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Dragon Age: Origins Preview

Dragon Age: Origins Preview

Written by Tina Amini on 10/15/2009 for PC   360   PS3  
More On: Dragon Age: Origins
You know that feeling of utter excitement you get when you watch a trailer on a totally badass game? Your heart sort of plunks into your stomach and you go: “Oh, yeah. Definitely going to try that out.” That is precisely how I felt after being teased by the mass amount of video clips spread all over Youtube on Dragon Age: Origins.

It should come as no surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to go to BioWare headquarters in Edmonton, Canada to get a look at the game first-hand. I was expecting the game to be good, but I initially had some skepticism over some of their decisions on gameplay. For one thing, why no multiplayer option? This could very well have been a World of Warcraft killer (to some degree), and everyone likes multiplayer anyway. More over, while I did thoroughly enjoy Mass Effect, I was admittedly not a fan of the pause and play gameplay. I’m all about the action, so when I heard they had decided to retain this option I was a bit dismayed.

The game itself is no typical RPG. Sure, you’ve got the basic elements of race and class combinations along with specialization in certain talents and abilities (including professions like the one I chose: alchemy). However, your origins story truly makes for a unique experience.

I knew before I even boarded my flight that I would be choosing a mage – I’m a spell caster at heart. As for the race, I ended up going with an Elf because of the interesting angle BioWare decided to take their origins story. Elves, and mages for that matter, are not exactly regarded with high esteem as per usual RPG storylines. I was interested to explore the sort of society that BioWare set up for us gamers: an environment rife with chaos in the form of not just war, but also social conflict in terms of racism, classism and the like.

Ferelden is in turmoil, and as a Grey Warden you’ve sworn to dedicate your life to defeat the blight and restore peace – or what peace there can be in this society. Playing as a mage, however, I was able to explore the Fade – an area that you have to overcome in order to officially become instated as a mage. The Fade is where you, as a mage, first dive into the game. You explore a hazy, dreamlike area while you are put through unknown and unannounced tests. A series of events led me to revisit the Fade, in which I encountered a mysterious demon who attempts to barter a deal with me. I got the distinct impression that the blight was not Ferelden’s last, or greatest fear. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to pursue the matter further, but this is just one example of the kind of unpredictable story Dragon Age has lined up for us. It seems that things are not so simple as a fight for life against the blight – which is in itself already a difficult task.

The uncertainty, fear, and devastation are palpable. Your missions almost seem futile, as you’ll soon realize everyone has banded against you and the name “Grey Warden” isn’t exactly received with a warm welcome any longer. After lighting the beacon, a seemingly successful call for help is unmet, and your side of the war is ravaged by the blight. After this betrayal, you’ll come to learn the role that politics can play in the setting for Dragon Age, and it is just as frustrating as politics in real life can be. Yet, for the sake of preserving life, you pursue the goals that you promised to fulfill. You trek through villages, forests, and cities undertaking various missions while still not fully understanding what the circumstances are or knowing what to expect. You take your quest one mission at a time, and hope that each one takes you closer to defeating the blight, but there is no way to be sure. Despair is written on every wall and every face you meet, and I felt almost at a loss given the ambiguities I was constantly being given. I was lost, and desperately seeking answers. Not that I would know from personal experience, but for me these scenes and sensations caught the essence of war even in the limited time I spent with them. I’m beginning to get bored with the flat storylines and blatant missions most games are offering. Dragon Age, on the other hand, throws me into a war that has been raging for quite some time before my involvement in it began, forcing me to get up to speed as I go. Dragon Age creates such an oddly brutal reality so akin to ours (even in its dark fantasy theme) that I can’t help but feel more connected to this game than how I usually feel towards others.

