Two epic games in one week? Man, my thumbs are sore, but it was all worth it.
Sorry for being late folks, but I wanted to give you all the goods and bads of this Bioware beauty. Trust me, there isn't a lot here to dislike.
KOTOR has returned, but with swords, staffs and a lot of refinement
Prior to getting this game in on November 8th, my good friend Steven McGehee and I were having a beautiful discussion about Bioware and Knights of the Old Republic. He had never played the game and I had been ranting about it to him. I told him about the unique battle system and the wide variety of different choices to mold your character's reputation in a particular direction. He said that he would get to it sometime between now and 2012 (the world ends then you know), but was very interested to see how it played out.
Well, had he picked up Dragon Age: Origins he would have certainly seen how this unique system to level your character and shape the story turns. Taking a chapter from KOTOR, Bioware took a system that certainly wasn't broken and widened it to fit the needs of a knight/mage/ranger/etc. system. In Dragon Age: Origins, you'll find yourself crafting individuals in an almost specific manner. For example, in my game I started off as a warrior class character. As I progressed through the game I was able to upgrade my warrior's skills as a talker, fighter and trustworthy ally. Talker represents how you can talk to people and persuade them to help you or intimidate them to submit. Along side how you carry yourself and your weight with people; you have other options in this category that can include how you carry yourself in battle. As a fighter you can upgrade things like handling dual-weapons, using shields in an offensive way or how you use two-handed weaponry (like a large ax, hammer, etc.). With each category in all of these upgradable features, each one goes about six deep. So, there are six different power-ups for a two-handed weapon handler; there are four-to-six different ways to use a two-handed power-up. Hopefully, I haven't thoroughly confused you with this banter, but in short you've got different ways to craft your character. This is the same system that was intact with Knights of the Old Republic, but just slightly deeper in choices. Also available are the typical categories included with a Dungeons and Dragons-esque game. These include: Cunning, Dexterity, Strength, Magic, etc. Simple categories that help you better your character's actions.
Staying on the category of 'actions', if you're not familiar with how the fighting system from KOTOR works, then the system will be incredibly new for you in Dragon Age: Origins. Let me alleviate some of the confusion that you will almost certainly experience when you play it for the first time. When your characters roll into battle all you have to do is assign your controlled character (as you can switch between the four characters in your group at any given time; not including cut scenes) a target and an action (such as fighting or whatever). If you can picture a moving game of chess then you can picture the battle system in Dragon Age: Origins. Sometimes the fight is easy and you don't have to leave your main guy to help the others. Sometimes you have to strategically place each character and assign them a different target to get the job done. It varies from quest to quest, but it works very well. You have to get use to it and most of all you have to put faith in the computer characters. The last part of the previous sentence will probably be the biggest obstacle to overcome in the game for new players.
Anyway, this system works well for this game; possibly even more fitting than how it did in Knights of the Old Republic. There's a great chance that the character you make is going to be incredibly different from the one your friend makes; even if you all are both warriors. Making this system even deeper is the fact that you can modify and adjust your weapons. Along the way in the game you are able to pick up different forms of elements that you can meld to your weaponry. Add lightening, fire or whatever if you can find to make your weapons more powerful. The possibilities are nothing short of amazing and incredibly entertaining.
Speaking of weapons, the amount of weapons that Bioware included in this title is simply incredible. Swords, bows, hammers, axes, staffs, a variety of arrows laced with different elements; it's simply nuts. Each character class has different weapons it can use, but the amount of weapons available for each character class is enormous. It has been a while since I haven't seen a wall for weapon limitations, but Dragon Age provides the limitless view now. My character named Raven, my wife named him, sported a Diamond Hammer that I carried through most of the game. This weapon worked extremely well through three different missions and eight boss fights. Remarkably, and thankfully, the game doesn't sport that annoying Fallout 3 degrading weapon feature. I'm not sure you should really call it a feature; it's just plain annoying.
Moving along, let's talk about how you can shape your character. Throughout the game you will run into many dialogue situations that require a 'question and answer' session. Taking a nice little chapter from the good folks at LucasArts, you will find moments where a character in the story will ask you something (could be anything). The answer you give shapes your reputation throughout the game. It dictates how people approach you, treat you and work with you. This is one of the more popular features that made it into KOTOR and it also showed up in Mass Effect (and I imagine it will rear its head in the sequel). It's a great method for changing a story or moving a story along. For example, there was a point in the game where you go to visit dwarves in an underground world. When you're heading towards the end of that mission, you'll fun into a giant Golem, who welds a great weapon called the Anvil of Void. This weapon creates Golems (giant rock-like monsters) and you have an ugly choice to make. A giant Golem made of metal guards the anvil and tries to convince you to destroy it. After explaining to you that the anvil requires a life to create a new Golem, you have a choice to make. If you destroy it the story goes one direction. If you don't destroy it then the story changes. Your response and demeanor towards the Golem is directly affected by your prior discussions leading up to that point. Simply put, this feature makes the game deeper and requires you to think about every little decision you make.
