If you find yourself becoming bored with the cookie cutter games being released these days, the ones that lack any sense of story and simply have you killing endless waves of mindless minions, then you'll love Dragon Age. Why? Cause it has both! Bioware's latest gives us what we've come to expect from one of their stories with all the bloody violence you can handle to boot.
In Dragon Age you play as a Grey Warden, an ancient line of warriors from all paths of life sworn to protect the world from the Darkspawn invasions. The basic story is taken right from the Hero's Journey, from humble beginnings to noble ends, but that isn't where this game truly shines. Ferelden is a world filled to bursting with unique characters that draw you in with their sordid pasts, witty repartee, and personal beliefs as to whether you're a lunatic or a savior. Lore books scattered about the world weave tales of battles long past, the personal tale of martyrs long dead, and present you with the rich in-depth history of the world you fight to save. There is so much to this fantasy realm that you'll feel like never leaving. It all sounds bleak, what with the impending doom and all, but the quirky writing and small tidbits of humour stashed away in people you'll meet on your journey keep the mood light even during the business of slaying Darkspawn. Your party members add much to your experience as well, each is a very distinct person with a set of beliefs just like you or me and sometimes they clash, other times, well, it wouldn't be a Bioware game without a little romance thrown in. If you think running around town will be boring you're wrong, your party often has some humourous or heated discussions on the road depending on who you take along with you for the ride.
You and three of your companions travel the world together, it's not required to have any with you but it's recommended, on pain of horrible, agonizing death. Don't worry, you can swap out who is with you in your camp or any friendly area (i.e. The major cities) and the ones who stay behind still level up with the rest of your group. The selection is vast, okay so not that large but I had trouble deciding whom to take with me. It can be a tough choice, as anything you do while these people are with you affect how they view you, and your actions, as well as your influence over them. It's a little meter on their character screen that tells you how much they like you and what you do, you can alter this by completing acts in accord with their morals or by giving them gifts. That's right, you're buying them off with shiny bobbles, everyone likes bobbles. Higher influence means more dialog options, bonuses to their stats, and even the possibility of romance. The other end of the spectrum could result in their leaving your group forever, or possibly trying to kill you. Yes, they can hate you that much. We all know about Morrigan and Alistair, two of the more heavily promoted characters, but I personally liked Oghren a dwarf who spends most of his time drunk or killing things, sometimes both. If you downloaded The Stone Prisoner DLC then you could have an irate Golem who likes to squish things and insists on calling you "it".
Whomever you choose to follow you there will be much slaying to do. And slay you do, in many bloody, painful, explosive ways. It's not all a cakewalk though, you will be thrashed a few times and learn your lesson but thankfully not in the "I want to pull my hair out" frustrating kind of way. The console versions are however noticeably easier than the PC. Combat is simple, you press A (Or X or click, as the case may be) to engage an enemy with basic attacks and you use your talents with the other three face buttons or the skill wheel, ala Mass Effect. This has the added benefit of pausing combat, which gives you the chance to assess and plan. Since you can directly control all party members and not just your own, your pool of spells and options is that much larger. Spells can create combos with varied effects, some resulting in instant kills that when used right can make tough battles that much more survivable. Your party members also have 'tactics' which allow you to customize how they react in certain situations. For example: If Ally Health < 20% Then Use Skill: Heal. There are a ton of options for you to choose from which makes for a decent amount of useful autonomy if you wanted to stick to playing your lead character. Still, you will need to take the reigns from time to time to get the most out of them.
There are three basic classes: Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. Each has four specialization classes to choose from which grants bonus stats and four new skills each. All characters can choose up to two specializations with most of your characters already having one when you recruit them. Along with this are six different origin stories that alter your experience in Ferelden. Some of the changes are superficial, with characters addressing you differently or maybe they talk down to you or revere you. Others can drastically alter the flow of the story, whole areas will be different for you if say you were a dwarf returning to your homeland after being exiled, or an elf from the city alienages. All of this coupled with the array of side quests and moral choices presented to you in the main story adds a significant amount of replay value. If you're the kind of person who likes to get all the achievements for a game then you'll want to play multiple times for the full experience and the gamer points of course.
As wonderful as Dragon Age and the world of Ferelden is, it isn't perfect. The graphics are a little dated and the color palette is on the bland side at times. That's not to say that the vistas are any less jaw dropping, like the first time you walk into Orzammar and witness the scope of the underground city. Character models are well done, and the textures don't pop after loads but they aren't pushing the limits of the platform. It isn't on the level of Mass Effect but it's still beautiful to watch. The Xbox version I played had a few bugs ranging from minor ones such as an audio clip not playing during a dialog sequence to major crashes involving restarting the system when trying to talk to a deranged beggar caused the system to lock up. It doesn't happen frequently but when it does you'll know something is amiss.
As an animator I can say that the fight sequences in this game are phenomenal! Every motion is smooth and so believable you would think it was live action. There were moments that left me cringing as someone's face was smashed in, or giddy with excitement the first time my character leapt atop an ogre and rode him to the ground. Fatalities, which are just fancy kill animations with lots of gore, blend smoothly into the combat without breaking the flow or making it look like something popped. Bioware has pulled out all the stops with their audio once again, enlisting a stellar cast of voices to breathe life into the people you'll be spending the better part of sixty hours with. Sound effects enhance the visceral feel of combat and make every sword strike or spell pull you further in.
Whatever the game may lack in visual splendor it makes up for with a deep story and pure awesome fun. You'll spend close to sixty hours in this realm on your first time through, if you're like me and can't leave a stone unturned, but that still won't be enough. You'll keep coming back for more, and with the promise of downloadable content you'll be picking up your sword or staff once again soon enough. This is the kind of game that will keep you enraptured from start to finish, playing through the wee hours of the morning or standing around work saying "Man, all I can think about is Dragon Age."