Had you followed Dragon Age: Origins during the last few months of its release, you’d have no idea that this is much more than just a game with an insatiable desire to cover itself in blood and sell itself with gratuitous sex. I lost faith in the game months before release thanks to just how badly the game was marketed, but here we are with a game that’s easily the best RPG BioWare has made ever since they started to veer off from their roots with Jade Empire. It’s smart, mature in its storytelling, and full of hard choices with real consequences. If you’ve always disliked BioWare’s method of constructing a RPG, you’ll probably dislike this game too, but if you’re a fan, then my god, you have to play this game.
"The amount of pure world BioWare has built is really impressive."
Origins starts off at a disadvantage. After picking your origin and background, you’re thrown into a world that feels painfully generic. Dwarves have beards, shoulder plates are generically massive, there are English accents everywhere, and everything looks like a shinier, more polished realization of the Sword Coast. That generic feeling always remains, but if you delve into the lore and try to learn about the universe BioWare has built, there’s more to it. Dwarves work in a rigid caste system, city elves are thrown into slavery and magic is more or less a mental illness that is skillfully controlled. The amount of pure world BioWare has built is really impressive.
Even with the above problem largely overcome with strong lore, the second disadvantage is the agonizingly generic fashion in which the narrative kicks off. The Blight, a sign of intense Darkspawn movement, has the potential to overtake the continent of Ferelden and, quite possibly, *gasp*, the entire world. So, you are chosen as a Grey Warden, a soldier trained specifically to ward off any Blight. Early on and through a series of hasty actions and figurative and literal backstabs from dissenting members of man, only two Grey Wardens remain: you and your plucky but insecure companion, Alistair. It’s up to you and the group of companions you gain throughout the game to build an army by resurrecting and securing old alliances from different races spread across. It’s a road that’s been traveled before, to be sure, if you've played BioWare games in the past – everything is at stake, it is epic, it is grandiose, only a small ragtag team can save the world, there are four hubs that must be tackled before completing, there is a twist that involves your character – but it’s in the details where it reveals itself to be BioWare's best execution of the formula. The game is very well written, as the writers found a way juxtapose grim seriousness with light-hearted bouts of humor. It makes the adventure feel natural, as the fantastic dialogue between your companions builds a real sense of camaraderie. As a whole, this is easily the best set of characters BioWare has crafted. You could single out HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic or Minsc from Baldur’s Gate II as some fine characters you can converse with, but with Morrigan’s sharp wit, Alistair’s surprisingly effective sarcasm, and Sten’s incredible terseness, there’s a broad range of archetypes that have been executed well to like and dislike for all the right reasons.
"If you value choices and consequences above all else in a RPG, then you have to give Origins a look."
Even more impressive is how much your involvement matters. BioWare’s recent games have prioritized linearity over flexibility in how you can shape the fate of the game’s world and people inhabiting it, but with Origins, the decisions you make in the extensive dialogue trees matter. While, in the big picture, you’re still going to end up with an endgame scenario that has you squashing the Blight, all the different actions you take within four main quest areas can shape the state of those zones permanently. The clash between the Dalish elves and the werewolves in the Brecilian Forest can end in numerous ways and branch off into different scenarios entirely depending on the choices you make. The situation in the Castle Redcliffe has at least three different outcomes, giving you a lot of decisions to make. Not all of it is straightforward, either; some decisions are morally ambiguous, such that no decision seems good. With the total lack of a morality meter representing your moral stature, Origins really delivers on this front. The choices you make can also affect how your companions feel about you, and if you go against the grain of their beliefs enough, they’ll abandon you outright or even resist your actions by taking you on in combat. The shame here is that you can just as easily buy the affection of your friends by giving them gifts; it’s a little dumb but nothing to condemn as nothing more than a little dumb. If you value choices and consequences above all else in a RPG, then you have to give Origins a look.
If you’re more of a combat and numbers man, the game can definitely satisfy that itch, but it’s also the worst element compared to everything else in the game. It feels limited initially with only three classes to choose from, but the classes have distinct skill trees, each one with its own play style, instead of a myriad of classes with only slight differentiations between them. The systems in place make for a great combat model, and Origins’ combat ends up being a great compromise between the fast-paced nature of real-time RPGs and the methodical and more tactical options present in turn-based RPGs. Many spells require little to no start-up, any actions can immediately be interrupted in the middle of an animation to either chug a potion or to be completely canceled, you can take cover behind objects, and spell combinations allow for quick and efficient kills.
It’s a great, tactical system, but the game has way too much combat. The Deep Roads, the Mage’s Tower, and pretty much all of the main quest areas are flooded with filler combat, making for slogs that last over an hour each. It’s one thing to have to have too much combat, but it’s another thing when the encounters themselves start to lack any interesting tactical scenarios. Cone of Cold combined with Overpower. Leliana circles around taunted group to gain the huge backstab advantage. Repeat for the next dozen encounters. It never gets to the point that it gets unbearable, because even in these long strings of combat, I was still having a good time, just not a great time. It’s a pacing issue that adds some unnecessary fat to the game. Cutting out a few hours of combat would’ve done the game wonders, and it still would’ve been a 40+ hour game. Really, Origins is a pretty long.
Actually, Origins is a massive game; god knows it has taken years to build this game, and it shows. Companion character models look great, while everyone else looks the same as everyone else. Some of the outdoor areas lack creativity, making for some plain vistas and towns. On the other hand, the indoor areas in the game look absolutely gorgeous. Indoors, the game takes on a hand-drawn look with every texture rich with colors and little deviations from the main color palette. Pan the camera back to the game’s isometric view and, I swear, some of it doesn’t look 3-D at all. Simply stunning.
The game’s audio is better. Ambient sounds are convincing and add a lot of life to cities and towns, voice acting is generally great and some interesting choices, like not giving any of the elves anything but an American accent, go a long way in giving the Dragon Age universe that much more of an identity. Inon Zur’s score works, but rarely is any of it memorable. Battle tracks are bombastic and loud, while the quieter ones serve to enhance the atmosphere, but outside of a few that utilize some strong vocals, I can’t recall much of the game’s soundtrack. It definitely does its job inside the game but doesn’t particularly excel at it.
A first play-through can range from anywhere between 25 to 50+ hours, depending on how many dialogue trees you exhaust, and how many sidequests you complete. Trying out the different origin stories makes for a unique first few hours, but after you complete that, there’s very little that makes an appreciable difference in the long run. Still, the good amount of choices and consequences alone makes a second playthrough definitely worth doing.
"The existence of a big-budget, very traditional computer role-playing game (CRPG) alone makes Dragon Age: Origins a huge accomplishment."
The existence of a big-budget, very traditional computer role-playing game (CRPG) alone makes Dragon Age: Origins a huge accomplishment. It’s the kind of game you just don’t expect in this day in age, as development costs are always rising and five-year development cycles are just financially irresponsible. Yet, here we are, with a brand new franchise and game that goes back to what worked well back then – isometric combat, choices and consequences and skill checks – and proves that it still works just as well now. Obsidian’s Neverwinter Nights 2 expansions and indie CRPGs have managed to keep the genre breathing, but Dragon Age: Origins essentially has jumpstarted it back to life. I pray this is the beginning of even bigger things.