Review: Dragon Age: Origins
Look on the desk of any game developer's principal writer and you'll see a copy of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
By extension, look under the bonnet of any fantasy videogame with just a shred of plot and you'll find Campbell's myth cycle blueprint humming away.
Briefly, Campbell's cycle starts like this: a person of mundane origins happens upon a blunder or circumstance and meets a mysterious figure. This figure is the bearer of destiny calling our would-be hero away from their sheltered origin to adventure in zones unknown.
Soon, this protective character (often an outcast or misunderstood old man) will provide them with the tools and powers they need to begin their quest before being killed or departing. Now our woe-begotten hero must try to make their own way.
Written in 1949, Campbell's seminal book has influenced almost every mythical production ever since. So it has been with Star Wars (Lucas called the book "a revelation") and The Matrix, and so it is with BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins. It's all right there in the title. The art to the cycle is in telling it well and BioWare have proven once again that they're gifted practitioners.
The developer pays special attention to this myth introduction in Dragon Age by offering players six unique backgrounds to choose from. Each origin is an encapsulated experience offering hours of gameplay and dramatically shaping how players experience the game - whether they be a branded dwarf from the slums of Orzimmar or a sheltered mage under the watchful eye of the Templars.
But all of them have one thing in common: They culminate in your hero crossing paths with Duncan of the Grey Wardens.
The Grey Wardens are an ancient order charged with protecting Ferelden from the darkspawn, but it's been 400 years since the last blight and in the interceding centuries the people have forgotten the debt they owe - some now even regard them suspiciously. However, with rumours of an archdemon-led blight to the south, the Grey Wardens are gathering once again to meet a threat that darkens Ferelden's horizon.
Shortly after induction into the Grey Wardens, Duncan is lost and your hero must set out to meet its destiny. Thus is the stage set for a tale that will send players to every corner of Ferelden's beautifully crafted setting.
There's no predefined narrative path in Dragon Age. All of the world's regions are immediately available for exploration and all of them have problems for your hero to attend to. This egg-shaped plot means that BioWare have included persistent scaling.
Almost every zone (save the last "chapter") is scaled to your hero's level. On the whole, persistent scaling has been well-balanced, but you'll occasionally run into an encounter that will stretch or exceed the limits of your abilities. Party-selection can prove pivotal to succeeding in some scenarios.
On party members, you're sure to determine a default group composition and the good news is that members not selected for a particular quest will level up while sitting on the sidelines. Nonetheless, pay attention to their gear requirements: You'll need to sub them in more than once.
And besides, each party member has a fully-realised personality - fellow Warden and sidekick Alastair is a particularly well-crafted character - variety is the spice of life, after all. Moreover, party members introduce valuable optional quests.
BioWare have made no effort to disguise the fact they consider Dragon Age: Origins to be the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, but the game also owes much to sister title Knights of the Old Republic. This heritage is most apparent when combat commences.
Spells, skills and consumables are hot-keyed to numbers 0-9. Using a turn-based combat system, Dragon Age allows players to pause and cue actions for each member of their four-character party before unpausing to see them carried out.
The game also features both over-arching and detailed scripts (you choose) that will determine how party members respond to combat situations. The script system has also been tied to unlockable talent points. The more points invested in tactics, the more scripting options become available.
It's a nice touch that adds a sense of party development. Heed these talent points: As you advance through the game, monster AI improves and tactically handicapped parties will suffer.
The turn-based pause system allows for tactical depth and the considered use of combinations. While many titles have "spells and attacks that work well in combination", BioWare have paid especial attention to coding combination attacks.
Create a slick under the feet of a pack of foes - slowing their movement causing them to slip - and then ignite the flammable grease with a knock-down fireball. But be sure to have a sword-and-board jockey on hand to draw away the inflated aggression. Applied well, party tactics will harmoniously result in a satisfying bloodshed.
It's what accounts for the frequently blood spattered characters seen in so many screenshots. Dragon Age doesn't raise the bar graphically. The PC offers two viewpoints: Top down and over the shoulder, or (to really hammer a point home) Baldur's Gate perspective and Knights of the Old Republic perspective.
As you might expect, over the shoulder is a more visually spectacular angle in which you can breathe in the game's scale, but some spell animations don't stand up to close scrutiny. The top down perspective is much easier to manage and tactically superior.
Negotiating depth for spell targeting at the OTS' low camera angle can be a challenge - especially as spells with a radius effect can be centred on mobs, and those at the front tend to obscure line of sight. Switching between the two is the best option.
As you explore Ferelden you'll collect items and experience. There are three character archetypes, rogue, warrior and mage. Each of these archetypes has talent subsets. A warrior, for example, can specialise in two-handed weapons, weapon and shield, and so on.
You'll need to determine which subset you want to explore early on and invest up the tree accordingly. There's little room for broadly diversifying your skills. Additionally, there are specialisations - unlockable combat styles that provide benefits to specific talent trees. While these unlock at particular levels, you'll need to find out where you can learn each.
As you'd expect, the game has a vast array of items, some powerful, some vendor fodder. Dragon Age uses a rune upgrade system, not dissimilar to the Old Republic's power crystals. Approach an enchanter who'll insert them into weapons with sockets for bonuses that include the possibility to stun and additional elemental damage.
Dragon Age's expansive narrative is told through its interactive dialogue. All important communication is carried out in elaborate cut-scenes. As the game's cast argue, debate and speculate, the camera cuts and pans, tilts, zooms and focuses. All characters are admirably voice-acted, except for your own - who will only audibly communicate during actual gameplay with passing comments on the action.
In dialogue however, you're given multiple options to choose from in response to any verbal situation and your selections here will dramatically change the game's course.
Your party members will throw their ten cents in on particularly crucial decisions and as you'd suppose, offer advice aligned with their personality. That being said, BioWare have done away with character alignments as they stood in Baldur's Gate. Instead, party members operate on an approval system.
The more party members approve of your actions, the better they fight. Go about your business in a fashion they disagree with and their waning respect for you will impact on how they perform. Win back their loyalty by distracting them with shiny trinkets and booze - gifts - that can be found or purchased.
The gifting system is thin. It creates a sense of emotional vapidity in the game's characters that is out of sync with their strong personalities.
That aside, what BioWare have achieved here is triumphal. Dragon Age is a highly engaging experience that is sure to gain classic status with many.