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Let me start off by first saying that if you're looking for a quick, generalized overview of Dragon Age: Origins, then this article isn't for you. I'm not going to be covering the dark fantasy atmosphere the game employs, nor will I be covering the six origin stories at length or any of the specific goals that need to be accomplished during the game. All of that has been paraded about in countless previews on the web and in magazines, and I feel as though I have much more important ground to cover after spending several hours with the game.
Instead, my purpose with this article is to give you a firm understanding of the game's mechanics and inner workings so you can formulate your own opinion on whether or not Dragon Age: Origins is worthy of a spot next to your Baldur's Gate collection as BioWare claims it to be. Make yourself comfortable - there's a lot to learn.
Character Creation and Advancement
Because Dragon Age represents an entirely new IP for BioWare, being a Dungeons & Dragons rules specialist won't help you much for this latest foray in fantasy role-playing. Character creation kicks off with three primary choices - your race (human, elf, or dwarf), your class (warrior, mage, or rogue), and your origin (the options of which depend on the previous selections). From there, you move on to your character's appearance, where you can either choose particular presets or opt for total customization. If the latter is for you, then you'll be manipulating several different "sliders" within nine different categories (skin, hair, eyes, nose, mouth, jaws/cheeks, neck/ears, portrait, and voice). All of those categories are pretty self-explanatory, save for portrait and voice.
We're not working with low-res, two-dimensional characters anymore, so don't bother pulling out your customL.bmp and customS.bmp images again. Instead, you'll be choosing how your character is rendered in his portrait - his expression (stern, happy, bloodthirsty, crazed, etc.), which direction he's facing, the camera's distance from your face, and the background texture. For his voice, you can choose between wise, cocky, experienced, mystical, suave, and violent, though all of these presets only apply to combat-related remarks and the like as your character isn't fully voiced (for good reason, given the amount of recording that would be necessary to cover both genders across all races).
From there, you'll move on to your character's six attributes: strength (melee attack/damage bonuses, intimidation during dialogue), dexterity (attack speed and defense), willpower (available mana), magic (effectiveness of spells), cunning (rogue skill and armor penetration bonuses), and constitution (available health). Depending on your class choice, each of these will range from 10-20 as a default, for a consistent total of 74 points. You're then given 5 more points to distribute as you see fit.
Next up are skills. All three classes gain access to the same eight skills: coercion (intimidation and persuasion during dialogue), stealing (pickpocketing), trap-making (crafting traps), survival (tracking enemies outside of visual range), herbalism (crafting salves and elixirs), poison-making (crafting venoms and extracts), combat training (unlocks more advanced combat-related talents), and combat tactics (more script options in the tactics system). There are four ranks of competency to each skill (basic, improved, expert, and master), with each increase in rank having certain level and/or attribute prerequisites tied to it.
The final character creation screen has you picking your talents. Depending on which class you've chosen (and, later, which specializations you pick or acquire), you'll gain access to particular talent groups that are each comprised of 1-6 rows of talents (with each row consisting of four different, interdependent talents). For example, a first level rogue can acquire talents within the Rogue, Dual Weapon, and Archery talent groups. If that same rogue eventually acquires the Assassin and Duelist specializations too, then identically-named talent groups will be made available during level-up from then on.
Continuing with this example, let's say our ambidextrous rogue decides that he wants to cut down his foes with two blades at the same time. The Dual Weapon talent group features a total of twelve different talents spread across three rows. The first talent in each row typically has attribute and skill prerequisites, but moving to the more advanced talents within a row requires the talent prior to it and usually has a level and attribute requirement to boot.
These more advanced talents aren't just "improved" or "expert" versions of the first one in the row, either. Each talent is unique as you progress through a row. To illustrate this, here's a breakdown of the first row in the Rogue talent group as they progress from left to right: Below the Belt (an attack that causes penalties to defense and movement speed), Deadly Strike (an attack that has a greater chance of penetrating armor), Lethality (grants a bonus to critical chance and allows you to use your cunning bonus instead of your strength bonus when calculating attack and damage), and Evasion (grants a 20% chance to evade physical attacks).
