Dragon Age: Origins Hands-On Preview

It felt like so many game companies at this year’s E3 were aiming for the ever-coveted tween and casual audiences. So let’s be thankful for Dragon Age: Origins. For those of us fortunate enough to experience the Baldur’s Gate games and other similar titles like Icewind Dale, Dragon Age: Origins is like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise somewhat stale market. BioWare have moved away from using traditional Dungeons & Dragons rulesets and have come with up one of their own that, while being different, certainly pays homage to the classic titles.

So, I was given a Xbox 360 demo for Dragon Age by an enthusiastic Jarrett Lee, BioWare’s Marketing Manager. After a quick recap of what the game’s all about, it was playtime. For those of you just tuning in, Dragon Age: Origins begins like most other RPGs, you create a character and are placed within a story that develops over time. Unlike most other RPGs, Dragon Age: Origins allows that character to have an origins story that flavors the plot from the very beginning with some interesting and sometimes severe consequences. During the demo I made a Dalish elf that was immediately confronted with a choice that would change the direction of my gameplay for the entire game. Hence the emphasis or “origins” in the name.

Elves in Dragon Age are treated like second-class citizens and are, more or less, slaves to humans. The Dalish, however, are as free as a bird as the humans I encountered weren’t treated too kindly by myself or the other elf with me. After deciding to let the humans live – this time – they gave me a juicy piece of information about some nearby ruins that might be Elven in nature. Of course, I had to check it out.

It was at around this point that I had to chance to fiddle with the controls. Now, it doesn’t help that I’m not much of a 360 gamer, and I’m sure that the control scheme will eventually become second nature, but I do think like Dragon Age was going to be one of those games you’ll have to play on the PC to truly enjoy. Yes, the graphics were fantastic, and the controls felt reasonably streamlined, but it felt like I was missing out on some of the more fluid motions by not having a mouse, and by forcing my arsenal of actions to be interpreted from only so many buttons. 

I encountered some combat within the ruins, and it was smooth, fun and engaging. It wasn’t a piece of cake, something I was surprised and glad to see at the beginning of a game. The gaming industry has been moving towards less punishment for death for some time, so it was pleasing to see these monsters were not taking it easy, and that when I died I was reverted to a previous checkpoint. Sure, it’s no Mega Man and I’m allowed saves, but it’s a start.

The last feature Jarrett showed off was the ability to switch between party members and then play as them for as long as I liked, and actually level them up and have complete control over what they level and evolve themselves into. As a Final Fantasy micromanaging type of gamer, the idea of leveling a number of characters over time very specifically and the ability to have any one of them be the character I’m playing as is a very attractive proposition.

At the end of the demo, my elf was recruited into the Grey Wardens – kicking and screaming, but recruited nonetheless. Fellow TGR writers Jeffrey Matulef and Joe DeLia both watched me play, and after talking with them afterwards, and after writing this preview, I am more excited than ever for Dragon Age’s release for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 20 2009.

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