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…