Experience is earned by killing monsters, finishing quests, and successfully using certain non-combat talents (picking locks, for example), with each level-up netting you three more attribute points, a single skill point, and a talent pick. At levels 7 and 14, you're also given a specialization point that allows you to choose among four selectable class specializations. Some specializations can also be unlocked at trigger points during the game, but I wasn't able to spend enough time with the game to stumble upon any of these myself.
One final note on this topic - there is no hard level cap in Dragon Age: Origins, as there was in the Baldur's Gate series. I was told that most characters will typically be between level 18 and 22 at the end of the game, but there's no reason why you can't advance your characters beyond that if you make an effort to acquire every experience point in the game. It's nice to know that it's an option, anyway.
Infinity Engine veterans will find that many of the same control mechanisms are in place you select a party member by left-clicking them or a group by dragging the mouse across multiple characters, most of the hotkeys are instantly recognizable (C for character sheet, I for inventory, M for map, J for journal, etc.), and the TAB key once again becomes your best friend as it instantly highlights all of the nearby containers and useable objects. Hell, even the little face, hand, hammer, backpack, and gear icons at the top of the screen are near-identical representations of the ones we stared at in the Baldur's Gate series.
With that said, though, some modernization has been introduced. Dragon Age: Origins is a fully 3D game, so you'll find yourself swiveling the viewpoint by holding down the right mouse button and zooming in/out with the mouse wheel. Movement is handled by the W, A, S, and D keys, or IE-style by clicking on a destination within viewing distance (no, you can't move your characters via the automap). An MMO-style hotbar rests at the bottom of the screen, and you'll be using this to keep your favorite items, skills, and talents at the ready. Dragging the hotbar with your mouse allows you to shrink it to just a few squares or extend it to as many as 40+ squares (depending on your resolution). In other words, you shouldn't ever be yearning for more space to drag a talent or potion down within easy reach.
It wouldn't surprise me if BioWare is preparing another class or two for future DLC, but at the moment our selection includes the mage, the rogue, and the warrior. Which class you choose determines how your 74 base attribute points are distributed, which talent groups you gain access to, and which four class specializations you can tap into later in the game. Beyond that, you're really not forced into following a traditional play style for any of the classes. For example, there's no reason why you can't build a warrior who earns much of his coin from pickpocketing, a rogue who can coerce and intimidate his way through virtually any conversation, or a mage with enough strength to wear heavy armor and wield an axe.
Since I played a rogue during my hands-on time, I'll start off by covering what makes them unique. Rogues can choose any of the three available races (human, elf, or dwarf) and start off their adventuring career with access to the Rogue, Dual Weapon, and Archery talent groups. Once a rogue has gained a specialization point, he can choose to become an Assassin, Bard, Ranger, or Duelist. In addition to opening up a new talent group, each specialization provides a minor, thematic bonus to your attributes, resistances, damage, or other statistics. For example, Assassins have an increased chance to critically hit and inflict more damage with each backstab.
Warriors can also take advantage of any of the game's three races, though they start off with access to the Warrior, Dual Weapon, Archery, Sword and Shield, and Two-Handed talent groups. Their class specialization choices include Champion, Templar, Berserker, and Reaver. Alistair is the only warrior I had a chance to tinker with, and I noticed that he's already taken the Templar specialization when he joins the party. This provides him a resistance bonus to mental control, additional willpower, and access to the Righteous Strike, Cleanse Area, Mental Fortress, and Holy Smite talents.
If you choose to be a mage, then you can only be a human or elf. Their base talent groups consist of Mage, Primal, Creation, Spirit, and Entropy, and their specialization options include Blood Mage, Shapeshifter, Spirit Healer, and Arcane Warrior. Nearly all of the talents available to the mage are spells, with each base group (aside from Mage) representing sixteen similarly themed incantations and each specialization group representing four. For example, the Primal talent group focuses on the elements (four fire-based, four earth-based, four cold-based, and four lightning-based spells) and the Entropy talent group could be considered the debuff/debilitation line with spells designed to cause weakness, paralysis, fear, and other nasty effects.
The real-time-with-pause battles in Dragon Age: Origins feel much like they did in the Infinity Engine games, with the exception that you're controlling a maximum of four party members instead of six and each character's talents (and useable items like poultices) are on cooldown timers that range anywhere from 15 seconds (standard combat maneuvers like Dual-Weapon Sweep) to 60 seconds (powerful combat maneuvers like Arrow of Slaying) to 300 seconds (life-saving maneuvers like Feign Death).
