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Let's Review Dragon Age: Origins! (again)

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Let's Review Dragon Age: Origins! (again)

Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Mon 8 February 2010, 04:05:11

Tags: Dragon Age

This Is A Review of the New Shit! Let's Review Dragon Age: Origins!
by Elzair

For the last decade, Bioware has been highly regarded as an RPG developer by many gamers, but Codexers (as a group) are not among them. To understand this state of affairs, a little history lesson is required.

Bioware was founded in 1995 by three Canadian doctors who wanted to develop medical software. They then realized they were in Canada and would not make any money, so they quickly nixed that idea and got into video games. Their first game, Shattered Steel, was an action heavy game featuring giant robots that, according to Bioware, was "the first game ever to feature deformable terrain." After deforming enough terrain, Bioware went back to 2d and started developing a sci-fi RTS called Battleground: Infinity. Then, along came Interplay who was busy petting its exclusive rights to AD&D as if it were Mr. Bigglesworth. Interplay saw the RTS, and it convinced Bioware to retool it for AD&D 2nd edition. Thus, Baldur's Gate was born.

 

To be honest, I rather liked (and still like) Baldur's Gate. It is a D&D game (albeit with real-time combat) that utilizes its setting quite well. For once, the setting is actually compelling, and the story is low-key. Even the manual is used to draw the player into the world (something which Bioware and everyone else neglects nowadays). Hell, I even like exploring the wilderness areas; they are a nice change from dank caves, and they help make the world feel less like a disjoint series of maps. This system is probably the next best thing to a seamless world. There are only six settlements in the game, but they can be pretty big. It is also interesting to see that many of the buildings have no use to the player (apart from a little loot). I am unsure how I feel about this design decision; it makes finding quest-givers annoying, but all of those buildings (and NPCs and wilderness areas) help make the world feel alive.


Bioware followed-up with a sequel that many gamers call the greatest cRPG of all time (the Codex disagrees, however). Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn features a wider variety of classes (including 'kits') and more epic challenges than its predecessor. There are plenty of fights that can be challenging the first time the player encounters them, and the challenge mainly comes from having to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the various monsters and the various classes.

 

Bioware made the game more of a traditional dungeon crawler by removing the wilderness sections and adding a whole lot more dungeons (vanilla Baldur's Gate only features two worth mentioning). They also attempted to reduce the "clutter" by making every house in the towns important in some way; the importance is not always immediately obvious, and there are still a good deal of locations, so it does not harm the atmosphere much. Bioware also reduced the number of NPC companions from 25 to 16; however, they greatly expanded the verbosity of the NPCs. There is a far greater amount of inter-party banter than in the first game.

 

However, the quests are what makes it great in so many eyes. Most of them are far more interesting than the typical fetch/kill quest, and they are also highly involved. Plus, some are only available at random times, when certain NPCs are in the party, or during certain romances.

 

Here are some of the highlights:

 

* In the Bridge district, you are approached by an officer Aegsfield who asks your help with solving a series of grisly murders where the victims were skinned. You then have to ask around for information. A beggar (after being bribed or threatened) tells you that some leather was found with the bodies. The harlot tells you she smelled Bark at the murder site. This evidence implicates the local leatherworker; however, there are several red herrings. If you talk to one of the kids, he will accuse a local old woman of being a witch. If you confront the crone, she will admit to being a magic user. You can turn her into Aegsfield and think you have resolved the quest. If you present the legitimate evidence to Aegsfield, he will confront the leatherworker directly and end up getting killed. To save him, you have to confront the leatherworker. You can continue further into this shop, and you will find a mage who has been buying the skin to work nefarious magic. If Aegsfield is still alive, you can get your reward from him, and if he is dead, you can get the reward from the Chief Inspector in the council building in the Government District.

 

* While wandering around the Government District, you may encounter Tolgerias, a Cowled Wizard, who wants you to track down a man named Valygar, who has murdered several Cowled Wizards, and return his body to them dead or alive. If you go to his house in the Docks District, you will learn he is not there, and if you tell the servant you are a friend, he will tell you his Master owns a house in Umar Hills. When you go there, you will find Valygar, and he will tell you that the Cowled Wizards want his body because only it can unlock the Planar Sphere in the slums that a lich ancestor of his created. He asks for your help with destroying the lich inside. You can either let him join you and enter the Planar Sphere with him, kill him and carry his body with you to open the Planar Sphere, or kill him and deliver his body to the Cowled Wizards for a modest reward. If you simply do as you are told, you are missing out on a major quest (possibly even a stronghold if you are a magic user).

* This is a seemingly straightforward quest with a twist. In the Copper Coronet, you are approached by Lord Jierdaan Firkraag, who asks you to kill some ogres on his land. When you arrive, you will find the ogres, and a fight will break out. After you win, the bodies of the ogres will change to the bodies of paladins. Apparently, both groups thought the other was a band of ogres. You were fooled! Garren Windspear saw the whole thing, and he takes you back to his house to rest while he goes to the Paladin order to clear your name. While he is gone, bandits kidnap Windspear's daughter (or son depending on the PC's gender), and he asks you to rescue her/him. You then proceed through a big dungeon where you finally reach Firkraag's lair. He has grown since you last saw him, and he reveals that he wants to force Windspear off his land. To resolve this, you can either simply leave with Windspear's progeny, battle Firkraag, or go back to Windpear and retrieve the deed for Firkraag by any means necessary. :evilgrin:

 

Furthermore, the player is awarded with a stronghold when he completes one of the major quests, and what stronghold he receives depends on his class. Since there are quests attached to a stronghold, the player needs to replay the game many times to see all the content. In contrast to the sidequests, the main quest is a mixed bag. This is the game where the Bioware Formula (TM) was developed. The formula mostly involves a linear beginning, open middle, linear end, removal of any "clutter", and characters with "personalities" and problems. The main villain, Jon Irenicus, is pretty good. He starts off as an enigma, and, rather than wanting to take over the world or any stereotypical bullshit like that, the player learns he mostly wants to regain his lost position and lost immortality.

I will admit: I liked it.