Now with all these wonderful features, what could possibly be wrong with this game?
Can you guess it? Everywhere you go in the game you will run into loading time. It gives some beautiful information during the period of loading, but it happens quite frequently that sometimes it cuts into the gameplay. For example, after fighting my way through the Circle of Mages tower on my way to freeing the poor tower of ugly darkspawn (those are the nasty demons), every new level I went to required about 20-25 seconds of loading. I know what you're thinking, "No big deal." True, on the outside. To get this game working on my Playstation 3 it required me to install three gigabytes worth of files. I can't remember if Metal Gear Solid 4 requires more, but it seemed like a lot for a game. That much space should have helped with the loading and it's simply frightening to think what the game would be like if those files weren't loaded on the hard drive; that's a scary thought!
Pretty, and nearly perfect
Before I dig into the visuals, let's shake things up a bit and talk about the story first. The story is the big driving point for this game. As with all Bioware titles, the story gets more love than most games of the same taste. The story can be compared to Lord of the Rings before anything else. You're a Grey Warden, protector of the land of Ferelden, who has been called up to protect the land again from a 'Blight' that has shown up once before in the land's history. A Blight is where a demon god-like creature has gathered a large force of darkspawn together to invade and destroy the land. The Warden's must go around to unite the land to fight the Blight. The trick is to unite the land, which is incredibly greedy and disjointed. Your group of warriors (four at a time; sometimes it's just you) travel from group to group trying to work with and ultimately convince the group of people to help you. Added to this story, is a corrupt king who wants to keep the Warden's from succeeding and possibly dethroning him.
What's particularly great about this story is how many smaller quests are broken from it. For example, when I went to the Circle of Mages to ask for help, I first run into a warrior who asks for me to go on three-to-four separate quests to help out Mages in getting their complaints answered. This is three-to-four separate, solid questions that will take at least an hour to complete each. That's only one portion of the game. Hell, that's not even really a part of the Circle of Mages mission; it's just there with it. You will find this same 'side quest' in almost facet of the game. It even encourages you to get DLC to play side quests. For example, there is a moment in the game where you're approached by a goods salesman that wants to give you a Golem control rod. You have to download the content for this quest, but once you do it's completely seamless in the story. It fits perfectly with everything else and doesn't really distract from your main quest.
Simply put, the story is huge; it's even bigger with the quests here and there.
Okay, let's talk about visuals. While the visuals in the game are very next generation, it's damn difficult to get the visions of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 out of my noggin. Dragon Age: Origins sports some very sharp graphics that are detailed, but not overly detailed. The character models are a bit stiff, but they're a major upgrade from KOTOR. They're not on par with Mass Effect, but they're really good to make you happy. The facial features are smooth in the game, the talking is well done, but it's nothing like a CoD:MW2; it's not even close to that. Thankfully, Bioware probably wasn't concentrating too hard on making you visually comfortable. Bioware wanted you entertained and for that reason you'll forgive them. Now, the sheer depth of the world that Bioware creates for you in this game makes up for the lack of detail. In the beginning of my game, I ran into a town that was overrun with darkspawn in the castle. As I'm walking through the village outside of the castle that is having issues, I can see the castle perfectly rendered in the background. As I'm moving around the edge of the village the background is moving perfectly with me. It's breathtaking from a distance.
Something that many reviewers haven't given enough credit, but is equally important, is the music. Magically orchestrated, it will drive the story for you in the game. It's haunting as well, as the battle music puts you in a dire mood to survive. With a gorgeous chorus added to already booming kettledrums, you'll understand exactly how epic this game is going to be before you even finalize your character.
The sheer presentation of this game makes it epic in every way possible. Folks, this is one of the sleeper hits for this holiday season. The value of a title like this exceeds the asking price, as $59.99 simply doesn't do it justice. Back in the 90s, this would have been a $74.95 cartridge on the N-64. For a game that wasn't even half over at the 20-hour mark, you're looking at a tremendous amount of gameplay that doesn't get boring. Excuse the loading time and it's a perfect game. Added to this value is the addition of two DLC quests with the game (they are included) and instantly you need this.