…the spiritual successor to old school Bioware favorite Baldur’s Gate, or so they claimed. Though likely more associated these days with Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, it was the aforementioned Dungeons & Dragons magnum opus that really put the Canadian RPG masterminds on the map. So when that name is evoked and combined with the company’s new mission to create original intellectual properties with which to build a brave new world of awesome role-playing for the future…well that’s just pretty bad ass. Except a funny thing happened on the way to nerd nirvana: they didn’t get it right.
What works here is the core of what makes Bioware a great RPG developer, and that is that they’ve once again built a vital and believable world full of fantastic adventure to explore and experience first hand as your character does. If an RPG is going to be a success not only as a game, but as a franchise as this is clearly intended to become, it needs a sound foundation, and Dragon Age has that for sure. As usual the dialog and accompanying voice acting is top notch, and the story while not up to Bioware’s highest previous standards is engaging enough to carry you through what is unfortunately an otherwise very flawed game.
What Doesn’t Work
Oh boy, where to begin. Perhaps the most noticeable and prevailing problem with Dragon Age is the combat, which suffers badly from being neither a satisfying 3rd person action experience nor a tactical team affair. Though you can pause to issue orders to your party, missing are so many of the tools that have made previous Bioware outings such a success. Only one action can be issued at a time with no ability to queue multiple commands per character, and the hectic speed of battle and lack of any kind of orders for positioning your party doesn’t help. Instead of giving better controls to the player, a system of conditions can be set for each character to help customize the AI similar to Final Fantasy 12’s gambit system, but the results are extremely unsatisfying. Combined with a difficulty that can be uneven and unforgiving even on the casual setting and you can expect to have your patience tried regularly.
Perhaps most surprising though is the way that Dragon Age fails to provide a deep and satisfying character building and role-playing experience. The party you assemble is full of interesting personalities, but rather than some metric for how good or evil your character is or how the world views you your only scale for interaction is in how much your companions like you. Moreover, none of them seem to appreciate any sort of dissenting option, leaving you to either disagree with them and have them hate you or pathologically agree like some kind of pandering sycophant in order to gain their approval and unlock their full abilities. Lost is any sense that you are truly building a relationship with the people around or influencing their growth as characters with your words and actions, which is arguably the greatest single aspect of a Bioware’s past successes. Combined with an oddly compartmentalized game world with very little interaction between areas it makes for a somewhat fragmented game that never realizes the potential of its setting.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that for all its promise and potential, Dragon Age: Origins is a game that never comes together to be anything but a mediocre game with an interesting premise and a lot of issues. As the start of a new role-playing franchise there is a lot to like about the world as a backdrop for future stories, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done to firm up the core concepts and feel of the action to make it work as a game. Those with only a casual interest in role-playing games are likely to find it very difficult to get past the shortcomings while those with passion for the genre are likely to find more disappointment in what could of, and really should have, been.