The way in which combat plays out largely depends on what difficulty you're playing the game on. On easy, you don't have to worry about friendly fire whatsoever and opponents are less challenging. On normal, characters suffer 50% damage from all friendly area of effect spells, traps, and other abilities. This is the difficulty I spent most of my hands-on time with, and I found that frequently pausing the action to keep on top of all characters' movements and talents was important if I wanted to keep any characters from falling during challenging encounters. On hard, friendly fire gets bumped to 100% while opponents hit harder and have more health. Pausing to stay on top of all cooldown timers and party member locations on the battlefield is probably going to be a necessity, as a result. And on nightmare well, Mr. Laidlaw ensured me that this difficulty lives up to its name (think Heart of Fury).
Essentially, the game is as tactical as you want it to be. If you're like me and enjoy micromanaging your characters, you can come away from most non-boss battles on normal without taking a whole lot of damage. And because health, stamina, and mana quickly regenerate once a battle is over (it took me about 30 seconds to regenerate from near death to maximum health, for example), paying attention and maximizing your party's effectiveness during combat will keep your poultice reserves high for future boss fights or the next merchant you meet.
During the aforementioned boss fights (the Ogre battle at the top of the Tower of Ishal, for example), keeping on top of all your characters' abilities and locations is of the utmost importance. In the previous example, you'll quickly discover that the ogre can charge characters from a distance or pick them up for a crushing attack that will most likely result in the condition known as death. He also has an obscene amount of health, so I was constantly pausing to keep my party members away from the ogre's death grip while also setting up backstabs and making use of my characters' ranged attacks and spells whenever the ogre turned his attention toward someone else. I suppose you could rush into some battles haphazardly using only a couple of primary talents, but you're going to have some casualties from time to time and you'll end up unnecessarily using quite a few health poultices and other one-shot items.
Should a character fall in combat (including the protagonist), they become incapacitated for the remainder of the battle. If all characters fall, you're forced to load your last saved game. If at least one character survives, then all fallen characters stand back up when the battle is over. As a penalty for being incapacitated during combat, a character receives a persistent debilitating injury. Some of the injuries my characters sustained were (broken bone) (penalty to dexterity), (torn jugular) (penalty to constitution), (cracked skull) (penalty to cunning), (deafened) (penalty to defense), and (coughing blood) (penalty to fatigue). All of these injuries can stack, so it's important to keep your most susceptible characters at a distance or they'll wind up in a devastatingly weakened state. To remove a persistent injury, you must return to your party camp or use an injury kit. As with poultices, each kit has a certain level of potency that determines how much damage it's able to repair (lesser injury kits heal a single injury and a small amount of health, for example).
Dialogue and Party Interaction
The Baldur's Gate series Baldur's Gate II in particular is well regarded for its witty dialogue and the diverse, personality-rich companions that could be recruited during our travels in FaerÃ»n. It's hard to know for sure if Dragon Age: Origins is going to live up to this same legacy after only playing a handful of hours, but I will say that things look really promising so far. At the very least, it's obvious that the team didn't want to mess with a working formula by adding Mass Effect's (tone) dialogue choices or limiting all major party interaction to some staging area.
The dialogue trees themselves are pretty standard fare for anyone familiar with traditional RPGs. During each exchange, you're given 3-5 options to choose from, with some options only appearing if you meet the requirements necessary to intimidate, persuade, or otherwise influence the person you're speaking to (the appearance of these options is determined by your statistics, your Coercion skill, and previous choices you've made). The writing during my time with the game was all above average, and the choices offered weren't typically among the good, neutral, and evil variety (though this is the case on occasion). As I stated previously, the protagonist doesn't voice any of his or her lines, though all responses toward you are voiced even when they're coming from some unimportant villager.
One aspect of the game that really stood out to me is that you're afforded every opportunity to establish a connection with each follower who joins your group. For example, once you've recruited someone into the party, they will typically have quite a bit to add (amusing quips, suggestions, and even outbursts) during your conversations with other NPCs from then on. Additionally, rather than just issuing one-liners outside of party camp (or the Normandy.), the companions in Dragon Age will gladly indulge you with a conversation at any given time, provided there aren't any fireballs actively being flung in your direction. Ask them about the region you're traveling through, any of the tasks at hand, or their own personal history, and you're sure to get an answer.