In 2002, Bioware decided the Infinity Engine was getting old, so they ditched it in favor of their new Aurora engine for their first 3-D, 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons game Neverwinter Nights. Five years in the making, it was supposed to be the tool that would bring the magic of pen and paper sessions to the computer. While there are a lot of great mods for it, GameSpy was right to place it on their list of the Twenty-Five Most Overrated Games Of All Time. The single-player campaign was god awful! I went in with the assumption that it would be the next Baldur's Gate, and boy was I in for a surprise! After beating it, I swore-off Bioware games and have not played another until Dragon Age: Origins came along.

 

The rest of this "history lesson" is second-hand information. Bioware then followed up with a Star Wars themed RPG, Knights of the Old Republic, for the XBox. I hear it features full voice acting, an even more trimmed-down game world, and the four planets gimmick. It apparently sold pretty well. They then released Jade Empire, a martial arts action-RPG set in a rip-off of ancient China. Finally, they released Mass Effect, a sci-fi shooter that (I think) is a rip-off of "Star Trek: Enterprise." It also featured HAWT Lesbian Alien Sex.

Back in 2004, Bioware announced that they would be developing another fantasy cRPG in an original world. For a long time, the only information the Codex (and anyone else who was not Bioware) had on the game came from this FAQ (which I will quote from in this review) and random posts by David Gaider. (PROTIP: Those are all different links.) Finally, some screenshots arrived, and a trailer came soon after. At this point, it looked like Bioware had hit a new low and was just pounding in cheap thrills to appeal to the XBox crowd. Well, the game finally made it to stores last month, so it is time to talk about it. Since Bioware claims that it is a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate II, I will make comparisons between the two. While it is a somewhat decent game, I do not think it meets the (admittedly low) standards set by Baldur's Gate II.

 

 

Setting

1.08: What world does Dragon Age take place in?

Dragon Age is set in a new world developed by BioWare. (Well, its kinda new!) A large team of writers and artists have been busy detailing the societies, religions, history, races, monsters, and economy of the Dragon Age world. (I find it hard to believe that.) Several new languages are also being developed for Dragon Age by a linguistics expert. (Bullshit!)


The game takes place in the world of Thedas; specifically, it takes place in the kingdom of Ferelden (England), a land that won its independence from the Orlesian Empire (France) thirty years before. If you want the full details, read my review of the prequel novel, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, but keep in mind that this is a highly clichéd setting, so it does not require much introduction. There is also a distant land known as Antiva (Spain), but it is not that important. Ferelden has recently succumbed to a Blight, an invasion of Darkspawn from the Deep Roads, the former Dwarven kingdom. Apparently, the Darkspawn will only invade the surface world if they can find an Archdemon to lead them. It is the job of the Grey Wardens, a multi-national, multi-ethnic army, to kill the Archdemon and drive the Darkspawn back underground.

Here is a basic overview of the "history" of this world. Several thousand years ago, a large chunk of the world's land was controlled by the Tevinter Imperium (Rome ... kinda), a dragon-worshiping empire ruled by mages. Eventually, the Tevinter Imperium overran and enslaved the Elvish nation. Underground, the dwarves had a vast empire as well and manned many subterranean settlements. The Tevinter eventually grew so full of themselves that they invaded the Golden City (Heaven) at the heart of the Fade (the world of dreams and demons). Their presence corrupted the Golden City, which became the Black City as a reminder of the cost of pride, and the Black City then corrupted the mages.

 

The Maker (God) then cast the mages out, and they became the first Darkspawn. The Maker the imprisoned the Tevinter's Gods (the powerful Dragons) underground, and when the Darkspawn found one of them, they corrupted it, thereby turning it into an Archdemon. The dwarven empire was also devastated by an influx of Darkspawn into its territory. After subduing the First Blight, the Tevinter Imperium was weakened enough that a barbarian king and his wife, Andraste, were able to capture some territory.

 

Andraste was apparently a Jesus-chick, so she picked-up a lot of worshippers. She also helped free the elves and give them a homeland in the Dales. Her husband grew jealous of his wife's popularity and gave herto the Imperium, who burned her at the stake. However, her followers kept her teachings alive, and the religion eventually spread all over Thedas. Eventually a war started between the Elves and the Humans, and the elves were once again cast-out of their land and forced to either wander in small nomadic bands or live in the human cities as second-class citizens. The Tevinter Imperium still exists in the present, but it is a shadow of its former self. There, that is all the world history you really need to know.

 

 

Story

1.03: What is the storyline of Dragon Age?

For the first time, you choose how your character’s story begins and that choice changes how your story unfolds. (kinda true) From a grim barbarian wanderer who is the last of his kind (lie), to an exiled dwarven prince betrayed by his brother (lie); each of the many 'origin' stories spins its own heroic tale of intrigue and romance. (lie)

Each origin story completely changes the setting and events of the game's first chapter and unlocks different storylines, villains, romances and items throughout the course of the game. (lie)

As you play, your actions shape the destiny of the world. (kinda true) Unite a powerful kingdom under your wise and just rule (true), enslave nations beneath the tyranny of your powerful necromancy (LAWL!!) or forge a legend of your own making. (kinda true)

Hero or villain, the choice is yours. (Bullshit!) Dragon Age features an awesome storyline and epic exploration in the BioWare RPG tradition. (Well, it is certainly in the Bioware tradition.)



The main (PROTIP: think most hyped) new feature of Dragon Age: Origins is the inclusion of six possible "origins stories" for your character. While they are rather unique, they always end with you getting recruited into the Grey Wardens by Duncan (the Grey Warden recruiter don't'cha'know). Since the player gets to pick from three stunningly original races: Human, Elf and Dwarf, and s/he gets to pick from three highly unique classes: Warrior, Rogue and Mage (motto: no dwarves allowed), each origin story is dependent on the combination of race and class. All Mages must pick the Mage origin story, where their alter-ego braves the Fade (the dreamworld/demonworld in this fantasy setting) and gets busted trying to help a friend who is practicing forbidden magic.

