As what one might call mainstream consumers of interactive entertainment, we're quick to snicker at anything too concerned with elves and dragons, or any kind of stat-juggling role-playing game. That said, we've always had a soft spot for epic, story-driven games such as Oblivion and Fallout 3, which use the trapping of the RPG format to build a fully realized virtual world.
This year's entry in the epic RPG/adventure game category is Dragon Age: Origins, released Tuesday. After getting an early preview during this year's Game Developer's Conference, we were surprisingly hooked and eager to see more. Having now played a preview build of the game for the past six weeks, we can safely say it's one of the year's best, alongside Batman: Arkham Asylum and The Beatles: Rock Band.
More surprisingly, it's a rare example of a game that calls out for a high-powered PC rig. While Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are available, this is one of the few high-profile games in 2009 designed and built for PC gamers and then ported to home consoles, rather than the other way around. While it keeps the same storyline, characters, and locations--along with a redesigned menu system for gamepads and lower-resolution TV screens--we judged the PC version to be superior, with better graphics, a more flexible camera, and the ability to easily pause the action for some strategic planning.
In our initial preview back in March, we felt the heart of the game--a sprawling big-budget action/adventure in the style of the "Lord of the Rings" movies--was buried under tired ideas about how to best sell a game of the sword-and-sorcery genre. There was plenty of talk about party management, the history of various fictional kingdoms, and most frightening, a "prequel novel" explaining the game's backstory.
Fortunately, EA has gone into the home stretch emphasizing the massive battle scenes, PG-13 love triangles, and--of course--the occasional fight with a giant dragon.
While the major beats of the game remain the same, we were impressed that the choice of race (human, elf, or dwarf), profession (fighter, mage, or rogue), and even social status (noble or commoner) determines which of six opening chapters you play through--potentially making the first two-to-three hours of the game different each time, depending on the character you design.
To be sure, entering the world of Dragon Age is no small commitment for casual gamers. There's a ton of dialog, pages and pages of onscreen text to read (a throwback to early computer RPGs that feels in need of an update), and a fair amount hacky scriptwriting involving every cliche in the fantasy genre. The voice actors generally do a fine job, but too often are stuck delivering lines from a Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie.
Still, even non-RPG types like ourselves were able to get the hand of it quickly, and thanks to expert pacing, interspacing exploration and interaction with plenty of combat, the hours seemed to fly by. We suggest putting any lingering anti-RPG bias aside and taking the very impressive Dragon Age: Origins for a spin; and for PC gamers, it's practically a must-play.
Scott Stein offers a concurring opinion:
Games like Dragon Age: Origins are instantly unappealing to me. There's a seemingly generic fantasy setting and the sense that this is some pre-existing game in a franchise that I'm unaware of and will therefore feel confused by.
Thankfully, Bioware seems well aware of my apprehensions and held my hand from the very get-go. Picking a character and backstory developed into an unfolding of the story that felt organic, and explained everything as if setting up exposition for a good movie. So few games do this, and I appreciated that you could also pick your starting point for the story, changing many elements by doing so.
Did it win me over? In a way, yes. It's still a huge tip of the hat to classic swords-and-sorcery gaming (I prefer RPGs closer to Phantasy Star in setting), but it's made with the care of a Peter Jackson "Lord of the Rings" movie. Pretend you've never played one of these games before, then give it a try.