It is a giant leap back in time. It is an old school fantasy RPG for old school fantasy RPG fans. It is a 100 hour epic for those with the time and patience to experience it. It is a step in the wrong direction for some, but, for a chosen few, it is a step in the right direction.
Not for them is the third-person cover-based shooting of Mass Effect. Not for them are radial dialogue wheels. Not for them are cinematic camera angles and film grain effects. Not for them are trendy science fiction shotguns and power wheels mapped to controller shoulder buttons. For them, top down camera angles, text-based dialogue and spells and swords and rings and Dwarven chainmail are as welcoming as a camp fire set in an elven forest.
This is Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare's latest RPG epic. It is a game that modern day BioWare fans, schooled on the Canadian studio's skill in making console RPGs accessible without sacrifice, may have imagined as Mass Effect in Oblivion's clothes. They were wrong. Dragon Age is archaic. It is the spiritual successor to BioWare's own Baldur's Gate series, which last saw a release in 2001 with Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. It is a game that reeks of decade-old PC mechanics, both good and bad. It is a game designed for the mouse and keyboard interface of the PC, and for PC fans familiar with the genre's jargon. Pause-and-play combat, spell combinations, aggro, tanking, dispelling, buffing, ranged DPS, melee DPS, talents, skills, willpower, constitution, rogues, warriors, mages, humans, dwarfs, elves... for the Dragon Age fan these terms are as familiar as the simple act of clicking on a line of unspoken dialogue.
This is not to say Dragon Age is a poor game - it is superb, in fact. It sucks you in from the moment it begins, and, like the best page-turners, leaves an itch in your mind. In the shower, on the bus, at work, in meetings, over dinner, Dragon Age's gargantuan world is there, compelling you to return like an addict seeking a hit of relief.
This addiction sets in remarkably quickly, which is testament to the gravity of the game's opening. Your first act is a choice; one you know will affect all that follows. Which Origin story do I wish to play? There are six: human noble, magi, city elf, Dalish elf, dwarf commoner and dwarf noble. Your starting area, your first hour with the game, and how the game's many non-player characters react to you, is changed as a result of this choice. It's a remarkable effort on BioWare's part. If we were to score replayability, Dragon Age would get a 10.
I am Alexia, a female human noble. She is tall, beautiful and blonde. She favours coercion over brute force, despite her proficiency with one-handed blades and shields. She is a herbalist, able to concoct healing potions by combining flasks with Ferelden's many plants. She began her adventure as a warrior in training - fearsome, but privileged. Her family are aristocrats, admired and respected as members of the noble house Cousland. But their cosy peace is about to be shattered: there is a darkness coming. The Blight is here. The darkspawn, evil mutant monsters, wish to purge the land of all that is good and green. Some wish to ignore the threat; others, including the mysterious and powerful warriors known as the Grey Wardens, know the truth, for they faced the darkspawn hundreds of years ago. Their mission is to first convince the races of the world to mobilise for war, then send the darkspawn back into the hole from which they crawled.
Whatever your Origin story, you end up recruited into the Grey Wardens and fighting the darkspawn in the Battle of Ostagar. It is a scene airlifted from The Lord of the Rings' Battle of Helm's Deep: As the battle rages below the fortress' stone walls, as the night sky spews a relentless rain, you, along with three party members, head to a tower to signal a flanking force. Inside, darkspawn defend. You make your way to the top and slay an ogre. Blood and guts adorn your sword, armour and face. But aid does not come: You are betrayed as your ally turns its back on the battle. You escape, but only just. You find the Grey Wardens' good name tarnished - you are blamed for the defeat. From there, you set out to spread the truth and mobilise bickering factions into action. The darkspawn have arrived, and their fury will be without mercy.
It is a familiar setup, one high fantasy fans will have seen before. Indeed, Dragon Age is a familiar game, one that does nothing new or groundbreaking. The PC version (the version tested), is particularly old school, with a tooltip-based user interface and a panned-out top-down perspective - one the console versions do not include - for easier party micro-management. The combat is a brutal, bloody, and slow clash of steel and magic. The mechanics are as they were a decade ago. The space bar pauses combat - your four-man party frozen in time as you dish out precise actions. What buffs should I trigger? What abilities should I use? What spells should my mage cast? Where should I position my rogue? Who is tanking, and what? Dragon Age on PC is unforgiving. BioWare violates the Trades Description Act with its "Easy" difficulty setting. The game demands careful planning, flanking tactics and clever use of skills. A word of advice: quick save as often as your F5 button can withstand.