BioWare described Dragon Age: Origins as an “epic tale of violence, lust, and betrayal,” which makes it sound like it’s a game about the Bible. I hereby offer a better description of Dragon Age: Origins: it is a tale of blood and loading screens.
From the first second of the game, BioWare lets you know that they’re not fucking around. A sword cuts some invisible sap, letting blood spew forth. The blood turns into a dragon, which then falls onto a piece of paper. The splash of blood makes a big dragon-shaped bloody mess. You have already seen 3 pints of the Mountain Dew of Vampires spilled, and you haven’t even started the game. That was the intro.
Before we talk too much about blood, however, let’s talk about being born. You start DA:O in the usual Sim-like way, designing a character’s face, body type, et cetera. Then you pick his or her race (human, elf, dwarf), background (noble, commoner), and class (warrior, rogue, mage). I created an Elven mage who is a dead ringer for Spock. Why limit your nerdiness to the nerdiness provided? You shouldn’t. That’s how I keep it real. Who is to say this universe isn’t also the universe of Star Trek, thousands of years before? No one. I can be Spock in any game I want.
Once you’ve created your character you have to go through a beginning quest, different for each character type. Finish that, and you are hired by the Grey Wardens, an ancient group created to stem the tide of darkspawn. There is a great battle approaching, and you’re going to need to recruit an army. From this point out, you get to pick the path to the final battle. It’s a bit like Lord of the Rings, really. You know how it works. “You’ve got my sword, and my axe, and my…” and so on. Pick which nation you want to ask help from first, and go through some quests to convince them to trust you with their cannon fodder for the upcoming darkspawn Waterloo.
The different origin quests, and your character’s attributes, actually have tangible, and surprising effects on the story as a whole. Characters you may have met in your younger days will pop up again, demanding vengeance or forgiveness. Dialogue is done through selecting dialogue options, and for the most part these options are handled very well: new options become available in a sensible, logical manner, which makes the dialogue a crucial part of the story, instead of merely something to sit through, as dialogue is in so many other RPGs. The dialogue adapts well to the quest as a whole (although the Codex, a sort of encyclopedia of DA:O that you unlock as you play, often contains versions of events that have no correlation to the events you witnessed in your playthrough). Choosing the right or wrong dialogue options can cause NPCs to fight or not, offer side quests, or give you valuable information. This holds true for the characters in your party as well. Treat them well, through dialogue, making certain choices during quests, or giving them gifts found along the way, and they will (as shown through a slider bar) respect/love you more, and get stat bonuses. Treat them badly and they will leave.
The characters in your party are brilliantly realized not only in their interactions with you and with the quest, but also in their interactions with each other. The people in your party can fall on both sides of the moral dividing line, and each one has definite opinions about every other member of the party. Juggling their rivalries and friendships is actually enough of a cohesive part of the game that I rarely felt that it was a worthless obligation, along the lines of “Oh crap, let me raise Alistair’s friendliness.”
The combat is, most of the time, well balanced, and rarely feels too easy or too hard, although it is frequently difficult. Every once in a while you will hit a ridiculously hard battle. You do, however, generally have the option to avoid it. You can control as many characters in your 4-person party as you wish, and the other characters will use a behavior system similar to Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit system. It is basically real-time, but you have the option to pause anytime and play it almost as a turn-based system. The problem with the combat system is that it is too dependent on healers. If your mage, with his necessary healing spells, becomes incapacitated, then you’re fucked. Unless you have a backpack filled with 99 health poultices, go ahead and reload your game from your last save point now, and save yourself the pain of watching your party die. Much of a mage’s duty in a party is to spam healing spells, and even then it’s sometimes not enough.
Most of the game is about crawling through dungeons, Diablo-style. The problem is the camera, that great bane of many a 3D game. DA:O never quite decided if it was going to use a 3rd person, over the shoulder-style camera, or a Diablo-style top-down view. So you have the option of both, via the scroll wheel. Unfortunately, both viewpoints have flaws, because neither is essential. You can’t use the over-the-shoulder camera during combat, because there are too many combatants to control. The top down view is often obstructed by ludicrously large archways or ceilings. Ultimately, they should have stuck with the top down view, which you use for most of the game, and designed the levels for that. There are entire sections of dungeon (especially when traveling the opposite way that the developers expected), that involve blindly leading your party underneath overhangs that you can’t see past.
Travel in DA:O is handled through world maps. You remember, those, right? You click on a location, and your party’s journey is represented by a little line on a map, Family Circus-style. But, because this is DA:O, a simple line wouldn’t suffice. No, they decided to use drops of blood to show your path. Big ole’ drops of blood, hitting your map. Okay, Dragon Age Origins. We get it. You’re rated M+. You have blood. But keep blood where it belongs: in, or immediately outside of, the human body.
Once you get to that location (assuming there weren’t any plot-based encounters along the way), you are treated to…a loading screen! Yes, you get to sit and wait. And wait. And wait. And this, my friends, is the only true problem with an otherwise excellent game: loading screens.
I have a pretty fast PC. It’s not top-of-the-line by any means, but I can play most games, Crysis included, on High or Very High settings. So the slow loading times are not a “upgrade your fucking quantum-based-dual-layer-gigabyte-level-flux-capacitrometer already, noob” problem. This is a game issue. Don’t believe me? It’s true on PC and XBox 360. These guys noticed. As did these guys. And these reviewers all noticed it. It’s a fact. It’s not a specs issue, it’s an optimization issue. The programmers seem to have written bloated code, which needs a lot of time and RAM to process.
Because DA:O is not one continuous map, you will find yourself watching the load screen again, and again, and again. Sometimes the load is short, anywhere from 10-30 seconds. But even 10 seconds is too much when it happens EVERY TIME YOU ENTER A HOUSE. What, you realized you don’t need to be in this house? Turn around and be greeted by the loading screen again. There simply should not be any loading screen at all for a 10′ by 10′ house with very little furniture. What the fuck is being loaded? Individual air particles? It’s just an empty room, why is there a loading screen for it?
Dragon Age: Origins is a pretty great game. Your party members are well-realized characters, the plot hides its clichés fairly well (DA:O is basically the Lord of the Rings, sans hobbits), and it’s fun to play. But you will be forced to wait. And wait.