Critical Review 3- Dragon Age Origins

Dragon Age Origins is a 2009 fantasy RPG released by Bioware for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and computer platforms. It introduces players to the fictional world of Thedas, where long ago a group of impetuous wizards attempted to usurp the gods from the heavens. They ultimately failed and were corrupted into darkspawn, demon like evil creatures that band together to ravage the world in campaigns known as blights. The player assumes the identity of a custom-built protagonist in the current timeline in the blight stricken country of Ferelden. After completing a unique introduction story, the player travels to Ostagar where a large battle is about to take place between Ferelden forces commanded by King Cailan and the darkspawn. The player is then recruited by a powerful warrior named Duncan into the Grey Wardens, a cult like organization that combats darkspawn.  During the ensuing battle Cailan is betrayed and his army is slaughtered by darkspawn forces. Barely able to escape, the player character is left to quest across Ferelden using their newfound abilities to gather forces and form an alliance to save the world from the darkspawn menace.

For being created in the mid-7th generation of home game consoles, Dragon Age Origins has rather impressive visual aesthetics given its large size and scope. Utilizing the eclipse game engine, the graphics are on par with other RPG’s of the time despite having extensive game maps and over 100 hours of content. Incredible effort was spent creating the world so that each area, from the inside of a kitchen to the misty dream world known as the fade, would have their own distinct atmosphere and sound characteristics. Cut scenes are produced with a cinematic feel utilizing a vast array of shot angles to make it feel separate from when the player is actively involved, allowing them to sit back and absorb the enthralling story as it unfolds. One cinematic early in the game captures this perfectly, showing the battle of Ostagar. Hordes of darkspawn and allied forces collide in fountains of blood and gore, and the tragic downfall of what was thought to be two major characters is shown in graphic detail. This scene gives players an early picture of how dark and grizzly the world they have just entered truly is as well as what they can expect to continue seeing as they move forward. A comprehensive character creation process was also integrated to allow for maximum customization of the main character. Players can choose one of 3 different races (human, elf, and dwarf) while picking one of 3 classes (warrior, rouge, and mage) each with its own abilities and specializations, and a background that determines the starting story and how NPC’s will react to the character throughout the game. Based on the chosen race, players can sculpt unique facial characteristics to include scars and even tattoos which are accurately rendered in gameplay and cut-scenes allowing a deeper connection that carries throughout the experience.

Dragon Age Origins gameplay has something to offer to gamers of all levels by taking on an ambitious style that allows them to switch from 3rd person real time strategy to turn based sequencing where they freely scan the map and assign actions for each character in their party. This decision provides a means for several different play styles from quick paced casual action on lower difficulty to elaborate and time-consuming schemes for difficult boss battles. The game interface is fairly streamlined, with character ability activation utilizing the time proven method of having preselected abilities in the corner of the screen for quick activation, or a large comprehensive wheel that appears when action is paused. Despite the number of complex animations rendered in combat, there is little to no lag experienced in even the largest battles allowing for a consistent and pleasurable experience. There is a large range of enemy characters from the lowly human guard to a legendary Arch Demon, with each presenting different tactical challenges and playstyles. This prevents the boredom that occurs from the tireless monotony of buzz sawing through wave after wave of generic bobo’s. Difficulty ratings have a high degree of variance, from almost no challenge on the Easy setting to controller tossing rage elicited by the total party wipeouts of Nightmare difficulty.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the game are the noncombat interactions with the world around the character. Unlike most other games in the medium, Players are given the ability of choice instead of being pushed through linear storytelling. Well written dialogues are as much a part the challenge as swinging a sword through a dark spawn’s chest, and are many times more difficult and engrossing. Each conversation presents the player with several different good guy, bad guy, and middle ground responses to the NPC’s. Each encounter that takes place is tightly interwoven and effects how the game unfolds further along. For instance, there is a base camp where your party relaxes between missions giving the player a chance to interact with NPC’s and from relationships. Not only do the many hours of conversations provide the deep back story to flesh out the characters but can unlock new quests, skills, and even romances for the player. Likewise, simple interactions in the prologue of the quests can affect alliances further along down the road. Say your character is the brother of a backstabbing dwarf noble who left you for dead, will you carry out vengeance or make amends? Perhaps you play as an elf rouge from the slums of Denerim, will you seek justice for your kin or sell them off to a powerful warlord for the aid of his troops? The only major criticism of the dialogue system is the lack of the character being provided a voice. Games like Mass effect, Biowares sci-fi companion piece to Dragon Age, have voice actors record every possible dialogue option for the main character which adds immense depth to interactions that this game lacks.

Where the game really shines is in its innovative and utterly meticulous storytelling. Dragon Age Origins takes the traditional High Fantasy genre turns it over on its head and dumps it into a giant vat of blood, moral ambiguity, and sexual opulence. Dwarves are no longer the staunch idols of honor, but political chess masters of a classist and highly divisive mountain society. Elves are no longer full of Tolkienesque grace, instead roaming the woods as primitive outcasts or inhabiting dirty slums reminiscent of late 19th century immigrants and post slavery African Americans. Even magic, the traditionally free flowing force that defines fantasy, has been relegated to a tightly regulated process locked up in a tower with a special cast of templars to police its use. The only normalized aspect present is the oppressive and cruel nature of humans and the abuses they inflict on those around them.

This new perspective creates an entirely new and fresh outlook for player while also allowing the creators to shed previous conceptions of the genre and delve into extremely dark and mature subject matter. Politics, sexuality, and copious amounts of violence skew players perceptions of right and wrong leaving them to make important decisions of what is morally justifiable without being under the magnifying glass of society. Decisions range in scope of not only moral nature, but the prevalence of its impact on Thedas. In one quest, the main character investigates a slaving operation taking place in a slum known as the elven alienage. Under the guise of a disease outbreak mages have entered the are to “treat” elf patients but instead are stealing them into slavery. You are given a choice to kill the slavers and put everything right in the world, or accept corruption and take a bribe that allows hundreds of innocent elves to have their lives sent into an oblivion of pain and agony. At the end of the game the main character is male he realizes he will die fighting the Arch demon unless he takes part in a ritual to impregnate one of his companions, Morrigan. This choice provides a variety of outcomes all spawning from how the player views the act of conception. Does the players character love Morrigan? Will he join her afterwards to raise the child? Is it fair to risk the life of an unborn child on one’s own selfish desire to live? The beauty of the gaming medium is that there is no correct answer and the player is free to look in themselves and perhaps even learn something about their own vales and morality.

Since its release, Dragon Age’s popularity has spawned 2 sequels with a 3rd in development and countless DLC addons and mods. Even 8 years after its creation, its replay ability is still enjoyable and well worth the investment of time. The topics explored and unique storytelling place this as a must play for RPG enthusiasts of all generations that will continue to influence gamers for years to come.

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