Dragon Age: Origins Review (PC)

By Zott820Zott820
18 Dec 2012 01:15


Dragon Age: Origins is a third-person perspective RPG with a strong story and dice-rolling combat mechanics. The story summarized follows the origin of a Gray Warden recruit as they form an army to battle the Darkspawn, a terrifying savage foe. Along the way, the player recruits other characters to join them in battle, with four at a time on the field.

This review will focus on the PC version which is not only graphically superior to the others, but suffers from fewer bugs and has the enhancement of easier multi-tasking due to a quick bar and the ability to zoom the camera far out for an overhead viewpoint.

The following list contains what I felt were the strongest and weakest aspects of the game in the order of most to least influential per their sorted list.

The Good:


1. Deep Overarching Plot:

Dragon Age Origins has an incredibly rich back-story involving invasions, former Kings, religious martyrs and more. Just playing through the game you are immersed without drawn out explanation. Characters both directly, through quests, and indirectly, through their catch phrases, banter and clothing represent the land. Templar wear their heavy armor and seek to control rogue magic users. The religious sects wear their sun clothing and pray to Andraste. These are just a taste. There is a lot to take in but the learning process is incremental and the game doesn't require memorization of these elements to proceed. In addition, the dialogue is well written so not every explanation requires a character to play ignorant to the world's laws that they have been living in for years.

For those who want to delve deeper, codex entries can be found and unlocked which summarize the history of Fereldon and in-progress quests. Collecting these codex entries also grants XP, which had me convinced to investigate whole dialogue trees and visit most locations to collect the tribute. While the story uses many familiar concepts, such as dwarves and elves the plot stands strongly on its own merits and creations. The best part is that at the eventually conclusion, player's choices both big and small come together providing a customized epilogue.

2. Characters and Consequences:


The personification of Fereldon culture manifests itself through the several recruitable characters. They are not guaranteed to join you, and if you screw up and piss them off, they may run off, or even try to kill you. As an example to that, one conscriptable character can be left in their cage, and another can be killed BY the player upon meeting them. The decisions here carry some weight to it. At the very worst, the player may find themselves alone at the end of the game.

Now I tend to play a paragon type character who likes to help everyone to be on his good side, but Dragon Age Origins knows this is childish. Not all the companion's desires align, and following one's advice will anger the others. I loved this. The fear of pissing off people with decisions is a natural part of life, and adds weight to the decision making process. Before clicking a choice, I must carefully gauge the outcome on my team, as well as the quest at hand.

To do this means getting to know the characters. Morrigan for example has a sharp tongue and provocative appearance. It doesn't take too much to realize she loves jewelry and other gaudy gifts. Knowing this, I can choose an option to piss her off, knowing full well that perhaps a little bribery later, in the form one of many gifts around the land, can offset the damage.
A shining example of earning companion trust occurs near the end of the game. Without spoiling too much, I made a critical plot decision affecting the endgame, and a companion flat out rejected it because it wasn't what THEY wanted. This led to a completely different ending that I was trying to avoid. I was shocked. Such gall! Unforgettable, but amazing.

3. Voice Acting:


All characters in the game except the player have voice acting. As you can imagine this brings the size of the game up quite a bit, but it is worth it. I tend to skip a lot of dialogue while playing RPGs, but I like to hear the voice and tone of the characters when they speak to peg their personality. Moreover, unlike some games, the personality of the characters definitely comes through in their voices here. What is a rhyming tree that only has a text popup? The wise grizzled tenor of the voice adds so much more! The ramblings of an insane wizard are also more pressing when his threats are read aloud to you with a judder in his voice. If you have the time to spend to listen to all the dialogue, than you should. If you are like me and skip through the vocal portions after digested the text, you will still find yourself hesitating when speaking to new characters to get their voice in your head. The effort that the developers put in is a treat for the ears and soul. Plus they include a sizeable cast of Star Trek Voyager veterans including the talents of Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Tuvok (Tim Russ). How can you say no to voice actors like that? Sadly, Captain Picard was dying in Tamriel and does not lend his voice.

4. Origins:


Each story has a beginning, and unlike many game's that thrust the player into a predestined one, Dragon Age Origins gives the player a choice between six. Each origin takes about 45 minutes to complete before reaching the main same story junction and because they are part of the main quest, they are all well designed, and are not throwaway fetch quests. I would recommend that every player who has completed the game to play the other five origin stories. Not only do they add value, but these origins have legitimate back-story. For example, the dwarf noble origin sets up the events for when the player arrives in the dwarf kingdom of Orzammar later. Someone who only played the human noble origin may hear of the events happening with the dwarves before they arrived, but by choosing another origin, they can go and experience it. Other origins, such as the Dalish elves, should be played for their unique locations that cannot be visited otherwise.

