Dragon Age: Origins
Dragon Age is big. Really big. Over fifty hours big, and that's if you skip tons of side quests. Then your eye creeps over to the suffix: Origins. BioWare's latest unashamed fantasy epic, which once again pits you against impossible odds to decide the fate of the entire world, is - sales and reception permitting, I imagine - the equivalent of dipping your foot in the pool to test the waters.
BioWare might have officially ended their relationship with the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, but much has been made of the game's status as the spiritual successor to the venerable Baldur's Gate series. That's no bad thing: the traditional fantasy RPG, the non-MMO kind, has been largely out-of-focus since 2006's Oblivion, replaced by an endless flood of Modern Duties and Gears of Halo's. I'd say it's about time for a new country jaunt over rolling green hills and mottled grey caves.
It's unashamedly BioWare, right down to the multiple dialog options and embarrassing sexy bits where you hope to God nobody walks in the room. In creating their own set of gameplay rules (let's ignore that they're quite similar to D&D), they've also been able to meticulously control the fashioning of their own world. At first glance it's a traditional droll fantasy setting: Darkspawn (read: Orcs) are trying to kill everyone; Humans rule the world in giant castles; Elves don't like humans; Dwarves don't actively dislike anyone, but most of them would rather not mix with the likes of anybody else if they can avoid it, thank you very much. Nobody likes mages. And there are loads of trees and forests and hills and dungeons and quests.
Your character starts, after dropping numbers into stats and deciding whether to have a moustache or be a lady, in their own origin story, which nicely sets the scene with rolling camera shots, casual storytelling and the exchange of pleasantries. This is the game showing you everyday life for your character, and each option - you choose your background, such a Noble Human or City Elf - has their own, dropping you into the world via, perhaps, a situation in an oppressed elf settlement where a human noble is coming to collect and rape your wife-to-be, or as a noble human about to get booted out of his own castle by mutinous subjects. There are six origin stories in total, each of them set in vastly different locations and spanning a couple of hours: you could complete Mass Effect in the time it takes to do all of them, and you wouldn't have even scratched the surface of Dragon Age.
Past the initial bits, where it looks like it could be a holiday brochure for a JRR Tolkien theme park - full of sweeping landscape shots and tales of a humanity united against evil - the reality isn't quite as neat and tidy. BioWare's latest fantasy world is a morally murky place, where evil has a habit of always coming back and somebody seems to end up getting hurt no matter how hard you try to save everyone. It's consequences from your choices aren't even quite as obvious as they have been in the past: jump right in with pure heroic vitriol and you'll quickly see innocents dropping like flies as you cut a path through evil. But, hey, that's all part of the game - you can't make an omelette, and all that.
It's daunting. It's all so very, very big. And bloody. Gaunt dabs of viscera dot the world map to indicate your travels. Pools of blood flow from the undersides of fallen foes. Sliced arteries, perforated organs and crushed skulls spray blood over your party, and crimson flecks stick to your skin and clothing for a while, even during cut-scenes. BioWare are clearly going for the 'medieval weapons were horrid and brutal' approach.
But nothing sums the tone of the game up better than the Grey Wardens. Their name immediately strikes as odd: grey, as an adjective, is rarely a good thing to be. They're supposed to be a band of crusaders, who battle away at the Darkspawn hordes regardless of the cost - but there only appears to be, at the start of the game, two of them in the whole of Ferelden. Their determination to kill the Darkspawn is unshakable, but their strength comes from ingesting the cursed blood of their foes and, like a university Rugby team, their initiation ceremony - which your character is eventually dragged into - kills off more potential members than it recruits. There's a reason they're not called the White Knights, even the heroes aren't valiant goody two-shoes, and only a handful of Ferelden's citizens believe them about the severity of the Darkspawn blight in the first place. It's a mean world.
The cruel environment is the perfect partner to the vindictive difficulty levels, too. I'm a fairly big fan of the Baldur's Gate series, but I often found myself in a pickle on Normal difficulty, where death is inevitable and tends to arrives suddenly. The bosses, especially, prove a nuisance, and most of them have such insane amounts of strength and physical defence that melee fighters are only useful as perfunctory meatshields. It's learnable, of course, but it took me about thirty hours before I felt anywhere near comfortable with the tricks of the game. Pro tip: get a healer.
