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Dragon Age: Origins Xbox 360 Review

By Neilie Johnson, 11/18/2009

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Canadian developer BioWare has built its reputation on making great story-based games. This enviable reputation began on consoles back in 2003 with Knights of the Old Republic, and continued through the release of 2007's Mass Effect, a game which confirmed BioWare's status as the gold standard in RPGs. With that in mind, BioWare's latest RPG, Dragon Age: Origins, has a lot to live up to. Fortunately, (and in spite of quite a few flaws) it lives up to expectations, and then some.

Dragon Age tells the story of Ferelden, a land periodically put-upon throughout the centuries by an evil race of undead/orc-like creatures called Darkspawn. Ordinarily, the Dwarven people keep these disorganized, subterranean monsters in check, but every now and then the Darkspawn uncover the soul of an old god and that's when the real trouble starts. Led by this old god (which manifests as an Archdemon in the body of a dragon), the Darkspawn erupt onto the surface and wreak death and destruction on everything they touch. These invasions or “Blights” can only be stopped by an ancient order of guardians called the Grey Wardens, and it's here your story in Dragon Age begins. But wait—we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Before you can join the struggle against the Blight, you get to choose and customize your character. To start, Dragon Age lets you pick a gender, a race (human, elf or dwarf), a class (warrior, mage or rogue), a backstory (Human Noble, Dwarf Noble or Commoner, City Elf or Dalish Elf, and Magus), and a voice. There's a tremendous amount of facial customization to be had, but no matter what you do, if you're female, you'll look hideous when you speak (more on that later). In any case, so many possibilities make it easy to spend an absurd amount of time picking a character, especially since each of the six back-stories offers a different start to the game. Yes, every race and racial sub-type has its own unique origin story, but all of these converge once you're recruited into the Grey Wardens.

So as a Grey Warden, what exactly do you do? Well like KOTOR and Mass Effect before it, Dragon Age is a party-based RPG. What that means is you'll spend the majority of your time talking to other characters, fighting enemies, customizing skills and equipment and micro-managing your party like there's no tomorrow. Almost immediately, you learn to fight. I played somewhat against type as a female Dalish warrior (in your face, all you archer elves!) so was slashing and bashing from the get-go. In typical RPG style, kills grant XP (as do historical documents found scattered everywhere) which levels you, allowing you to spend the points you earn on special skills and abilities. During combat, six of these abilities can be assigned to onscreen quick slots, making them easy to use with a single button press.

While Grey Wardens in general may seem like brooding, solitary types, you'll find you never have to fight alone. As you travel, you'll gather companions one at a time like you're in some kind of ultra-violent version of the Wizard of Oz. Once you gain these party members, you can control each of them during battle, swapping among them with the left and right bumpers. You can also control them indirectly by using their tactical slots. Each squad member starts with a couple of these and can earn more by skilling up. You can create your own custom settings for these slots or choose from several behavioral presets like Defensive, Aggressive and Cautious. There's enough to tinker with here to make the most OCD role-player giddy with delight.

Another key factor in managing your party is keeping things on an even emotional keel. Your party is a diverse group that runs the full range of the moral spectrum and keeping them all happy at once isn't easy. You can try to get to know them in camp or ply them with gifts to improve your likability, but some characters just will not come around. My kind and noble character for instance, had a devil of a time keeping on good terms with Sten, the big Qunari bruiser, and Morrigan, the bitchy witch of the wilds. All I can say is, thank the Maker for my ever-faithful war dog.

Party members aren't the only ones affected by your words and actions. There's no such thing as alignment tracking in Dragon Age, but circumstances can change a lot, depending on how you interact with other people. This shows itself in small ways during side quests and in big, game-changing ways during quests in the main storyline. The game plays out in a more or less open-world fashion, tracking your many quests and allowing you to perform them in any order. And while it might seem silly to stop army-building in Redcliffe to deliver a letter to some schmoe in Lothering, you can do it if you want to.

The game's main missions take you to every corner of Ferelden and allow you to experience a handful of compelling sub-plots. Side missions, which consist of collecting items and visiting different locations, are generally simple and easy to perform, if sometimes tediously far-flung. If you need a rest between these missions, try stopping at a tavern or of ill repute. One of the funniest things I've seen in a game is my female Dalish spending the night with a male Dwarf "companion" at the Pearl bordello. Who knew Dwarves could be so sexy? Anyway, wherever you go, you won't have to run among cities and villages; you can teleport among them, although that means watching load screen after load screen. Then again, waiting through load screens gives you plenty of time to think about your character builds.

Character leveling in Dragon Age bears no resemblance to the crazy 100-level Japanese RPG model. Being based on DnD rules, it takes much longer to level and the few skill points you get must be carefully spent. Conversely, equipment can be found everywhere; at merchants, on dead enemies and sometimes just lying around, so it's not too difficult to equip your party. Enchantments add another layer of customization to your weapons; you can find runes all over Ferelden and take them to the Forrest Gump-like dwarf who hangs out in your camp and he'll use them to enchant your weapons. Party members themselves can't enchant anything but they do have their own crafting skills and can train up in trap-making, poison-making or herbalism. My advice--don't ignore the crafting mechanic. During some of the rougher fights, it's incredibly helpful to have at least one party member who can make these things.