The followers themselves seem to fall into two groups major companions that are willing to stick with you for most if not all of the game (Morrigan, Alistair, Leliana, etc.) and minor companions that join for specific chapters in the storyline (Ser Gilmore, Jory, Daveth, etc.). Both of these groups will typically have something to say during dialogue, but only the major companions will actively talk amongst themselves while you're traveling about. At one point, I listened for a couple of minutes as Alistair talked to Morrigan about her mother and whether or not she's lived in the Korcari Wilds her whole life. This isn't new ground by any means exchanges like these happened all the time in Baldur's Gate II but the added bonus in Dragon Age: Origins is that it's all voiced. No more unexpected interruptions while you're trying to hoof it to the next quest, in other words.
Equipment, Monsters, and the World Map
There are a few elements related to the game's inventory system that are worth noting. For one, your character's strength has no bearing on how much he or she can carry. In fact, items aren't even flagged with any sort of weight, so your characters will never become encumbered as a result of carrying too much heavy equipment. Instead, you have a total number of unequipped items that you can carry within your party at any given time. This number starts out at around 70, but you can purchase backpacks at specific moments in the game that increase this amount by 10 each, to a maximum of 120 (or so I'm told). This might sound like a lot until you realize how many potions, missile weapons, and crafting materials you'll be carrying around. Thankfully, though, these types of items only count as one unit per stack.
Something else worth mentioning is that you aren't required to identify magic items. If you find the Shield of Highever, you can immediately equip it to take advantage of its (+4 to attack) bonus. Magic items themselves seem to be relatively common in the game, as I had already picked up quite a few of them from various chests and crates during my short time with the game. I suppose this is partly because I was a rogue skilled at picking locks, though bashing a lock isn't allowed and I don't believe there is a DA:O equivalent to the Knock spell. Along with an assortment of Ice Arrows and Bolts, Fire Arrows and Bolts, resistance salves, stamina-replenishing mushrooms, elixirs, potions, and poultices, my characters were also making use of unique equipment like the Chasind Flatblade (+1% melee critical chance, +1 armor penetration), the Ash Warrior Axe (+2 to attack), Havard's Aegis shield (+4% spell resistance, chance to avoid missile attacks), the Darkspawn Staff (+1 spellpower, +5% spirit damage), and the Warpaint of the Wolfhound (+4 damage vs. beasts). Your Mabari Warhound can only equip collars and warpaints, so that last item is exclusively for him.
Another item I came across was a Journeyman Lightning Rune, which grants a +2 electricity damage bonus to any weapon in your arsenal. The catch is that you need an enchanter to make use of these runes (of which there are multiple tiers), and the team wasn't ready to spill any info on where he or she is located. The only information I was able to glean was that once the enchanter is found, they will (set up shop) in the party camp for all our future upgrading needs. Such upgrading currently only applies to weapons, though I'm told that other items may be added at a later date. Hopefully that means we'll eventually be able to forge entirely new magic items, as we did with the aid of Cromwell and Cespenar in Baldur's Gate II.
At the very least, the game does feature a crafting system for creating elixirs, poisons, and traps. What you can craft depends entirely on your skill in herbalism, poison-making, and trap-making, as well as what components and recipes you've picked up during your travels. Some examples of traps that I could create shortly into the game include a spring trap, a claw trap, a shrapnel trap, and a caltrop trap. As for poisons, there was a generic venom and a deathroot extract that I could concoct. With no skill in herbalism, I didn't get a chance to check out the available elixirs, though I did notice recipes for sale at one of the game's merchants. I even activated one such recipe, after which the ingredients and other information necessary to create the item in question were permanently added to the in-game crafting screen.
Item sets are also present in Dragon Age: Origins, though I honestly didn't get to see many of these. The example I caught during my play time was a nonmagical set of armor (chainmail, I think) that awarded a fatigue bonus if the character had equipped a few of the same pieces. It makes sense, I suppose wearing pieces that were meant to complement one another with the same weight distribution and maneuverability is obviously going to help a character stay mobile. My guess is that item sets will play a much larger role later in the game, but their overall importance is yet to be seen.
