Bioware has made a business out of churning out epic RPGs, with the lineage going all the way to Baldur's Gate over ten years ago. Dragon Age: Origins continues the series of dialogue-heavy RPGs started by Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and shares many similarities with Jade Empire and Mass Effect. We get a whole new setting, new characters and some gameplay changes, but 21dd the overall framework is mostly tried and true.
Officially Dragon Age: Origins is labeled as a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate. This is slightly misleading as the setting is completely unique (no D&D license). In reality, Dragon Age draws inspiration from all over the place and until you really get to know the world of Ferelden where the game is set, it feels fairly generic. Dwarves who live underground in massive cities, with large parts of their cave network in ruins. Elves, diminished and living as refugees. Humans, flaws and all, being the dominant race. Oh, and Darkspawn (read: Orcs) are slowly pushing to take over the lands... No, Dragon Age is not a Lord of the Rings game either. Still, it does borrow many well-known fantasy elements from all over the place and mixes it all into a new setting without spending too much time imagining anything new.
Luckily, the world of Dragon Age: Origins still feels alive and interesting - even if large set pieces are familiar from any number of fantasy worlds, there is a ton of well-developed, original and interesting story behind different factions and places of Ferelden. Characters are the other strong point for Bioware - if you distill them down to archetypes, we've seen many of them before, but once again we get a colorful bunch of unlikely heroes and villains.
This lowly commoner dwarf has shown the ability to beat up all fighters - clearly Grey Warden material. So it begins...
To start the journey, you create your main character and he or she determines the origin story you start with. There are three character classes (Warrior, Rogue, Mage) and three races (Human, Dwarf, Elf). Additionally, each class has four sub-specializations (like Champion, Spirit Healer or Ranger) and you get to pick two of these as you level up. Ultimately the way your character plays is mostly down to your talent/spell choices with many viable builds available.
You also pick your origin story - "noble", "commoner" or (for Mages), "mage" - with a couple of limitations based on race. Humans lack the "commoner" route (it was apparently cut at some point during development) while Dwarf mages do not exist at all. Elves relabel nobles as "true" Dalish elves while commoner story is played as a city elf. In total, there are six different opening stories to play, but each one of them ends up in the same place after a couple of hours. Eventually you prove to have what it takes and get recruited as a member of the legendary Grey Wardens to fight off the coming Blight and the main story can begin. Early bits feel eerily familiar - "an average person plays a part in extraordinary events, ending up as an apprentice in a legendary order of protectors..." - didn't we see a similar story already in Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and Mass Effect? I mean, Bioware, come on...
Visual customization is limited to the face of the character and is passable. Beyond that, the limited number of choices available becomes apparent when you start pondering your options. Biggest downside is that every mage share a single origin story while Warriors and Rogues have five different stories and three starting areas available to them, depending on race. There is a good storyline reason for it, but it is still annoying. The whole deal also invokes a feeling that someone had a great idea for a character creation system that was perfect for a story-driven RPG... at least until everything was scaled down as realities of game development caused the grand plans to be cut to the bare minimum - four play areas and six storylines, with the starting play areas and NPC characters partially reused later in the game.
Overall storyline takes into account your choices - big and small - and there are many variables that modify the story. Your party members, your choice of allies and the way you solve certain parts result in considerable practical differences. At the same time, the options are still limited and the big plot points are always the same. Beyond the opening chapter of the story, your origin matters only in some specific places along the way - mostly when adventuring in the area where you completed your origin story as you already know many characters from your time before the becoming a Grey Warden.
Further choices fall mostly in line with the standard "light side" - "dark side" axis, familiar from recent Bioware RPGs. Refreshingly there are also some shades of gray with multiple ways to solve an issue - even if the difference often ends up being cosmetic - a slightly different dialogue and the same practical result. In a way it is maddening - there is a convincing illusion of free will through practical and moral choices, but you are still limited by the fact that this is a game and someone has to create (and debug) all the dialogue and visuals for every possible choice. Still, bonus points for faking it fairly well.
Games: Dragon Age: Origins
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