Looking across my screen to the other members of the press trying their hand at Dragon Age, I noticed we had ended up at completely different points in the story. The most obvious example of this is the involvement in the Fade. A warrior would not be able to enter the Fade, and would therefore have to handle certain situations at hand in a different manner. Here, I refer to my encounter with the mysterious demon. She (he?) has possessed a royal boy’s mind and it becomes a matter of your interest to save him. You can therefore make a decision: enter the Fade upon someone’s sacrifice (as that is the only way you can proceed without a circle of mages invoking the Fade), or send word for help. Being the brute that I am, I chose to not waste any time and make the sacrifice. Another mage might have taken an alternative path, or perhaps you are not playing as a mage at all and the scene would therefore unravel in a much different manner.Your interactions with certain characters will also vastly differ depending on what origins story you choose. For instance, I was very familiar with Jowan, a mage accused of practicing Blood magic, which is expressly forbidden. His role becomes a somewhat significant one in the plot (from where I could tell), but my relationship with him was solely due to the fact that I decided to take my origins story from a mage’s perspective. A rogue, for example, would not have had the same encounters with him, but would instead have an entirely different setting in which to interact with him when the time comes.

The plot, dialogue, and characters were clearly very thought out while the game was in development. At the same time, however – and this is where Dragon Age really shines – your actions and your own personality have a significant impact on the storyline and even the characters themselves. Whether or not you can accept members to your party, creating friends and foes along the way, will depend on your interactions with them. Similar to Mass Effect, you may choose between a charming demeanor or an intimidating one, with some variations in between.

The correct path when interacting with other characters is not always clear – in fact, there really is no correct path. I found myself constantly debating contrasting directions to take a conversation – whether or not to trust what the person in question is so convincingly telling me or to play it safe and slay them on the spot. Depending on how you feel is best appropriate to deal with the situation, you and I will possibly have created entirely different storylines with characters behaving in entirely different ways. Mike Laidlaw, in my interview with him, expresses that in developing the game you can barely see either end, and playing the game reinforces the validity of his point. They have developed a game so expansive that the possibilities seem endless.

The characters you meet along the way all have intriguing backgrounds and reasons for their respective behaviors – they are intricate and complex creatures that are not always easy to understand. Is Morrigan to be trusted? I met her on uncomfortable terms, and by a mere swindle of language was I able to create a slightly friendly interaction with her and convince her to join my party. However, what is her interest in me and, furthermore, what is the deal with her mother? As I’m sure many of you have seen from the video clips, both Morrigan and her mother are odd characters that seem to have hidden secrets and intentions. The more you play the more you realize that the game is not all focused on you, but that rather there are other characters that can drastically impact your storyline depending on how you decide to deal with them.

In my experience as an Elf mage, I found that it was hard to win people’s respect or help, even as I so generously offered my own. The consequences of your actions are not always clear, and create a very immersive gameplay style than I have seen from most RPGs.

Ferelden itself is incredibly intriguing. Dark and epic, the environment sets the mood for the story. You get a sense of despair from the gloomy cities – whether it is a refugee camp of sullen souls, bewildered and empty, or the destruction of city walls and a clear desperate need for supplies and support. You almost feel an innate obligation to help these people who are somewhat less fortunate than you, most of whom seem abandoned and helpless. The story itself is so complex and deeply intertwined that I have high hopes for a possibly seamless storyline. While you encounter so many fragments of the storyline that you feel you’ve obtained a copious amount of information, you still realize that they are merely pieces of a puzzle that you have barely even taken out of the box. I suppose in tandem with this fact of gameplay is my only complaint: the save method. Although you will hit various save points for your automated pleasure, I experienced a sudden drop of these same as with Mass Effect. I got to a point of becoming OCD with saving my game in the fear that something important would be lost.If a small intricacy like saving will get you down, the soundtrack will more than make up for the experiences. I applaud Inon Zur for truly complimenting the story and environment with his score. If I needed any more of an immersive experience to really feel tied into the game, Inon Zur and the talented Aubrey Ashburn definitely pushed me over that edge. A good soundtrack can really win me over, and I am not one to exaggerate when it comes to the ecstasy known as music. It’s always a good surprise to be moved by music, and Inon Zur really hit the nail on the head on this one.

Playing through and understanding these aspects, I became a single-player convert. There is no way you can truly get the same experiences in this single-player as you would in multiplayer. As Mike Laidlaw explained: the game would inevitably turn into a hero/heroin at focus with various sidekicks, which is not an ideal setting for a game of this nature. This is your opportunity to explore your game that relies on your decisions. The choices and actions you take are always recognized, and the game will respond to the moves you make.