The complexity of including so many origins makes my head spin with delight and awe. One of the origins for the city elf actually changes depending on whether the protagonist is a female or male character. If female, the player and other women are captured and have to plan their escape. If playing as a male city elf, the player must go and rescue those elf women. Later on, origin characters can often be met again through random events or familiar locations. Tackling the shear variability of dialogue trees for each origin, gender and breeds praise. As the game story developed, I enjoyed meeting familiar faces from the beginning of the game to see how they would respond to me as a kick-ass hero.

5. Inventory Management:

Compared to other Bioware games, the inventory system of Dragon Age Origins is a step up from the usual madness. To enhance looting, new items in the inventory are highlighted so the player can see which new pieces of armor he/she has just received. This is not a flawless system however. I often went long stretches collecting items so that the inventory was a full shade of 'new item' yellow. Thankfully, to circumvent this confusion there is now a sort by date option, which heavily helps (persisting each time you enter the menu) finding items. Sadly, despite the enhancements to organization, when new items are received through quests, clicking on the “Items Received” marker only takes the player to their inventory, forcing them to sort through all highlighted icons to figure out which ones they were.

Inventory management also gets some much-needed love for determining what items are better than others. Highlight an inventory item and it will be compared to the currently equipped item of your character providing glanceable stats for both. This time around, Bioware also opted for color-coding, using green for more positive traits, and red for negative modifiers. To compliment these previous two features, a shared backpack removes the potential for a Tetris or Hot potato mini-game, but it's for the best.

All these were great improvements for a Bioware game as I could finally get through one without spending forever in the inventory to figure out if item A was better than item B.

6. Unique Settings:


Castles, forests, hallucinogenic dreams, villages, underground coves, lava filled caverns, magical towers, and more. The settings in this game are varied and each district's feel imposes on the characters that live there to set the overall scene effectively.

7. It's an RPG:

What do I mean by this? I mean that it is a proper RPG, with equipment to use, crafting, and management. This isn't a Mass Effect 2 style RPG, where your innate playing skills will play you through to the end. This RPG is a Dungeons and Dragons dice roller. Inventory management is required. Skill point allocation must be carefully chosen. Squad mates can be ordered to cast spells, and their tactics specified. The game has not been dumbed down.

Regarding tactics, characters can be put into specialized roles, more-so than just their class. By using the built in tactics screen, a mage can be set to prioritize healing itself, or run away from enemies if it is in danger without requiring player input. This becomes especially useful, as with the quantity of battles facing, extreme micromanaging of each one would be tedious. However, for those who are playing on the hardest difficulties, or those who like the true RPG style, the game can be paused and orders directed with pinpoint temporal precision. As mentioned under the difficulty heading, a proper team build is mandatory to make progress through the enemy hordes. The plethora of loot, quests and customizability ensures that it is possible.

8. PC Features - Overhead Camera and Quick Bar:


Unique to the PC version of the game is the ability to zoom the camera from close behind the shoulder camera to a waaaay up in the sky overhead view. This harkens to the days of the sprite based isometric RPG perspective, and it is an appreciated touch. I preferred the closer, more personal, combat view, but a long shot does give opportunity to survey the battlefield and choose targets more effectively when the enemies dog piles the player controlled character.

Another special feature to the PC version is the quick bar. Here you can assign powers and items to 0-9 on the keyboard, as well as a couple extra to click. Not only can you activate spells through the quick bar without having to pause the game, one can also choose dialogue options with keyboard numbers, a handy arthritis soother. If you ask me, having the ability to call down hell at the touch of a button is oh so easy on the PC version with the quick bar that I wouldn't know how to play this game without it on a console version. Hold down a button, and then select the spell? Tedious. Open up the skills menu each time? Hell no! Spells auto-add themselves to the quick bar as you unlock them, up to capacity, so that's another valued time-saving bonus.

Not exactly a PC feature, but an improvement on the PC: Quick Save. Thank goodness for quick save. It works at a button press, loads from the most recent if dead, quick to activate, accompanied by a nice drumbeat and happens automatically at key plot locations and before boss battles. Thank you Bioware for getting this aspect right on the mark.

