ZAM's Hands-On Preview With Dragon Age: Origins

Editor Chris "Pwyff" Tom has been waiting patiently to share his hands-on experience with Dragon Age: Origins, and now his time has come! Read on to find out more about BioWare's epic dark fantasy RPG.

It was only about two weeks ago that BioWare invited us over to their development offices in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to check out Dragon Age: Origins. If you consider it, you'd think that waiting for two weeks, for the NDA to lift, to tell all of you about our hands-on experience with the game isn't a very long time to wait.

You'd be wrong.

In reality, I've been itching every one of those days to sit down and tell you all about what an amazing game this is, and why I truly believe that Dragon Age: Origins is the next step forward in RPG gaming. And now that I can, you can finally hear about's hands-on preview with BioWare's latest foray into the fantasy RPG world.

To back up a bit, for those of you who aren't aware of what BioWare is, these are the guys who have made some of the most influential PC RPG games of all time. Baldur's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect - all of these gems were created under one name: BioWare. It's actually been a while; perhaps since Neverwinter Nights or Baldur's Gate II, if you're speaking in terms of a brand new IP, since BioWare has stepped back into the fantasy RPG setting, and as a guy who absolutely adores this kind of stuff, the only thing I can say is welcome back.

One of the first things that really set Dragon Age apart from its other fantasy counterparts has to be the sheer amount of depth and richness of its lore and history. It's quite rare for me to appreciate any form of video game writing, owing to the fact that unique storylines tend to stand right in the way of the "we want to kill stuff now!" factor, but Dragon Age: Origins does a fantastic job of weaving an impressive history. While there is the overarching war against the Blight (essentially the evil zombie army), it's fascinating to hear of the little sub-plots involving the various factions throughout the world of Thedas, the setting of Dragon Age: Origins. While there are a wide variety of 'conspiring to take over the vacant throne' plots, it was quite interesting to hear that Mages and Wizards in the Dragon Age: Origins setting were few, and distrusted by the general populace. Therefore, most Mages are to be kept under close guard by the "Chantry," a group of Templar Knights dedicated to protecting the world from the Mages and, I suppose, also protecting the Mages as well. Unique spins on 'standard fantasy fare' like this really makes Dragon Age shine, and part of the fun of the game lies in exploring the past. With material containing so much potential at hand, it's no wonder that BioWare plans create a multi-game franchise out of this world.

First, with character creation, it's worth noting that Dragon Age: Origins doesn't simply plop every one of its characters in a generic village for you to discover that you're an orphan or a wandering mercenary or both! There are three races for you to pick from; Human, Elf and Dwarf, but they go beyond that by having six separate "origins" for you to choose. Elves can start out as either a Dalish Elf, a City Elf or a Mage, Dwarves can choose to begin as a commoner or a noble (Dwarves cannot be mages), and Humans start out as nobles or Mages. With each of these 'origins,' the player then begins life in any of these six origins, and his story evolves from there. In this way, Dragon Age: Origins begins with a choice, and that choice has a huge impact on where you come from and where you go.

I chose to start my life as a human mage, ready to take my "harrowing" test to determine if I could graduate to join the top ranks. While I won't spill the details of my beginnings to you, it's important to note that character growth is easy to follow and, while each level grants you a new ability, it's quite important to plan your route if you want to maximize on your abilities. Of further note, if you're going to take area of effect abilities like Cone of Cold… be careful that you don't explode your allies as well! Playing through the game on hard mode meant that my allies were taking full AoE damage from my abilities, and I had zapped my partner several times before I realized what I was doing.

And that brings me to combat within Dragon Age. Like most of BioWare's previous games, Dragon Age: Origins focuses upon managing group combat and rounding yourself out via a four-person party rather than going it alone. What they've changed, however, has been the improvements to the team A.I. Each teammate can now be 'customized' with specific A.I. functions that tell it what to do in the case of specific scenarios. While each character begins with only about five of these "variables," this can be expanded upon via taking specific abilities.

To give an example: one of my mages was set to cast a lightning bolt at enemies who were below 75%, and she was further instructed to cripple any enemies that hit my main character. If there were more than two enemies around my mage, then she was also instructed to use an AoE stun. This really allows you to customize how your party members react to situations, and it gives you full control over the flow of the battle. These variables were very reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII's 'gambit' system, where teammates could be programmed with 'gambits' that structured their actions.

Alternatively, because the BioWare team understands that not everyone loves to spend an hour fine tuning their A.I. just perfectly, there are also pre-set archetypes that you can put on each character, and they will perform their actions just fine. In fact, as your character levels up and you take better abilities, the archetype A.I. will actually auto-update itself for you to include these important upgrades! You can also take control of any party member at any time and, like any classic BioWare game, pressing space allows you to pause the game and queue up commands to be completed.

Looking back, while I do believe that Dragon Age: Origins has some incredibly solid combat, although sometimes I crave an RTS level of response, it really was the game's immersion that made me fall in love with the game. While it is quite rare to find a game that is incredible fun to play, it's even rarer to find a game that you want to play because you miss the characters. Truthfully speaking, the team did a phenomenal job on the voice acting and script, as each action taken truly propels you in the direction that you want to go, and the characters develop right alongside you as you make these decisions. Dragon Age: Origins is probably the first game I've ever stopped exploring to simply listen to the friendly banter going on between my two teammates.

In reality, this is where the true strength of Dragon Age: Origins lies. BioWare has really demonstrated that they're willing to go to extreme lengths to perfect the multi-unit combat that typifies most of their RPGs, where Dragon Age really advances in terms of its ability to create your game. I mentioned earlier that I was itching to write about our hands-on experience with Dragon Age, but another part of me is also itching to talk about the game itself with other players. It's remarkable to see just how different some of our journeys were, as some players noted that they brought help to fight the spiders, or how they recruited a particularly unsavoury mercenary for fun, while others lamented that they had to go fight the spiders alone, and how they had decided to kill the mercenary instead. With all of this incredible variation of storyline, it's easy to see how Dragon Age: Origins can really tout itself to be a single player game in a multiplayer universe. This will probably be one of the very few games that I can, and will, play through multiple times, and I'll see a different side to game with each run through.

Christopher "Pwyff" Tom


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The Waiting...
# Oct 21 2009 at 3:10 PM Rating: Decent
Just pre-ordered the collector's edition last week...they got me with those extra in game items! I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait!!!!
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