Dragon Age

December 9th, 2009

Oooooh, I liked this a lot. Right up my boulevard.

Bioware have been making great RPGs for a long time. I was a huge lover of Baldur’s Gate and its sequel when they came out three hundred years ago, and played the arse out of both of them. Neverwinter Nights was good but seemed more limited, more formulaic. Then of late they’ve drifted in a more arcade-y sort of a direction – unavoidable perhaps in a world where PC games are dying a slow death and you have to design games to run on consoles too, perhaps for a slightly less cerebral audience. Jade Empire was pretty weak. And I wasn’t a massive lover of Knights of the Old Republic either. Mass Effect was, well, no better than good for me. I was starting to worry that they’d abandoned serious fantasy RPGing to the Elder Scrolls (cold shivers). But no! For here is Dragon Age, and with it – gah! Oh. I’ve been splattered with gore again.

I can’t remember playing a fantasy RPG that’s as dark and nasty as this one. The hubris of mages has led to the poisoning of heaven and the world being tyrranised by occasional erruptions of slavering evil. Magic is fundamentally dangerous, and those who use it are constantly at risk of being posessed by demons, with the result they must be watched over by templars with itchy trigger-fingers. The main religion – the chantry – is sinister and oppressive. Elves have lost most of their ancient technology and either live as semi-savages in the woods, are corralled in ghettoes, or are pressed into slavery by humans. Dwarves are caste-bound, feuding and isolationist and their once great subterranean empire is gradually collapsing under constant onslaught by subterranean darkspawn. And humans are treacherous, greedy, backstabbing slime. I liked the world a lot, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, probably more than any other computer game fantasy invention I can think of. There was plenty of detail there, plenty of background and texture, but it wasn’t awash with blather to the point where it just looked like a load of repetitive cliched mush to the casual observer (Oblivion, I’m looking at you). It mixed the right amount of trope-y-ness with the right amount of innovation, surprise and darkness.

They’ve dialled up the blood quite high as well, to add to that 18 certificated grittiness, and proclaim that this is ADULT. Everyone likes a good decapitation, but the obsession with gore is a little distracting at times. Bioware’s own logo is splattered onto the screen in blood at the start, and that does rather set the tone. This is particularly noticeable when, just after a fight, you get into conversation with someone, and exchange pleasantries while your character is daubed head to foot in gore.

I’ve heard people bitch about the graphics, and I don’t know, I just didn’t have that issue. Sure, it doesn’t have the amazing light effects and incredible vistas of Uncharted, but it’s a very different type of game. Maybe graphics on games is like prose on books – people tend to say it’s good if they like the thing in general. I kind of liked the graphics on Dragon Age, they had personality, they were consistent with the setting, the faces were more varied and expressive than I can remember seeing in other similar games.

The actual game system seems to have moved away from the d&d special abilities once-a-day model towards a timed activation, sustained and activated powers thingy that reminded me of online RPGs like Guild Wars. Seemed as if there was quite a bit of depth to it, though, in the combination of various different powers, spells and equipment, but co-ordinating a four person party on the PS3 is a bit of a ball-ache, so I tended to end up controlling the main character and leaving the others to do their thing. You can set up quite detailed scripted commands for characters, though, a bit like in Final Fantasy 12, which is quite handy. One thing I would say is that as you get towards the end of the game and can make pretty much infinite health and magic potions at relatively low cost, you can just set your characters up to burn through those whenever they need them and it all does become pretty easy. Maybe I should have just dialled up the difficulty, but it did feel like the game slightly lacked the truly immense side-challenges that keep you playing something like Final Fantasy VII for hundreds of hours. Still, it would be a miserly reviewer who complained too much about the size of Dragon Age, because it’s a big, big game. Took me about sixty hours to complete, and with various different framing storylines and character types you feel like you could get quite a lot from playing through again. In fact I’m already thinking about what sort of character I’d go for next time, which is usually a very good sign…

The world feels varied. You don’t get massive repetition of areas (again, Oblivion, I’m looking at you, and with a disappointed shaking of my head. Go and stand in the corner). A couple of streets and houses start to look familiar, true, but you don’t get hundreds of identikit dungeons. And I’m not sure how they pulled off the trick, since in many ways the game is clearly made up of a few distinct areas with very sharply delineated edges, but it feels like a big world in a way that, say, Mass Effect, utterly failed to do for me.

