Dragon Age: Origins PC Review
I can imagine that years ago, when Bioware came up with the idea for Dragon Age, people didn't quite have the level of disinterest they now do in high fantasy. The project was announced shortly after Lord of the Rings: Return of the King swept the Oscars, World of Warcraft was about to launch and eventually became a huge success, and the memories of Bioware's previous fantasy RPG, the fantastic Baldur's Gate 2, were still fresh in people's minds. It shows some real guts on the part of Bioware to continue pushing forward on the project since those days, and while I was never terribly excited to play Dragon Age, I sure am glad they went ahead anyway.
Dragon Age: Origins feels a lot like the result of Bioware wanting to continue to make Dungeons & Dragons RPGs after Interplay lost them the license to make them. It's an all-new world with an entirely different lore and rule system for fighting and character advancement, but you'll find a lot of familiar things here. Orc-like "Darkspawn" serve as the horde of enemy creatures swallowing up the lands of Ferelden. Elves, dwarves, and humans inhabit the land, highborne nobles play their silly games, bandits ambush you on the road, dragons are hugely powerful and rare to find, fantasy creatures that we've seen before creep around - it's all here. But Bioware has done a great job of keeping just enough familiar to make it accessible for those who've played this type of game before and adding enough new plot, monsters, characters, and gear to keep you coming back.
At the beginning of the game, you can choose to be an Elf, Human, or Dwarf, and your initial story will differ vastly based on whether you choose a Warrior, Mage, or Rogue (as well as a specific Origin on some class/race choices). Each of these Origins is unique and they do come back at later parts in the game as well. But no matter what, you'll wind up in trouble, get exiled from your homeland, and are recruited into the Grey Wardens, a group of partially-outcast warriors and mages whose sole job is to fight against the Blight of darkspawn. But even with the numbers of these creatures rising, the Wardens are having a hard time gathering support as a rather poorly-timed civil war is also brewing.
If you're thinking this plot is following too many stereotypes - Grey Wardens do kind of resemble the Jedi from Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic - well, it does and it doesn't. The Wardens aren't given a hell of a lot in the way of special powers, and being one is more of a curse than a blessing. No, when you fight as a Grey Warden, you're pretty much stuck with your character's abilities, so you need to pick them carefully. Luckily, there's a lot to play with: along with adding a wide range of talents and spells on all characters, you can make poisons or potions, equip yourself and your companions with all kinds of gear, specialize in up to two sub-classes on your main character, and customize your weapons with runes for extra perks.
Dragon Age does a fantastic job of lifting things that work from Bioware's own games as well as titles like World of Warcraft. You'll quickly realize the interface is strikingly similar to Blizzard's classic MMORPG and the over-the-shoulder perspective is pretty familiar for third-person games as well. But the PC version of the game, as opposed to its console-based brothers, has a unique feature: just spin the scroll wheel down and you get a top-down view of a battle that's reminiscent of Neverwinter Nights or Baldur's Gate 2, and you can swap between it and the more immersive third-person view whenever you want. This makes the overall experience one that gives you that atmosphere when you're exploring or talking to NPCs, and when the battles start, it's easier to see the whole fight and micromanage each of your four playable party members.
The PC version has some DLC already available but will also start getting mods pretty soon, as Bioware's already released the toolset for Dragon Age as well. But in the meantime, you'll find plenty to do here: the game lasts you dozens of hours as you find the Wardens betrayed, and you'll have to travel Ferelden and try to regain support from each of the land's major kingdoms to go and fight off the Blight. On the way you'll pick up quite a few interesting companions to use, and they're almost universally great to interact with. Seriously, the voice acting here deserves commendation, because there are many hours of it and the only stuff that's iffy comes from one-off characters that you only talk to once here and there. From Alistair's sarcastic remarks to Leilana's stories of her mother and on to your companion Mabari dog's amusing interactions with the rest of your companions, the game gets its hooks into you not with combat or with plot, but with the people you travel with through Ferelden.
I've tried the 360 version of Dragon Age and I can say that the PC version is without a doubt the best one. The graphics are much better, the mod capabilities are huge, the price tag is ten bucks lower, the system requirements are relatively easy to meet, and you can command your troops with a top-down view that the console versions lack entirely. It's rare to see a simultaneous release work like this, where the PC version is by far the best, but it's kind of nice too - unlike with Infinity Ward and the recent debacle made out of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 PC release, Bioware most definitely remembers where they came from.
Still, there's something here that's holding Dragon Age back from being Bioware's best game. It's hard to put a finger on, but the plot, characters, and fighting don't all mesh together the way they should, and the feeling left is that this latest effort is just missing that "glue" that has made gamers fall completely in love with every RPG Bioware has made. Maybe repeated playthroughs will change that, or maybe the added longevity through mods and paid DLC will be the difference later on. For now, though, unlike with their other games, it doesn't seem like Dragon Age is quite good enough to be one of those instant classics that people keep going back to over the years.
It's still a fantastic game, though, and Bioware is to be commended for taking what could have been a tired fantasy setting and injecting just enough newness into it to addict us all over again. The characters are by far the best part of Dragon Age, but the combat, fantasy settings, and plot are all great as well. If you love western RPGs, you owe it to yourself to pick up Dragon Age - on PC, if you meet the rather lenient system requirements - and get hooked all over again. Just try and block off a couple of weeks on your schedule first, because you'll be unavailable for a while.