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Dragon Age: First Impressions from a PC Gamer and a Console Gamer

Dragon Age: Origins - Redcliffe Ten days ago, we previewed Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare’s latest RPG offering for the PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3. We’ve now had almost two weeks with the game (Evan on the PC, Bobby on the PS3), so we should have a full review for you soon, right? Well, one small problem. Dragon Age is a huge game. Almost two weeks in, and both of us are less than 10% finished with the game, according to the in-game statistics. We have both played for hours and hours, though, so we have enough of a feel for it to give you our first impressions. Read on for our thoughts on Dragon Age, from both a PC perspective and PS3 perspective.

Gameplay

Whenever a game is developed jointly for the PC and for consoles, PC gamers fear that the game will be "dumbed down" as a result, with oversimplified game mechanics to suit console controllers. Dragon Age somehow has managed to keep its interface and mechanics simple, without feeling dumbed down. If anything, controls and some gameplay aspects have been simplified only on the console versions. Not once have we felt cheated on the PC: The camera is fully-functional, capable of zooming in and out, and moving at almost all angles around your character. The PC version also allows you to zoom the camera out to an overhead, isometric view, reminiscent of the old Infinity Engine used in the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series. There is no zoom whatsoever on the PS3 version of Dragon Age, but oddly, we don’t miss it.  To get a feel for the isometric view and a zoomed in view on the PC version, click on each of the images below.

Dragon Age isometric view Dragon Age over the shoulder view

Character abilities, skills, and spells can be accessed via a quickbar at the bottom of the screen in the PC version, although we have yet to discover what will happen when our characters reach higher levels and the number of abilities exceeds the number of slots on the quickbar. The PS3 offers a small, configurable, 3-slot quickbar that has a shift option for an additional 3 slots. All other menu items can be accessed via the radial menu, which freezes the gameplay for tactical choices, a la Mass Effect, another BioWare RPG. The radial menu looks to have multiple sub-pages for each main menu option, which will become available as your character’s abilities grow (we’re not quite there yet…). The PC offers a master menu at the top of the screen that can be accessed with or without pausing, and players on the PS3 can access the master menu via the select button, or by selecting the inventory page from the radial menu.

Available interface screens on both systems include a character record, a list of spells and talents, skills, inventory, journal, map, party selection (only available via the radial menu on PS3), and combat tactics. There is also a crafting area for creation of potions and traps and the like.

Mass Effect got knocked at release for having cumbersome inventory management, especially on the console version. Not so with Dragon Age. Inventory management is kept simple. Your party has a predetermined number of inventory slots (which can be augmented through overly expensive backpacks), and your inventory can be listed as a whole (PC only), or by categories such as weapons, armor, crafting, etc. Simply double click an item to equip it on PC or drag onto your character’s paper doll, or into an inventory slot. On the PS3, just select the item and press X to equip/unequip. One of our favourite options on the PS3 is the Junk menu, as it allows you a place to put the excess items that you don’t want cluttering your active inventory and has a quick "Sell all Junk" option when you are conversing with a merchant.

 

Story and Lore

Dragon Age: Origins begins with six possible character origin stories, depending on your race/class decision at the time of character creation. The stories are Human Noble, Human/Elf Mage, Dalish Elf, City Elf, Dwarf Commoner, and Dwarf Noble. You typically will have a choice of one or two origin stories, depending on the character you build. For example, a human rogue has the Human Noble origin as an option. We’ve played both the Dalish Elf and City Elf origins (we like elves here…), and enjoyed both. The origin story helps you understand some basics of your character’s background, and also introduces one or more non-player characters that you may meet later.

Dragon Age’s story doesn’t break new ground, but we’ve found it to be engrossing. After the origin story is complete, the next several hours of the game are fairly linear, before a more open world reveals itself. We were sucked in by the linear portion of the game, staying up well past our bedtimes (Bobby has done more than one 3am stint). The story unfolds through dialog and an in-game journaling system referred to as "The Codex," which functions much the same as Mass Effect’s Codex. Dialog is made more compelling by way of excellent voice acting and character animations, that make you feel like you’re actually taking part in a movie, or living a book, rather than watching a stiff cardboard cutout feed lines to you. One of the best examples of this is manner in which party members converse with each other while your character walks about the game (as opposed to conversing only during specific gameplay movies). You really get a feel of attitudes of your companions this way, especially toward each other — and it may make you laugh more than once.

The Codex is massive. On a regular basis, your character will discover writings or other information, that will cause entries to be added to the Codex. It appears from the empty slots that there will be a few hundred entries in the Codex by the time the game is finished, all of which fleshes out the game world’s lore and gives the player a much more immersive experience.

 

Graphics

The graphics in Dragon Age: Origins are a mixed bag. Some aspects of the game, such as vistas viewed from a high perch, are breathtaking. At the same time, though, the game contains some some jarring low-res textures, such as trees and some of the tents in the game. Reviews from other sources generally peg the PC version as having the best graphics, assuming you have a capable machine (see our preview post for the specs), followed by the Playstation 3 as a close second. Several reviews have noted that the Xbox version contains more frequent low-res textures, and washed out colors due to extremely high graphical compression. We haven’t tried out the Xbox version ourselves, though.

