What’s the best game you’ve ever played? That’s like asking someone to choose between his or her favourite books, films or children. (The clever one, obviously.)
I pondered for not very long and my mind was firmly stuck on Dragon Age: Origins. While not without its flaws, this was the first game I fell in love with. It was the first game I sat, tears rolling down my cheeks during the credits after some 60+ hours of gameplay. After watching them, immediately selected ‘new game’ from the menu. So, how did those lovely and clever bods at Bioware achieve this?
DA:O was released in Europe November 2009, published by EA as a multi platform release. I played the 360 version and thought that the controls and mechanics were mapped out very well, despite it being a port from the PC. PC gamers will never be convinced and it’s not my job to do so, but I got on very well with it on console. The developers describe their work as a ‘high dark fantasy RPG’, set in the mythical land of Thedas, specifically Ferelden.
The story centres on the movement known as the Grey Wardens sworn protectors of the people and the scourge of the malevolent Darkspawn,which plague the land. There is a change in the air. The Darkspawn are about to unleash the fifth Blight, and the Archdemon (an Old God, manifested in the form of a huge Dragon) unto the world. On top of this, the land is engulfed in civil war, with Gondor and Rohan, I mean Redcliffe and Denerim refusing to come to the other’s aid. Yes, it’s like LOTR, but so what? LOTR is awesome. Essentially, it’s up to you to reunite a warring land, whilst battling your way through various situations, gathering companions along the way and ultimately defeat the Archdemon. This takes place alongside an ongoing backstory and rich lore hinting at the rivalry between the mages and the templars, humans, dwarves and elves which makes the world seem even more real.
Choice is King in this game. In most WRPGs, there is an aspect of character customisation at the beginning, but Bioware like to go one better. The background and class that you choose will actually shape the first hour or so of gameplay in a way I had never experienced before. Your opening experience will be vastly different depending on your combination of choices. There are six possible beginnings, human noble or Mage, dwarf noble or commoner, and City or Dalish elf. I predictably went for the Mage option first, so I’ll take you briefly through that experience.
You begin in ‘The Circle’, a great tower where mages are ‘kept’ for both study and safety (from others and themselves). The opening hours, as you come to expect from an RPG, are tutorial based standard fetch quests or kill some giant rats/ spiders to get you used to the combat. Something Bioware pokes fun at during the human noble questline “Giant rats? It’s like the start of every bad adventure tale my Grandfather used to tell.” The combat system is highly geared towards a tactical, strategic approach, with the player being actively encouraged to step back, analyse the situation and adapt and act accordingly. It is, however possible to take a more slapdash approach and make your way fairly easily through the land of Ferelden, if you play on the easiest setting, although you will still get caught out with some of the more difficult enemies. There’s no shortage of things to kill. You will find yourself battling many different enemies of varying standards, ranging from those pesky Darkspawn, Drakes, Dragons, Hurlocks, rogue mages, rogue templar and werewolves, amongst others.
Home Sweet Home.
The left trigger pauses the game. It brings up an in combat menu by which you can heal party members, revise tactics and very usefully rotate the camera to assess your targets whilst still being paused and safe. There are a couple of negative aspects of the combat, however. The link between you pressing a button for a sword strike or a spell cast is rather delayed, which somewhat detracts from the sense of immediacy. Indeed, on the easier settings in some of the longer battles you find yourself absent mindedly pressing the ‘A’ button repeatedly in a rhythmic fashion. I, at times found myself playing one handedly, surfing the web at the same time to get me through a particularly long and tedious encounter. On the whole, though the combat is enjoyable enough and allows you, of course, to level up.
As a fairly traditional RPG, there is a lot of focus on looting and levelling. There are a myriad of available weapons to use for your character and your companions, and the inventory system can seem a little daunting at first glance with there being so many options for customisation. However it is far from the most complicated I have seen, and does become extremely manageable as you invest more hours into the game. Levelling up is based on the XP you get from winning battles or completing quests, and is nicely balanced. You won’t find yourself levelling too quickly and reaching the cap long before the end of the game. In fact on my first playthrough I missed the achievement for reaching level 30 by mere points.
In each of the origin stories you eventually are approached by a Grey Warden. Duncan has a proposition for you. You’ve turned some heads in the quests you’ve done so far and he wants you to sign up. Me? A Grey Warden? *bats eyelashes* Well, why the hell not? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Oh Duncan, you sneaky snake.