But above all the game just tells a compelling story, and one which kept me interested and playing into the small hours from start to finish. The characters are a bit more interesting and multi-dimensional than you expect in this type of thing. They get annoyed and leave the party. They turn on you. They make surprising suggestions. Some of them are kinda shits. Some of them are occasionally even a bit funny. Voice acting is generally pretty good. And the quests you’re sent on rarely turn out to be quite as simple as advertised. Most people have darker sides and hidden agendas. There’s some drama to be had. It’s very rare for a game of this type to offer difficult choices, but a couple of times towards the end I was left genuinely not sure which way to go with a particular decision.

So overall, despite a couple of flaws, I thought it was a cracking effort and I’m delighted to see Bioware back to doing what they do best. Furthermore I think it can only be a good thing that there’s some serious competition for the Elder Scrolls as far as serious fantasy roleplaying goes, for though I had my issues with Oblivion, I’m excited to see what Bethesda can do with a sequel after the excellent Fallout 3.

9/10, though I was close to a ten, I must say, because I haven’t straight up enjoyed and felt compelled to play a game so much in a long time. Feels like its been a really good year for games, this. Perhaps the latest generation of consoles are finally coming of age…

Posted in games by Joe Abercrombie on December 9th, 2009.

22 comments so far

  • Mark Lord says:


    Thanks for posting the review. I have this game on my Xmas list, so I'm really looking forward to it now! I had viewed the video trailer and that was pretty awesome. It's good to hear that the game lives up to the promo. However, I am worried that this game will suck the life out of any plans to do any writing from 25th December onwards!

    Any suggestions?


  • Mark Lord says:

    By the way, did you play this on PC?

  • innokenti says:

    I've just completed my firth playthrough and I was very glad to see some excellent characters.

    The presentation really was excellent and the depth of your companions and other NPCs and the fact that things rarely turned out good, usually just different shades of grey (especially the post-game stories you get…) – brilliant.

    I really want to see if the engine and world can be handed to Obsidian Entertainment to see what kind of thoroughly wonderful awesomeness they can come up with. (I've always preferred Obsidian's stories and plots to BioWare's, but the latter really do pioneer presentation so so very much).

    I think that one aspect I was a little displeased with (though bear in mind I'd also give the game a 9/10) was that the world-building wasn't adventurous enough. It didn't quite go as far as the plot and presentation in making this world… different. I can see why they more or less HAD to include a form of high magic into the game (for the mage class and all that entails) but it would have been interesting to see if they could have created a setting and system where low magic could work.

    It's probably a little too much to expect given how much they've done with this, but I can only hope that they or someone else will try that at some point!

  • I'm playing through Oblivion now for the first time. I've put in somewhere around 45 hours so far, and I've been mostly pleased. Compared to Fallout 3 I've been hugely disappointed, but I've found a few things that I've enjoyed.

    Great review on Dragon Age. I really, really want to get this game.

  • Anonymous says:

    Wow! Joe, you've pretty much summed up my gameing life and my opinion on Bioware games since the year 2000 right there!

    I'm a HUGE fan of Dragon Age, can't stop playing it, absolutely essential if you love RPGs.

    Played The Witcher? I'm really looking forward to The Witcher 2.


  • Mark L,
    I played on PS3. I'm a long term PC gamer but I just can't be arsed keeping up with the technology and endless compatibility nonsense any more. I do hear Dragon Age is better on the PC, though.

    I think worldbuilding's always going to be a bit standard in these sort of games, which by definition have to be big crowd-pleasers. I thought within that context they did well.

    Not a big fan of Oblivion myself. It's ok, but a lot of big ass flaws for me, it just gets to be like chewing sawdust after a while. Fallout 3 I thought was magnificent though, if they can do an Elder Scrolls that has Fallout's sense of setting and drama we're cooking with gas.

    Never got to the Witcher, but I hear good things.

  • says:

    Supposedly, two of your main gripes with the game is a lot better on the PC.

    #1 You control all the characters a lot more often and just sticking to one character. In the consoles it seems more like mass effect in that you control one person at a time. On the PC its more like Baldurs Gate in that it is a lot more reason to and easier to move and control in detail all your characters.

    #2 Its more difficult, I've played it on a 360 and only a couple of fights I actually needed to pay attention and control all the characters, which didn't work very well anyway. On the PC on the other hand, you have to use your tactical advantage much more often, thus requiring more of your attention and engaging you on a tactical level.