 

Non-mage Humans are shafted with only one origin story, Human Noble, where they take on the role of the youngest son/daughter (as usual you can pick your gender) of the Cousland family. In the middle of the night, your family is betrayed by the lord Arl Howe, and your family's castle is besieged by his men. You and your mother fight your way to the secret exit and find Duncan and your mortally wounded father there. Your mother decides to abandon you (and your other brother who had already left to fight the Darkspawn and who does not show up again until the very end of the fucking game for fucking bullshit reasons) to die with her husband; I guess losing my virtual mom like that is supposed to be sad or something, but when she (and Gaider and this whole origin story) is so stupid, it is kind of hard to feel very sad.

 

Bioware screws it up again in the City Elf origin, where your character is roped into an arranged marriage only to have a human Lord crash the party and abduct either your bride or you (if you are a chick) and some other girls. You then have to either rescue them or escape yourself, and during this, your mate is predictably killed. Duncan saves you from prison by drafting you. In the Dalish Elf origin, you and a friend come across an ancient mirror, and you are corrupted by the Blight; Duncan promises to treat the sickness if you join the Grey Wardens. I never got around to playing the dwarven origin stories, so I cannot comment on them. For the most part, these origin stories seem rather uninspired, and they do not affect the game much.

 

 

When Duncan recruits you, you travel to the front-line of the war on the Blight, the fortress Ostagar, and you meet Cailan, the king of Ferelden, and Loghain, his "trusted" advisor. (PROTIP: For more on Loghain, read my review of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne.) Next, you must do a few simple tasks to get properly inducted into the Grey Wardens. The ritual involves drinking Darkspawn blood. Then, the battle begins. As any five-year-old would expect, things go wrong: Loghain and his forces flee the field, thereby leaving Cailan and the Grey Wardens (and, consequently, you) to die. You and Alistair (your Grey Warden "partner") are saved at the last minute by Flemeth, the Witch of the Wilds. You then embark on a quest to convince the Arl of Redcliffe, the Circle of Mages, the Dwarves, and the Dalish elves to aid you against the Blight and against Loghain. As you might have guessed, none of the factions will just give you their support; each faction is having problems, and you must solve them. The Arl of Redcliffe fell into a coma, and his religious wife sent all his knights on a quest for the Holy Grai . . . I mean the Urn of Sacred Ashes, a holy artifact that is rumored to have remarkable healing properties. When you get to Redcliffe village, you will learn that no one has been seen from the castle in several days, and the village has been terrorized by zombies that have emerged from the castle.


Spoiler: The Arl's s son has magic talents, and his wife hired a renegade mage to teach him in secret; the mage, who is the renegade Blood Mage from the Mage origin story, was also hired by Loghain to poison the Arl. The son, in a desperate attempt to save his father, made a deal with a demon, and the demon has possessed the boy and taken over the castle.

 

The Mages are in a civil war. Apparently, there are several factions of Mages, and the one that wants freedom from the Chantry has been promised freedom by Loghain if they could take over the Circle Tower, so they make a deal with demons and unleash civil war. The Dalish elves are being threatened by werewolves. The Dwarven city of Orzammar recently lost its king, and it is now in the middle of a royal succession crisis. You have to decide which faction to support and do several quests to tip the balance. While some would call this the non-linear portion of the game, I am a bit more hesitant with that label. While these four tasks can be done in any order, they must all be done, and each questline is fairly linear in progression.

 

 

There really is not much plot to spoil, so I will go ahead and spoil it. Once all four factions are on your side, the Arl of Redcliffe will take you to Denerim, the capital city of Ferelden, for the Landsmeet (a meeting of the nobles of Ferelden); there you will challenge Loghain. This will involve rescuing Loghain's daughter Anora (who was also Cailan's wife) from Arl Howe's dungeon (PROTIP: you have to fight him no matter what, though). If you cannot win a tough fight against Loghain's lieutenant, your character is imprisoned in Fort Drakon, and s/he must escape. Then, Anora tells you to find out what is going on with the Elves (like the nobles give a damn). After you end a slave ring, you will be taken to the Landsmeet to convince the nobles to support you instead of Loghain. No matter what happens, you have to face Loghain in a one-on-one duel. After that is settled, you learn the Darkspawn are heading towards Redcliffe. When you get there, you learn that the Darkspawn force was just a feint, and the main force was heading towards Denerim. That night you learn from a surviving Grey Warden that only a Grey Warden can kill the Archdemon because, when killed, it will merely transfer into a nearby Darkspawn, but when a Grey Warden kills it, it will transfer into him due to his taint, and that will kill both the Archdemon and the Warden. You then fight your way through Denerim to Fort Drakon, ascend the tower, and kill the Archdemon. That is it. If you were expecting the standard Bioware twist, you will be disappointed.

While the story is very malleable, it is undermined by how barebones it is. All throughout the game, you are supposed to be compelled onward by the Blight. However, since there is no time limit like in Fallout, Bioware should have designed a compelling villain whose machinations would pull you further along. The Archdemon seems to be just a beast, so it cannot be much of a rival. I thought that they were positioning Loghain to be the chief rival throughout most of the story, but his actions never make any sense! I thought that something darker was going on (maybe he was possessed by demons), but it looks like he was just a paranoid, old coot who did not like that Cailan was asking the Orlesian Empire for help, so he left his king (and a large chunk of Denerim's army) to die, poisoned Arl Eamon, and tried to start a civil war between the mages and the Chantry to . . . unite Ferelden to oppose the Blight. That makes perfect sense!

I could only stomach the game enough to play through it once, so I cannot definitely state that the different origin stories provide mostly fluff for the rest of the game, but after reading several walkthroughs, I can make a pretty strong argument for it. I played as a male, human noble warrior, and I only recall a handful of times when NPCs mentioned my heritage. Of course, there is not much opportunity since the Cousland castle is not in the main game, and everyone there dies (except for that one brother who shows up in the epilogue for no other reason than Bioware did not want to make an origin specific party member). The only major difference seems to be that male human nobles can become a consort to Anora (no, there is no sex scene). Maybe it is different for others, but I played through Ostagar with a few characters, and there did not seem to be much difference.

