Dragon Age is a long-awaited game by fans of the RPG genre, mostly because its developer, Bioware is one of the few developers left that has had blockbuster titles to its credit. Titles like Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect and the Star Wars-based Knights of the Old Republic have kept RPGers busy when there seemed to be an RPG drought on the PC platform. Although Dragon Age itself isn't based on any AD&D or other established RPG systems, it does have lots of similarities to earlier hits such as Baldur's Gate.
Ferelden in Peril
For Dragon Age, the game designers had to dream up a whole new world from scratch. The game basically revolves around the threat of Darkspawns, an army of undead-like savage beasts and humanoids which threaten to engulf the land of Ferelden in chaos and destruction. Darkspawns usually stay underground where they spend their time digging and excavating. It's when they unearth a dragon that they'll emerge and start a massive invasion called a Blight. In Dragon Age, these ancient creatures are arch-demons and they possess the ability to rally these cursed troops and it is at the start of one of these Blights that the story behind the game develops.
Ferelden is not a land without its own warriors. Although a King sits on the throne, feudalism is widespread, with nobles (or Arls) pretty much running their own shows like little warlords. But the Darkspawn aren't normal foes like bandits or wild creatures; destroying them requires a special breed of chosen warriors and this is where the Grey Wardens come into the picture. This is especially true of the arch-demons, who can be slain only by one of these highly respected folk. Whatever your choice of race, one way or another you'll find yourself drafted into the order of the Grey Wardens and thus your adventure begins.
There are three races to choose from during character creation: human, elf and dwarf. Although this might not seem a lot, players have to bear in mind that each race will start out with its own unique storyline, although they will eventually merge when the main plot progresses. For each race, you can also choose to start from either nobility or peasantry which also presents another angle to the story; all this adds up to quite a bit of replayability. This also affects how the other characters in the game interact with you and you'll often find your background influencing your conversation choices.
Character customization is rather standard for RPGs. You can choose your gender and tinker with the many little facial characteristics. It's better than what Fallout 3 offered and if you're good, you could actually make your Dragon Age character look like the real you. You could also opt for preset looks which is what I chose for my Elven mage, at least for my first playthrough. Your character's picture will be uploaded to your online profile page, so if you want to look unique, be prepared to tinker with those settings.
Skills and Talents
Like any good RPG worth its salt, there must be a wide range of skills, spells and talents to choose from. But to keep things challenging, players will not have enough points to learn them all. In addition, each character type (warrior, rogue and mage) will also be able to choose two out of four specializations. For example, my mage can opt to be a Shapeshifter, Spirit Healer, Arcane Warrior or Blood Mage. Each provides certain boosts or unique skills, but players can always choose not to specialize, if none of those fit their particular style of play.
When it comes to skills, there are seven different ones with four levels of proficiency in each. These are general abilities which most characters can pick up, with the exception of Shale, a Golem and your Marbari Hound (a.k.a. dog). Players should specialize, otherwise they risk ending up with jacks-of-all-trades. Thankfully, you will have more than one companion for each class and some skills overlap, so it's not impossible to have a party with a complete range of skills at any time. Among all the skills, I would recommend Herbalism (make your own potions), Combat Training (improves combat and survivability) and Poison-making (the ability to manufacture bombs can come in handy). Others like Combat Tactics aren't that useful, unless you're prepared to let the computer A.I. take full control of your party members (more on this later).
As for Talents (for non-spellcasters) and Spells, most characters will have at least fourteen to more than twenty different types of Talents and Spells, depending on their specializations. With four levels in each, there are endless possibilities. For example, mages can go the Primal route (using fire, ice, lightning, etc.) or focus on Creation magic (buffs and healing abilities). Warriors can choose to use a sword and shield or dump the latter for dual-handed skull-bashing weapons. Again, you won't have enough points for everything (not even half) so choose wisely. One handy tip - be on the lookout for tomes sold by merchants than can increase skills and spells/talents, at a steep price of course.
Stop the Action!
Regarding the A.I. I mentioned earlier, there are several ways to tackle the many combat situations you'll encounter. Players can take full control of their party members by hitting the spacebar (pause) and issuing commands to each character but due to the inability to queue such commands, this can quickly become tiresome. An easier way would be to let the A.I. take charge and this is done via Combat Tactics, essentially a sequence of commands which players can modify. The abundance of conditional arguments makes it possible to automate many tasks, such as drinking a potion when health falls below 25% or targeting a mob that is swinging away at your group's healer. Or you could set up your warrior to use Shattering Blow on a petrified or frozen enemy; a critical hit would smash the mob into smithereens (i.e. instant death). As your character's skills grow in number, it would also help to have more Combat Tactics slots, but if you prefer to micro-manage your fights, you can put these points into other more useful skills.
One thing that players will notice quite early on is the rarity of money. Mobs don't often drop cold hard cash but of course, items can be sold, provided you have space to carry them to the merchant. Inventory slots are limited but they can be expanded by buying a backpack ‘upgrade' from the merchant which gives 10 extra slots per pop. These are very rare and expensive unfortunately, so make sure you buy them when offered. There's not a whole lot of unique equipment and the best ones usually cost over a hundred gold. It's unlikely that you will have more than 200G at any time, so you must decide which character to buy the expensive items for. The items offered by merchants are also limited and not randomized so that is a major letdown, especially for an RPG.
A Beautiful World
Dragon Age boasts some breathtaking graphics, but that is only if you have a very powerful gaming rig. On my Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 with an ATI 4870X2, it ran very smoothly with all graphics effects turned to the maximum. But then again, the game lacks certain eye candy like water ripples. Pools and water puddles stay stagnant when you run through them which is typical of games ten years ago, but shouldn't be present in a 2009 game. The soundtrack is good, although like most games, slightly repetitive after a while.
The interface is very clean; if you're used to playing MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, you'll be very familiar with the keys as well as the highly customizable quick access bar. The camera angles can be slightly awkward and takes a bit of getting used to. If you zoom out all the way, you lose the ability to look up/down and this can make fighting a bit difficult. Otherwise, there's not much to gripe about.
These days, game developers hopping onto the DLC (downloadable content) bandwagon; EA is no exception. The Collector's Edition has slightly different content compared to the plain vanilla version but those who bought the cheaper version can always upgrade to the CE by purchasing the extra stuff by buying Bioware Points. At the moment, only a couple of DLCs are available (The Stone Prisoner and Warden's Keep); I bought the latter for US$7 which gave me a new area to clear plus a couple of merchants (once the monsters are gone). Rather expensive for an additional 3-5 hours of gameplay, I would say. In any case, Bioware has announced another DLC titled Return to Ostagar but that has been pushed back to Jan 2010 (from a Dec 2009 release).
Not for kids!
Before I conclude, I must mention that Dragon Age is not suitable for kids! It is filled with sexual references and players have plenty of opportunity for sexual trysts and even orgies! There's a brothel which you can frequent; try the "Surprise me" option if you're into kinky stuff. My seven-year-old daughter frequently watches me play games, but for Dragon Age, I had to send her to bed early!
Foursomes and bestiality (yes, that is also possible!) aside, Dragon Age is a really engrossing RPG that should keep fans of the genre busy for at least 30 to 40 hours for the first play-through. With three different races and three classes, that should provide even more replayability. If you enjoyed Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect, this game should definitely be on your playlist. I'm just hoping that the Downloadable Content that Bioware's releasing soon with will be worth the money (and time) spent.