Dragon Age: Origins Revisited

Recently, in a fit of Dungeons & Dragons withdrawal, I hauled my old Xbox 360 out of the closet in order to play Dragon Age: Origins, a game I had not played whatsoever in several years, and which I had only played all the way through once, not long after it was released. DA:O is a little less than a decade old, and therefore, despite having been well received at the time, the game is too old to serve as grist for gaming content mills, and too young to serve as cheap nostalgia bait. But, since I’m a dangerous renegade who was not invited to the 2011 San Jose International Blogger’s Convention on Nostalgia Bait, and I wouldn’t adhere to it even if I had been, let’s take a look back on Dragon Age: Origins, shall we?

Dragon Age: Origins is a fantasy RPG developed by BioWare. BioWare has taken a beating lately (and deservedly so), but at the time DA:O was released they were still very much in their glory days, as a result of the successes of Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, etc. DA:O is something of a spiritual descendant of Baldur’s Gate. You create the main character entirely from scratch by choosing a race, class, and background, then customizing his or her appearance. Once your character is crated, you then play through one of six (or is it seven? I think it’s just six) origin stories prior to starting the main story quest. The origin story you play through depends on which race and background you choose (or class, if you choose to be a mage). Each origin story takes about 2-3 hours of game play to complete, and each origin story contains a unique story element (such as a character, plot point, etc.) that comes back into play later, during the main quest.

Once you start the main quest, you spend another several hours of game play “on rails” – that is to say, for a long while the game is pretty much linear. You are ushered from one area to the next, gradually accruing additional party members, with very little say in the matter. Oh, right! I should mention here that while this emphasis on a main character may make it sound like DA:O is an individual dungeon crawler (such as Skyrim or any of the other Elder Scrolls games), your character is part of a four character party for the vast bulk of the game. Eventually, the game does open up, allowing you to complete main quests and side quests in the order in which you see fit.

There are only a few main story quests, but each one takes several hours of game play. Side quests are far more plentiful, and yes, as is modern RPG tradition, a lot of them tend to involve running errands for someone else. Bring me these magic potions, go deliver these scrolls to these three guys scattered around the world map, go kill these bad guys, etc. Story quests are centered around a particular town or other area inhabited by friendly NPCs, and are comprised of at least one very lengthy dungeon crawl.

The dungeon crawl is framed around some conflict between NPCs. Two factions (or individual NPCs) in town have been at each other’s throats for a while now, but they’ve reached a stalemate and look to you to resolve the issue, except no one will listen to what you have to say unless you go get the lost artifact that was last seen in the furthest corner of the deepest dungeon that happens to be conveniently located within walking distance. So you go get the thing (whatever it is), then decide which faction or NPC you want to side with.

There really isn’t much of the way of exploration; while there is lots of exploring to do in a given area, exploring maps does very little in terms of finding new areas themselves. New areas only really open up once the relevant quest shows up in your quest log. The bulk of the game play is focused on social interaction and combat. Every conversation of substance can go one of several different ways, depending on what choices you make.

In addition, you also manage your relationships with the other party members. Each character that is in your party (or is playable but not in your party at present) has an Approval rating, which represents how much they uh, erm, approve of you as the main character. If it dips too low (or if you make certain story decisions in certain character’s presence), the character may duck out of the party entirely, and/or try to kill you. If you attain a sufficiently high approval rating with a character, you may be able to have sex with them. More on this later.

The main focus of game play, however, is combat. The combat system in DA:O defies easy categorization. It plays out in real time, and thus can get very hectic very quickly, but you have many tools at your disposal to manage the chaos. Every character (including the main character) has a set of tactical presets that determine their general disposition (move to close range, stay at a distance, etc.), as well as the specific conditions under which they will use specific abilities or spells. By customizing each character’s tactics in advance, you can avoid the need to micromanage all four of your party members, thus making combat manageable.

When you need to get more hands on, however, tactical pausing is here to help. When you take a tactical pause, you bring up the main gameplay menu, pausing the game and allowing you to direct each character to attack or use their abilities as you see fit. You can only give each character one command at a time, but you can tactical pause at any time for any reason, which allows you to micromanage your party’s actions in battle when the situation calls for it (and believe me, the situation will call for it a lot). Learning how to effective use the tactical pause is a necessary skill, and the more you understand how and when to do it, the better off you’ll be.