The Bad

1. Combat brings ennui in droves:


The zenith of all of Dragon Age Origin's problems is the combat. It is just so dull, bland, and repetitive that it almost prevented my finishing of the game (The plot had me hooked though, so I couldn't just stop.) I have tried to decipher why I believe the combat to be so boring, and it may be one of the following:

a) There is too much combat. Mowing down enemies in room after room is tiresome. There are times when you can talk yourself out of combat, but the main enemy is the zombie-like Dark Spawn. The Darkspawn do not negotiate. What his amounts to are a lot of situations that are just impossible to pass without engagements. Yes, you can try to sneak past all of them, but I'll tell you right now that will not work. You can't speech craft your way through the game, you can't puzzle your way through the game, you must fight! This alone can be tolerable if there are enough gameplay mechanics to keep it interesting but…

b) Many of the enemies are cookie-cutters. The vast majority of the enemies are the Darkspawn, and they only come in four main varieties, magic, soldier, archer, and heavy. Sadly, dispatching all of them utilizes the same tactics except for the preferred order of their death (Wizard, archer, melee). Varying topography tries to mix up the strategy but has negligible results.

Most other enemies are dealt with the same as the Darkspawn variations though may have some new powers or weaknesses. I.E. tree enemies have a weakness to fire, and ghosts to magic. Even with these, either it was too late for me to try to specialize, or bulldozing the target with anything was adequate. Now, I'm sure a counter argument could be made that every shooter out there has the player fighting the same way, but perhaps this leads off to the next point.


c) Combat is strict because you just can't specialize any way you want. A team of all archers will rely too much on health giving poultices to stay alive. Eventually they will find themselves running out and having to backtrack to get more from a city, or maybe not. Location traveling brings random encounters that may just finish the unprepared party off. As I found after my first five-hour dungeon crawl, a healing mage is required. Without one, I was forced to kite enemies one at a time to survive. Eventually some rooms made this technique impossible, and that's where the difficulty arose. (See Uneven Difficulty). So, after recruiting a healing mage, the player may find that warriors are awesome. In fact, most melee units are very strong. Archers have some paralyzing abilities, but without a strong tanking warrior, the day is lost. So once there is one warrior, why not make the other three companions melee? It seemed sensible to me. Overall, most of the combat will probably rely on some standard formation of 1 healing units, 1-3 tanks, and perhaps one archer. As mentioned before, units can have multiple sets of equipment to switch between, but I hardly saw the need. Specialize, and dominate. Now, talents granted through leveling were supposed to add more strategy, yet…

d) I found only a couple talents and spells that I would use consistently. The rest were available, and if I had enough stamina/mana to cast them I would, but would rarely change up my cast order. Without leveling willpower to grant extra stamina then the other talents would always be left out.

2. Uneven difficulty:


I ping ponged many times from normal to easy. It was just not possible to go past some arenas on normal no matter how craftily I fought or how many stat-strengthening items I activated. But then, later on in the game on easy I would find my party too strong, never a member falling in combat. Healing potions becoming a commodity.

During scholarly internet pursuits, I had read that Dragon Age has an Oblivion style area leveling system. When a player reaches a zone for the first time, the enemies will be harder or easier depending on the level of the player. In addition, some areas were meant to be tackled later, with challenging gatekeeper enemies to scare off the players. These mechanisms did not work for me. I tried to tank through any zone regardless of my level. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the difficulty felt so uneven. If the developers did not want the average player entering a zone due to difficulty, they should have been more explicit. Bring up a text box that says that this zone is for level 10-20 players. If I choose to ignore it, at least I know the reason for the combat being so tough is my own foolishness.

3. Load Time:


Every instance that the player changes world locations, the game will load. Every time the player enters a house or building, the world will load. These load segments of roughly 10-15 seconds add up considerably over the 36-hour main adventure. In the city of Dwarven city of Ozamar, with many shops and doorways to enter, the load time made me second-guess entering any building. "Do I really need to enter this place?" If someone has to consider the load speed of their computer rather than the thrill of their character storming the shop, then something is wrong for the game.

4. Persistent, why are you not?:

There are persistent powers that continually siphon some amount of stamina or manna to leave active. These should be on all the time unless you tell otherwise, or so goes the hope. When you die however, the game deactivates all of them, and you have to manually reset them. A nuisance unless you have wasted tactic slots to have them be automatically restarted.

5. Graphically Broad:


Dragon Age Origins is graphically somewhere between Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2, two other Bioware games. The motion-capture for the character mouths as they spout their lines is convincing, seeming adopted to or from Mass Effect 2, however most of the other animations are stiff, about on par with Mass Effect 1. The environments were also a mixed bag. Walking into the city of Denarim for the first time, I spotted far off buildings and interesting house design spotting the landscapes. However, most of the ground level details were flat empty space between targets of interest. The actual buildings also visually pop from the landscape as though they had fallen out of the sky, just without the crater. The city of Radcliff tries to remedy the flatness with a mountainous city, but between the buildings are even more curvy grounds of empty. Thankfully, the previously mention Orzammar breaks the trend, uniquely detailed all over with statues and characters. (Orzammar was a scenic highlight of the game of you haven't figured that out yet) The repetitious caverns of the deep roads however take graphics back to the norm.

