Picking up from my last post, I purchased “Dragon Age: Origins” (DAO) and “Dragon Age II” (DA2) on the cheap from GameStop. Combine cheap games, nothing terribly interesting (OK, “not terribly cheap”) on my radar at the moment, and general tiredness with the Mass Effect series and you get DAO as the game of choice for the time being.
DAO is three or four years old by this point, so a full review of the game is probably a waste, but I’m going to do it anyway. If you want a professional one, you can find several at Metacritic, although I have no idea how eight reviewers (out of 67 reviews) can give the game a perfect 100. Either they didn’t take the time to do a thorough play-through, they got a bug-free version of the game, some serious money changed hands at some point, or they’re lying through their collective teeth. Perhaps all of the above? Don’t get me wrong. It’s a very good game, but it’s certainly not worthy of all of the high-90s and 100s being heaped upon it.
To start with, I’m going to be making a lot of comparisons to previous BioWare games. This is not because I expect DAO to follow in the footsteps of these games. Each game should be judged on its own merits, after all. I’m going to be making the comparisons because of the significant amount of time that has elapsed between those older games and DAO. In that time, the technology changed tremendously, developers’ approaches to games changed tremendously, and BioWare had huge amounts of time to reflect and learn from those earlier games; both what worked and what didn’t work. Also, since it has been three or four years since the game’s release, I have higher expectations regarding stability and general bugginess than I would for a new release. I will get to DA2 eventually, but all I’ve done up to this time is install it and make sure that it launches.
DAO is a 3rd person FRPG. In many respects, it feels like Neverwinter Nights/NWN2 and the like, although it has nothing to do with the Dungeons and Dragons franchise. Anyone who has played any of these games will pretty much feel right at home. The game is quite obviously a BioWare product and I do not say that in a disparaging way. All of BioWare’s ventures into the D&D franchise were good to great games. It’s just that the game feels like those, so I can’t honestly say that it’s “fresh” in any meaningful sense of the word. This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It simply is. If you enjoyed those earlier games, you’ll most likely enjoy this one. If you hated them, it’s doubtful that you’ll enjoy this one.
The reason for the “Origins” moniker is likely the fact that your character (the Warden) can come from one of several backgrounds and each has its own story of how you came to join the Gray Wardens. You will pick up the same set of companions once you’re in the main quest, but your origin story will have some effect upon how the world reacts to you.
My game came with the “Blood Dragon Armor” and “Stone Prisoner” DLCs as part of the package. Because of weight considerations early in the game, I had no use for the armor piece that I started with and have not begun the Stone Prisoner quest. I disposed of a few hundred old BioWare points to purchase the “Wardens’ Keep” DLC, though, and have played through it. I’m debating on springing the extra $20 or so for the “Awakening” expansion pack, but haven’t opened the wallet just yet.
Since I purchased the game through GameStop, their client handled the download and installation. It was a hands-off experience, for the most part, but had its fair share of hiccups. GameStop’s digital download version of the game presented me with your product keys right at the outset. The problem with this is that I didn’t need those keys at the time, so I closed that little window and then had a dickens of a time getting it back when I needed the keys. My eventual solution to the problem was to let the game install without them (I really had my fingers crossed that this would work – my fallback plan was a complete uninstall/reinstall and BioWare has historically not been terribly understanding on this). When I tried to start the game , it asked me for the keys. By that time, I could access them again through the client, heaved a great sigh of relief, there was much rejoicing, and I moved to the next step.
The next problem was patching. I cannot speak for any of the other download services, but GameStop did not deliver a patched version of the game. I’m not going to point fingers, rub their noses in it and say, “Bad GameStop”, though. As I discovered later, you need to rerun the 1.04 patch installer after you install the “Dragon Age: Awakenings” expansion pack (which I had not purchased). Because of this, it’s pretty much required that they deliver the game and patch as separate downloads. Sad, though, because the current version is 1.05, so I needed the game, the 1.04 patch and then needed to download and install the 1.05 patch (about 93MB worth).