Bioware did include some choices & consequences in this game. For three of the four faction quests, you can usually choose to back one of two different sides in a dispute: elves or werewolves, mages or templars, or the two dwarven houses. However, the only major differences are the type of units you get in the final battle and what ending slide you get. Did I mention that, at the end, there is a slideshow that will tell you of the long-term ramifications of your various choices? That is so innovative . . . for 1997!! Aside from the major choices, you can make an array of minor choices. You can decide to corrupt a sacred artifact in exchange for power; you can make a deal with a demon in exchange for more power (and possibly sex), etc. You can decide to recruit certain characters, ask them to leave, or even kill them on occasion. Depending on your choices, some party members may leave on their own or even attack you. There really is not much here that hasn't already been done in other games.

 

 

Party


1.11: Do you have a party in Dragon Age?

Dragon Age is a party-based game with a wide variety of interesting NPCs to choose from. (lie; there are 10) Players will be able to interact with their party members as never before, forming friendships (true), romances (ugh, true) and rivalries. (lie) Players will have full control over party members during combat (similar to Baldur’s Gate) (true). You can create one or more starting characters (lie) and you may choose whether you want to join up with other characters you meet in your travels. (true)


Now let's talk about the party members! Before I talk about the characters themselves, I should mention the changes to the party system. As is customary in post-IE Bioware games, each party member has an approval number that represents their feelings toward you. If there approval is positive, they will be given slight combat bonuses, you will learn more about them, and you may even be able to romance them. If their approval score is negative, they may leave the group. Bioware has now introduced gifts, which are items that can be given to the party members to improve their approval. Party members will like certain items more than others. Some items will be important to a party member in some way, so they will trigger unique conversations. Most of the time, they are just useful if you want to easily bump up a character's approval. As usual, the player can romance certain NPCs, and if s/he takes it far enough, s/he will be treated to a sex scene that would be decent if the characters were inexplicably wearing undergarments. (However, you can download a mod to "fix" this).

 

First up, there is Alistair, who is a fellow Grey Warden with a tad more seniority than you. He is the only other person saved by Flemeth, and he tags along for the rest of the game. Early on, you learn that he is the bastard son of King Maric, so he is a royal bastard. (PROTIP: You can actually make that joke in the game. Ugh!) He was raised by Arl Eamon, and he was sent off to become a Templar (a warrior order of the Chantry that hunts rogue magic users). He is mostly brash and slightly arrogant, but he can change over the course of the game if you do some subquests. I never used him much after I added more party members, but his dispel magic abilities are useful. He is voiced by Steven Valentine and if you play as a female humanoid, you can romance him. 


Speaking of romance, let's talk about the HAWT CHIX! In a stunning break with Bioware tradition dating back to Baldur's Gate II, both of the eligible ladies are human, so no hawt elf sex 4 U! Instead of ripping off Baldur's Gate II, Bioware has stolen both of these ladies from the past. Morrigan is based on either the Morrígan, an Irish goddess of war and fertility, or Morgan Le Fay, the wily sorceress from Arthurian legend. She is the daughter of Flemeth and represents the archetypal bitch character, but she is pretty easy (you know what I mean). Her outfit does not include any kind of bra, but in the sex scenes she is clearly shown wearing one. What stupid bitch puts a bra on to have sex? (OUTRAGE) She is also a good magic user, so she is nice to have around; however, her Shapechanging skills are useless since she cannot cast spells while changed. She is voiced by Claudia Black.

 

Notice anything familiar? Leliana is a rogue who was once a Bard (an Orlesian spy posing as a minstrel), but she fled Orlais and joined the Chantry. You meet her in a tavern in the village of Lothering, and she demands to be taken with you because she received a vision from the Maker that she must take up arms against the Darkspawn. She is voiced by Corinne Kempa, a French actress. Let me get this straight: she is a (relatively) young French woman who is divinely inspired to fight a war. What historical figure could Bioware possibly be ripping off to create this character? Hmmmm. Let me think about it. I did not user her much, but this FAQ claims that she can be the deadliest character in the game if you bump up her bow skills. If you are a a male or female humanoid of average height, you can romance her.

 

Zevran is the last romance character, and this elf provides the Spanish flair of every woman's and gay man's dream. He is an assassin (a rogue with a melee specialization) for the Antivan crows, and he is hired by Loghain to take you out, but if you beat him, he will join you. He is voiced by Jon Curry who is trying to sound like Puss 'N Boots. Since locks and traps are not that important in this game, I did not use him much either, but he does not seem to be as useful as Leliana. Take him if you cannot get enough of your Antonio Banderas love doll.

 

Wynn is an old bag who rose to a high rank in the Circle of Magi. She appears in Ostagar, but you cannot recruit her until you help the Circle. She is only being kept alive through the help of a friendly spirit. She is the only other NPC mage, and her Spirit Healer magic is invaluable for providing the only way to revive party members during combat. She is voiced by Susan Boyd.

 

Oghren is a dwarven berserker with a specialization in axes and a hankering to find his ex-wife, Branka, who disappeared into the Deep Roads several years before. He is voiced by Steve Blum, and in a stunning display of originality, he does NOT fake a Scottish accent! Who said Bioware could not be original? Since I wanted another warrior, he was another favorite party member of mine.

 

Sten is a Qunari, a race of elemental-like people from far away. You encounter him in a wooden prison in Lothering, and you have the option of recruiting him if you can convince the Mother Confessor (or whatever the hell her title is) to let him go. Honestly, I forgot, and Lothering is overrun after you complete one of the plot-lines, so he was killed in my game. I think he is another fighter kind of like Oghren. He is voiced by Mark Hildreth.

 

You can also pick up a Mabari War Hound on your travels. If you start as a Human Noble, you are given the dog right off the bat, but the other characters must do a quest in Ostagar to obtain him. He is voiced by dog sounds. Spoiler: Loghain can also join your party after the Landsmeet. If he does, Alistair will most likely leave. He is just a crazy old coot. He is a pretty decent fighter, though. He is voiced by Simon Templeman.

 

There is also a female golem named Shale that you can recruit, but you have to download some DLC for her, so I will not mention her much.