Before you begin your mammoth quest to unite two warring cities and gather all that you can to come to your aid, you must undergo ‘The Joining’, This is the ceremonial ritual necessary to join the Grey Wardens and the part the Duncan conveniently negelected to tell you about. In order to join the Wardens, you must drink Darkspawn blood. Which will either kill you instantly or infect you with ‘The Taint’ (the means by which the creatures communicate and organise themselves) which enables you to sense the spawn and the Archdemon, but will kill you in 30 years or send you mad. Nice one, Dunc.
I’ve got to do what now?
But you do it, because it’s your destiny to be a hero. This is where the adventure really begins. As a HUGE fantasy fan I can honestly say that this is one of my favourite stories of all time, and wouldn’t want to spoil it too much, because it’s a fantastic experience that provides some genuinely jaw-dropping, heart- wrenching moments. Safe to say that if you like swords, shields, orcs and dragons you will not be disappointed. You travel through various beautifully rendered areas which look gorgeous. Whether you’re in the sprawling wilderness of the Korcari wilds, hanging out in the lively inner sanctum of Denerim, or exploring the royal palace, it’s a breathtaking world, with only the occasional frame rate issue that interrupts the atmosphere.
The added crux is that these heart wrenching moments are your doing. You make the choices that will inform which factions ally with you and are against you. You decide who joins your party. You decide on the fate of people and ultimately the fate of the world. Bioware do such a good job of making you care about the characters (and feel such animosity towards the antagonists) that I have no trouble admitting that on numerous occasions I sat, controller in hand, going over the decision with a pained expression, characters motionless on the screen awaiting my choice. I could hardly believe that my choices were having such a far reaching impact in the world. There was one point where I felt real rage at a character’s betrayal. I actually went and bitched about this character. “How dare they?! After all I’ve done for them!”
The story, characters, back story and the way they are conveyed to the player, are quite simply brilliant. The voice acting is superb, with some big names delivering standout performances, Steve Valentine as the dashing Alistair will always be a genuine crush of mine. And you thought it was just sad teenage boys who had crushes on videogame characters. Turns out sad twenty something women do, too. The dialogue is elegantly written, and at times is laugh out loud funny as well as cry out tears sad. Amongst the other protagonists (or potential antagonists depending on how you treat them) you have Zevran, a member of the Antivan Crows Assassins, with a penchant for the kinky things in life, Leliana, a member of the Chantry who was formerly a bard with a less than holy background and Morrigan, a wonderfully sarcastic, bitchy and sexy witch of the wilds whom many will take it upon themselves to try and tame.
I think it’s safe to say this guy got a rather large punch round the chops.
The relationships are yet another aspect that draws you in. Treat someone badly and they may leave your party. Treat someone well and you may hear whispered conversations of how they respect you or even have a crush on you. There is a possibility for romance (or a one night stand) with most characters, and each has their own sexual preference. Everyone is different. Some people (for example) will appreciate a compliment, while others will see it as suspicious. This is often a minefield of trying to please everyone, which ultimately as you can probably surmise from that distraction called real life, never works. Alistair and Morrigan are delightfully pitted against each other and have some hilarious conversations when you are wandering the world, constantly trying to get one up on each other. That conflict comes to a wonderful, epic conclusion at the end of the game, something I would not wish to deprive anyone of experiencing themselves
This entire epic, ranging experience requires an appropriate soundtrack. Inon Zur, a prolific composer in the videogame industry with game scores like Fallout 3, amongst others under his belt, delivers a fantastic accompaniment to the game. It’s that special kind of music that instantly takes you back to a moment in the game, whether it be a particularly sad moment or an intense battle, the atmosphere is captured perfectly and translated into music for your listening pleasure.
Overall, this game is for RPG fans, first and foremost. It’s an immersive, epic, beautifully crafted world that can’t help but suck you in. The story and conclusion are worthy of that illustrious Bioware stamp and if you play it, it will stay with you. It is not without its pitfalls, but the frame rate and some issues with the combat are mere minor complaints.
My first playthrough, as I mentioned took me about 60 hours. I have subsequently played it twice more with all of the expansion packs and DLC (all of which are excellent) and sunk an additional 140+ hours into it. It is still on my shelf in pride of place and I will never trade it in. It holds a special place in my heart as the first game I truly loved and, just as it will stay on my shelf it will stay in my heart. It made me laugh and cry, and it has the power to make you do so too.
Someone pass me my staff, I’m off to kill some Darkspawn.
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