Dragon Age is best, however, outside of combat. There is no judgemental morality system to suffer, no Paragon or Renegade points to earn, no Light side or Dark side of the Force to turn to. This is refreshing, especially at a time when karma systems are in vogue. Without such statistic distractions, you're left to resolve quests with only your morals for company. Should I slay an entire race of werewolves at the behest of an Elven race whose favour I covet, or should I hear the beasts out? Should I send Morrigan, the wonderfully-voiced witch bitch mage, into the Fade in order to exorcise a boy from a demon - even if this will rob the child of his mother? If Dragon Age does one thing brilliantly, it is that there are no obvious right or wrong answers. When you reckon you've got the game sussed and have foreseen an outcome, that's usually an indication that events will take an unforeseen twist. The game often surprises you. NPCs are stubborn, unflinching in their ideals and realistic in emotion. Try as you might to resolve conflicts peacefully, sometimes there is no option but to draw your sword and stick it in someone's gut, even when that someone doesn't deserve it.
Your decisions affect not only the game's plot, but your relationship with your party members. Leliana, the girl-next-door rogue, approves of what you might consider "right" decisions. So does Alistair, the Templar warrior. But Morrigan, the aforementioned mage, has a mean streak. She favours chaos. Piss a party member off too often and they may desert you. Go even further and they may try to kill you. This adds risk to the acceptance of every quest and how you tackle it. If I take the time to help this random NPC out, will Morrigan disapprove? If I slay first and ask questions later, will Leliana be disappointed with me? Keeping everyone happy, massaging egos and dominating personalities, is the stuff of the Premier League manager, and a role-player's dream.
Why should I care? Sex. Yes, Dragon Age has sex. Lots of it, in fact. You can go to a brothel in Ferelden's capital and pay 50 silver to shag a human, an elf, or a dwarf, of any gender. Prostitution, however, is all too easy. There is no challenge. Bonking your party members is the true test of your sexual prowess. Strangely, this overshadows most other desires, including saving the world. This is your true motivation throughout your quest. Every action and decision boils down to this most basic and feral of desires: to shag. Dragon Age does not have a karma system; it has a sex system.
Unfortunately, sleeping with the object(s) of your affection is anti-climactic. The sex in Dragon Age is not sophisticated, hot or steamy. The game has an 18 rating, yet women keep their underwear on during sex. This is like the worst Hollywood sex scene: a pointless tumble where A-list actresses wear bras while simulating sex. It's not helped by the graphics, either. Dragon Age's sex scenes are horribly animated - Morrigan crawls around your tent like a turtle poking its head out of its shell. Faces contort as if skin is controlled by a puppeteer. The voice-acted moans and groans are the stuff of badly dubbed porn. Some will play Dragon Age purely for juvenile titillation, and the game will answer the call appropriately. And yet your sexual desire is mostly the result of genuine affection, cultivated over tens of hours spent conversing and courting and killing countless darkspawn.
The game's visuals are generally unimpressive. Bland isn't the correct term, nor is uninspiring - indeed the environments and characters are well detailed - it is more that there is a lack of variety and pizzazz. There is a sense that the many dungeons have been designed not by human beings with imaginations, but by complex computer programs with elaborate subroutines. Perhaps the game suffers from the bar set by BioWare's own Mass Effect, or perhaps it's the result of the game being over five years in the making. Whatever the reason, Dragon Age lacks the wow factor Mass Effect had in spades. It's a Lord of the Rings aesthetic, well executed but never jaw-dropping.
It's a fault easy to forgive, however, because the game is impossible to put down. Its world is so vast, engrossing and in depth that all but the most critical of fantasy RPG fans will find it irresistible. Your party members, all brilliantly voice-acting and with varied and interesting personalities and intriguing motives - steal the show. Levelling up comes rarely, which makes the geek-out pleasure of fussing over what to spend points on all the more potent. The world is huge, full of clever main quests and engaging head-scratchers. Combat sequences can last hours as you battle through overrun castles, underground caverns and trap-filled hideouts. There is always something to do, somewhere to go, people to speak to and monsters to slay - qualities that dull any disappointment the KOTOR-style linear structure might bring. The combat is always challenging, which more than makes up for the lack of variety. Dragon Age pushes the well-worn RPG buttons with such experience that fans of the genre will lose entire evenings to the game in what feels like a blink of an eye.
Others, however, will wonder what all the fuss is about. They will find the silent protagonist, aka you, a poor substitute for Commander Shepard's fully voice-acted third-person personality. They will find selecting unspoken lines of dialogue an evolutionary regression from Mass Effect's dynamic conversation wheel. They will find the combat requires a pause too often. In short, they will find the game… old. Of course Mass Effect fans are capable of enjoying Dragon Age - I am one myself. This is merely a warning. Do not buy the game expecting Mass Effect in Oblivion's clothes. Do not create a character expecting an adrenaline-pumping 20 hour Hollywood adventure. Do not pick a fight with an NPC expecting your skill with a targeting reticule to carry you to victory. You will die, quickly. "Your journey will end," as the game says, often.
Instead, expect hundreds of hours of fan service condensed into a familiar experience. With Dragon Age: Origins BioWare is giving something back to lovers of Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate. Its role-playing is superb, but not revolutionary. It is a fantasy RPG so obviously crafted for the PC that it seems pointless to consider playing it on an alternative platform. It is an experience as compelling as it is archaic. This trip back in time to the glory days of the PC is welcome, but it makes you appreciate the advances made by modern day RPGs Mass Effect and Fallout 3. They don't make them like they used to, grumpy 30-something PC gamers claim. BioWare does, and you should be grateful.