mysterious wielders of arcane power that are cautiously dealt with by the average citizen, but they are held in great esteem by other magic-touched members within their circle. The origin of each character will greatly dictate how the world around you initially reacts to you.
Likewise, Dragon Age: Origins will not confine your character to rigid alignment-based actions. Players are free to be as good or as evil as they want to be. In fact, often players will have to make tough decisions throughout the game; what’s best for the common good may be decidedly bad for a few. Players will be given the freedom to make those decisions as they see fit. Again, the decisions players make will constantly shape and mold the story and world around them.
The only real constraint to your decision-making process is party approval. Throughout the game, you will be matched with NPCs that will join your group. These characters have their own ambitions and motivations that may coincide or contrast with your own. As such, players will constantly have to manage the chemistry and makeup of the party. It’s quite possible for a party member to turn on you if your choices consistently and completely disregard their own outlook and moral compass. A precursory example of this was demonstrated in Mass Effect, when players had to try to convince Urdnot Wrex that the serum being developed to get rid of the biophage that plagued his people was just a false cure. Interactions like this should serve to make NPCs far more complex than what we’ve seen in most RPGs.
Outside of the complex story and NPCs, players will have a host of character growth opportunities as well as a tactical combat mechanic to manage. Not dissimilar to what was found in BioWare’s D&D-based games, players will have a wealth of talents and ever-increasing abilities to level up as they progress their characters through the game. What’s more, class specialization will eventually kick in that will lead to advanced talents and spells.
Combat is one of the most intriguing aspects of Dragon Age: Origins. Players will be treated to a party-based, real-time, tactical system reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Mainstays of those series, such as pause-and-play command issuing, make the multitude of encounters highly strategic in nature. The biggest difference in the combat mechanic is that, graphically, the world is fully rendered in current-gen 3D. So, players will be able to command the battlefield with the greatest of ease by zooming in and out and changing the camera angles. By plotting out their strategy with pause-and-play functionality, players will be treated to a nice mix of real-time hack-‘n-slash and turn-based combat.
The only question marks surrounding the title have to be with the story and the fact that BioWare is delivering an original IP. For starters, the generic name Dragon Age doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the narrative. Also, the title is already being compared to the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series by the developer itself. As such, the world of Dragon Age will have big shoes to fill, especially considering those other two games were based on the renowned Forgotten Realms, which is home to some of fantasy’s greatest characters and is perhaps one of the best fleshed out worlds along with Tolkien’s Middle-earth. However, Mass Effect proved that BioWare is more than capable of telling a compelling story on its own. Hopefully, the world of Dragon Age: Origin will be every bit as good as the one crafted for BioWare’s space opera.
Dragon Age: Origins is an ambitious original IP from one of the best developers around. Because of this, don’t expect the game to grace store shelves anytime soon. In fact, the PC version, scheduled to launch first, has a tentative release of Q4 2009. Considering the scope of the title, we wouldn’t be surprised if both PC and console versions were pushed deep into 2010. Once the game does release, however, official DLC and expansions are planned to support it. Moreover, an expansive set of community-driven content will be forthcoming, as BioWare will include a deep toolset for players to create their own content. If BioWare is able to accomplish the majority of the lofty goals it has set for itself, look for this dark fantasy to knock your RPG socks off when it reaches full retail release.