 

 

Game Mechanics

 1.07: What ruleset will be used in Dragon Age?

Dragon Age will be using a brand new rule system developed specifically for the PC platform by BioWare. (true) It will be a class-based rule system that allows a player to choose from a wide selection of skills, abilities and spells in the tradition of other fantasy roleplaying games. (partially true)


As you might have guessed, Bioware has dumped D20 for its own custom ruleset. This ruleset involves a handful of Attributes, Skills and Talents (with some hidden derived attributes of course). It is also a class and race-based system. As mentioned before, you can pick from three races (Human, Dwarf and Elf) and three classes (Warrior, Rogue or Mage). While the race mostly just provides a bonus to various attributes, the class does that and a bit more. Here is a table (lifted from the manual) that compares the three classes.

 

  Warriors Mages Rogues
Starting Health 100 85 90
Starting Attribute Bonuses +4 strength +5 magic +4 dexterity
Starting Attribute Bonuses +3 dexterity +4 willpower +2 willpower
Starting Attribute Bonuses +3 constitution +1 cunning +4 cunning
Starting Skill Combat Training Herbalism Poison-Making
Starting Talent/Spell Shield Bash Arcane Bolt Dirty Fighting
Level To Gain One Skill 3 3 2
Health Per Level 6 4 5
Stamina/Mana Per Level 5 6 4
Base Attack Score 60 50 55
Base Defense Score 45 40 50

 

Attributes, like in D&D, are the basic stats of each character. In DA:O, there are six of them. Strength improves the base damage and accuracy of melee weapons and determines what weapons and armor can be used. Dexterity is a mixed bag that determines the strength and accuracy of piercing (swords and daggers) and melee (bows and crossbows) weapons; it also helps characters avoid attacks. Willpower improves a character's mental resistance (which does not seem that important since there are so few enemies with status effect attacks in this game), and it determines the amount of times a character can use spells or talents. Magic is the mage attribute, and it determines what spells can be used and the effectiveness of them; it also provides a minor boost to using healing potions, but that is not very important. Cunning is mostly used by rogues because many of their skills depend on it; it is also useful for Persuasion checks, but that only applies to the Player Character, and you can find enough boosts early in the game.

Skills are a cross between the skills in D&D 3.0, and the perks in SPECIAL. Every three (or, in the case of the Rogue, two) levels, a character can invest one point into eight different skills: Coercion (persuading or intimidating someone; only useful for the PC), Stealing (duh), Trap-Making (not to be confused with trap disarming; useful for low-magic parties), Survival (not very useful as far as I can tell), Herbalism (the ability to brew potion; you need at least one character with a rank of four in this), Poison-Making (useful for low-magic parties), Combat Training (determines the number of ranks you can invest in a weapon talent; essential for warriors and rogues), and Combat Tactics (each rank provides an additional combat tactics slot; it is useful for players who do not like to micro-manage their characters). There are four ranks of each skill, and each rank has an attribute requirement. Each rank (and various attribute scores) will determine how successful you are with the skill.

Talents (or Spells) are Dragon Age's version of Feats, if feats were handed out every level. There are a bunch of them, and they are clustered into various groups; warriors and rogues have talents clustered around various fighting styles: dual-weapons, weapon and shield, and two-handed weapon with various class-specific chains as well (ex: the rogue gets a chain of of skills for stealth); mages, on the other hand, have spells that are lumped into various schools of magic: Arcane, Primal (elemental damage), Creation (healing etc), Spirit (status effects), and Entropy (negative status effects). Each group of talents is further subdivided into chains of four talents each. If you want the fourth talent or spell, you will have to get the other three first. For example, a Mage who wants the Inferno spell must first get Flame Blast, Flaming Weapons, and Fireball in that order. This can make somewhat useful spells/talents not worth the cost if you do not find the other three talents useful. The problem is that some of the talents seem to be useless (or not as useful as you might imagine). For instance, I had Leliana (or was it Zevran; no matter) get Stealth to rank four, but if I had them sneak around, enemies would still spot me in short order. I think it is mostly useful as an evasion bonus in combat.

 

 

It is weird how Bioware handled the skill-talent divide; sometimes it seems very arbitrary. For instance, anyone can invest in the Trap-Making skill, but only rogues can invest in the Trap-Disarming talent. While Stealth is a talent given only to rogues, anyone can learn to steal items (provided they have the correct attribute score). There are other "hidden" attributes as well: Health, Stamina/Mana, Defense, Missile Defense, Armor, Armor Penetration, Elemental Resistance, Physical Resistance, and Mental Resistance. They are pretty self-explanatory.

While the character system seems a bit basic (because it is), it is somewhat flexible. If you get the Arcane Warrior Specialization, you can turn your mage into a tank (i.e. the guy that soaks up enemy damage while the other guys pelt him from afar or near). However, thanks again to the MMOGification of Dragon Age: Origins, there are "optimal builds." A warrior is better as a tank and/or for attacking groups at close range, and a rogue is better at doing maximum damage to a single opponent. A warrior whose role is a damage-dealer is better off specializing in two-handed weapons talents because of its high strength requirements; a rogue, on the other hand, is better off specializing in dual-weapons talents because of their dexterity requirements. If you want the ultimate damage-dealer, go with a rogue specializing in bows. Another oddity of this system is that, according to this thread, a melee rogue is better off dual-wielding daggers and heavily investing in cunning. Weird!

Also, it appears that Bioware did not do as good a job at balancing the classes as it could have. While the game has four difficulty settings (Easy, Normal, Hard and Nightmare), it seems the primary difficulty comes from your choice of party members (including the PC, of course). (PROTIP: If you want an easy time, make sure to create a Mage and have him/her get Force Field, Crushing Prison, Heal and Cone of Cold as quickly as possible. These four spells will make the game A LOT easier.)

 

 

Combat

1.04: What will combat be like in Dragon Age?