For the record, the correct order of installation is:
- Dragon Age: Origins
- Dragon Age: Awakening (separate purchase unless you got the Ultimate Edition)
- v.1.04 patch
- v.1.05 patch
Not really sure when you’d add any of the DLC (there are several), but I assume they would go after the 1.04 patch since that’s where I added mine and it seemed to work OK. All in all, I wasn’t thrilled with the installation. And considering the age of the game, I would have expected that BioWare would have fixed these little issues by now. I realize that games do not have an exceptionally long support cycle. A game is released, patched (and often re-patched) until it’s stable and then you’re pretty much on your own. But a problem this pronounced is a problem for which the developer should have released a permanent fix. Bad BioWare! Go to your room!
If you’re playing the game with any of the DLCs, you must be logged in to BioWare’s network before you try to start or load a game. If you are not, the DLCs will not function, which might result in you losing access to items. Whether that loss of access is permanent or temporary is an open question in my mind. For example, you gain a storage chest after completing the Wardens’ Keep DLC. If you have items stored in it and lose access to the chest by not being logged in, do those items disappear unless you log in and revert to a save where they were in their proper place? This seems a rather draconian measure to insure that people are playing legitimate software. What happens if you lose your internet connectivity? Are you completely hozed if a drunk driver knocks over a telephone pole and takes your DSL with it? No games for you because you decided that the $45 per month for internet access is outside of your new budget? Like I said, “draconian”. Bad BioWare! Go to your room!
Character creation is fairly straightforward and simple. Unless you’re really in to customizing your character’s appearance (and you can do that), you should be ready to play within a couple of minutes. One disappointment (understandable, but disappointing nonetheless) was in the player character voicing. This is not Mass Effect, where Shepard is 100% voiced. This is more like NWN or Baldur’s Gate where the PC has a few standard lines like, “I can do that” or “On my way”. Considering that DAO comes out two years after the 100% voiced “Mass Effect,” it’s a bit disappointing to find that not much has changed from about ten years prior to DAO (that’s when Baldur’s Gate was released). It was probably for cost-savings since this was a new venture and the PC would have needed at least six different voice actors (male/female human/elf/dwarf), but it’s still mildly disappointing in light of the fine job BioWare did with other games.
OK, assuming that you’re installed, logged in, character created and ready to play, let’s move on to the game itself. The game is controllable through mouse and keyboard using a fairly standard WASD configuration. Keys may be remapped to whatever works for you. Camera control is not the best, though. In most areas, where you have a lot of room for the camera to swing, this is not so much of a problem. But it’s really bad when you’re in interior areas where various pieces of decoration (hanging lamps, roots, rock piles, walls and the like) frequently get in the way. In this respect, DAO hasn’t improved significantly from its older siblings like NWN/NWN2. This may simply be “the nature of the beast” when you’re dealing with a 3rd-person game, but it’s something that could have seen improvement in the eight years since NWN.
Movement and NPC interaction are very simple and straightforward. The only odd thing is that because the spaces are sometimes so big, finding all of the things that you can interact with in an area might be hit or miss. To correct this problem, BioWare kindly added sparkly animations to most containers, making them a bit easier to see. For those things without sparkly animations, you can almost always find them by holding (TAB) and rotating the camera. Anything that you can activate has a name that is visible from quite a long distance. This was a feature added in NWN2 (might have been in NWN, too – memory’s a bit fuzzy in that regard) and I’m happy to see that they team kept the idea.
NPC dialogue is completely voiced (it’s just the Warden who is mute) and very well done. Conversations work through the usual system of dialogue trees. Since I’m picking up the game with the 1.04 patch, any prior problems may have been fixed, but I’m not holding my breath. A couple of threads on the official support forum appear to show that some players, at least, are having problems with conversations cutting short for some reason. I have not run into it yet (I’m a bit less than halfway through the basic game), but that does not mean that it does not exist.
One very annoying gameplay issue relates to the one DLC that I purchased (Wardens’ Keep). Although I did not know it at the time, if you leave the keep before finding everything related to the Ancient History side-quest, you will not be able to finish since you cannot re-enter the keep. It’s annoying because there is apparently one thing that I forgot to do and now I can’t go back to do it. Since I have several hours of play in the time since, reloading a save to correct that means replaying those hours to get back to where I was. BioWare could at least have given me a notice or something that there were quests that I needed to finish before simply locking me out. Bad BioWare! Go to your room!
