Dragon Age is finally upon us. How does Bioware’s latest hold up? Click through to find out. (No plot or NPC spoilers are contained within this review)
After a long, long wait Bioware has finally returned to the party-based RPG genre. Dragon Age is a game absolutely massive in scale; so big that it would be nigh impossible to experience everything there is to see and do. With gameplay (and difficulty) reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, party interaction like KOTOR, and conversations presented visually in a manner similar to Mass Effect, Dragon Age is a stew of everything Bioware has released up to this point.
Your race, class, gender, and origin story completely change the way NPCs in the world interact with you. A player with a Dalish Female Elf Mage will have an entirely different experience than a Noble Male Dwarf Warrior. Each origin story changes the first 2-3 hours, and has unknown but widespread effects on how people will react to you for the rest of the game. While there are only three classes (Warrior, Rogue, Mage) and three races (Human, Elf, Dwarf) they can each be built so differently that two Warriors can be completely different from one another; likewise with the other two classes. Broken down simply, Warriors can be main tanks or burst DPS dealers, Rogues can be ranged or melee sustained DPS, and Mages can be from all different elements of magic (including shapeshifting, allowing the Mage to act in an off-tank role). There are various levels of mixing and matching, however, that enable you to create a character that plays exactly how you wish. There are also further sub-classes to experiment with, although I haven’t gotten far enough in the game to obtain one for my main character.
Some of the textures, especially on armor and clothing, can be positively stunning. You can make out individual links in a suit of chain mail, see the rivets in a leather helmet, or see the individual stitching in a robe. Textures for buildings and stone environments are equally impressive, although land textures aren’t quite as well done. This is where Dragon Age can get a bit inconsistent in the visuals. Sometimes, you will inexplicably come across a texture that looks like it belongs in an N64 game, almost like it was a placeholder texture and they forgot to replace it. Seeing your amazingly detailed Rogue with every stitch in their clothing visible walk up to a cabinet that looks like it was made in MS Paint is a very odd happenstance. Despite this and other occasional visual oddities, this is a fantastic looking game; with beautiful spells, great looking water, excellent particle effects, and great environmental lighting and shadows, Dragon Age is no slouch in the graphics department.
The world of Dragon Age is brutal and unrelenting. Blood flies during battle, and melee party members will be covered in blood after a battle. This blood will linger for a while, slowly disappearing over time (or if you transition to a new area). In addition, some kills are particularly graphic. Decapitations, severing limbs, and rending by claws and jaws abound. Certain animations cause “holy crap!” moments, such as a character wielding a sword slashing a wolf across the face to fell him, or a character stabbing an ogre in the neck, riding him to the ground, ripping the blade out and stabbing the ogre in the face to finish him off. The carnage is widespread, and although no actual gore is shown, you will find yourself occasionally flinching. The rogue’s backstab animations and the warrior’s shield attacks are particularly painful looking.
You never really know how your actions are going to affect the world and NPCs around you…a seemingly inconsequential action can drastically change the course of the story, while likewise a huge decision could mean absolutely nothing. The presentation of the world and how the story unfolds is done in a very organic way… it’s obvious which responses are “good” “neutral” and “evil”, but it isn’t always clear how someone will react to them. You could intend to annoy or anger someone, only to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear. Likewise, your intentions may be diplomatic, but you could cause the situation to quickly spiral out of control. This unpredictability adds depth to the conversations, making them some of the best Bioware has written. Even though it has added a lot to my gameplay time, I have found myself exhausting every conversation line with every NPC…and in some cases, wishing there was more to talk about. The storyline itself is amazing, pulling you in from the very first conversation you have. Bioware has once again created a world that feels alive and “complete”, one that rivals Mass Effect in the possibility that it exists in some far-distant parallel universe. Aiding in this is the codex and journal.
The extensive, automated codex is immensely useful, providing you with easily accessible insights. The codex has appeared in just about every Bioware RPG, but never with such a huge amount of detail: inhabitants, locales, legends, history, creatures, spells, traditions, religion, folklore, and more are all meticulously (but briefly) detailed. Codex entries can be read very quickly, taking less than a minute each. The short length combined with great detail about the world around you makes the codex a well-designed tool if you wish to understand the land and its inhabitants better. Much like the books in the Elder Scrolls series, there is an entire game to be found just in tracking down all the various codex entries and reading them. You can play through Dragon Age without opening the codex a single time, however reading each entry as it pops up will deepen your understanding of the world and make you feel like a real part of it.
Combat is challenging, but the interface works with you rather than against you. Even though it is very similar to Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, it has still been tweaked quite well. You won’t find yourself losing a battle because you couldn’t control your party properly…no, you will lose because this game gets HARD. Even on Normal difficulty, some fights will destroy you over and over. Unfortunately, the “Easy” difficulty level is a bit TOO easy. This prevents you from ever getting stuck (you can change the difficulty at any time), but it also means you will face encounters that are either way too hard or way too easy. Horde your potions and try to raise healing abilities in your party ASAP…you will definitely need them. Having at least one person in your party with Herbalism is also highly recommended. You will come across the materials needed to create potions and injury kits far more often than you will come across the items themselves. Strategy has always been a big part of this genre, but never before has it been so essential to your success, if not your very survival.
Unlike Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age is not based around Dungeons and Dragons rules. It uses its own unique rule set for combat, traps, locks, and dialogue. The scale is different and the way checks work is slightly different, but overall the rule set isn’t very different from any pen and paper RPG out there… even with minimal experience with DnD (or anything similar), you will be able to pick up how the rolls are calculated fairly quickly. The “cunning” attribute adds a new layer of complexity, and the use of “willpower” is modified from other RPG rule sets, but it will all feel quite familiar for most gamers.
Bioware has once again delivered an instant classic in the party-based RPG genre. Best of all, the PC version ships with NO DRM; the only copy protection present is an old-school serial number and disc check. No SecuROM, no online activation, no install limits…just enter the serial number, leave the disc in your optical drive, and you are good to go. The special edition even includes a cloth map, of all things! If you have any interest whatsoever in the genre, you can’t afford to miss Dragon Age. It’s everything you hoped it would be, and so much more.