Dragon Age will have real-time, party-based combat. (true) The player explores the world with an over-the-shoulder camera view as seen in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but when combat begins, the camera can be switched to a top-down tactical view similar to that in Baldur's Gate. (mostly true) Combat will be in real time but will allow the player to pause the action ('pause and play') and assign commands to his party members. (again true)


As you might have guessed, Dragon Age: Origins is a very combat-heavy game. It is a Real-Time-With-Pause (RTWP for short) system similar to the Infinity Engine games. The player can choose between an over-the-shoulder camera (like in KotOR) or a bird's eye view (like in Baldur's Gate etc). The overhead camera is vastly superior to the shitty camera in Neverwinter Nights 2, but it is not as good as the IE camera. I guess it is easier when you can optimize for one viewing angle.

In a desperate attempt to be more dark and "mature", Bioware has included some blood and gore into the combat engine. Creatures will bleed when hit. When a party member delivers the coup de grâce to an enemy, s/he has a small chance of either lobbing off its head or, in the case of larger monsters, leaping up in the air and driving his or her weapon straight into its heart or neck. When killed, enemies dissolve in a pile of blood. After a fight, your characters will likely be covered in little specks of blood. It is rather low-key, but it is a nice touch.

Another difference between Dragon Age: Origins and the Baldur's Gate series is that Warriors require a lot more management now. In the IE games, fighters were mostly brainless units: equip them, buff them, and let them go on their merry, murderous ways. A Warrior in DA:O has to rely on his array of talents to see him through. While some talents are passive, many talents, like Mighty Blow, must be explicitly activated by the player. This makes every class more hands on than in the past. If you thought playing a Fighter was too boring in the past, you will probably like it better. If you do not like all the micromanagement, then, with the right Tactics, the Warrior can be just as brainless as always.

 

 

While we are on the subject, let's discuss Tactics slots. In past games, Bioware included various AI presets corresponding to certain roles: Fighter, Ranged, Healer, Coward, etc. While a player could create his own AI script, it seems like that was beyond most players. In this "spiritual sequel", Bioware has included these Tactics slots as a more user-friendly way to create custom AI scripts. Basically, you have several rows of blocks in two columns: Condition and Response. If you know anything about programming, you can probably guess that this boils down to a giant switch statement (or even, more simply, a giant block of if/else-if statements). If the top condition is true, the specified action will be taken; otherwise, if the second condition is true, that specified action will be taken, etc. The Conditions range from "Partymember's Health < 10%" to "Character surrounded by >2 enemies." Unfortunately, I could not find a good condition to chain the spell Group Heal to; I could have really used a ">=2 partymember's HP < 50%" or something similar.

The difficulty of combat varies widely, and, as mentioned before, the main variable seems to be party composition. If you have a high magic party (i.e. you as a mage, Morrigan and Wynne with the four necessary spells), you will most likely have a pretty easy ride. If you go with a low-magic party (or one with the wrong spells), the game will be a lot harder. In that case, to survive, you should invest heavily into traps and poisons, use them profusely, and pray. An archer (either a rogue you or Leliana) would not hurt, either. The four difficulty settings seem to affect the amount of damage you and enemy characters do and whether or not area-of-effect (or AoE for short) spells will do friendly-fire damage. On Easy, enemies do half-damage and your mages' AoE spells do not affect your party; On Normal, AoE spells will only do half-damage, etc. Another thing that adds to the difficulty is that it is harder to flee from combat. Enemies will pursue you a lot farther than in the past, and you will not be able to transition between areas while you are in combat.

So, if the combat is as tactical as Baldur's Gate II, the camera is almost BG II-like, and the game possibly harder than BG II, why do I not think the combat is as good as in BG II? Well, there are several reasons. First of all, DA:O has only a fraction of the variety in encounters as Baldur's Gate II. BGII has a decent size chunk of the D&D cannon: vampires, yuan-ti, jellies, githyanki, liches, umber hulks, golems (of all sizes), shadows, pit fiends, kobolds, ogres, ettercaps, spiders, all the various PC classes and races, and, of course, several dragons. While DA:O does have some nifty encounters (especially the several dragon fights), approximately 75% of the encounters are with two groups: Darkspawn (mostly genlocks and hurlocks) and humans (mostly melee warriors and a few archers). You will also encounter some undead and a few giant spiders. You will also tend to encounter a whole bunch of each group at once. Going through a big dungeon and killing the same creatures over and over again can become VERY tedious.

 

 

The second reason I do not love DA:O's combat is that Bioware decided to MMOGify it. You see, Bioware must have looked at the massive amount of money World of Warcraft (and other MMO's) were making and then looked at the (rather pathetic) market for single-player RPGs. They then must have thought to themselves, "we should jam as many MMO elements as we can into our single-player RPG to lure in WoW players." Of course, they did not jam in any of the half-way decent elements of MMORPGs, such as, to take a small example, multiplayer-support or a huge, seamless world to explore. No, they mostly included the annoying combat mechanics, mindless quests, and irritating quest markers over people's heads (thankfully those can be turned off). I will talk about the other elements later, but for now I will focus on the MMO combat mechanics. Specifically, I will discuss the concept of aggro. In classic RPGs, the standard party size was six. This meant there were usually plenty of front-line fighters to keep the heat off of the mages and archers. In many MMORPGs, group sizes are smaller than that, so the developers of these games created the concept of aggro.

 

The idea works like this: every action a character takes on the battlefield (and sometimes even before it) determines how likely an enemy is to attack him. The purpose of a tank is to make the enemy target him, usually by using talents such as Taunt and Threaten, and avoid or soak-up the damage while the rest of the party pounds on the enemies. A good strategy is to keep the mages in reserve until the tanks have generated sufficient aggro (God, I feel retarded writing that!) to make it safe. This system, coupled with the long casting times and short covering distances, makes area of effect spells almost useless (except at lower difficulty levels or in certain special conditions), because a mage who uses them at the beginning of a battle will be targeted by every enemy caught in the blast. Furthermore, the system leads to retarded shit like the fact that wearing heavy armor will increase the likelihood of being targeted. That is the kind of rule you sneak in the back door to paper over a poorly designed system, and Bioware proudly plastered this little tid-bit all over the loading screens. (I am too lazy to take a screenshot, though.) I hang my head.

