Warning ! This review is very detailed, and - due to lack of screens that would shorten it - may be boring.
[SIZE="3"]D[/size]ragon Age : Origins, the "spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate series". One of the few games of which i knew alot about long before it was released. Not because of its planned succession of BG, but because it was the first BIG fantasy RPG for quite some time.
Let's start from the beginning, shall we? The world is under constant threat of darkspawn invasion (called "blight"), but its neither prepared nor aware that their worst nightmare is about to strike from the depths once again. Except for the dwarven kingdoms, which constantly fight off endless hordes of these creatures.
Here strikes the first difference between Dragon Age and most other fantasy settings. The dwarves ain't what you expect them to be from other worlds. They are ruthless, cold blooded politicians. Divided by their birth in a world where nobles have almost godly status, and those unfortunate enough to be born without a caste are treated as slaves. No, worse. They don't even exist in the eyes of higher cast dwarves.
How fare the other races? Well, the elves for centuries were slaves to the human race, except for a handfull of Dalish clans, which live in the forests. Human race isn't too peacfull either. Ferelden (in which the action takes place) still didn't forget years of suffering from Orlesian hands (their neighbours, and only potential allies in case of darkspawn invasion). Mages live isolated, and under constant control of templars. Blood mages despised and hunted by everyone. The baroniess don't love each other either, everyone cares only about his own lands. On top of everything there is the Grey Wardens order, which stopped blights in the past, and while in Orleis they're honored as heroes that they are.. In Ferelden things ain't so peachy. They still have one right though, they can conscript anyone to the Grey Wardens, regardless of his race or birth, regardless of any laws.
The setup is pretty dark, and thus a very fresh breeze in the RPG world. You can choose one of the three races, followed by choosing backstory from which you can choose one of the three classes (except Dwarven Mage. Dwarves cannot become mages due to their constant contact with pure lyrium. In return they're slightly resistant to its harmful effects). The possible origins are : Human Noble, Dwarf Noble, Dwarf Commoner, Dalish Elf, City elf and Tower mage. Each one of them has its own prologue. Pick wisely as this choice will have huge effect on your upcoming adventures. But.. Not as huge as i expected. Once you return to Orzammar (dwarven fortress, one of the two remaining ones) as a dwarf, you get very scarce changes. One extra mini-quest, two extra dialogue lines.. And that's it! Sure some NPC's treat you differendly than they would a human, but above everything will be your Grey Warden title, which made me quit my dwarf playthrough after i visited the city (note that i've finished the game twice before starting as a dwarf) because quite frankly, everything was almost the same. I'll not share any spoilers ofcourse, and i assure you that if you plan on playing as a dwarf straight off the bat, you'll enjoy it greatly! Aside from this, the origin stories are solid. Some are better, some are worse, but all of them are believable.
The dark setup of the game appears time and again, as a light motif. Rapture, cannibalism.. Childslaying. Sadly, they all have the same origin. Either The darkspawn or the player. With this beign said while there are some very dark elements implemented, when you think about it there were many, much darker RPG's before, and the best part is - they didn't hold a "we're dark" banner pre and post release like Dragon Age does. DA's Broodmother chant still remains one of my favourite gaming moments, but if you realy think about it, and analyse other games, it's the only thing that Bioware came up with, that raises the bar a little. Nonetheless they deserve a kudos for allowing the player to do some realy nasty things. Bargaining a child's soul with a demon, for pleasure, knowledge, wealth or power? Mean. Yes please.
After some fighting everyone and everything will be covered in blood, let's hope that none of the blood on your armor belongs to you. The kill-cams are well made, especially for the bosses. But after you kill your share of the darkspawn (~chapter 1) you'll notice that they're very repetitive. And here's the kicker - as long as you don't play a melee character, you won't see any boss kill-cams at all. It gets even worse. Regardless of what character you play and what weapon did you use, in one of the cutscenes you will use a two-handed sword to kill one of the bosses. And you'll swing it with more experience than Conan the librarian himself! Did i say boss? You've heard me well! This RPG has quite a few of them, and each one of them has his own skillset. Firebreathing, tail swinging and flying dragons (well, it's DRAGON age after all) ogres that will grab, punch and stomp on you, demons and liches that use magic to harass you further. In a word, there is quite a lot fighting.
This brings us to the system that the game runs on. If you've played any MMORPG from WoW to Aion, you'll feel like home. Each character has action-points (or mana in mages case) which are consumed by abilities, but replenish over time. You can also regain your precious mana (aswell as health) with potions and spells. Abilities don't have limited uses, instead they run on cooldowns. Which means you can use each skill only so often. Naturally most of the abilities have no cooldowns at all, or have very short ones, so don't you worry about running out of tools. You can pause the game at any time and give orders to your party. A great thing about DA is that it made Warriors quite complex and appealing to play. In most other overhead-tactical-RPGs you just right click as the warrior to attack, and forget about him. here it's very differend. Sword and shield? Dual weilding? Maybe archery? Or should i use this mean looking two handed axe? Regardless of what you choose, you'll have quite a few abilities to use(after you unlock them on level up!) toss in class-core ones and four specialisations per class, and your action bar will fill out by the time you hit lvl 14. Level cap? 25, but you'll be finishing the game around 20ish, unless you run ALL the side quests (and there are many, some of which i haven't still discovered)
Still your level does not matter, as the opponents are level scaled to you.. Which sadly means that there is also no real need to do any side quests. You'll always be strong enough to handle what's ahead of you. Especialy when we look a bit deeper into the abilities and the balance.
A very, very big minus of dragon age is balance. If you have previous rpg experience, after short learning time you'll be chopping through the game easily. Crowd Control (further called "CC") abilities are a plenty, and each of your party members packs quite a few of these the second you meet them. Then you can train them to have even more.. And battles will come down to pressing the correct button sequences to totaly annihilate foes. Now the regular CC skills are just tip of the iceberg. Bloodmage specialisation (yes, the despised and banned one) has an aoe, very, very long lasting CC ability, that breaks the game balance in half. Sadly having more than one mage also breaks the game balance (and if you're realy experience, even one is too much!). But so does warrior CC-chains and rogues build around agility, which cannot be hit by anything.
Then there are spells that shouldn't ever come through the beta. Crushing Prison? Mana Clash? Mana Clash after some preperation can one hit one of the optional, end game bosses. (if used by one of the companions, which from a regular mage can be turned into godly mage thanks to her personal quest). The problem is so big that they made bosses in Awakening (expansion) immune to some spells! Not thanks to other spells.. Born-immunity that makes no sense.
AI is.. limited. While the enemies normaly use the best possible abilities, you can easily outsmart every foe. Be it a braindead darkspawn, or a few thousand years old dragon. Enviroment is a huge problem here, because if the AI cannot fit somewhere, you've just won the fight.
But enough about the skillset. I've mentioned NPC's and there are many. Like in all Bioware games that didn't turn to be failures the game offers a huge variety of NPC's, and unlike some of their previous games, you don't have to invite them to the party. You can tell them to go away. They can do it themselves if they disagree with your ways. Finally you can kill most of your companions. Regretfully you can fix every relation with gifts, and there are so many of these damn things, that you realy have to work hard to make someone go away.
The main story is a cookie-cutter. Don't expect to be surprised by the events. Most of the side quests come down to "bring me 5 bear paws" that are also pretty linear, and there are meaningless random map encounters. This is not to say that your actions don't affect the world. They do! You'll have quite a few choices to make, but very few of them will have inpact on the game.