Admittedly, when I first sampled Dragon Age months ago during an Electronic Arts press-tour here in New York City, I was underwhelmed. After all, it's kind of hard to fall in love with an RPG game in 20 minutes, especially since you have no idea what's going on, and since these preview builds often throw you many hours into the game. But of course all of that changed once I got a copy of Dragon Age last week and spent a whole bunch of time with it. In fact, Dragon Age may very well be one the biggest sleeper hits of the year, and easily the best RPG too.
Because this is a BioWare game, you go through the status-quo character creation process where you select your character race (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Mage), configure their aesthetic appearance, select fighter/character type (thief, warrior, archer, etc.) and divide initial stat points across certain attributes. Once that process is complete, which can take as short as five minutes, or as long as an hour, depending on how picky you are with the aesthetic editor, you are thrown into a world that if turned into a novel or movie, would stand toe-to-toe with Tolkien's own (note: there are two Dragon Age books out there, but they are only loosely based on the videogame's story). Yes, it's that good. BioWare has crafted a story so engrossing, that it makes the remaining wait for Final Fantasy XIII just a whole lot easier. Convinced?
Essentially boiling down to the classic good vs. evil theme, the central aspect of the plot revolves around your character being recruited by a clan of elite warriors in order to defend and rid the world of a dark blight that has begun spreading. Ghastly creatures have spawned, and the root of their mysterious and demonic presence must be found and eradicated at all costs. Clearly, there's a whole lot more to it that just that, but mentioning anything else would simply spoil too much – and believe me, you're really going to want to experience it all for yourself. But crazy enough, this story actually has multiple threads it can branch off into, seeing as how parts of the story are based on the decisions you make. On top of that, depending on what race and background type you start with, you'll have vastly different introductory experiences, in addition to seeing different segments throughout the game. So there's a huge incentive to replay Dragon Age: Origins, because it'll take numerous playthroughs to truly see everything in the game.
And that's what's so great about Dragon Age; the freedom. On the other hand, not all RPG games can accomplish freedom like this, because Dragon Age still retains a superb focus on the very core at hand. Yes, you can go off on side-quests, but because the story is so great, you never forget that there are bigger and more important things to return to. Of course, decisions don't just affect the story, but also your gameplay. For example, if you engage a group of characters in your way, you can either calmly talk your way through the situation, or escalate the situation into a battle. Having had a number of these encounters, I tend to base my decisions purely on the tone of the folks I'm engaged in the conversation with. At one point you'll encounter a group of thieves, they don't seem very receptive to you and your party, which bothered me, and so after a brief exchange, I decided to kill them. I did collect some good loot from them too, which made it all the worthwhile too.
Of course, when your encounters are met with a more sincere tone, I'll just talk to them, coax as much information out of them as I can, before dismissing them. And that's just one example, I can give you. One another is the ability to persuade, which I'm sure you've seen in other RPGs similar to Dragon Age. Persuasive actions are great in getting things done your way, or even earning free items. As a whole, your moral choices have an impact on the story in the game, once again giving you more incentive to play through numerous times and experience all of the different threads. Also, it's worth mentioning that your created character is not the only one you get to play with. In fact, you can switch to another character in your party, while the A.I. takes over yours. So if you've got a diverse party and you'd like to try out different combat styles, you can do so. Furthermore, you are also in charge of customizing and keeping your other party members well equipped, as well.
There really is a fantastic amount of freedom in the game, and I haven't even gotten to the character customization aspect. Equipping your character with weapons, shields, armor, magic spells, enhancing abilities, statistics, and everything in between is a very superbly well done process. Leveling up is done in a proper and gradual time, so unless you're grinding, you won't find yourself boasting an extraordinarily high amount of strength and running through the game like cake. Everything is just right, and if perhaps you feel like the challenge isn't sharp enough, you can always increase (or decrease) the difficulty, thanks to the available four difficulty settings.
With the full quest lasting as long as 60 hours, then factor in the numerous origins/background stories, the decision making and how it affects the story, on top of a number of other variable factors, Dragon Age's 60 hours is easily multiplied and the full experience can actually run the perfectionist hundreds of hours – as much as 200, we'd presume. Clearly, as far as value, there's nothing better than Dragon Age out there. I must raise one question though…why didn't BioWare top off the experience with a co-op feature of some sort? I mean, you can select to play as other party members right on the fly, so it's not like they aren't playable fighters. Then why not just pick-up a controller and enable the second player to take control? In fact, we recall hearing many months ago that Dragon Age: Origins would have co-op gameplay. And also, we actually saw Dragon Age: Origins running with two separate camera-views, a default third-person view, and also a traditional isometric view, which was omitted from the console games, and only left for the PC. But these are only minor complaints.
My biggest complaints, unfortunately, stem from the visuals. Disregard what you may have heard about the PlayStation 3 version being superior. Sure, the PS3 game has better textures, but it doesn't matter. Why? Because Dragon Age is a fairly bad looking compared to what's out there now, so it's not like having slightly better textures on one version helps, much. In fact, I'd rather have the slightly degraded textures than have to deal with the very unstable framerate of the PlayStation 3 game. Per my advice, Ben's been playing his Xbox 360 version and hasn't experienced any troubles with the framerate, because I told him that's the version to get for multi-console guys. The framerate on the PS3 game averages low-20s, and can be very sluggish when the bigger enemies (boss fights) come around. Panning the camera around dense locations makes the lousy framerate all the more obvious, as the stuttering will surely pain your eyes. If you can get past the framerate issues, then you'll absolutely love Dragon Age. I'm just barely able to live with it, and I absolutely detest framerates that aren't, at the very least, in the upper 20s, let alone 30.
It's especially disheartening because the visuals here are not very good. Animations are less than average, and the texture detail, regardless of which console it's better on, is not very good either way. There's a whole lot of pop-up in the background, and character detail is quite simplistic. It's almost hard to call this game's visuals next-gen. And it's really odd to see such a bland looking game matted to such superb gameplay. But, I guess there's always an exception. Though I'm really hoping that BioWare does the right thing and releases a patch to fix the framerate, at least. Otherwise, the Xbox 360 version is definitely the one to get for the smoothest gameplay experience.
If you've played BioWare games before, then you should know just how voice heavy their games are. The audio in Dragon Age is largely made up of a whole lot of voice acting, and while subtitles are available too, the clarity of the voice actors is superb. Additionally, the quality of the voice work is fantastic too, barely an instance of poorly delivered lines to be found. To wrap up a great package is a well composed soundtrack by Inon Zur, a man who is no stranger to composing soundtracks for epic games like Dragon Age, as he's also responsible for games such as last year's Prince of Persia, Fallout 3, Crysis, Baldur's Gate II, Champions of Norrath, Icewind Dale, SOCOM II, and many more. His work continues to shine in Dragon Age, as the soundtrack gives the game a very motion picture-like feel, helping propel the level of epicness.
If you can get past the really bland game visuals and a choppy framerate, then in Dragon Age: Origins you will find one of the very best RPG experiences in years. Masterful gameplay mechanics and an amazing story grab you and don't let you go until either a power-outage or sleep deprivation. The voice acting and soundtrack are first-rate, and best of all, the game is infinitely replayable. I will reiterate that if you're a multiplatform owner, I highly urge you to get the Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age. But, if you happen to own a solid PC, as well, then go for the PC game – it's the best of the bunch and has full mod support.