Bioware have a quality seal when it comes to RPGs, they always have done and they probably always will do. When they say they're working a new Fantasy Epic they perk my interest, actually, when they say they're working on anything they usually get my interest.
Finally, Dragon Age is out and if you don't want to read the review, you can either skip to the end or take my word that it's definitely a return to the form that made Baldur's Gate so good.
It isn't going to win any prized for being a deviation from 'terribly-generic' fantasy story 101. The story is typical of this kind of fantasy epic, it's well told though and that's what counts. You'll get no spoilers from me, but if you like Tolkien or George R.R. Martin you'll probably love this.
This is where the meat and the bones of the review lies, Dragon Age is an over-the-shoulder traditional fantasy rpg with a party of up to four characters. Combat can either be in real time with direct control over powers, skills, abilities and magical spells or with a pause based system allowing you to choose carefully and direct your forces with a bit more precision. Fans of Mass Effect will recognise the power wheel for definite. You can do numerous things with it and it works extremely well to help you keep tabs on your powers, change party stance from follow to hold and other tricks.
Inventory management is a bit clunky but overall it works, you can compare items you own to items you want to equip, or do the same in a shop to see if that sword compares to the one you already own or is better. The great thing about the game though is that is eschews the traditional d20 D&D mechanics for something of its own, taking Bioware away from their roots even further in a good move. The world of Dragon Age isn't a pen and paper world (though there is a pen and paper game awaiting release) so Bioware have been free to design/create and build their own fantasy setting free from the established trappings of Forgotten Realms and Eberron for instance.
You have six distinct origin stories to begin with that you may play through, three classes - Warrior, Rogue and Mage and elf, human, dwarf to choose from in terms of race. Combining these with some specialisations further diversifies the choices that you have in terms of character but still keeps things in a manageable level. You can pick a preset or customise your character in a way similar to Mass Effect and once you have picked your attributes and so on, you're off into the world.
Dragon Age is a big game, whilst the world itself actually feels a bit small, the game areas and quests can take a long time to complete (I clocked 32 hours on the game and that wasn't doing all the side quests I could possibly do). I actually don't want to say too much about a lot of it since I feel even giving away some of the gameplay elements might be too much of a spoiler but for the most part, everything gels nicely especially the conversation tree.
You see even in Mass Effect you made a choice that was 1 or 0; there were very few grey-area choices or outcomes. In Dragon Age since you're with a group of people who will judge you based on how you speak to them, your actions in the world and your general morality, you have to be more careful. You can very quickly alienate or turn a friend into an enemy, they might leave for good or even decide you threaten their very soul and attack you. The choices that you make in Dragon Age's dialogue will be different, you will have to consider what you're trying to accomplish and in some cases you'll need to make some downright tricky decisions.
One area that I've always felt was lacking in many RPG's has been the skill system for mages, spells and so have often felt lacking or weak. It's not so in Dragon Age, there are some highly powerful magic spells that you can choose as you level up your party and the mage character (unless you play one) is a force to be reckoned with right from the start. It is actually fun to play a sorcerous type in the game, which is something refreshing. The skill system in general is very well thought out and whilst you level up, gaining points to spend on various attributes you also gain points on skills and abilities, using a simple and effective skill tree system.
Combat is easy to get to grips with and provides a good tactical gameplay element. Especially once you open up the Tactics Menu and can add Conditional events to your characters repertoire. For instance when under AI control you can change several presets, such as ranged behaviour and if your character is aggressive or a healer and so on. You can also add custom lists and pick something like: if enemy is grouped in more than 3 use fireball on enemy. It's simple and effective and when combined with other statements it can provide a wealth of gameplay tactics to bring to a battle, especially if you play on the harder level of difficulty and friendly fire from area effect magic comes into play.
Travel in Dragon Age is done via the World Map and a bloody trail appears to indicate where you're going to next, as areas open up via exploration or story missions. There are also random encounters and these can be just as fun as the actual main missions, with a variety from traders to bandit ambushes to enjoy amongst other things. Bioware have succeeded here in making the encounters fun and interesting as well as a good source of loot.
Loot is also great in the game because again, it's not as if you're getting generic magical +1 sword here, most of the magical things in the game have a history behind them and Bioware likes to update the codex in your journal regularly once you acquire something of note. Again, if you're a fan of that kind of design/writing, you'll love Dragon Age for the world building that's gone into it. The journal is fairly good and it tracks quests well enough, though it isn't as impressive as the one found in the Witcher.
Whilst lacking the polish and design of the PC versions graphics, the console version of Dragon Age suffers a little, not so much in frame-rate and slow-down but in the overall appeal. If you care a damn about graphics and you aren't at all interested in the quality of the storytelling and the design behind the game, then you're going to be put off by Dragon Age's washed out lack-lustre console port graphics. There are some bad shadow effects, jagged textures and at times the character designs look plastic and lifeless.
On the other hand the architecture and overall design of the world, buildings and so on, are great so some of the graphical troubles can be forgiven when you throw the whole thing together. The game also has a lot of blood, though it tends to appear in the same patterns over the characters as they engage in battle.
There were a couple of hilarious glitches during my playthrough, the main character got stuck in a combat stance that made them look constipated and a child npc ended up being locked in a front-running animation that made them appear as if they were about to shout: Up up and away, to soar off into the sky all Superman like. For the rest of the time though the animations are good, the combat is especially visceral and the death animations are great. There are certain key finishing moves that happen from time to time, resulting in a slow-motion camera scene that looks downright awesome.
There is a physics engine there, doing various things like keeping track of forces used in spells and so on.
The AI for Dragon Age is actually fairly good, path-finding works properly and the enemy AI provides a decent challenge. Your party AI when combined with the behavioural settings, tactics and custom commands provides a very good backup and when properly setup the mage is an awesome power for destruction/healing.
Good quality sound design with the chink of armour, the clash of swords and the screams and wails of demonic entities as some of the highlights. Ambient sounds have always been a way to bring atmosphere to a game level or area, and Dragon Age has all of this in spades. However, some of the sounds did cut out now and then on the 360 version.
A nice fantasy score with some suitably epic music. The one song at camp by our resident party bard made everyone cringe though, so that was definitely not a good thing. All in all, it has the right feel to the main score.
Dragon Age has some generic fantasy dialogue but its good stuff, especially the interaction between party members as you explore the world. There are some true gems hidden in there and make sure you have colourful characters like Morrigan and Alistair in your group because they needle each other constantly and it's great.
Morrigan is our firm favourite, voiced by Claudia Black. This game has an epic voice cast; Simon Templeman, Tim Curry and even Kate 'Janeway' Mulgrew join other excellent voice actors to give the game a great sense of character. Superb voice work all round.
You're out of luck, this is a single player experience only and it's a great one.
For the Grey Wardens!
It's about time that Bioware made a fantasy game like this and regardless of the issues mentioned above with the console port, this is an excellent game in terms of gameplay and story that deserves more than a second look. It has a wealth of things to do, a highly developed world and more. Play it once and you've only just scratched the surface of the game.