Another MMORPG features is that, outside of combat, health and stamina/mana regenerate. So, if you can avoid combat for a little while, you can get up to full health for free. Another "simplified" aspect, also seen in Neverwinter Nights 2, is that any party members who were slain (or "injured" as the case may be in this game) will automatically revive after a battle is over, but they will have some kind of injury that creates a slight penalty. However, these penalties add up, so this provides an incentive not to die. These injuries can be treated with Injury Kits or, presumably, by resting at camp (though I never noticed if the injuries went away or not).

 

 

Game World

David Gaider: At the end of the day, not having a day/night cycle is corner-cutting, more or less. There's no denying that. As I was quoted elsewhere in this thread, the decision is whether or not to have more areas or whether or not to have a day/night cycle. And while someone can try to take the skewed view that not including day/night cycles means we are willingly giving up quality, I disagree. Having a longer game where you aren't re-using level art all the time is surely part of quality, too, no?


So, if the combat is poor compared to Baldur's Gate II, how are the exploration elements? Well, to be charitable, they suck. First of all, there are only a handful of locations in the game. Here is a comparison between BGII and DA:O.

 

Baldur's Gate II

 

Dragon Age: Origins

 

Denerim (on the right) is DA:O's version of Athkatla. Notice that almost all the areas on the map are combat locations.

 

There are only a few towns in this game (namely Redcliffe, Orzammar, Lothering and Denerim), and while there are some buildings, most of them cannot even be entered. There is very little that kills immersion faster than building that are purely decorative. There are only a handful of semi-important NPCs at each location, and the rest are merely filler. To add insult to injury, you can turn on a feature to place exclamation marks over the heads of important NPCs (quest-givers, etc.) to make separating the wheat from the chafe even easier. There is not much to say because there is just not much there.

Even though there are only a few non-combat locations, the possibilities for interaction are still rather limited. As Gaider mentioned above, there is no day/night cycle (don't even think about NPC schedules), so all the NPCs just kinda stand there. Like most JRPGs, DA:O does not even give the player the option to attack an NPC; combat only occurs when the plot dictates that it should. Any important object is highlighted, and the rest is merely decoration.

The wilderness is just as poor. While there are several wilderness areas, they are mostly just isolated maps where you can kill Darkspawn or bandits or whatever. They are also pretty small, so they feel more like an arena than any kind of forest or plain I have ever seen.

The dungeons only fair slightly better than the other areas. There are some interesting dungeons, and the coolest is clearly the Fade dungeon. During your travels, you will be cast into the Fade and isolated from your party members. To survive, you will find various fellow dreamers, and you will learn from them how to transform into a mouse (fits through mouse-holes and can travel unnoticed), a fire-elemental (can shoot fireballs and pass through flames safely), a golem (is a fucking badass and can break down doors), and a spirit-thing (can pass through spirit doors and can heal himself). You must use these powers to solve various puzzles and find your way out of the dungeon. It is a nice change of pace from the usual drudgery. There is another time where you are locked-up in prison, and you must escape; this part is cool because you can solve it by disguising yourself and sneaking out. There is another place that makes you solve a bunch of easy riddles and perform a somewhat interesting puzzle that involves positioning three party members to create a solid bridge for the fourth party member to travel across.

The only problem is that for every interesting dungeon, there are 2-3 generic, boring dungeons. There is an ice-palace where you have to fight an endless number of cultists (mostly warriors and archers) with a few drakes (mini-dragons) thrown in. The worst part of the game is the Deep Roads, which is an endless series of Darkspawn fights that are split up into four area (but they mostly look the same to me). Oh god, that is tedious! The end of the game is also composed of several areas with seemingly endless numbers of Darkspawn, but, because you can call in an army to help you, those battles can be kind of cool.

The quests certainly do not make-up for the flaws of the rest of the gameworld. Apart from a few companion-specific sidequests (that are not all that good to begin with), the side-quests in DA:O are some of the most generic fetch/kill quests imaginable. This seems to have clear MMO influence. Each "town" (and I use that word very loosely) has a Chanters Board (where the Chantry has allowed regular people to post various problems), the Mage's Board (where one can do a series of quests for the loose coalition of Mages that exist outside the Circle), and, in a few places, a tavern-owner that will let you do less-savory quests. However, all of them involve "collecting x plants for alchemical ingredients" or "travelling to location y to save some peasants from bandits/darkspawn." In a word, they are generic.

To summarize, Dragon Age: Origins features a lifeless world that is not very fun to inhabit.

 

 

Warden's Keep DLC

Of course there is one quest that is very memorable and sticks out like a sore thumb. It is this one.

 

 

Yes, that is right, Bioware included a sales pitch for their Warden's Keep downloadable content IN THE FUCKING GAME ITSELF! This makes me take the original world score and subtract 9000 points for being a douchebag. At least the sales-pitch for Neverwinter Nights in the original Baldur's Gate is low-key.

 

 

Game Engine

1.12: What game engine does Dragon Age use?

Dragon Age will use a brand-new cutting edge (lie) technology engine, called the BioWare Dragon Age Engine. BioWare's programmers are applying the experience learned from working on past BioWare engines like the BioWare Infinity Engine, the BioWare Aurora Engine, the BioWare Odyssey Engine and the BioWare Jade Empire Engine to create this new RPG engine.


All in all, the engine powering Dragon Age: Origins seems decent. The graphics look a little better than Neverwinter Nights 2, and the textures, especially the cloth textures, look a WHOLE lot better. The only problem is that Bioware has included cutscenes, and the models always seem a bit stiff. While the voice acting is good at times, the character models lack the necessary facial features and body language to make certain scenes more convincing. This means Dragon Age machinima is not ready for the big time.

The engine also seems to be smooth and stable. I have not experienced many slowdowns, and I do not remember any crashes either. At release there was a major quest bug that could make the game unwinnable. In Orzammar, if you accept the first quests for both factions and complete them, each side will refuse to speak with you further since you have thrown in your chips with the other guy. While this is not an engine bug, it is something to keep in mind.

