The game starts, interestingly enough, with one of six beginnings, with very broad but distinct racial, professional, and economic backgrounds. I like that. It leads me to think a little piece of the old, original BioWare still lurks somewhere in the EA corporate division, from a time when what mattered most to a group of enthusiastic D&D-playing physicians was role-playing. And with these six game starts, DA:O is effectively nudging the kiddies who know nothing about roleplaying into assuming roles, while providing an introduction to the lore and backgrounds of the DA gaming world. Not all six stories are equally believable, or feature decent NPC depth, or reasonable backgrounds. But the average is pretty good.
Let's flashback for a second to a time when I attended an E3 private press briefing of the original KotOR's trailer. What caused the most comment was the way your PC would catch the drift of conversations as he or she went past, and could get involved with any one of them by coming closer. I didn't think this would be realized in the game, and sure enough, it wasn't; but something a bit like that seems to be operative, here. Not that you can get involved in many conversations as a drive-by, but you do hear the gist of people engaged in intelligent ones. (They're nothing like those horrifically surreal faux conversations of Oblivion.) And yes, you can engage them in dialog, too. The only problem is that these witnessed exchanges recycle endlessly, with the same people staying pretty much in place. The first time through, it's impressive.
BioWare clearly recognizes the importance of first impressions, and that's something they've always managed well. Consider how much of an effect well-populated zones in DA:O make when you first load them. BioWare's room designers create believable visual and audio settings, lifelike in their seeming complexity, with foreground characters engaged in a variety of activities that fit completely in. Dialog with these figures is frequently lengthy, often well written, and always well voiced though I still find it a minor annoyance that tony, upper class British accents go with upper class, serious NPCs, while Cockneys and other regional, social, and economic groups end up vocally cast as commoners and shopkeepers. It's game typecasting, and probably will never go away, so it's best to just shrug and accept it. (At least it doesn't offer ersatz-Mexican accents for a slimy farmer you encounter, as the otherwise immersive Betrayal at Krondor did.)
The standard faux medieval world is prettier than before, though still just as bizarre a montage: staggeringly monolithic stone towers are filled with 20th centuries vanities and 19th century curio cabinets; enormous quantities of fresh, spoilable foods stand about in rooms that would have no climate control for nearly a thousand more years with only a single, small cooking cauldron and fire present. If you don't look too closely, though, it provides a fun background to run around in. Good, too, is the attractive, sensible interface. Member inventories are grouped as one for easy access and dispersal. Right-clicking an item allows you to use, view, or destroy it. Skills, spells, and talents (of which, more later) all have easily distinguishable icons that can be added to, moved about, and removed from individual character bars at the bottom of the screen. Character screens provide instant access to personal items and basic information, while buttons at the top of the screen supply more detail.
The graphics as a whole are in fact, stunning. Backgrounds are both well drawn and colored. NPCs employ a number of different body and facial types, and their clothing varies, too. They look and move naturally except in video clips, when their sometimes grotesque body gestures betray puppet-like origins. Terrains are nicely varied, though the fact that your character is subtly skating along the top is made apparent on the pieced-together wooden plank bridges of Redcliffe Village. Edges of walking zones, too, are unrealistic, and if you cut a corner a little closely, you'll find your PC running in place without anything seemingly offering obstruction. It's not a major point, though, not with artwork like this.
The title's linearity becomes very obvious as one plays, and something I find a disappointment. Granted, linearity is necessary, but it needn't be so blatant. Areas often feel small and uniform as one explores; in urban regions, most doors are locked, and even a rogue can't get in. This was less a problem in Baldur's Gate II, where chapter 2 ingeniously threw so many quests at you quickly that it swamped the game's obvious linearity. In this respect, DA:O takes more after KotOR, where there was no effort to conceal the hemmed-in feeling of the game, though the visuals in DA:O are far superior and more detailed.
The plotting overall isn't noteworthy. Not that I mind a series of clichÃ©s; most entertainment or art starts with that. It's how you expand upon it that matters, and the development in DA:O is standard formula. I never came away with the feeling, as I did in BG2 or Ultima VII, of being a pawn successfully moved about in a much, much larger game, or disrupting a very carefully laid and complex plan, as in BG1, or discovering that everything I knew was wrong, as in Planescape: Torment. I gathered a party to punish a highly-placed, powerful traitor, then dealt with a still more powerful army of invaders. On the other hand, dialog between your party members and yourself is superlative for content, structure, immediate mannerisms, and the gradual unfolding of character traits you'd expect from successive pieces of dialog as your party comes to (know) you.
You have a selection of eight possible NPCs to choose from (and one as free DLC) as you travel, in order to build your adventuring party of four. All are well-defined in concept, with several supplying more than just hints of elaborate, story-based backgrounds. They come alive during the game in a way that BG2's party-based NPCs do but with a lot of more detail thanks in part to a far larger script, and in part to fine vocal acting. Since many of us remember (and keep playing) BG2 for its party NPCs and their personalities, especially with mods that add still more of the same, this will prove a very welcome development. It may in fact be the most enduring aspect of DA:O, the one thing more than any other that you take away with you. Because though some players get excited discussing a character's face or a weapon's damage, in the end, it's the written personality that appeals the most to our imaginations.
That may be why some of my most vivid memories of the game occurred in the game's camp scene. This is a worthy retread of an attractive feature that first showed up in the original KotOR. The idea is that players hate leaving party members behind (due to size restrictions) in order to retrieve them at great length when they're needed later, so a centralized location is created where they can all hang out for your choice on specific missions. Since by convention, time has no meaning when you're enroute on the larger, geographical map, the camp is always available to you when you leave an area. The combination of a dark night, a bright, well-animated fire (or two; one of the mages your meet is a loner), a well-designed woodland clearing, New Age background music, and much of the best dialog referred to above, creates a considerable impression.
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