by Stefanie Fogel
reviewed on X360
Bioware goes back to its roots
Epic storytelling. Moral choices. Characters you grow to love (or love to hate). These are just a few of the things that have helped define Bioware as a game developer over the years through such classic role-playing games as Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and, now, Dragon Age: Origins.
In the fictional land of Ferelden, twisted creatures known as Darkspawn are rising up from beneath the earth, leaving blight and destruction in their wake. As a new recruit of the Grey Wardens, you and a colorful cast of characters must drive back the invading hordes, and the even greater evil behind them, and bring peace back to the land. While the story of a fresh-faced hero defeating an ancient evil is nothing new, Bioware has managed to inject enough thrills, twists, and turns into the traditional high fantasy setting to make the trip not only worthwhile, but worth repeating.
While the setting of Dragon Age owes a lot to Tolkien, and possibly to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series as well, the land of Ferelden is original and full of rich detail discovered through books and conversations as the game progresses and it is recorded in the game's enormous and well-written Codex. In this world, elves are not all mystical forest dwellers, but servants and second-class citizens under human rule. Dwarves have beards and live underground, but they also have a rigid caste system full of political backstabbing, where the lowest class is treated like animals. Mages live under the watchful eye of the church, or Chantry, in a tower that is little more than a gilded prison. Those that escape are branded as Apostates and are hunted down by the Templars. Ferelden is a much darker fantasy world than we're used to in video games. Much like CD Projekt's 2007 RPG The Witcher, there are racial tensions and moral quandaries with no clear right or wrong choices. Even a choice made with good intentions can have awful consequences. This makes Ferelden a compelling place to visit and it's worth it to spend an hour or two reading the Codex. Not only will it help flesh out the world you'll be spending many, many hours hacking and slashing your way through, but it can also lead to the discovery of hidden quests and treasure.
Choosing Your Path
There are three races (human, dwarf or elf) and three classes (warrior, mage or rogue) to choose from in Dragon Age. While that may seem a bit limited to some, there are many different ways to build your character through the selection of skills, spells, and specializations. Adding to all of this customization is the character's origin story. There are a total of six origins, each one unique, that take an hour or two to play through. Picking an origin will influence how NPCs react to you and will influence certain events throughout the game. Characters you meet at the beginning will turn up again later on. The effects of the choices you make during your origin story, and their consequences, can still be felt hours and hours later. Besides offering great replay value, the origins also allow you to experience the storyline from different angles. An encounter with a prisoner in a dungeon might not hold much significance if you're playing a city elf, but will have greater impact if you're playing a mage. It's worth it to play through each origin story at least once, if only to get a greater understanding of the events and characters that shape the game's epic storyline.
Once you've chosen a race, class and origin, it's not long before you are inducted into the Grey Wardens and sent on the game's main quest to defeat the Darkspawn. Luckily, you won't have to do it alone. You can only have three party members at a time, but a total of eight characters can join in your quest (nine if you have the Stone Prisoner DLC) and will hang out at your camp when they're not accompanying you. They will even level up when not being used, which is a nice touch. In true Bioware tradition, the conversations you have and the choices you make will influence your relationships with your party members. You can also win them over with gifts or by embarking on personal quests for them. Characters can receive stat bonuses when you gain a certain amount of influence with them or they can teach you specializations. Lose enough influence and they might leave or even attack you. And, like in most Bioware games, there are also romance options for both male and female characters.
Compelling story, great replayability, action-packed combat