WORDS BY: Alex Clark
Religion, race, relatives, and relationships are the universal four R’s that motivate people and nations to war. Each of those R’s acts as live ammunition in every discussion, action, and choice you make in Dragon Age: Origins, a truly epic fantasy adventure. Meandering from situation to crisis, balancing your personal motivations with the greater needs of people of Ferelden as they stave off the marauding Blight — make no bones about it — this journey is very long and very wide.
The decisions you make become more thought-provoking as your investment in the story and your character develops, to the point that I agonized — I mean, really, truly agonized, even asking my significant other what I should do (she told me to stop bothering her) — over some late-game direction choices. I weighed personal dislike for a character with greater-good motivations. I considered consistency of past decisions with the desire to, uh, earn an Achievement. Amid the controller-mashing manipulation of the interface and traditional third-person RPG combat situations, internal debates were consistently and genuinely provoked. And now that I’m done, I have to go back. I wish I’d sided with Branka, and I wish I’d supported Bhelen; I know I could have nailed Leliana and earned more personal glory and loot if I hadn’t been so damn noble. Who those characters are, why they matter…those bits you’ll discover for yourself when you step foot in a world that’s dark and dangerous, but totally shaped by your direct involvement.
Choice isn’t unique in videogames, but it’s rare to feel like you could impact so many different outcomes. Right at the outset, as you pick one of the six starting backgrounds, Dragon Age pushes you to think about, then take responsibility for, every decision. I went the Dwarf Commoner route (rather than noble, elven, or human options), and playing through the unique opening actually motivated decisions I made some 60 hours later. Though many conversations and characters appeared trivial, were frustrating, or could have been better streamlined, it’s impossible to argue that this world is not fully styled, shaped, art-directed, and motivated. If there’s a knock to be made, it’s that midway through I just wanted to get on with the thrust of the main storyline, even though fetching item X from Mr. Y for Ms. Z would likely earn loot for better gear or just more experience to keep leveling up.
After all, once your role as one of the heroic Grey Wardens is established, you meet, greet, slay, and sweet-talk an absolutely monumental cast of characters. Many look or sound similar (which adds to the feeling that some content is there for its own sake), but depending on how you act, you’ll pull together a stable of henchmen from which you’ll pick three to complement your abilities. These characters’ own motivations impressively blend with the overall story arc. I stuck with two main buddies for my warrior (two mages; one aggressive, one a healer), but swapped out the fourth depending on the challenge ahead. Occasionally, I got the wrong horses for a particular course and had to backtrack to hit the party-camp location, where I could change out the roster to give our team a better shot.
Figuring out how to control all four characters in crazy-intense combat situations is always the key investment to make. While you can set their combat tactics to swig health potions, attack strong or weak enemies, and many more, it often pays to take direct control (hitting LT pauses the action and brings up the radial menu that lets you switch between them). If your character or an ally dies, you need to keep one alive to complete the fight, and then the fallen will awake without you having to resurrect, reload, or heal. Health is replenished quickly after a successful fight, so you’re not waiting around before moving on. It’s a great system that creates incredibly tense combat situations against some of the bigger, badder bosses.
While the music is suitably high-fantasy epic, the graphics show some rough edges — you’ll see a lot of reused art elements, which is at least understandable given this game’s mammoth scale. And Dragon Age truly is massive; the decisions you make feel remarkably impactful in creating an ending that is yours and is consistent with your choices. Even though the pacing is occasionally sluggish, RPG fans will adore that depth and the chance to explore a fully realized world. But most of all, gamers who are prepared to think — and commit for the long, long haul — will revel in a story that touches on resonant issues and puts the fate of a spectacular world in your hands.
+ Tolkien-esque scale and stature.
+ Interface lets you manage all disparate parts easily.
- Plenty of art-element reruns, some too-similar characters, and awkward dialogue.
? How many moral and character decisions are too many?