Hearing the term "RPG" more than likely brings games such as Tales of Vesperia, Persona or, for some of you, Fallout 3 to mind. Not since the earliest days of this current console generation and a little game called The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion have we seen a fantasy role-playing game of this caliber rooted in swords and sorcery you'd find in The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons or even World of Warcraft.
The long wait for a true successor to the fantasy throne ends today with the arrival of Dragon Age: Origins. The latest title from Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic developer BioWare is a testament to the company's mastery of the art of building the worlds, characters and stories that constitute a "classic" -- and that's exactly what this excellent experience is.
I have to admit, I really didn't see this one coming. Sure, I knew BioWare was making a new fantasy RPG, but as someone whose experience with that genre goes back to the early days of personal computers, I didn't really think a tale of dragons, demons, magic and mighty armies could still manage to grab me the way Oblivion did. Not even two hours into Dragon Age, I realized my life was now its to do with what it pleased. I was hooked. From its earliest moments, BioWare managed to have me caring about my character, the NPCs, the world and what was going to happen next.
Not even two hours into Dragon Age, I realized my life was now its to do with what it pleased.
But that implies you're able to walk away from your first adventure which, as of this writing, I still haven't been able to do. The number of interactions, sub-quests, gear, weapons and the like that the game's world holds is simply staggering.
The combat is scalable to allow -- on one end of its spectrum -- the real-time clashes of WoW with a "scripting" system for NPC actions (i.e. "If companion characters are below 50% health, cast heal" for mages) that's very reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII's Gambit setups. On the other end, the battles become highly tactical, requiring plenty of pausing the action to plan (what you hope) is the next, best move.
The sheer variety of weapons, items, talents and other tweak-able areas of customization in combat are simply too vast to describe in detail. You can tell that BioWare worked hard to balance the core gameplay in such a way that a newcomer to the genre won't feel intimidated, but a seasoned veteran can spent hours just piecing together the perfect weapon/gear loadout, crafting items and reading the seemingly endless codex entries written about the incredibly realized world.
I can't say that the visuals are particularly amazing; they're just good, with some really nice highlights in the case of armor and enemy design -- they're evil and look it. The story is superbly told, with interesting NPCs and dialog that's well-written, funny at just the right moments and solidly delivered by a cast of many voice-over actors (none of Oblivion or Fallout 3's small cast of pitch-shifted VO artists here!). The conversation choices have allowed me to be benevolent at times, snide at others or not particularly invested in some situations. There's no tracking of character alignments (i.e. "Did that dialog choice just make me more evil?") but I've seen the choices I've made accumulate and affect the plot and world in ways both subtle and significant.
The console interface, with its radial menus, seems like a best effort at making a "PC-style" RPG work with a controller.
Like me, you might not have Dragon Age: Origins on your list of definite must-buys and potential game of the year candidates, but I'm here to tell you that you should. It's a glowing example of the RPG genre done very right -- and an experience you'll still be finding surprising, memorable moments in for months to come.
A copy of Dragon Age: Origins was sent to us by EA. This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.