Review: Dragon Age: Origins

BioWare's latest gets lost in the details
By MITCH KRPATA  |  November 18, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars


Dragon Age: Origins | for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, And PC | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Bioware | Published by Electronic Arts
Nobody could accuse BioWare of lacking ambition. The famed developer churns out one cult classic RPG after another, each one more massive than the last: Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, and on and on. Its latest effort is the long-in-development Dragon Age: Origins, a sword-and-sorcery epic cast from the Lord of the Rings mold. All of BioWare's calling cards are here: a far-reaching story that embraces political, religious, and ethnic conflict; rigorous tactical combat; complex character relationships that develop based on your choices. Oh, and also inscrutable mechanics, an inept interface, and a sadistic approach to checkpoints and saves.

Let's start with the good stuff, because there's plenty of it. To compare the story of Dragon Age with TheLord of the Rings is a handy shortcut, and it's not that Dragon Age doesn't hold its own, what with BioWare's emphasis on literary writing. Quest lines, too, are more than simply collecting items or killing bosses. They're bookended by fascinating cutscenes that lay out morally ambiguous dilemmas. Through dialogue options, you can choose to make your character a goody two-shoes or a rogue, and the game rarely telegraphs which character is which.

There's a ton of game here. To start with, you can choose from one of six character types, each with a unique origin story that takes a couple of hours of playtime. Beyond that, the game stretches out for eternity, with one objective stacking on top of another, and more characters joining your party all the time. Some have complained about the way the game tries to sell you downloadable content during quests, and it's true that the disc is already overstuffed.

The big picture makes it all sound phenomenal, and already Dragon Age has acquired a rabid following. But as with past BioWare games, the minute-to-minute experience of playing ranges from unpleasant to downright hostile. Menus are laid out like an M.C. Escher painting, with submenus nested inside one another ad infinitum. Button functions change depending on what screen you're on — you can never count on your triggers or bumpers to do the same thing from one screen to the next. Imagine if the gas and brake pedals in your car switched depending on whether you were driving in the city or on the highway.

The deep tactical combat is not well explained, either in the manual or in the game. Internet chatter suggests this isn't a problem for BioWare veterans, but for a newbie it's painful. Battles appear to be happening in real time, but if you play that way, you'll be sunk. Even using "tactics" slots — which give characters battle priorities according to conditions that you designate — doesn't help. Better to freeze the action by calling up a radial menu and then assign individual commands to your party members. So, why not make the whole thing turn-based, with a wider view of the battlefield? (The PC version includes an option to play with an isometric view, which would be far preferable. Not having played it, I'll stop short of recommending it over its console cousins, but I can confidently say that there's no way it could be worse.)

Maybe all this sounds like minutiae, but navigating menus isn't incidental to the gameplay experience — it's the linchpin. You will spend more time doing that than anything else as you compare items and experiment with character builds. Is it too much to ask that it be done well?

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