In Ferelden, Bloody Marys aren't made with tomato juice.
When I saw the early trailers for Dragon Age: Origins, the ones with Marilyn Manson’s ‘This Is the New Shit’ blaring in the background, I was worried. After a virtually flawless record of great games including Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic and most recently Mass Effect, BioWare’s next project appeared to be a shameless rip-off of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, made into an ‘adult’ role-playing game by taking the original concept and adding extra blood and tits. It was enormously embarrasing; the marketing equivalent of letting off a giant, squelchy fart in the middle of an exam.
Of course, to condemn the game based on its trailer would be idiotic. Aside from perhaps Sonic Chronicles, BioWare have yet to make a genuinely bad game. After playing Dragon Age for a good hour, however, my concerns had still not been assuaged.
Picture the scene: I’m running aimlessly around the castle of the noble House Cousland, the location of my character’s Origin story, picking up menial tasks and listening to the voice acting which ranges from borderline excellent to mildly awful. Eventually I am directed to the kitchens where my Mabari War Hound is allegedly causing trouble, and am promptly tasked with exterminating some giant rats. That’s right: giant, fucking, rats. I almost switched my PC off right there, so disgusted was I at BioWare parading the biggest cliché in fantasy gaming like it’s a slice of toast with the face of Jesus burned into it.
Despite this urge I calmed myself and persisted, and I’m glad I did, because although Dragon Age starts slowly, it gradually reveals itself to be BioWare’s most accomplished and (amazingly) mature game yet.
Let me start with a few numbers: my character’s opening tale – depicting the downfall of House Cousland – is one of six completely different Origin stories which are determined by the type of character you pick. These initial scenarios affect the rest of your game experience, not only in how you can interact with other characters and vice-versa, but in terms of which parts of the game you will actually play through. Entire sections are exclusive to character types and the decisions you make along the way.
Even with these character-specific sections, a single play-through of the game is estimated between 60 and 80 hours, which is frankly astounding, and makes you wonder whether Infinity Ward spent two years watching porn and playing spider-solitaire before cobbling together Modern Warfare 2 in a caffeine-fuelled fortnight.
Although this sounds impressive, quantity does not equal quality – Transformers 2 was nearly three hours long and contained more explosions than your average world war but was still atrocious. By the same token, Dragon Age has a huge amount of content, but the basic plot structure is terribly generic.Whichever Origin story you land in, you are eventually selected to become a Grey Warden. The Wardens are a reclusive sect of warriors dedicated to destroying the Blight, an army of generally unpleasant creatures which look very similar to the Orcs in the Lord of the Rings, but are called Darkspawn and so are obviously completely different. At Ostagar – the Grey Warden’s base of operations – you are betrayed in what is supposed to be the climactic battle against the Blight, and consequently the Wardens are obliterated. Having somehow survived, it is up to you to reunite the armies of Ferelden and take the fight back to the Darkspawn.
While this is hardly an original premise, the story is excellently told. Voice acting improves dramatically once you get past the opening stages and the writing is some of the best you’ll encounter in a game, laced with subtle humour that fits the tone perfectly. Additionally, the world of Ferelden is crammed with carefully considered lore that you can either submerge yourself in or completely ignore without it affecting your experience.
Where Dragon Age really shines is in the supporting characters, and it’s a rare occasion indeed when you can say that about a game. Easily the strongest cast BioWare have come up with, their personalities are so complex your attitude regarding them constantly shifts as the game progresses. Alistair seemed like a colossal berk when I first met him; a childish and egotistical Grey Warden whose jokes fall flatter than a three-legged giraffe on a frozen lake. Gradually you realise he is riddled with insecurity and self-doubt. As his self-confidence grows he becomes far more likeable, and his remarks become genuinely funny. Similarly, Morrigan, the young and callous witch of the wilds, suffers no fools and can provide useful advice, but she can also be prejudiced and downright scornful.
This shifting relationship with your party is reciprocal. In Mass Effect, improving your standing with your comrades involved solving a problem related to their past, and Presto! they would like you more. Now, your motley crew of allies judge you on your actions alongside any favours you might do for them. Morrigan is solely concerned with defeating the Darkspawn, and will become annoyed should your efforts be distracted by more mundane tasks like helping an old lady across a battlefield. This is more realistic than the binary morality system present in BioWare’s recent games, not least because morality in Ferelden is far from clear cut, acting for ‘the greater good’ being an oft-recurring theme.
As with most of BioWare’s games, direct conflict can often be avoided through dialogue. Darkspawn aren’t the talkative sort, preferring to communicate with stabbing patterns. As the trailers so insistently portrayed, fighting in Dragon Age is brutal and bloody, with your party drenched in scarlet after a fight. What the trailers fail to show is the tactical thinking required to emerge victorious. Dragon Age is incredibly hard, which frankly is a refreshing change from the mind-numbing simplicity of most current releases. Although many battles require an effective strategy, they can be won. My only gripe is that some basic opponents like wolves have a stupidly powerful ability called ‘overwhelm’ which essentially allows them to sit on a character and chew on their face until they die. And the day you encounter a dragon, well, I feel sorry for you already.
What doesn’t help is that, rather ironically, the Tactics screen, which instructs your characters on how to act in battle, is a mixed blessing. Tell a character to use a health potion after taking so much damage and it works, but tell him to attack the enemy with the lowest health and he will run around the battlefield like Silvio Berlusconi at a Miss World competition instead of picking the weakest target and sticking to it. Also, some blindingly obvious tactics, like telling rogues to attack from behind, are inexplicably unavailable.
The problematic Tactics screen is the only real issue the game has. Nevertheless, Dragon Age will not please everyone. Some people may be put off by the setting that boils down to another redressing of Tolkien’s masterpiece. Others may balk at its unforgiving difficulty level. Ultimately, though, Dragon Age will not be universally loved because it requires patience, something that there is too little of in a world where many games consist of six hours of explosions and a script written in the first five minutes of a board meeting. If you can sit with it for a few hours without wincing at the nonsense words and overused fantasy tropes, you’ll be rewarded with another complex, engrossing epic from BioWare.