Despite being set in ye olde fantasy lands of impossibly large swords and questionable female attire, there's something anachronistic about Dragon Age: Origins. An uncomfortable, zealously juvenile spirit seems to permeate the dragon-slaying proceedings, a feeling that seems to linger even after the game's obnoxious marketing has left the room. Paring BioWare's scenes of war and blood and guts with a Marilyn Manson tune is such a strained ploy, it's almost embarrassing.
The thing is, not all of Dragon Age's awkwardness comes from the suits on the upper floor -- sometimes they come from the clothes discarded in front of a romantic campfire. BioWare is really playing up your character's playboy tendencies, chatting up members of his party, plying them with gifts (that have immediate stats and ability benefits) and weighing up his futures with the adorable redhead or the hard-edged sorceress. It's wrapped up in BioWare's traditional dialogue menus (a strange regression from Mass Effect), but approached -- at least in EA's E3 walkthrough -- with the verve of Grey's Anatomy. And you thought leathery-skinned fire breathers were the only things those two had in common.
It all feels a bit crass, as does the game's Conan-ical depiction of combat (see: giant swords swung by even bigger biceps). The forceful, blood-splattered fights are cool, sure, but seem indicative of the game's overall lack of elegance and subtlety -- you know, stuff that you'd expect to see in a BioWare game. And as exciting as the visuals are, they fail to recreate any intensity in the actual battle system, which is a relatively traditional and unremarkable affair if you've played the likes of KOTOR and Baldur's Gate before.
But ... that's okay. It's functional for an RPG, and opens up several interesting tactics to you and your party members (who can be controlled at any point if you think the AI is letting you down). Controlling a shapeshifter seems particularly fun, allowing you to ditch the swords and sorcery for a moment and transform into, oh, a giant spider. Special attacks are easily accessible and switching between weapon and equipment sets is a snap. The controls seem to translate quite well to the console platforms too (we played the Xbox 360 version), with the constant clicking giving way to constant pushing of the A button and, in our case, the right bumper. Healing potions, you see.
Visually, the Xbox 360 version looks rougher around the edges, but manages to preserve the game's moody, age-battered dungeons and energetic battle animations. The facial movements seem to be on par with those found in Mass Effect, even if the voice acting heard during the demo seemed a little uneven.
Uneven seems like the right way to describe Dragon Age: Origins at this stage. There are no major stumbling blocks and there's no reason to think that BioWare won't deliver an intriguing plot to make it all worth it, but it feels bizarre to have such a lukewarm response to one of the studio's games. It seems like a solid, if somewhat adolescent, fantasy RPG, but it feels insufficient in the face of BioWare's previous accomplishments.