  • enjai says:

    I hope you realise that the "rabid fans" are going to start cursing your game reviews if "The heroes" is late? Just look at poor old GRRM and his much loved football reviews 🙂

    Looks like Dark fantasy is taking a grip of RPG's too.
    If a games designer asked to use your books as the basis for an RPG would you allow it? Discounting the obvious "Yes" if they offered you a huge wad of cash for it.

  • derek says:

    Nice review , re the blood and gore all over you after a battle, didn't like it at first then sorta got used to it and dont notice it at all now. My only moan about the game is the extra quests you have to buy. Best Rpg since Planescape Torment.
    Try it on a pc , there really is big difference from the console versions

  • Liam says:

    Playing DA on the 360 and I must say I have pretty much the same opinion.
    The difficulty level always seemed to be "taking candy from a baby" or "being raped by a 300 pound gorilla who shoots lasers out of his eyes." Either my party cakewalked through encounters or my party wiped instantaneously, but never anything in between. I can see how it would be much better on the PC where you could control your party baldurs-gate style.

    The voice acting could have used some work too. Most of the main characters' voicework rocked, but everyone else largely sounded the same. It really bothered me that the elves and dwarves (especially the dwarves) didn't have their own accent/dialect. I mean you don't have to devolve to the stereotypical "all dwarves are scottish," but at least having the isolationist dwarves sounding somewhat different would have been nice. I cringed whenever they spoke dwarven phrases to me…sounded like an american tourist reading out of a phrasebook.

    On the other hand, the story is GREAT, especially when compared to games like Oblivion, or hell even mass effect. I was gripped right from the beginning, and every twist or turn in the plot drew me in a little deeper. Every time you delve a little deeper into the story the world becomes even darker and more twisted, right up the alley of anybody who likes the First Law Trilogy enough to be reading this blog.

    Now that the editor's out though i'm really wishing I'd bought the game for PC, since I'm sure there's gunna be some great mods for it too.

    Good luck writing the Heroes Joe, can't wait to read it!


    ps. Oblivion wasn't really all THAT bad. Sure the main quest was bland, but as with all elderscrolls games its all about exploring the world and doing the side-quests. The last thieves guild mission was totally epic.

  • franti says:

    I didn't think I'd ever find a human being that rated Mass Effect as ok.

    It's amazing. BUT ANYWAY I'M NOT HERE TO NITPICK. Dragon Age is fantastic, but I've never been a lover of the old-school straight-RPG. I like the action oriented stuff, which makes Mass Effect edge Dragon Age out on this one. Plus, the metamyth story still seems kinda fresh in a SF environment, whereas with fantasy it comes across as a little hackneyed. Still a great game, but I'm not absolutely in love with it.

  • franti,
    To be fair I said Mass Effect was good but no better. Lots to admire but the side missions and wandering about on planet's surfaces I found very dull, the play balancing was a bit creaky (got very easy towards the end), and locations very repetitive. Maybe I just don't like sf as much as I like fantasy, but I didn't find the setting nearly as convincing or compelling as Dragon Age. I liked it, but I just didn't believe it that much.

  • franti says:

    Ah, true. To me, gameplay elements will always outweigh the story. I'm an action gamer, weened on first-person shooter like Medal of Honor and 3rd person stealth/action like Splinter Cell, and I never got into the Final Fantasy trend. Couldn't get past the turn-based fighting system.

    So I have a huge bias against games that have a boring combat system, and although Dragon Age has an incredibly deep, intricate combat system, I don't find it all that exciting. Oblivion has a lot of glaring faults, but the ability to twitch-game if I hadn't brought along enough health potions makes it more rewarding than watching my elf die because an arrow flew through the wall because the game decides that it hits right when the arrow fires instead of taking obstacles into account. It's not -bad- it just doesn't suit my taste.

    So mass Effect hit on my love of actionish gameplay with a kickass story and lots of optional side quests. It definitely has its faults, but nothing I've seen in Dragon Age (so far) has been as awesome to me as your first meeting with Sovereign or the finale cutscenes. Ostagar comes close – very, very close – but I really think the dynamic conversations in ME helped with immersion and overall joy.

    I still need to finish Dragon Age though, I'm just outside Orzammar and afterward only need to complete the Dalish quest.