Combat is very straightforward and there is very little surprising about it. As with any game, you’ll want to be upgrading your equipment as the better stuff becomes available. But spells and talents work on a very simple progression system. There are a few combinations of spells that can have some surprising results (like creating a flaming floor by following a “Grease” spell with a fire spell). There might be codex entries to tell you about them, but it seems that you’ll need to discover most of them on your own. On the whole, I rather like the apparent decision to let players discover some of these things for themselves. There are various sites to help out with spoiler info, but the joy of discovery makes me feel positively mage-like. Good BioWare! Have some Cheetos!
Combat hasn’t changed significantly in the years since Baldur’s Gate. Expect to spend a lot of time with the game paused while you select targets and actions for your party members. I suppose I shouldn’t complain too loudly about that as most shooters suffer from the same problem. Since this is a 3rd-person game with multiple members in your party, it’s not unsurprising. Pausing and unpausing are simple, quick and efficient. Target selection can be a little tedious at times, but it doesn’t sink below that to the point of becoming annoying. It’s just something that you get used to and keep going.
Character classes feel a bit restrictive. There doesn’t seem to be much of an opportunity to combine aspects of different classes, aside from the “Arcane Warrior” specialization. So no sneaky warriors or spell-casting sneaks. This means that your party will almost always need to contain two members from one of the classes; two mages or two warriors, for example, but two thieves is probably a bit much. I’m fairly used to Bethesda’s more open-ended progression systems, so this probably accounts for my perception. For those who are used to more rigid systems, this will not be an issue.
Levels come through an experience point system. Gain x-points, gain a level. Subject to a possible level limitation that I haven’t hit yet, you’ll probably get three attribute points to spread among your attributes at each level. You’ll also gain a talent/spell point at each level and a skill point every two or three levels, depending on your class (two levels for Thieves; three levels for Mages and Warriors). To keep things interesting, there is almost always one stat that can be left alone for each class. Warriors, for example, would not need to pump any points into Magic, Mages would not need to pump any points into Strength, and so forth. All in all, the level progression system works pretty well and can be a lot of fun to play around with. Good BioWare! Have a donut!
I have run into intermittent crashes and lags in the game that have no apparent cause, so I’m not sure whether this is a problem with the game or a symptom of something on my particular system. Since I don’t experience it with most of my other games, I suspect that it could be a compatibility issue with Vista. No finger-pointing on this one and no down-grading the game for it, but players on Vista systems might want to keep it in mind. Save frequently and you’ll be fine.
Graphics are very good. At the time the game was released, running it at high settings would have taxed most systems. I’m running with dual GT9800s in SLI at 1440×900 and have almost everything set to high. Aside from occasional disc access issues (and I defragment regularly – grrr!), the game runs very smoothly. The Warden seems to always have this slightly surprised expression on his face, but the NPCs have well–animated and expressive faces that sync pretty well with the lip movement and dialogue. The character design team at BioWare did a marvelous job.
The game does not appear to use a tileset like NWN/NWN2 did. Consequently, environments look very good. Pathing can be problematic at times, though. You just have to keep an eye on the cursor. Gold means you can probably go there; gray/silver means you can’t. The vast majority of the time, this is not an issue, but you’ll spend considerable time trying to figure out how to get from here to there. This was a problem with the D&D games that used the Infinity and Aurora engines and it doesn’t seem to have improved much in the decade since. NPC path-finding has seen significant improvement, though.
Lighting and shading work very well, but I haven’t seen much in the way of water effects. I’m not sure whether this is an engine limitation, a design choice or simply that I have not reached an area where water is a common feature. The few puddles and one moonlit shore that I have encountered thus far came out very well, though a bit muddy-looking. BioWare did not try to implement any of the DirectX 10 features, choosing instead to focus on DX9 capabilities. This was a conscious design decision and an understandable one, so no finger-wagging from me. I didn’t take Bethesda to task for the same decision and see no reason to change that stance.
Character movement is not as fluid as I might have expected considering the two years that had elapsed since Mass Effect’s release. But ME used a version of the Unreal engine rather than DAO’s Eclipse engine, so this might account for the difference. Again, no finger-wagging. Just a heads-up that this is an older game, so don’t be expecting 2012-era graphic razzle-dazzle from it. For it’s time, it wasn’t clunky, but DAO doesn’t rise very far above a time-adjusted “meh!” for graphics.
