Before BioWare amassed a following among console gamers with games like Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, the developer already had a significant fanbase. These gamers loved the studio for its work on the PC series Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights – tactical, story-driven RPGs with an emphasis on party mechanics. No developer did that style of game better in those days, and Dragon Age: Origins proves that BioWare isn’t giving up the crown. Dragon Age brilliantly combines the genre’s old-school conventions with a few modern twists to create one of the most addictive and expansive RPGs of its kind.
Attempting to summarize the experience of Dragon Age in a few paragraphs is almost ridiculous given the depth of the game’s content. Six distinct openings depending on your character (each lasting a couple hours), cool specializations for each class, plenty of tactical variety, and a vast array of sidequests keep you immersed in the world as time flies by. The central narrative arc and the characters involved serve the setting well, but don’t deviate far from expectations. On the other hand, the subplots have some great hooks that I won’t spoil here – though I will say that the mages’ tower is awesome. A speed demon could blow through the main story in 40 hours, but thorough players can expect about 70.
While some time is spent exploring and conversing, the biggest thrills in Dragon Age are found in combat. This is no breezy hack ‘n slash affair; the best encounters feel like puzzles, forcing you to use your resources wisely and make calculated decisions on the path to victory. Which enemy poses the largest threat? How do you stem the tide of oncoming skeletons? Can your tank stand in the middle of your mage’s electrical storm long enough to take down the ogre? Your answers to these questions change depending on your party members and their skills, leaving some space for experimentation. Almost every fight can kill you if you aren’t focused, but the satisfaction of standing in the midst of your slaughtered foes after a well-fought battle makes it all worthwhile.
Even with a wealth of tactical options and party combinations, you’ll rarely get bogged down thanks to the excellent ally AI system. Fans of Final Fantasy XII’s gambits will feel right at home with the concept, which allows you to manage and prioritize your party’s actions based on battle conditions. You can micromanage your spellcasters with a pause-and-play approach and leave your fighters on autopilot, which keeps combat flowing smoothly without sacrificing its sharp tactical edge.
In addition to capturing the joy of battle, Dragon Age also provides an engrossing backdrop for the action. Even more than Mass Effect, the nation of Ferelden feels like a fully realized setting with its own history, conflicts, and power groups. This is one of the main reasons the game is so addicting; completing quests isn’t just about grinding experience and amassing loot – it actually feels like you have an impact on the world.
In the middle of reviewing Dragon Age, I had a couple vacation days scheduled. During my long out-of-state weekend, the game was constantly popping into my mind – how I could have won a fight differently, or how I might spend my next few talent points. As soon as my flight landed back in Minneapolis, I didn’t even fight the urge; I drove straight into the office and spent an entire Sunday night in front of the computer fighting darkspawn and saving Ferelden. The number of titles that can foster this level of dedication and obsession are few, and Dragon Age: Origins is among the best of them.