All of the above describes the mechanics of the game but fails to truly capture the richness of it. Without question, Dragon Age: Origins is one of the most absorbing games you'll ever play. The many sub-plots make it the videogame equivalent of a “page-turner”, something you just can't put down. The writing is superb, with convincing dialog and plot twists that'll leave you with your mouth hanging open. The game also does an amazingly sophisticated job of offering up difficult decisions. Most of the time, morality in games is conveniently polarized which makes choosing a side very easy. In Dragon Age, you'll often find yourself agonizing over decisions made even more difficult by contradictory or problematic circumstances. Of course, this is all to be expected since story and character development is BioWare's strength. The company's energy and tech is obviously 100% focused on it, which makes for some incredibly compelling narratives. Unfortunately, it also often means other aspects of the game get terribly short shrift.

Combat for instance, feels slow, unresponsive and clunky. Characters lurch around, looking for targets, often performing special attacks without moving into range of their targets while enemies often seem to hang back for no apparent reason. And speaking of slow and clunky—load screens. So many load screens. Like Fable II before it, the many load screens you have to sit through in the 360 version of the game are just a killer. And you'd think after sitting through so many of them, the least you'd have are smooth cutscenes, but no. Nearly every cutscene is marred by ugly hitching, which really diminishes the immersiveness of the whole experience.

Unfortunately, cutscenes aren't the only less-than-amazing visual aspect of the game. The graphics as a whole on 360 are mediocre to butt-ugly. Exteriors are passable and interiors have a bit more finish, but the colors inside and out are largely desaturated. This may have been intentional to increase the realism of the art but frankly, it isn't much fun to look at. Far worse than the environments though are the characters. The movement animation of the characters is pretty bad, even though much of it was obviously mo-capped. (My female Dalish ran like a chimpanzee, hunched over with arms dangling.)

Another animation-related problem is the facial animation, or lack thereof. Mouth animation on female characters is pretty scary as the lips unnaturally deform, and the almost total lack of eye movement in any of the characters when they talk makes them look frighteningly mannequin-like. Various other graphic elements need help as well; for one, character effects are weird. The post-combat blood spatter on the characters is a neat idea, but gets to be a little much after a while as you watch yourself in every cutscene, covered in blood. And what's going on with Wynne? Yes, I know she's using magical armor, but must she constantly emit little brown bits like Pigpen from the Charlie Brown cartoons? She looks like an old tree shedding its leaves. Oh, and in something only sort-of character-related, (semi-spoiler here), why must we endure yet another grotesque, overweight, multi-breasted boss monster? Hasn't this idea been played out already, like a decade ago?

Anyway, in addition to seemingly intentionally ugly graphics, Dragon Age's main problem on the 360 is that it's rife with bugs. Perhaps the production cycle was too aggressive? Perhaps the development team got burned out near the end? Whatever the reason, the game contains a huge number of unfixed bugs both big and small, the worst of which seriously interfered with my ability to play the way I wanted to. Along with class, characters can choose from four specializations within that class. I chose Templar, one of the Warrior specializations, and the second I got my Templar armor, I excitedly put it on—only to see my arms vanish and the armor sitting on me backwards. Nothing I could do would fix it, and after spending an hour running around looking ridiculous with the arms of my glorious Templar armor flapping out behind me like two absurd steel scarves, I took the armor off and sadly resigned myself to waiting for another specialization.

That was the most severe example, but other bugs of a less serious variety can be seen right from the beginning. In character creation, if you try to make a balding male character, you'll notice the skin on the head doesn't at all match the skin on the face and body so it looks like you're wearing a bald cap. Then there's the rampant clipping bugs. Clipping in Dragon Age means things like armor intersecting itself, crossed arms sinking into one another and dialog sequence cameras half-sunk into geometry, blocking the view. Visual effects in the game are problematic as well, and appear at odd times. During every cutscene for example, my Warrior had a red aura around her that should have only been seen when a special ability was activated. Cutscenes had sound as well as graphic issues (despite the stellar voice acting), with many cutscenes showing mouths moving but no sound coming out.

Finally, the last noticeable bit of the game's disappointing lack of polish is seen in the way character recognition dwindles in the latter half of the game. At first, characters everywhere recognize your race, gender and status and react accordingly. As time goes on though, they seem to lose that ability and give extremely generic answers. It was very cool at first (believe it or not) having people make racial slurs since I was Dalish, or leer at me because I was female. Later on though, everyone just referred to me as “Sir” which took me out of the story again and again.

After all this, you might get the impression that Dragon Age isn't worth playing, but I assure you that even with its problems, the game does BioWare proud. While exhibiting a blatant disregard for aesthetics and an almost cavalier attitude toward bugs, Dragon Age is saved by its epic design, exceptional narrative and incredible voice acting. So do your best to overlook the clumsy graphics and long load times and focus instead on the positives. If you do, you'll be in for one of the finest RPG experiences of the year.

Overall: 85%



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