The main problem I have with Dragon Age: Origins engine-wise boils down to the loading times. While my RAM only meets the minimum requirements, the loading times are BRUTAL. When loading a save for the first time in a play session, I sometimes wait for 90 seconds to two minutes. One day, I started loading a game, went downstairs, poured a glass of tea, went upstairs to pee, and then came back to my computer to find the damn thing still had not loaded. I often pulled out my laptop and browsed the web while I waited for it to load. Even worse, there is no progress bar, so I never have any idea how much longer I must wait.

 

 

User Interface

The main problem with the user interface is the way Bioware has split actions between the two mouse buttons. To tell a character to move to a specific spot or to interact (talk, manipulate, attack) a given object, you select that place with you mouse and press the secondary mouse button. To use a talent or item from the quickbar at the bottom of the screen, you move your mouse over the selected talent/spell/item and press the primary mouse button. If you want to select a specific response in a conversation, you highlight the response and press the primary mouse button. Speaking of text, you can only skip text by pressing the Escape key. You also use the primary mouse button to use the menus. While the primary mouse button seems to have more responsibilities, you will likely press the secondary mouse button a lot more. While you can remap the mouse buttons, you cannot remap the responsibilities given to each button, and I do not think DA:O will let you map two functions to the same button. In the Infinity Engine games, Neverwinter Nights, and Neverwinter Nights 2, you could select both world objects and menu objects with the same button, but in Dragon Age: Origins you have to use one for each. It is simply arbitrary and confusing. Even midway through the game, I sometimes wondered why my character was not attacking the creature I wanted him to attack and then realized I had pressed the wrong button.

 

 

You have seen the combat interface and the Combat Tactics interface, so let's talk about the inventory. First of all, each character has various slots to put on helmets, armor, boots, gloves, rings, necklaces, etc. Furthermore, the inventory is a group inventory, so you no longer have to sort through six characters inventories to find your missing rod-of-ass-kicking. Nearly each item takes up one unit of space (there are no weight restrictions), and the player gets 60 units of space to start with (although s/he can increase that number by purchasing bags). The only problem is that there is no way to store stuff (unless you use a mod or purchase the Warden's Keep DLC), so you must either sell or destroy unwanted items to free-up space. Another problem is that background information on an item does not appear when you click on it.

Since we are discussing the inventory, I should mention the various items you can equip during the game. Apart from a few unique items, the pieces of armor (and helmets and gloves) are divided into various classes, sets and tiers. Classes of armor include clothing, light armor, medium armor, heavy armor and massive armor with massive armor providing more protection but having higher Strength requirements and penalizing Fatigue more than clothing and light armor. Each class of armor is further subdivided into sets, which look different and provide different bonuses and penalties. Each set of armor is even further divided into tiers with tier 1 being the worst of the set and tier 7 being the best. The tiers basically represent the different materials used to construct it; light armor pieces are constructed from leather, and metal is used to construct medium, heavy and massive armor. The various tiers for metal objects are iron, grey iron, steel, veridium, red steel, silverite and dragonbone. To aid players who like to wear matching outfits, Bioware has implemented small bonuses for wearing a matching set of gloves, armor and helmet. For instance, wearing Scale Armor, Boots and Gloves increases a character's Missile Deflection stat by 4.5%. The weapons are similarly split up into class

 

Since we are discussing the inventory, I should mention the various items you can equip during the game. Apart from a few unique items, the pieces of armor (and helmets and gloves) are divided into various classes, sets and tiers. Classes of armor include clothing, light armor, medium armor, heavy armor and massive armor with massive armor providing more protection but having higher Strength requirements and penalizing Fatigue more than clothing and light armor. Each class of armor is further subdivided into sets, which look different and provide different bonuses and penalties. Each set of armor is even further divided into tiers with tier 1 being the worst of the set and tier 7 being the best. The tiers basically represent the different materials used to construct it; light armor pieces are constructed from leather, and metal is used to construct medium, heavy and massive armor. The various tiers for metal objects are iron, grey iron, steel, veridium, red steel, silverite and dragonbone. To aid players who like to wear matching outfits, Bioware has implemented small bonuses for wearing a matching set of gloves, armor and helmet. For instance, wearing Scale Armor, Boots and Gloves increases a character's Missile Deflection stat by 4.5%. The weapons are similarly split up into classes and tiers. The various classes of weapons include the longsword, greatsword, dagger, longbow, shortbow, crossbow, battleaxe, waraxe, mace, maul and staff. Wood is used to make the bows and staves, and metal is used to make the others. Bioware copied Bethesda by making staves projectile weapons, and they now have a long-distance magic attack (of admittedly low strength).

The merchant screen looks a lot like two inventory screens put together, and it is rather decent and predictable. One pseudo-interesting thing to note is that Bioware, instead of letting the player amass thousands of gold pieces, instituted a three-tier unit of currency: copper, silver and gold. One silver piece is worth 100 copper pieces, and one gold piece is worth 100 silver pieces. However, the game will automatically convert your fortune to the fewest number of coins, so this system is just a fancy way of saying you have x*10000+y*100+z units of currency.

Bioware also decided to implement the Codex system from Mass Effect into this game. This means that if, say, you click on a book, the contents of that book will automatically fill up a slot in your Codex. If you get some information on a topic, the Codex might create a page with further background information on that topic. When you kill an enemy for the first time, the Codex will provide you with background information. Furthermore, the Codex is where all the information on current and completed quests is stored. This may just be personal preferences, but I find the Codex inferior to other methods. One of the things that drew me into BGI&II was simply reading the item descriptions of cool objects and reading a bunch of the lore books Bioware had scattered around. This system feels too disjoint to me, so it makes it much easier to ignore all the lore, etc. Since the lore is not very good, all the better.

 

 

Closing Statement

Dragon Age: Origins is a decent but highly-flawed game. Playing it will bring back some memories of Baldur's Gate II, but those memories will only make the game seem poorer by comparison. Mostly, playing it brings back memories of World of Warcraft, except it was less tedious. Since there are not that many RPGs released these days, you might as well give it a try. Then, go back to playing Pool of Radiance and dreaming of days of yore.


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