Dragon Age: Origins Eyes-On Preview

Like any good 25 year old man, I take most of my life lessons from the cinematic masterpiece, Die Hard. One can live a well-rounded life guided by such an opus of the humanities. Sure, people have made movies about a cop in the wrong place at the wrong time before. Yeah, guys have jumped off exploding buildings and fought German terrorists since time was time. So what if there was nothing astoundingly new about Die Hard? It was an awesome movie because it did what it did very well, and didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t.

From my demo at GDC 2009, it’s easy to see that the folks at BioWare understand this. Dragon Age: Origins embodies the “if it ain’t broke” mentality, seeking to combine the best of traditional fantasy tropes with tweaks and twists to create an awesome game, even if not groundbreakingly innovative or original. I can say with certainty that they’ve brought over all the fantasy mainstays we’re familiar with, but the tweaks and twists, while very promising, may not be enough to win over gamers long jaded on the standard fantasy setting. The Baldur’s Gate references are justified, and as such, those looking for traditional RPG action will love the game. Other gamers that have spent their fill of time in the Faeldark or Underdamp or Myst Cavyrns fighting the demynspawn or caliginous scourge or whatever, might not find enough variety here to peak their interest.

The demo opened in grand fantasy tradition with the Blight (Dragon Age’s evil hellspawn) besieging humble town Redcliffe. You’re familiar with Redcliffe – this is a place where people enjoy the simple things in life. Little kids run around while giggling innocently and playing with that wheel-and-stick thing. Naturally, what’s a fantasy boy scout to do other than dive right in and offer to help?

Until this point Dragon Age looked about as generic a fantasy RPG as you could imagine, but here the hero’s party members did something they rarely do in games of this ilk – they disagreed. Sten (giant plate-mail clad warrior) and Morrigan (every bit the sexual temptress you might guess from her name) both piped up, more or less asking why the hell they should waste their time saving such a crappy town. These are questions I frequently ask aloud as a player, so it’s nice to have someone in the game echo my sentiment. The demo’s boisterous presenter – Dragon Age Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw – explained that party members will interject if they disagree with something you do, and may either leave the party or outright try to shank you if they disagree strongly enough with your actions. Managing a party of temperamental and self-interested characters could be very interesting, but we were also told that you’d be able to interrupt people’s dialogue in Mass Effect, so here’s hoping these features make it into the final game.

After obligating a partially unwilling party to the defense of Redcliffe, it’s time to make preparations. As it turns out, an assortment of pots, pans and gardening tools don’t make for the best battle gear, so the first step was to visit the town smith to rustle up some equipment for the villagers. Unfortunately, after losing his daughter, the town smith has barricaded himself inside his forge and proceeded to drink all day and yell incoherently at any callers. After kicking in the door, the hero promises to save the smith’s daughter in grand hero fashion. Interestingly enough, merely promising to save the smith’s daughter gets him smithing away again, which implies that the player merely talk a good game to get the smith back to work and not actually follow through on the promise. Moral ambiguity is something rarely found in RPGs, and Bioware’s games have been subtly moving in that direction for a few years now. Hopefully this is an indication of the quests at large in Dragon Age.

Aside from the questing, another surprising bit cropped up during the conversation with the drunken smith. The same two NPCs that chirped up before – Sten and Morrigan – voiced their disapproval yet again at their shining paragon of a party leader, but the smith even responded to these remarks. I did note it rather odd that nobody else seemed to hear their vehement objections in the first instance, so it was nice that all present characters interacted in a believable way. This could lead to some very interesting character conflict, provided it doesn’t get too out of hand and leave the player staring at a non-interactive conversation between NPCs for minutes at a time.

After the talking is said and done, the time came to lay some sword to Blight. The combat system in Dragon Age looks to strike a balance between casual players that just want to throw fighters into the fray and players that love positioning characters, precisely controlling skills and pulling off combinations that would make any min/maxer blush. Dragon Age’s characters can be controlled by a tactics system, which is startlingly similar to Final Fantasy XII (and yes, I know the idea that a western developer is using an idea from an eastern developer is making all you Baldur’s Gate diehards balk). Players can set conditions and appropriate actions for each character, essentially constructing their own rudimentary AI. These can be as simple as “When a party member’s HP falls below 25%, heal that person” to complex chains that fire off in sequence. Whole groups of rules can be saved in presets or turned off all together for those that want complete and anal control of the battlefield.

While not required, the game rewards micro control and clever use of skills. For instance, the first encounter with the Blight occurred on a narrow walkway which funneled the baddies through an oil-soaked barricade. Once the enemies neared, the mage ignited the oil with a fire spell creating a fire trap. One might nod and say ‘Yes, I suppose that’s tactical-ish,’ but it gets better. On top of this, the caster threw an earthquake spell which inflicted knockdown on all the enemies in the fire. Better still, the party tank, Sten, downed a potion making him invincible to fire, and already possessed a character trait making him invincible to knockdown. This gave him license to dive right in to the rumbly fire and tear it up. A group of enemies that would’ve been frustrating became a snap with a bit of planning and skill combination.

Skill combinations are more than situational as well. Mages can combine spells for unique effects. For instance, a magician can cast an ice spell to freeze an enemy, then throw out Stone Fist for an instant death shatter. The real trick here will be adding enough spell combinations so players can constantly discover new and better ones. In addition to clever skill use, player positioning factors into battles as well. Archers need line of sight to hit their targets, and ranged attackers perform better on higher ground. The demo player took advantage of such features by positioning the party’s ranged attackers up a set of stairs where they could pick out enemies at their leisure.

After a frenzied battle, a short cutscene revealed that although the town was saved, Redcliffe’s mayor didn’t survive the melee. According to Mike Laidlaw, if the player performs well enough in the battle, they will not only save the mayor but earn a cool reward as well. Providing conditional bonuses is a great way to reward players for digging in to the tactics and winning battles with the least collateral damage. Hopefully the game will somehow give hints to the player to let them know reward conditions before they unwittingly fail them.

Dragon Age looks like a great game, but after playing Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, I can’t escape a sense of been-there-done-that. That being said, after seeing The Road Warrior someone could have just as easily passed an early dismissal after watching a trailer for Die Hard, thinking “oh posh, another action movie, no thank you.” If Bioware has earned anything in their nigh decade of RPG classics, it’s the benefit of the doubt. Players that haven’t already spent twenty years (or more) questing around in ye olde fantasy land will find little trouble jumping right in to Dragon Age and having a fantastic time. For the rest, finding out if Dragon Age is an awesome Die Hard or a lame and tired American Ninja will mostly depend on the story, dialogue and characters – things we won’t get to see until the game comes out in late 2009 for the PC, 360 and PS3.

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