To earn the items I mentioned above, you're going to have to go toe-to-toe with a legion of darkspawn, as well as Ferelden's many other threats savage animals, demons, undead, dragons, and outright (abominations). Based on my experience, there are a handful of creature types within each of these broader classes, and then a few subtypes beyond that. For example, you'll run into a lot of standard Hurlocks (a type of darkspawn) during your adventures, but then you'll also encounter the more powerful Hurlock Emissaries and Hurlock Alphas. It's easy to distinguish which of these creatures pose the most threat during a battle, as the lowest ranked adversaries are labeled in white text while the second rank adversaries use a yellow text. When you come across a much deadlier third rank foe (like the Ogre in the Tower of Ishal), it's labeled with an orange text.
Many such scuffles will occur as random encounters while we travel across the overland map. This aspect of the game doesn't open up until after you've finished your origin story and have become a Gray Warden, but from the small glimpse I was given, it looks quite promising. On the very first instance that I opened the world map, there were nine locations available for travel: Redcliffe Village, Redcliffe Castle, Lothering, Brecilian Outskirts, Denerim, Lake Calenhad Docks, Circle Tower, Frostback Mountains, and the Party Camp. There was plenty of blank parchment ready for uncovering and (to.) markers at the edges of the map, as well, which leads me to believe that there's quite a bit of exploration to be done. Here's to hoping that Mike Laidlaw's analysis of 80% of the game being non-linear is spot-on.
Quest, Codex, and Tactics Systems
Quests are handled just as you'd expect them to be. Acquiring a quest places its details under the (current quests) tab in your journal, while finishing one moves it to the (completed quests) tab. There's also a (conversation history) tab that keeps a transcript of the dialogue you've exchanged with related NPCs, so working out some of the finer details and determining your next step is pretty easy to do.
Based on my experience, there are at least three ways to pick up quests from NPCs, from your own followers, and from job boards. I didn't actually acquire a follower quest during my hands-on time, but lead designer Mike Laidlaw assured me that each major follower generally has a personal side quest linked to them ((but some may surprise you with something a little. different)). I'm also not sure if job boards are a common element in the game, but I did at least come across a (Chanter's Board) in the town of Lothering where I could view a list of employment options that a typical adventurer might be interested in (dealing with some local troublemaking bandits, for example).
The game's codex system is similar to what we saw in Mass Effect. Codex entries provide gameplay hints, information about characters we've met, a closer look at a specific piece of Ferelden history, and anything else we might want to ingest. There are hundreds of these entries, but you won't be able to check them out until they've been unlocked through dialogue, eavesdropping on someone's conversation, acquiring specific books, or some other action. There will be players who have no interest in browsing through entries like these, but for players like me who enjoy delving as far as they can into a game, this is a welcome addition.
Anyone who has ever played a party-based, real-time role-playing game knows how frustrating it can be when your other characters are being controlled by an AI that's lackluster at best. Dragon Age: Origins gives us the tactics system, which is a huge leap forward in taking care of this issue. To summarize its purpose, let's call it an advanced yet easy-to-use in-game scripting system for assigning event-specific tasks to your companions. Or, in layman's terms, a system for telling your followers what to do and when to do it.
The number of options available in the tactics screen is staggering with enough patience, you can pretty much define everything your party members will do when they're not under your direct control. Want a follower to attack whatever monster you're actively attacking until it's dead, then switch to whichever enemy is carrying the most damaging melee weapon? Done. Or maybe you want a follower to use their Dual-Weapon Sweep talent during combat, but only when the monster is clustered with three other opponents? That's just a couple of extra clicks. Perhaps we should assign another tactic to that same follower that makes them switch to a ranged weapon and attack any opponent that happens to fire a spell at them? No problem. It's a slick system, and is easily the feature that impressed me most during my time with the game particularly because I had heard so little about it beforehand.