In most expansive RPGs it is infeasible to model thousands of objects to litter the scenes. However, Dragon Age doesn't allow free-roaming travel, which is why I was hoping the world environments would be more personalized. This struck me especially true for some of the dungeons, where I have visibly entered a duplicate layout of another room except with different items in it. Visually identical characters, and clothing also show up during the adventure making exploring not quite as interesting as it could be for the diverse society that exists.

6. Buggy:


For those of you who hate games that are released in a buggy state, stay far from Dragon Age Origins. This game is buggy to oblivion and back. The game's stability is fair, and crashing was minimal, but within the game, ho boy. I doubt anybody could make it through the game without at least one glitch or bug happening to them. I played the entirety of Dragon Age with the most recent patch of 1.04 and still ran into many oddities. One such problem had me rescuing a companion from a cell during one of the earlier town visits of the game. Although I rescued him, I decided that he was not suitable to be one of my three main companions and so left him back at camp. Later on, I find he is missing, no notification or anything. The game treated him as not being rescued.


Another glitch required internet support to resolve the issue. While in the Fade, a dream environment, the player can recover their companions from their imprisoned stupor. This consisted of talking to the companion, fighting off some kind of demon, and then a cut scene will activate before you can leave. In my case, I could speak to the companion, fight the demon, but the cut scene would not activate. Instead, I could speak to my companion and the entire loop would happen again. This would sometimes lead to hilarity if one of the demons killed had their heads blown off. The demon would reappear alive in the initial companion conversation without a head. Funny but distressing. I eventually discovered from online sources that the trigger for the cut scene is extremely slow, and a player may have to wait upwards of 4 minutes without doing anything before the scripting will execute properly. One of many bugs you can expect to find along the way.

To finish off this topic, a bug that occurred with more regularly than the others was intermittent lag during the cut scenes. Audio would continue to play but the visuals would freeze in place for 10 seconds. This never happened during gameplay, but it does detract from the mood of the story when characters decide to play their own little game of Red Light Green Light.
Overall, I'd hate to play Dragon Age in an un-patched state. Nearly every quest has a couple bugs associated with it. For more specific bugs, check out the Dragon Age wiki, which lists many of the bugs under specific quests and items.


7. GUI Subtleties:


While the inventory management was a step forward, I had mixed experiences with the rest of the graphical interface. Firstly, the game doesn’t introduce interface features. The subtlety that equipping items to characters removes them from the carrying weight and that characters can equip two different item sets is not mentioned, though I’m sure the curious player will wonder what those circular arrows mean on the inventory screen. Also, the tactics screen, a mandatory element to preventing a multi-tasking nightmare, doesn’t inform players that the tactic’s numbered order represents an order priority. Turns out even if you have the tactic in the list, it just doesn’t become active unless the earlier ones have cycled through. Don't assume like I did that just because the character meets the <50% health condition that it'll drop everything to heal itself.

Other GUI problems also exist, the map should prove a flawless and simple design, but I found I could not click-drag to pan it instead I was forced to zoom out to survey the surroundings. Furthermore, in the large city of Denerim, navigating the map proves infuriating, as even if you are at Denerim’s zone border, you have to go to a different map interface screen to reach the world map and escape. I guess I know why the city's elves believed they were in a city prison.

8. Music:


The game has a great theme song that plays on the main menu, and like Bulletstorm, it is very alluring but a main menu song cannot hold your attention for 36 hours. Yet that didn't stop Bioware from trying with the rest of the soundtrack. Whenever the player engages in battle, you will hear the same Dark Spawn battle theme, and the same ending upheaval as all enemies are slain and the game transitions back to exploration mode. I’m sure the audio designers though they were melding moods together with such an apparent song ending but with so many transitions back and forth to battle, it became excessively obvious. Also, most songs were just too similar. There wasn’t the major transition to another instrument group for races/locations like Ocarina of Time did, with the Zora race having harps and the Goran's accompanied by a steady drum beat. The few songs with vocals were the standouts but only appear in a couple cut scenes. Otherwise, back to the battle music with you!



Dragon Age Origins is a great game for its story. You will enjoy learning about the cultures, settling disputes, and playing the RPG-able aspects. However, the combat is bloody boring. There's way too much of it, and not enough ways to make it interesting. I'd suggest setting the game on easy, and finishing the combat as fast as possible to get back to hearing the wonderful voice acting, exploring the exotic settings and pissing off your companions.

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