The game directs itself in a manner similar to most recent BioWare games - being similar to many of their previous works is a bit of a running theme. After your induction to the Grey Wardens the game diverges, giving you a set of tasks to accomplish in assorted locations and the freedom to go about them as you wish, getting distracted by the eleven million sidequests along the way. After that's all out the way, the game converges again for a long, spectacular finale that may, or may not, set itself up for further adventures down the line. Origins, remember?
For the most part it's entirely befitting of its grand intentions. The game's dungeons are immense, and its fractured levels easily blend together to create a seamless trek. One quest, where I had to awaken a poisoned Arl, was strung out over so many steps that I ended up completing about half of the game in the process. You get up to all sorts along the way, with combat highlights coming from the massive battles against Dragons (there had to be some) and the pearls of narrative coming out of the many twists each quest tends to throw at you.
A standout moment for me and my Elf Warrior came early in the game after bumping into a demon that had captured the devotion of a child - who I had been specifically tasked to rescue by the girl's father. As I told the demon to begone, that there was no way she was going to get to keep the child, the demon possessed, and consumed, her. Battering it to death was a matter of course, but the anguish of the girl's father struck a nerve that hasn't quite passed - and has kept me careful on my travels ever since.
The variety of the characters and the ingenuity of the situations is what keeps Dragon Age captivating. Your party is manned primarily by Alastair, a fellow Grey Warden with a wry sense of humour, and Morrigan, a sharp witch with an acid tongue - the two characters that initially join your party at the start prove to be stalwart companions for most of the game. The golem Shale, restricted to users who purchase the game new, is the highlight, towering over your party and hulking around with booming footsteps. In reality he's only teensy-tiny golem, with a camp British accent, who loves to jazz his appearance up with flamboyantly coloured crystals and profess his utter disdain for pigeons. If Alastair and Morrigan are to Dragon Age what Carth and Bastila were to Knights of the Old Republic, Shale is its HK-47.
Its ambition, while one of its most enchanting assets, prove to be its occasional undoing. There are simply too many characters and environments for the voice acting and textures not to suffer from time to time. And, despite its considerable virtues elsewhere, Dragon Age has a hard time creating atmosphere out of its staid settings: an elf forest, countless interchangeable caverns, infinite olde human castles - these locations feel worn out before you've even done their quests and ransacked their nooks and crannies for goodies. Dungeons can, and will, spiral out into gargantuan multi-hour quests - they become unsavoury wars of attrition between player and game.
Other areas, though, frisson with creative energies. The subterranean Dwarven city of Orzammar is particularly captivating, and entices players through an underground city fraught with an obsessive adherence to rigid class hierarchies. It's the best area in the game, bar none, and the problem is going back to less interesting locations afterwards.
Dragon Age has a tendency to be a bit of a mixed bag from time to time, but its scope and characters (but not the voice acting) ensure it is forgiven for the occasional atmospheric upset.
I also have to mention that I'm specifically reviewing the PC version here - which has better graphics, allows the game to be played from a top-down perspective and ups the difficulty to further test your finger-clicking prowess. The 360/PS3 version gets by in a pinch, with much of the game the same, but the PC is the best option if it's available.
Still, it's not all perfect in the land of keyboards and mice: the online community features are currently in tatters. Bits of your profile update, other bits don't, pop-ups saying "Unable to Connect to the Dragon Age Servers" ping up during gameplay every now and then, and it sadly comes off as a clumsy, unfinished component of an otherwise technically proficient game. It seems like a poor effort from BioWare, especially when considering that this system is of vast importance to them: it's how users browse, purchase and organise the potentially-lucrative downloadable content.
It has been the best part of a decade in the making, but Dragon Age is a worthy successor to Baldur's Gate II. That, alone, will be all most people need to hear. It is unmistakably a BioWare game, but nobody makes them quite like they do. I can see myself playing it for hundreds of hours.