  • Chris Allen says:

    I had an absolute blast with Dragon Age, played it pretty much solid for good week and a half. The gore is overdone, especially when playing the game for the first time, although I found myself desensitised to it at the end. I think if you keep the warhound in your party, after a battle you can have a chat and ask him whether he can 'do something about all this mess', and lo behold the player character is freshly cleaned. I don't know if this happens outside of the pc version of the game.

  • Liam says:

    I'd agree that Mass Effect is merely "good," whereas DragonAge is "great." Mass Effect suffered at times from 'generic dungeon B' syndrome that you had in Neverwinter Nights a lot, or that Oblivion is pretty infamous for. The cities also felt less alive or believable than they do in DA, and I was substantially more attached to the characters by the end.

    Really though, how come Assassin's Creed is the only time where a market is legitimately filled with people milling around, as a decent market should be? Perhaps it's a time thing, but it's fully what made me love the first one so much. Can't wait for exams to be over so I can actually play the second one.

  • maart says:

    Nice review. I truly loved this game as well. Probably the best game story/world/characters-wise since Witcher.

    Also, I don't really care about the criticism about the graphics.. As far as I'm concerned, playing video games for graphics is like watching porn for the storyline.

  • Steven says:

    I played this a while ago and it seems like the closest thing to a Abercrombie game I can think of. So much so that I named my Mage Bayaz and tried to specialize in fire.

    I'm just amazed to see that my favourite author plays games too, and good ones!
    Well anyway great review and I'll look forward to your next.

  • Mariano says:


    my first post here. I am currently reading 'Before they are hanged' and thoroughly loving it! Keep up the good work 🙂

    I just came across this blog, and am surprised to see that Joe is also a lover of videogames. Good stuff!

    Haven't played Dragon Age yet, but it's now firmly on my wishlist 🙂 I agree with most people's comments about Oblivion (including Liam's remark about the last Thieves' guild mission, which was total awesomeness). That said, I think that Morrowind was an absolutely fabulous game. The main storyline was much more interesting and engaging, and it was carried out with much more subtlety (instead of Oblivion's too obvious dialogues and quest hints).

    I believe that open worlds (ie: sandbox games) are a bit overrated. Again, Morrowind was the only one I liked, and I only explored a tiny fraction of it. Your classical BioWare-style game with branching story paths and side quests can feel much more fulfilling than an open world.

    I am, however, looking forward to the next Elder Scrolls game. After the experience learned from Fallout 3 it is bound to be really good.

  • Taylert123 says:

    Oh Mr. Abercrombie, how delighted I am to see you liked this game.

    To tell the truth, I learned of your books a while ago and am about 70 pages from the end (do you see, I'm prolonging the inevitable by checking your blog!). Anyway, I also rented this game about a month ago, and I think it would have been cheaper to just have went ahead and bought it. Seriously, I played for about 60 hours (still not done, but I do a lot of pointless wandering in games) and even had to take a break from reading. I guess the point of this walk down the lane of my life was mostly pointless, but it's great to know that such a great author has similar interests to mine. Honestly, out of all the books I've read in these short 17 years (You expected this eloquently worded comment from someone much older, amirite?) The First Law trilogy is at the top. Not many books, I'd challenge, are on their level.
    Best Served Cold, I presume, shall rival them.

  • Anonymous says:


    You really need to play the PC RPG The Witcher. It is dark, gritty fantasy done in an original way and with better execution than anything else out there, including Bioware's games – which is saying a lot: I'm a huge fan of theirs.

    It's based upon The Witcher series of novels by best selling polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and is a deep, rich story and world.

    The game studio also went above and beyond and did a huge amount of work on the game AFTER it was a released best seller.

    Pick up The Witcher Directors Cut – you won't be dissapinted.

  • Steven says:

    Okay, I hate to echo what everybody else out there is already saying, but everyone seriously ought to play Mass Effect 2.

    I really liked the first one, but I can understand feeling a bit underwhelmed by it. I thought it had the potential to be the best thing BioWare's done yet (not sure why– maybe the whole space opera trilogy thing just appeals to me), and it wasn't. But Mass Effect 2 is terrific, in my book. I actually loved it even more than Dragon Age, though they're quite different games (and I did love Dragon Age).

    Pretty much everything that was subpar in the first game is greatly improved, most things that were already good are improved anyway, and I actually think it trumps Dragon Age in the characters department. Really, I can't say enough good stuff about it.

    I'll shut up though.

  • […] really enjoyed the first Dragon Age.  This second outing, I must admit, not nearly as much.  It wasn’t bad, it passed some […]

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