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Dragon Age: Origins

BioWare take us to a whole new world

We last peaked at BioWare's latest RPG creation behind closed doors at the Games Convention in Leipzig, back in August 2008. This inevitably seems like a world away now, before financial crisis, when the days were warm and care free... how has the game changed? I'm here at EA's UK headquarters to find out.

Ray Muzyka is over from Edmonton (as part of a whistle-stop European PR tour that by his own admission has left him in less-than good health), and is here to demonstrate the latest build of the game, which the firm are billing as a culmination of everything they have learnt about fantasy RPGs over the years. Dispensing with what Muzyka describes as 'high fantasy', Dragon Age won't be a title focussing on the lighter side of the genre. Rather, we're promised a "dark, heroic" adventure - something our guide never tires of highlighting.

Taking us into the game world, it is immediately apparent that this is not off-line World of Warcraft. Stylistically, things look positively medieval - and it is hard not to draw comparisons with Peter Jackson's unique vision, brought to life in the Lord of the Rings films. Dark castles loom, while elves and men talk with menace of the 'Blight', which is forcing them to put aside petty racial squabbles and look objectively at the peril they all face. A deep story will underpin everything Dragon Age strives to achieve, while the 'Origins' approach should see each player not only experiencing a different premise, but also a tale which unfolds in a unique fashion.

Different opening character choices, will mean a different story during play - with different races interacting from varying perspectives, certain options only open to certain kinds of player, while your individual choices will also narrow your story path as you look to rise in the game world, meeting the challenge of the Blight while balancing allegiances with personal beliefs and necessity. 'Epic' is the theme here, your decisions having enourmous, world-changing consequences, your quests leading to other quests as part of a complex, evolving situation.

We're taken around one particular part of the game, where we must decide whether to forge an alliance with a group of disenfranchised elves, and we'll later have the option of double-crossing these new friends (who have crossed racial lines in order to join with you ) in order for the simpler completion of the quest. Decisions don't promise to be easy - and it looks very much as if sometimes you'll need to play the bad guy in order to succeed. Taking us through a combat section of the game (which plays out in a dark, foreboding castle literally overrun by the forces of the Blight), we're given a demonstration of the effectiveness of pausing during combat. This allows the player to evolve strategies for use in fights; racking-up commands and directions for party members, balance being the key - alongside use of appropriate abilities and skills.

When viewed from a tactical perspective, combat almost has an RTS feel to it, and you can gain advantage in battle by - for example - targeting boss foes, and using magic at the right moment - all of which once again adds options to the player's arsenal, as well as making for a deep and varied battle system.

As part of this vital, nuanced area, BioWare also promise to deliver a highly complex party system - which will make possible all manner of inter-party relationships - fights, grudges, departures, deep friendships and even romance. Once again, your decisions and actions in-game will define how all this pans out, but back-story will once again be at play, making it likely that if you wage war on a particular race, or group, then certain members of your party might not approve.

Beneath the obviously-next-gen veneer, there's also an element to Dragon Age that is unashamedly old school, the visual detail belying the complex mathematics that are at play during the action portions of the game. But my goodness, what a veneer. Some of the lighting effects are stunning, while the character models - especially when it comes to your party - really give life to the politics of the age; the plausibility of the lore BioWare have obviously invested great time fostering.

Moving from the castle we find ourselves in a lush forest setting, complete with wildlife, russling grasses, and an atmosphere so 'thick' you can almost smell the flowers; the pollen on the breeze. The settings are clearly the product of fertile creative thinking, and while there's nothing revolutionary about these locales perhaps, it is fairly apparent that the game maker are looking to create the definitive fantasy world through Dragon Age. We're in the home of the Werewolves this time, and if we don't opt to make friends, there could once again be blood on the cards; my hands-on time certainly living up to Muzyka's promise of a dark and gritty experience.

Having had a few moments (dying, mainly) in the game world, it is easily apparent that fans of Baldur's Gate are going to relish the design decisions BioWare have taken with this new opus. The setting is coming along nicely, while the combat was already looking refined, despite the fact the game must surely be many months away. If executed well, the 'Origins' theme could be quite brilliant, while the depth of story-crafting; the choices offered to the player, appears to be a genuinely ambitious - even risky - undertaking on the developer's part. We're eager for more time with this, and soon.

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