The best graphics in the game are for character faces. Given that BioWare is a story-driven developer, this is no surprise. When you talk to other characters in the game world, their faces express emotion unlike that seen in other RPG’s.

 

Dragon Age face closeup 2   Dragon Age Redcliffe

 

Combat

Combat in the game should appeal to both tactical players and to real-time players. If you like real-time gameplay, you can whirl into action, unleashing the variety of skills, talents, and spells that your party will accumulate over time. The game really shines, though, when you take the time to plan out your actions. This also increases your chances of survival, as the game can be extremely challenging if you do not pause the action to think about your next steps, and to issue commands. In this sense, the game does what BioWare claims, and captures the feel of the Baldur’s Gate series. Some spells and actions also work together in remarkable fashion. For example, a mage can cast a Grease spell, and then set it afire with a Fireball, doing even more damage. Since even a warrior’s talents have a "cooling off" period and also use stamina, you find yourself thinking about the best way to conduct a fight. Do you use your warrior’s Riposte skill now, which can stun an already-wounded enemy, or do you try to finish this adversary off with normal blows, and save Riposte for the fully-healed enemy?

Dragon Age wolf fight Dragon Age close up combat

Without giving away too much, there is also a portion of the game where your character gains some cool new special abilities (which are temporary for that portion of the game). The use of these abilities, and your decisions on when to switch between them, is essential to surviving the combat in that part of the game.

Finally, there has been some speculation that combat is a bit easier, overall, on the console versions. This is a possibility, we suppose, but if it is the case, we either haven’t noticed or simply have no complaints. Bobby has been playing the PS3 version on Hard successfully — he started out on Nightmare, but that didn’t work out well after a while and he had to lower the difficulty a notch to continue.

 

Non-player Characters

The companions that join your party in Dragon Age are the high point of the game They make up a varied and interesting lot, and are entertaining all on their own. BioWare has always developed interesting companions, but these outdo any of BioWare’s previous efforts. Not only are the characters interesting, but the amount of recorded dialog is staggering (though it would be nice if the player character’s dialogue was recorded — especially in the voice-set that the player chooses at creation). Throughout the game, your companions interact with you, and even with one another, as previously mentioned. Over time, we’ve grown to really like these characters and appreciate their mannerisms and personalities, from Alistair’s smart-ass, comical quips, to Morrigan’s dripping sarcasm. One of the highlights so far has been the great interplay between Alistair and Morrigan, who constantly get verbal jabs in at one another.

Dragon Age: Morrigan Dragon Age dog

The only drawback with the character interplay is that, at times, we feel like we’re missing out, as you can only have three companions in your party at any one time. While you can switch between companions, it would be great if the party were larger so as to provide an even more fulfilling experience. The desire to engage with the other characters more often, coupled with the desire to try out the different origin stories and different choices throughout the game, should provide players with more than enough incentive to replay Dragon Age: Origins over and over.

 

Downloadable Content

At the time of release, players of Dragon Age could also download additional content, for a price (or by redeem codes). Depending on your point of view, you might see this as a good thing or a bad thing. Some people grumble that the presence of downloadable content at the time of launch must mean that content was cut from the game, just to gouge customers. Other players see the downloadable content and are optimistic about the opportunity to expand the game, and hope that it bodes well for the continued growth of the game in the future.

Dragon Age’s downloadable content ranges from magic items, to an additional companion, to additional quests in entirely new areas. The quest-related content (at least the parts we’ve uncovered so far) is transparently woven into the story.  You are provided with a conversation option that unfolds the quest as a story that could potentially benefit and draw in your character. There is even an option in the conversation to download the content, which you can bypass if you so choose. If you decide not to pursue/download the quest, an entry is made in your quest journal as a reminder, but you are otherwise left alone. The current content available for download ranges in price from $1.99 to $6.99.

 

Fun

The elements of any game don’t add up to much if the game isn’t fun. No worries here! Dragon Age: Origins has pulled us in unlike any game in recent memory. We’ve been fans of BioWare’s games for many years, so take that into account when considering our opinions, but so far we’ve had more fun with what we’ve played of Dragon Age than with previous BioWare games, perhaps going back as far as Baldur’s Gate II, Shadows of Amn.  The possible exception to this is the enjoyment we’ve gotten out of the multiplayer elements of Neverwinter Nights, that allows gamers to create and play in their own campaigns and game worlds. Unfortunately Dragon Age is a single-player only game, and in that sense betrays BioWare’s claims of it being the "spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate." In all other aspects, though, Dragon Age is a worthy heir to Baldur’s Gate throne. It is also worth noting that the PC version also comes with a toolset that will allow players to do more than just create new items — you can create your own unique solo player game and world, complete with in game movies!

We’ve only scratched the service of the game so far, but it would take a disaster of epic proportions to detract from the hours and hours of fun we’ve had so far. If you’ve been thinking about purchasing it, don’t hesitate, as Dragon Age: Origins is well worth your entertainment dollar.

Have you tried Dragon Age?  If so, what do you think?  If you haven’t, and want to, there are links to purchase the game on Amazon.com for the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, respectively, below.  If you purchase the game using one of these links, 40Tech gets a very small portion of the proceeds of the sale.  As in the past, we only use our affiliate links for products that we’ve tried, and in which we believe.  And if you didn’t notice, we heartily endorse Dragon Age: Origins.