I have now logged over 48 hours of game play (probably closer to 58 now, because I started writing this yesterday) in Bioware’s  Dragon Age: Origins  (Xbox 360 CE), and there are many aspects I really like, but there are some that may take a bit of warming up to. Having read both of the prequel novels  written by Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider, I knew a fair bit of the back-story and my progress through the game has been greatly aided by that knowledge. I am still amazed at the amount of story yet to be revealed through the Codex additions – I have lots of reading of the story’s bits and pieces I have picked up so far through quests, conversations and random items. This is a positive aspect, because I like games which tell a good story. The writing in Dragon Age is tight – and humorous. I have found myself at times just standing and listening to my “henchies” talk, and there has been many a time that I find myself laughing out  loud at their dialogue. There are also a number of references to modern pop culture in the game – some of it so subtle that it can be missed if one is not paying attention. The “light” has gone on a few times after certain scenes or dialogues, when I realize what has transpired and its reference to something in our society.
I went with the human noble warrior for my first go around – I wanted to be a caster, because that is what I’m good at, but Scott talked me into trying something different. It has become (sometimes painfully) obvious that I am a far better caster than I am a warrior. Thank goodness for the ability to change which party member I can control during battle. I will, however, admit that I am getting better at melee combat. I still have a long way to go at being highly proficient in close-up and personal fighting, but I certainly like the amount of control Bioware gave us in character creation. I also really like that each character – Dwarf, Human or Elf has its own story beginning, as this adds to the replayability factor.
Each of the party member’s distinct personalities and beliefs play very important roles in how the game unfolds, as does each choice you make in the dialogue trees. One could almost feel sorry for Alistair as he goes through relentless teasing at the hands of Morrigan, whose own jaded view of the world at large often prevents her from seeing the simple good in people as anything other than weakness. During last night’s play, I caught Wynne also giving Alistair a rough time about filthy socks. Meanwhile Leliana appears to be the complete opposite – she is strong in her belief of all things good, although I have a feeling that this is going to change at some point in time. Just a hunch – and some advance reading on Scott’s part. I haven’t made a lot of use of Zevran and Sten yet, but I’m sure they’ll get their chance in battle as well.
I’ve read many online comments about areas where players aren’t happy with the Tactics menu, or they aren’t happy with some of the sudden difficulty spikes. Maybe it’s just my play style, but I am not disappointed by any of it. Yes, some of the battles are insanely difficult and my hero may end up as a pile of ashes after being blasted by a huge fireball, but thanks to the Save Game function which I mostly remember to use, it’s “try, try again” for me. I probably died a dozen times trying to defeat Flemeth before going and doing some different quests first in order to level my Grey Warden some more and perhaps gain a little more help in the way of additional party members. Once I completed the quest for Shale and kicked Alistair out of the party for this particular task, I did it in one go. Shale is a very effective tank when equipped with the right crystals for the job. Next time around I will have to remember to go get Shale before hunting for the urn. Perhaps then I won’t turn into a crispy critter because I just had to ring the gong to see what it did. Apparently the dragon landing on the cliff edge was supposed to be a clue. Maker bless the Load Last Save function.
While I sometimes find the long cinematic conversations frustrating, I realize that they are an important game component – dispelling knowledge and opening different paths in the story, but geez sometimes I just want to get on with eliminating the vile creatures who are trying to take over my map. On the plus side is the ability to skip forward through the conversations to get to where you want to be – whether it’s to retry a battle or to try a different path in the dialogue trees. On my next play-through I might just take the time to solve the puzzle and let the little girl live instead of allowing Kitty to possess her.