DLC, Achievements, and the Social Element
The game is still a couple of months away from release, but BioWare has already announced two pieces of downloadable content: The Stone Prisoner and Warden's Keep. The former DLC pack is included in both the standard and collector's editions, and will unlock a stone golem follower named Shale, new quests, new environments, and new items when activated. The idea here is obviously to discourage the sale of used copies (and piracy, I suppose), as the activation of the DLC is tied to the original owner's account and any subsequent purchases have a hefty $15 price tag (all DLC including the pre-order and collector's edition items can be purchased right from your in-game journal the Memory Band was listed for 80 (points), for instance). As for Warden's Keep, the only information we know about it so far is that it unlocks a new location on your world map, at least one new quest, two new achievements, and, based on hints from a couple developers, a player-owned or player-managed stronghold of some kind.
Speaking of achievements, no modern video game seems to be without them, and Dragon Age: Origins isn't going to be putting a stop to that phenomenon. There are over 150 achievements in the PC version (though the console versions are capped at 50), and these range from picking your first lock to finishing particular elements of the storyline. The game doesn't support Games For Windows Live, however, so these achievements won't be inflating your Gamerscore on anything but the Xbox 360. In fact, they won't even be adding in-game bonuses like we experienced with Mass Effect. Instead, they're only meant to give us a sense of accomplishment and to give us something to parade about on our own little Dragon Age: Origins social page.
Yeah, you read that right. Details are scarce, but based on what we know so far, each of us is going to have a small profile page of our own on the community website BioWare is building for the game. The idea here is to (chronicle our hero's journey) achievements, quest updates, and even screenshots of difficult adversaries we defeat during our travels will automatically be uploaded to our personal DA:O page. BioWare will also be hosting fan-created campaigns and other assets on the website, so it'll be very interesting to see how this all ties together and, ultimately, how popular the service will be during the months and even years following the game's release.
The Dragon Age Toolset
Unfortunately, I didn't get any hands-on time with the toolset, but I did get a 30-minute demonstration of it from Ferret Baudoin. During the demonstration, Ferret used the game's existing assets to create a small campsite, complete with a custom quest-giving NPC, a Genlock waiting in ambush, and a two-wheeled cart as dressing.
To accomplish this, he first used the toolset's face-morphing tool to customize the NPC's features. While this is similar to the customizations players have access to when first starting the game, the toolset actually allows for much finer tweaks that aren't possible with the sliders in character creation. From there, it was off to the dialogue editing tool, where our quest-giver's entire dialogue tree was presented for manipulation. Ferret quickly added a new dialogue choice in the first set, along with a couple of possible responses beyond it. He then dropped the two-wheeled cart behind the quest-giver and showed how the toolset allows you to adjust the height and rotation of placeable objects in order to make them look more realistic when resting on the existing topography. After that, the Genlock was put in place and everything was ready to go.
In a matter of twenty minutes or so, this small but viable encounter was finished. Granted, it wasn't able to provide a whole lot of entertainment value, but it was interesting to see how quickly talented modders can throw something together when using existing assets. Ferret also briefly discussed the new cinematic tool they've added to the toolset for the creation of cutscenes, but the demonstration concluded before I could see it firsthand.
The only drawbacks I foresee with the Dragon Age toolset are the increased difficulty in creating custom assets for a modern 3D game and the lack of multiplayer support. The first issue will certainly be overcome by the most determined modders out there, but unless a talented team of fans takes it upon themselves to add a multiplayer component, you probably won't ever see this toolset used to create persistent worlds like the ones available for Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2. It's not going to be an issue for those people who prefer a single player experience, but for others I'd imagine it's going to be a deal-breaker. Time will tell, I guess.
A True Baldur's Gate Successor?
I'll be honest after being bombarded by action-heavy trailers that were part of the game's recent Marilyn Manson-led marketing campaign, I sat down in front of Dragon Age: Origins with more than a few reservations. Now that I've had two days worth of hands-on time with the game, though, my enthusiasm has returned. Aside from the modern 3D engine, the switch from D&D to a proprietary rules system, and some fundamental gameplay changes (regeneration and persistent injuries instead of death, for example), the game really looks and feels like the Baldur's Gate successor it was always supposed to be. It still remains to be seen if our goal to end The Blight is as compelling as the confrontations we endured as a Bhaalspawn or if any of our companions have enough personality to mention them in the same sentence as Minsc or HK-47, but at this point I find myself very optimistic. Dragon Age: Origins just might turn out to be BioWare's finest role-playing game since Baldur's Gate II.