Late to the Party: Dragon Age: Origins

As you all likely know by now, I am the master of checking out nerdy things only after they’ve already been out in the world for a few years. And my latest nerdy exploits are no different–I recently started playing Dragon Age: Origins. And boy, do I love it. Spoiler alert: lots of belated squeeing below!

Image Credit: BioWare

DA:O was released by BioWare all the way back in 2009, but that was midway through college for me, and I had neither the time nor the means to give it anything other than a passing thought. But at long last, I’ve found myself in simultaneous possession of an Xbox 360 and enough random blocks of free time to actually play some video games for once. And since Peder recently played through the game again, further inspiring me to start it once he was done, conditions were perfect to finally find out what the fuss was about. So far, DA:O has not disappointed–in fact, it’s often exceeded my hyped-up expectations.

For those who aren’t familiar with the game, DA:O is set in a high-concept fantasy land called Ferelden (one of countless examples of really great names within the game). You play as a hero who must leave their home (the reason varies depending on the type of character you choose) and join the Grey Wardens. The Grey Wardens are special forces whose job it is to protect the world from Darkspawn, demonic beings who threaten to overrun Ferelden. Early on, you find that you will one day be tasked with facing and defeating the Archdemon, leader of the oncoming Darkspawn horde causing an event known as the Blight. But first, you’ll have to travel Ferelden with a motley band of fellow heroes, rallying support for your cause and slaying monsters of all kinds along the way (in between seemingly hundreds of side quests, of course).

Image Credit: MobyGames

You have the option to play as a male or female character who is either a mage or rogue. You can play as a human, a dwarf, or as one of two sorts of elves–a city-dweller or a nomadic Dalish. The character I created is a female Dalish elf rogue, and as the story begins, she is tainted by Darkspawn sickness and must become a Grey Warden both to save herself and to protect her people and her realm from the Blight.

So far, I’m absolutely loving both the story and the general feel of the gameplay. In essence, it has all the stuff I loved from my brief foray into the world of Skyrim, and none of the stuff I didn’t. A highlight for me is the character interactions–in particular, I find the “approval” mechanic to be a lot of fun. DA:O allows you the option to get to know your fellow characters both through idle conversations between quests and during discussions that happen at key moments in the plot. In general it’s a good idea to chat with your fellow party members whenever there’s a lull–if you don’t, you might miss out on some really interesting dialogue.

Through these conversations, your party members’ “approval” meter in relation to your character will go up or down depending on the dialogue options you choose. You can even romance a fellow character–to do so, each time you interact with the party member you wish to form such a relationship with, you’ll need to choose the dialogue options that you think they will respond best to. After their approval of you reaches a certain point, you then have the option to initiate a romance with them. I highly recommend it, as it adds another layer of depth to the story that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

Another main component of the game is your ability as a player to influence the direction of the story based on the choices you make, from creating your character to speaking with your party members to the way you interact with key characters who are introduced along the way. Much like similar choice-based games, like the Mass Effect series, you can play your character in such a way that they are more virtuous and heroic or more villainous and chaotic, depending on your preference. I’m one of those people who feels terrible whenever I make my character do something mean, so I go pretty aggressively toward the virtuous side of things (why yes, I do know I’m a goody-two-shoes, thank you very much), but no matter what, the way you play your character has a big impact on the story at large. In my opinion, this makes the game highly replayable. Being both indecisive and a completionist, I have to admit that I find the choice-making element to be stressful at times, and I’ve already made a number of choices that I immediately regretted. Overall, though, I really like the choice aspect of the game, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, neuroses notwithstanding.

Like other fantasy RPGs, DA:O is rife with side quest opportunities. Here’s where my completionist side gets the better of me again…I find myself helping townspeople and hunting for rare items until I’ve all but forgotten what I was supposed to be doing in the first place. This is one of the reasons I quit playing Skyrim; however, unlike Skyrim, finishing all (or most) of the side quests in DA:O and still playing through the game in a reasonable amount of time is actually an attainable goal, so while this side of it trips me up a little from time to time, it’s not really a problem. In general, it makes the story feel richer rather than making the gameplay feel burdensome.

Another of my favorite aspects of this game is how rich the world of the game is. The visual aspect is stunning, and the graphics hold up surprisingly well for a game that’s nearly 10 years old. The characters feel as well-rounded as any fictional characters I could hope to meet, and they’re voiced by a host of talented voice actors. Throughout the game, there is a TON of dialogue, as well as a wealth of cut scenes both short and long. Some players may find this annoying if they’re ready to get into the action, but for my part, I really enjoy it.

Image Credit: BioWare

Beyond that, I love how well-developed the history and the political climate of DA:O are. And though you can really dive into those elements if they interest you, it’s not forced upon you, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming or overwrought the way it so easily could. From the stories the characters tell you to the contextual codices you pick up throughout your adventures, it’s easy to see that the game creators put a lot of thought into developing a rich, realistic world.

As far as the combat aspect of the game is concerned, I can’t speak to it with much authority–I set the game on super-duper easy mode, since I care a lot more about the story of the game than I do about defeating monsters (not that that isn’t fun too). If combat’s your thing, just raising the difficulty level will give you the chance to focus on it more and work on honing your skills and strategically leveling up your characters. Thus far, the combat mechanic feels a little muddy to me, though I’m not sure whether this is due more to the way it’s set up or because I’m fervently button-mashing my way through each and every battle. Regardless of the reason, I’d say that the story side of the game is stronger than the combat side overall, but I think there’s plenty of room to lean in to either (or both), depending on your gaming style.

In short, this game is everything I’ve been looking for but not finding in other RPG-style video games I’ve played up until now, and it makes for an immensely satisfying gaming experience. I can’t wait to keep playing through this game and eventually move on to the next installments in the series, Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition!

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