I wasn’t bowled over by the voicing, but it’s more than solid. Each character comes across as unique and someone you’d like to know (or love to hate). I absolutely adore some of the NPCs and would like to shove a sock in the mouths of a couple of others. My suspicion is that this was intentional and major kudos go to the actors. Some of the voice actors should be familiar to players of other BioWare games (Claudia Black as Morrigan, for example), while others might not be so recognizable. All of them created very memorable and believable characters simply through the power of their voice and the abilities of the writers and development team. Good BioWare! Good cast!!! Rangers and hamsters everywhere, rejoice! Sorry – wrong game.
The music is more than solid. It’s outstanding. I don’t know that I’d want to go spring the $10 or so for the soundtrack, but the music adds so much to the game that it can’t be under-rated. The score was composed by Inon Zur and performed by full orchestra. “I am the One” garnered some well-earned awards (link goes to YouTube). The sound track has a wonderful Celtic/Norse/Fantasy feel to it, very reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings” to my ear (link is to the main theme at YouTube). This is one area where I’d award the full 100 out of a possible 100. This is better than “Good BioWare!”
OK, it’s fantasy. Little guy from nowhere suddenly has to man up to the fact that he/she must save the world from certain annihilation. I won’t give BioWare any points for originality, but I will certainly give them points for their implementation of the heroic fantasy formula. Ignoring a certain game with a questionable ending, BioWare has always known how to spin a great tale. The game reflects the idea that you hire the best writers and then get the hell out of their way.
At almost every part of the story, there is a sense of urgency and immediacy that draws you in and keeps you going. It’s far from un-put-downable (it’s a word), but the story is exceptional. It left plenty of room for expansions that would not interfere with the main story (and BioWare did its best to capitalize on that). The characters and their backgrounds are easy to empathize with, although some (Wynne, for example) probably wouldn’t resonate a great deal with younger players.
In a departure from the Mass Effect series, the game isn’t overly moralistic. Decisions affect your own party members, who will either like, not like or be ambivalent about them, but don’t go much beyond the immediate party. There is absolutely nothing resembling the Paragon/Renegade system of Mass Effect or the Fame/Infamy system of The Elder Scrolls. If your party members reach the point of hating you, they’ll jump ship (not too far removed from Baldur’s Gate), but nothing aside from the quests seems to have much of an impact on the rest of the world.
Overall, the story is solid, if a bit formulaic. It’s fantasy, after all, so it’s both understandable and expected. On the whole, then, it’s “Good BioWare!”
The game has a fair amount of replay value. Perhaps more so because BioWare released a toolkit to allow modders into the picture. Those modders went to town, at least somewhat, and the results can be found at dragonage.nexusmods.com. The site is not completely supported by the Nexus Mod Manager, so you’ll likely want to be manually downloading and installing any mods from there. Please do not expect the range and variety of mods generated by the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, but there is some good work in there.
Because of the differences in sex/race/class in the origin stories, most players will probably want to take two or three runs through the game. Each class requires slightly different tactics and each origin story makes for a slightly different take on the game. Because of these two things (mods and origin stories), the game has very good replay value.
Dragon Age: Origins was the start of a solid fantasy franchise for BioWare. Most of my issues with the game boil down to support issues in the time since the game’s release and how low they set the bar with the original game. Taken on its own and in its time, it’s a very good game. Were I writing this review at or near the time of release, I’d give it an 8.5 out of 10 with all of the point loss coming from graphics and gameplay. Since it’s long past its release date, it’s an 8.0 out of 10 because of support issues that have still not been resolved in the three years post-release.
Picking up the Ultimate Edition for $30 to $35 (which comes out to about $10 each for DAO, Awakening and DA2) is money well-spent. You’ll get many hours of good gameplay out of it. It’s decently stable. There are a few unresolved issues, so frequent saves are strongly recommended. For its time, the graphics are not top-notch, but they have aged well. It should run pretty well on a mid-range system today. In spite of its issues, this is something which should be part of any FRPG gamer’s library.