Although there is no multiplayer (currently), there are other ways of interacting with your fellow DA:O gamers. DLC should turn out interestingly for Dragon Age, as you are being given pretty much the exact tool set used by the designers at BioWare themselves. You also receive all the content, including pre-made areas, to have an easier opportunity to create whatever insidious quests and battles you have in mind. To quench your cheater’s thirst, I’ll answer this question before it is asked: yes, you can use this to effectively cheat in the game (although I don’t know why you would want to). You could, theoretically, create a quest that allots you a thousand extra levels by simply speaking to a character. For those of you that like to play God in your games, as I know many of my fellow gamers do, the tool set is your chance to do that in Dragon Age.

What will most probably hold this gamer and modder community together is the social site that is currently in closed beta. It will function something similar to Facebook in which you can view your friends’ feeds on your homepage and update your profile. Your profile will contain information from your play log, as well as any achievements you have accumulated or any screenshots you wish to upload. If you’re a builder, you can upload your files, advertise your specific skill set on the social engine, or put out ads looking for modders of other skills to help you with your projects. If that isn’t social enough for you, they’ve also integrated with Twitter and Facebook so you can send out constant updates from your character.

Now, on to the logistics. The bulk of my experience was on the PC, but I did dabble with the PS3 version of Dragon Age: Origins. The controls for the PS3 were very similar to the 360, so if you’re curious as to how the game handles on a console, this is where you will receive that information. Simply put, Dragon Age: Origins is a game befitting of a PC. The controls are pretty basic and resemble something like Neverwinter Nights or World of Warcraft. You have three general abilities that include: (1) your active abilities focused on a target, (2) your spells (including AoE – area of effect for all you non-RPGers), and (3) your sustained abilities, aka buffs.

As you accumulate spells and abilities, you won’t want to rely on the right button of the controller to constantly switch between your limited spread of three customizable action slots. Hotkeys on a keyboard are really the way to go. With the mouse and keyboard, you have more control and room to maneuver effectively. This particularly applies to gameplay style. There is a main focus on tactical play because of the pause and play feature. The AI is basically exposed – you can queue up commands for all the characters in your party, and delegate certain behaviors to match certain situations automatically in preset or customized command lists. You have a much quicker response time on the PC in regard to these controls, and I found myself progressing through the game much faster on the PC than on the PS3. Controls are really the biggest issue, as everything else remains intact.

I’m left with the desire to go back and explore Ferelden and the mysteries that I so lightly scratched at. Even after several days of many hours of gameplay, I barely understand the depths of the characters or the plot that is composed in Dragon Age: Origins. If you haven’t caught on yet, I will most definitely be waiting in great anticipation for the release of this game. Even with my limited exposure to the game, this is clearly one that is not to be missed. Unique, exciting, immersive like immersive has never been – congratulations BioWare, I do believe the hard work will have paid off.

Feel free to post any questions you have that I didn’t already answer in this article. After several days of doing nothing but playing this game and listening to talks about this game, I will probably know the answer. And if not, I will find out for you to the best of my abilities.

We’d like to thank BioWare for the opportunity at a hands-on experience of Dragon Age: Origins, as well as the informative demos and interviews that we have posted here.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I am host to the kind of split-personality that is only possible when a girl is both born and raised in New York City, yet spends a lot of time with two older brothers. So, on one hand, I'm a NYU student majoring in media and communication who has a healthy obsession with fashion, music, media and the latest happenings in NYC. But, on the other hand, I'm rocking a level 70 blood elf warlock (I just got Lich King -- give me a break), spend much of my time playing games of all genres and platforms, and if you pass by my dorm you can possibly even hear my roar of victory as I spring on the unsuspecting as one of the infected in Left 4 Dead. And just when I thought things were as random as they could be, I spent the summer in Texas and, turns out, I like 4-wheeling and shooting (real) guns too.

I whet my appetite early on the classics and later moved on to Counter-Strike, GoldenEye and the like. You'll find me trying just about any game now -- I even tried my hand at Cooking Mama -- but the more blood and gore, the better. All my friends and family are probably pretty annoyed by how much I talk about video games. It's your turn now, Internet.
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