Console gaming has boomed in recent years, especially since pioneers of gaming on the PC have had to adjust their development processes to add consoles into the mix. One such developer, highly renowned and received by hardcore gamers, is Bioware. Known for their deep stat-based and beautifully written RPG games such as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and console favourite - Mass Effect. Dragon Age is their latest creation that takes a step back to the developer's origins in the style of a fantasy based RPG, which has been heavily pushed as the ‘spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate’, a line which should be enough to entice any RPG gamer.
As expected, your introduction to the game is in the form of creating your game character, of which you will spend the better part of 50+ hours enjoying (if you don’t simply pursue the games critical path). As with any RPG this process is extremely important and a mistake in your characters stats, feats, skills or even appearance can cause much distress down the line. The initial decision that has to be made is your class, the main factor in how you will experience the game. Far more streamlined than usual you have the easy choice of Warrior, Mage or Rogue. Each of these three classes can then select a sub-class or two at a later date to add further specialisation.
At the same time as class selection you will also make an important decision, your race and from this origin story. The origin of your character will put you in a varied position when you come to starting the game, and this will have an impact on your overall game experience, character interactions and your own personal relations to your own and other characters in the game. There are many of these stories in the game and each will last around an hour in length, which is certainly a nice little touch to spice up the game for anyone looking to play through a second time.
The character creation and development itself is impressive in design. The overwhelming number of choices typically associated with RPGs of this nature has been stripped back to a level that is more accessible. RPG gamers shouldn’t worry though, as there is still much depth available and you can customise your character to a large degree, far more so than the developer's previous title - Mass Effect. After you have designed your character, selected your class, picked your origin, chosen your initial skills (such as potion creation to improved NPC persuasion) and talents (further character specialisation, such as dual wielding or sword and board) you ready to begin your adventure.
After you have completed your characters origin story you will begin your true adventure, in your typical fantasy based scenario of saving the world from an evil presence of some sort. In the case of Dragon Age there is a blight that has waged war with the races of the world many times in history, and a new war is coming, which you will play a large part in. Whilst it is difficult to explain the story without providing multiple spoilers, but rest assured that the story is epic, in the typical Bioware style, and before you are through there will be many memorable moments and characters that you will remember fondly. The characters of the game come to life thanks to fantastic voice acting that rarely fails to impress, particularly in the case of Morrigan and Zevran, two of the better party members with personalities that would easily stand out in a crowd. Whilst there is no one on a level of Minsc (Baldur’s Gate) and Wrex (Mass Effect), all of the party members hold their own and have unique personalities, traits and add the odd comical line to your adventures.
Whilst on the topic of the stellar audio throughout, the graphics were also a surprise. Whilst it is a given that the graphics are nothing in comparison to the highlights of the current generation, they are no way near the low expectations set by early game trailers and current feedback on the game by alternate media outlets. I was very much surprised when I found the graphics of a standard to that of Oblivion, holding the same level of merit and downfalls.
The environments of the world, in particular indoor locations, are full of detail and design flare. I rarely felt that I was looking at the same reused environments that you come to expect from games of this nature, particularly on a console. Each new area brought fresh design and new assets that created their own atmosphere. Be it the stone halls and homes of the dwarf underground city, the bleak and scary forests of the elf camps or even the twisted plane where tables are located on walls and bookcases skew to the floor. The downfall of the graphics would come in the form of the character models, that aren’t the most pleasing to look at, especially when they are viewed from such a close angle during all dialogue scenes. This looks even more out of place when your characters talk in such a calm manner whilst being completely covered in blood from their recent battle.
The main concern with Dragon Age is without a doubt the gameplay, which when you consider the overwhelming number of interfaces that need to be navigated on the PC counterpart is understandable. Bioware along with Edge of Reality have done a fantastic job of adapting the large degree of controls over to the console. Extremely concerned with the control scheme I soon found myself comfortable and enjoying the layout. The first and most important change is the combat interface which immediately takes a hit as the PC version has a button bar at the bottom of the screen that increases to the amount of buttons you need. The console version only has 6 buttons, X, Y, B and X, Y, B again along with a shoulder button. This means you have only 6 front buttons that are quickly accessible in battle; the other many abilities you have will need to be executed by using a radial wheel (that will pause the game) in a similar style to Mass Effect.
From this radial wheel you can select most of the games actions, such as using and making potions, performing abilities, holding position, checking inventory and applying poisons. Outside of this you can jump into the deep and scary paused menu system which contains everything you would expect from a quest log to character statistics. All of these menus are navigated via the trigger and shoulder buttons, and I was impressed to see how everything was included that is usually dropped from console counterparts; such as the ability to quickly and easily compare one item to another, a quest completed diary along with a quests in progress diary and a statistics panel breakdown for all characters as well as general game progress. The combined developers should be proud and hopefully this will be a new benchmark for how to make scary interfaces friendly on a joypad (looking at you Risen).
Players of retro RPG games of a similar style will be surprised by the more action based pace of Dragon Age, which feels like a combination of World of Warcraft with Baldur’s Gate. Instead of pause based click and wait combat you instead have abilities that use stamina and cool-downs (a kin to most MMO games). This makes for faster paced combat that is more interactive, again similar to Mass Effect and certainly better suited for console gamers. The game also has an emphasis on the party of friends you take with you, therefore expect combat to be frantic and challenging as you keep four characters in coordination.
Thankfully for those that are put off by the requirement to control several party members at all times, you will be happy to know that the AI is impressive, and even more importantly customisable in a genius way. Each character can be given a certain number of allocated commands, set by an easy to use scripting interface. Imagine if you wanted your Mage to focus on healing, you set a condition “If party characters health < 50%” and an action for the condition “Use Heal on party member”. The options available and restraint on scripted slots for each character requires clever management to get the perfect AI controlled team mates, working exactly as you want them. This customisation to friendly AI, and its simplicity, is something which I can only hope to see in many future games.
Reading this review you might have realised that my praises are many, and faults few. That’s simply because the game has far surpassed my expectations and has done, and will continue to, provide countless hours (100+) of enjoyment. That said, I am an RPG gamer at heart and have grown up enjoying most RPGs that are praised as the better video games of all time. The problem with Dragon Age being on console is the expectation many will have for a game similar to Fable, which Dragon Age certainly is not. As an RTS, adventure and racing game appeals to particular tastes, so does that of the old-school CRPG. If you have experienced the enjoyment from past games of this type then dive on in as Dragon Age is a blast. Those stepping into the pool for the first time be weary, you wouldn’t want to drop in the deep end. That being said, Dragon Age is the perfect first step for newcomers; come on in.