Now that I’ve delineated what playing Dragon Age: Origins entails, it’s time to get to the real question, here: is Dragon Age: Origins still cool and good? We all thought it was pretty dang cool and good in 2009-2010, but we all thought the first StarFox was cool and good in its day, too, and I defy you to explain the appeal of the original StarFox to anyone under the age of 20. (StarFox, of course, is cool as all fuck, and should you bad mouth it to my face, I will be compelled to demand satisfaction.)

The answer is “yeah, kinda”. Allow me to explain.

The combat remains fun as all hell. While some battles are brutally, brutally difficult, the psychological reward for cracking those battles is tremendous, and more than commensurate. As with many RPGs, it’s a lot of fun to see your party get more powerful with each level up, which is plenty noticeable even though there is level scaling (meaning that enemies get more powerful as your party does). That said, combat is not perfect. On normal mode, combat is a little too easy, and on hard mode, combat is a little too difficult. (A lot of this is due to the fact that your spells and abilities can hurt your party on hard mode and not on normal mode. I cannot overstate how much more complicated this makes combat.)

The story and social interaction elements hold up less well. As you may have gleamed from my description of the main story quests, all of the main story quests are the same. This is fine insofar as they all contain dungeon crawls, and dungeon crawls are fun, but it sucks when it comes to the conflict resolution portions. Every conflict amongst individuals or factions is the same. One NPC (or faction) says “Yes”, while the other NPC (or faction) says “No.” Their resolve is ironclad, and they refuse to budge from their position or make any sort of compromises.

At the time, this was a huge breakthrough in making each character seem well-defined, for a video game at least. But nowadays, the effect is the opposite. All the characters act like intractable red asses just so they can flex their intractable red ass muscles. It’s like Game of Thrones, but dumber. (I should note that the story very obviously takes a lot of cues from A Song of Ice and Fire, having been developed at a time when the books were getting extremely popular.) If you don’t put any of the main character’s skill points into Persuasion, get ready to spend a lot of time clicking through dipshit conversations that will end in stalemate. This is to say nothing of the story’s unfortunate tendency to force you to make final decisions on a bunch of shit that is absolutely none of your business.

The approval mechanic is just as ham-fisted. Any game that allows for social interaction but limits the conversational possibilities is going to have these kinds of problems, I suppose. However, as promised I want to highlight the creepy absurdity involved in romancing other party members. How do you get other party members to sleep with you? Well, you say the ‘right’ things in conversations with them and shower them with gifts until their approval rating of you is deemed sufficient for sexual congress. Should you succeed in doing so, you get a weird sex cutscene featuring a bunch of vaguely sexual motions, during which all naughty bits are covered. There’s the regular uncanny valley, and then there’s this shit.

In addition, while the game was released on Xbox 360 and PS3, should you choose to play DA:O, you really, really, really want to play it on PC. The PC version is just better and better optimized. You can assign hotkeys to just about any ability that any of your party members has, which makes combat that much more manageable. What’s more, the PC version includes an option that, when enabled, automatically does a tactical pause at the start of every combat. This is huge, and I’ve scoured the options in the 360 version for such a feature, to no avail. Play the PC version, its better.

But yes, Dragon Age: Origins is fun enough, mostly. That said, I’ve gotten to the final story mission, and I’m not sure I’m going to bother finishing it. It’s taken over 50 hours of play time, and some of these battles are just hard enough to be annoying as shit, and the story isn’t as good as it thinks it is and I’m just not all that invested in the outcome. What’s more, playing this game has made me feel old. This isn’t the game’s fault, I suppose. But when I play it, part of me stills sees the game as the cutting edge of video games, when really that’s not true at all and hasn’t been true for a decade but also I played this when it came out and does that mean it’s been a decade because a decade ago just happened, last time I checked. Where has the time gone? As with all things from one’s past, DA:O stirs up nostalgic feelings for a time that probably wasn’t really all that great in the first place. Play Dragon Age: Origins if you wish, but remember, 2009 still sucked.

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