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A rare hurrah for single-player gaming: a spoiler-free review
on September 8, 2011
Dragon Age Origins (DAO), is a single-player game of incredible depth. I wouldn't consider the game old, but it did come out about two years ago and has already spawned a sequel (more on that later). Though DAO was released on several platforms, it was primarily designed for the PC, which is what I played it on.
Without a exposing too much of the plot, you play a central protagonist who becomes a member of a unique fighting force known as the Grey Wardens. Your mission is straight-forward enough: to defend the land of Ferelden from an invasion of demonic darkspawn. That two-sentence synopsis is a gross oversimplification, but trust me, the less you know going into this game, the better. If you must know more spoilers, you know how to find them.
Presentation - 4 out of 5 stars
While the gist of the story may not seem like anything revolutionary, it is in its execution which makes DAO special. As soon as you jump in, you're going to realize that some serious world-building has taken place. These aren't just massive environments for the sake of being massive, these are areas chalk-full of goodies to explore, people to converse with, and baddies to slay.
The game's sound is one of its greatest strengths. Every person/creature you come across is excellently voiced and the musical score is nothing short of breathtaking. The graphics are the only deduction I give here. Not because they aren't good; they're just not great compared to everything else. At times there is some awkward NPC movement and minor choppiness can occur during spells or huge battles. They're good enough to appreciate from time to time though. With the right hardware, textures are sharp. You'll find yourself pausing from time to time in the midst of a battle just so you can rotate the camera and admire the snapshot.
Gameplay - 5 out of 5 stars
Many will agree that gameplay is the most important criteria, but in some ways it is the most subjective. Like some other roleplaying games, in DAO there are three main aspects to gameplay: 1) character building, 2)dialogue, and 3) combat.
Character building begins with your origin. Who are you? An elf, human, or dwarf? A warrior, mage, or rogue? That is only the beginning. You can decide how you look, what your background is, and in what skills you will specialize as the game progresses. This is achieved with a very easy-to-understand interface where players can put as much (or little) time into their protagonist as they wish. Default options are available for folks who prefer to skip that kind of thing.
Dialogue is a pivotal part of the game. If you're annoyed by cut-scenes and talking, this game is probably not for you. Again, you can press the Esc key if you wish to skip scenes, but this isn't supposed to be Diablo. Aside from the interesting stories each character brings, there are a variety of choices you can make. These choices aren't classified as good or bad, but characters will have varying reactions depending on what you choose and ultimately shape the game's story. This is a very rich part of the game. There can be humor, anger, lying, embarrassment, and even romance. It all depends on what you do and say. Relatively small choices may come back to help or hurt you down the road. This creates a very enjoyable experience where you'll actually come to care for characters perhaps as much as you would in a different medium - such as in books or TV.
The combat is fairly straightforward, but it is a unique system and not everyone is accustomed to it. It's a hybrid between real-time and turn-based strategy where you control a group of up to four adventurers. At any time in the thick of the combat, you can pause the game and issue commands to party members to engage in particular skills or abilities. While you can attempt to run through and do this without the pause function, you'll probably die a lot (at least on the PC version). Even at higher levels you're not supposed to just waltz in and mow down your foes. In many cases your foes will be just as (or more) powerful than you, so you'll need to use tactics and strategy throughout. If you've played any of the Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale offerings, you'll feel right at home. The combat here is more fluid and friendly than those earlier games and if you want to customize how party members automatically engage, there's a very intuitive system where you can do that. Personally I prefer to manually pause and direct each party member on my own.
Replay Value - 5 out of 5 stars
In case you missed it, the recurring theme here is choice. You choose your origin, your specialties, how you talk to other characters, and what strategies to employ when engaging the enemy. All of those factors will affect what sorts of quests/tasks are available to you. Which means some paths will be closed off based on decisions you make. Granted there are some standard objectives which will remain the same no matter how you're playing, but the manner in which you accomplish those can vary during each playthrough.
Upon completing this game I immediately felt the desire to jump back in and try it again. With the Ultimate Edition, there's even more to do outside the core game. After the original game, Bioware subsequently sold a lot of downloadable content, which includes new areas, items, and characters. The Ultimate Edition includes all of this - the original game, an expansion pack, and all nine additional content packs. Frankly put, there is a whole lot of value in this offering. If you find that you enjoy it, there's enough here to keep you interested for quite a while.
Rating - M for Mature
This is supposed to be an adult title. The genre encompasses what is known as "gritty fantasy" - where the storylines are often dark and somewhat Shakespearian. The blood will fly during fights, and at times speckle your party members. There's a setting which allows you to turn that off if you wish. Blood itself plays an important role in the game, so I tend to think some of this is meant to be symbolic. Sex can also happen, but it is more of the PG-13 variety where all you're going to see is some cleavage and underwear.
Bugs & Crashes
I downloaded this on Amazon. I know there's some horror stories on here, but the process seemed straightforward enough for me. The game ran well 98% of the time. There were a few instances where I would log on and it wouldn't recognize the additional content packs. These should only have to be downloaded one initial time. If they don't appear when you come back to play again, restarting the game should bring them up. There were a few times when the game would crash as well (usually during multiple spell-casting). Hopefully EA Games will address these issues, but I didn't feel that these were frequent enough to be that distracting. A simple restart of the game is all I had to ever do.
As a side note, Dragon Age 2 did come out earlier this year. However, I've been disappointed to discover that it was made for a different audience of gamers. Choice and variety took a backseat in order to favor a more action-centered, simplified game. That type of gameplay is appealing to some, but there are many fans who still cling to DAO. Perhaps in time a more faithful sequel will be made.
For better or worse, the face of gaming is changing. The focus is undoubtedly becoming more online-centered and fast-paced. Since the World of Warcraft phenomena, MMO games have quickly become the norm. Combining this with the surge of free-to-play online games, it is easy to see the growth of social gaming shows no signs of slowing. Various developers have already predicted the impending death of the single-player experience. DAO is pure example of why that should never be.
DAO is hands down one of the more enjoyable gaming experiences out there. You can feel the love that was put into this product, evidenced by all the little details which are impossible to catch with just one playthough. In closing, if you're interested in spending some time in a well-crafted world with interesting characters, buckle up your sword and come to Ferelden.