Bioware have a quality seal when it comes to RPGs, they always have done and they probably always will do. When they say theyíre working a new Fantasy Epic they perk my interest, actually, when they say theyíre working on anything they usually get my interest.
Finally, Dragon Age is out and if you donít want to read the review, you can either skip to the end or take my word that itís definitely a return to the form that made Baldurís Gate so good.Story
It isnít going to win any prized for being a deviation from Ďterribly-genericí fantasy story 101. The story is typical of this kind of fantasy epic, itís well told though and thatís what counts. Youíll get no spoilers from me, but if you like Tolkien or George R.R. Martin youíll probably love this.Gameplay
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 isnít 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 Ė 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, youíre 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 wasnít doing all the side quests I could possibly do). I actually donít 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 youíre 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 Ageís dialogue will be different, you will have to consider what youíre trying to accomplish and in some cases youíll need to make some downright tricky decisions.
One area that Iíve always felt was lacking in many RPGís has been the skill system for mages, spells and so have often felt lacking or weak. Itís 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. Itís 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 youíre 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, itís not as if youíre 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 youíre a fan of that kind of design/writing, youíll love Dragon Age for the world building thatís gone into it. The journal is fairly good and it tracks quests well enough, though it isnít as impressive as the one found in the Witcher.