Dragon Age: Origins – A Review

I recently ran through this game and am playing the extra content at the moment. Since I recently posted about isometric versus first-person role-playing games, writing about this one is a natural follow-up.

First of all, the mechanics. It’s an interesting hybrid of third- and first-person gaming. You mouse-wheel in from third-person and can get right down there with your characters. Conversely, you can wheel out and see the top-down version so you can move your pieces around. Sounds like just what I was asking for, right? Well, it’s a nice compromise, and guess what, you can pivot your perspective around so walls don’t hide things from you. That’s just what I asked for in my prior review. The annoying thing is that this didn’t get executed well. Walls and towers and other things keep ghosting in and out of my POV, so often my game pieces are completely obscured. Also, when zooming in to first person, sometimes I can’t get down there and see what’s in front of me. This seems to have something to do with where surrounding walls are located. So it needs a lot of work to really be effective. But at least it was an attempt. (Why it got released this way I’m afraid I don’t understand. How about just fixing it before asking people for money?)

Next let’s talk about the graphics. Not so pretty. Released at the tail end of 2009, I’m actually pretty surprised. Everything is cartoony. People are not so attractive. Really, for a game that you’re supposed to be able to lose yourself in, they could have done better.

I played this straight, without trying to mod it. As usual I played on the easiest mode. It was still hard to get through some battles without dying, and worst of all the thing crashed often, especially during long battles. And you know what that means, you have to replay the battle (which I absolutely detest). It’s especially bad when the programmers insert cut scenes around the battle. Come on guys, that’s really unprofessional. And for the record I’m running a hot gaming rig that came out well after the release of this game. Also, even on easy mode, some of those battles were very hard, and as I’ve said I don’t like replaying battles. How about a consistent difficulty level across the game?

Now let’s talk about the story, which is of course why I play these games at all. It was OK. You could see that they were trying to put together a setting of their own. I get it, but it still seemed a little arbitrary and awkward in places. I have read that they were trying for a “dark fantasy.” Uh, OK, I’m not big on labels, just give me a good story and I don’t care what you call it. How did it flow? A bit awkwardly. “Flow” isn’t actually a word I’d associate with the story arc. It’s another one of those where you’re supposed to have a sense of urgency, and yet all these side quests keep popping up. Now I want to get my money’s worth and get all the adventuring time in that I can; I bought the game, after all. But it’s hard to suspend disbelief when I know that my character is really supposed to be racing against time to accomplish this and that, and thus avoid terrible consequences. I think a writer can avoid that problem by just setting things up without so much urgency.

What else can I tell you? Some choices seem to have unlikely consequences. I’ve been playing fantasy rpgs almost since they were first imagined, and I think I pretty much have the drill down pat by now. I tend to play on the Good side, and I tend to try to play a more cerebral game than hack and slash. And yet, after completing the thing, it looks like I missed some things. I think I made all the best choices that I could, given how things were presented. There’s certainly not enough there for me to replay it and try different choices, so that’s not going to happen. And so I feel a little bit cheated. And I assume that wasn’t the publisher’s goal, so fail there.

Now come the non-player characters. They’ve been praised online, and I see where that praise comes from. There’s a lot of material for each character. But going through the conversation trees was not always intuitive, and as I say, I’m an old pro at this. If I try a particular tack a couple of times and get the same responses, how am I supposed to know that I should keep trying anyway because there’s a chance that something new will crop up? I don’t think that’s such a good design. Is it geared to the NPC’s current feelings towards you? Possibly. But let’s not turn that into metagaming. How about giving the player a hint? Like, “I don’t feel that I trust you enough to talk about that yet?” If I got a response like that, then I’d understand how to proceed. But there were plenty of times where I didn’t.

One thing I’ll praise to the highest heavens is the choice of Claudia Black to voice Morrigan. I’m a huge fan of hers, and when I started the game and got caught up in her performance, the epiphany as to who I was listening to was quite a jolt. Brava. At that point I checked the list of voice-over actors, and was surprised to see Tim Curry in there. Even after finishing the game, I have to say that he wasn’t recognizable and his performance didn’t stand out. Pity.

So anyway, I wasn’t always thrilled with the choices I was given. If you’re going to give me four choices, please have them go from one end of the spectrum to the other, and make it clear what I’m selecting. Because it’s a role-playing game and I’m trying to play the role that I’ve chosen. It’s not “one size fits all,” and giving me obscure choices is just putting impediments into my game experience.

And now I’m going to try and talk about something without giving away any spoilers. There is a fundamental quality to your character’s situation that absolutely doesn’t sit well with me. It’s unavoidable if you want to play the game at all. Here I was all set to play my usual Good-leaning protagonist. I don’t mind having ethical questions come up, and I get that they are trying to stand out and write this “dark fantasy.” But there is something fundamental to how your character progresses that doesn’t sit well with me AT ALL. It doesn’t happen right away, only after say one to three hours of play. It’s not telegraphed in the advertising or summaries. But it means that if I want to play my usual Good-leaning protagonist, I literally HAVE TO PRETEND THAT IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. And that’s just about the biggest fail the writers could’ve made. How can you continue to give me “Good” dialogue choices, and “Good” side quests, after you’ve placed my character in an impossible situation and taken away my player agency until it’s a fait accompli? No, after that incident and its revelations, the only realistic reaction my protagonist could’ve had would’ve been bitter fatalism and a lack of compassion for others. If that’s what you wanted to FORCE on MY role-playing, then why continue to present me with all the “Good” choices?

So as I played the game I had to keep wavering in my self-image, and make choices that just wouldn’t have happened if I were truly role-playing. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Add to that the ho-hum graphics and the unsatisfying dialogue progression and the crashes and re-fighting battles, and I couldn’t give the game more than three stars out of five. And that’s factoring in my love for Claudia Black!

Honestly I can only give this game a half-hearted recommendation. It should’ve been better. Maybe other installments in the IP are better. But I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for this one.

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