There are a few features in the PC version of the game that I wish we could have in the 360 version, and while I realize that the PC skill bar isn’t a viable option, it would be nice if the map inset had the same compass look and functionality. Plus he gets the extras of the Character Creator  and the Toolset  on Bioware’s new Social Network  (you will need to be logged in on your Bioware account to see those pages, by the way). While I am a stronger console gamer than I am a PC gamer, after watching the Cavechild play his PC version I wonder if I’d be faring any better than I am in the 360 version. I’ve experienced a few glitches in the 360 version which Mike hasn’t had with the PC version, such as the audio being delayed in conversations. The characters speak, but there is no sound – and then the audio kicks in and re-syncs itself. A minor thing, and not nearly as annoying when the whole game freezes on me like other games have. (This has not occurred in DA:O, just so that you’re sure I’m not saying that this game freezes my 360.)
The game controls are something I am still trying to re-map in my mind. Reversing them in game options didn’t help, so it will just be a matter of remembering that what was one function in another game, is not the same function in this one, and just where that particular function is when I need it. I think perhaps that is one of my biggest pet peeves about console play. I wish that all of the developers would get together and say “Okay, this is the button players will use to bring up their character interface for inventory, skills, etc.” and “this is where the game’s options will be” and just be done with it. Stop moving things around, people, it’s getting me killed out there.
I’ve learned much about the game’s features and how to use them in my first 48 hours of play, and I will freely admit to having picked up the Prima Strategy Guide yesterday to learn even more – not because I want the easy way through the game, but because there is just so much to learn and try on my next play through. As an added bonus, the Strategy Guide is a work of art in itself, and well worth the price. Dragon Age’s structure is such that I will be playing through the game a few times, although I am certainly in no rush to end my first go-round. My last bit of play involved the Nature of the Beast quest, and it wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought it would be. I’ve seen a few people rant about the hard time they had in the ruined Elven temple, but I survived through the entire main quest. I’m not afraid of any old wolf. It probably helped a lot that Wynne is such an excellent healer. Just a thought.
I do wish that there was more open-worldness instead of mapping from location to location – and while side quests and random encounters do allow me to visit a bit more of the map, it’s not the same as battling my way around Ferelden to get where I want to go, or just hunting down the darkspawn who wander the countryside. The only other thing I’m not too fussy on is having the Party Camp in one location and my Party Storage chest in another. I have a tendency to forget little things like runes that I have in storage which need fixing to weapons by the enchanter dude who resides in my Party Camp, so more than once I’ve found myself trudging back to Soldier’s Peak to pick up an item or two.
According to the Strategy Guide, I am supposed to be able to switch out party members in areas where it is safe to do so, but thus far I haven’t found such a location. It would save me so much time if I didn’t have to go back to get my Rogue for a little lockpicking and chest looting. To me, any area which has been cleared of all enemies is relatively safe, so I should be able to summon a henchie from Camp when required instead of having to return there myself to pick up the little thief. Perhaps I will discover the secret to party changes during my travels about the map.
While I understand that the majority of games are targeted at male gamers, as a female gamer I think that there should be some scantily clad male demons just to even things out in The Fade and give us double-x’ers something to look at. I had thought that The Fade would be an equal opportunity employer, but apparently it is more discerning when recruiting evilness. Maybe all of the menfolk decided that being Darkspawn would be better. Either way, they made a bad choice because I’m going to have to kill them all eventually.
Overall, I am very pleased with Dragon Age: Origins and the amount of detail and care which the dev teams at Bioware put into the title. It contains all of my favourite components – quests, exploring (even if it’s kind of limited), things to search for and collect, a deep storyline and hundreds of hordes to obliterate. Some have pointed out a few environment and level design features that they feel weren’t done well enough. For the record, I don’t care that many of the houses and villages look similar or even the same due to repeated use of world objects; nor do I care that many of the people look the same or similar. I do care that the artists obviously put a lot of time into the environment and character design, and I appreciate the details that they’ve put in, especially for such seemingly small things like random eye movement in characters, which in the end make such a big difference.
So now you know my early thoughts on Dragon Age: Origins. I will revisit the game and add to these thoughts once I have completed one full play-through. That could take awhile, though.