Dragon Age: Origins, A Ten Year Reunion
It was ten years ago that BioWare and EA teamed up to give us one of the most ground breaking action/adventure RPGs in history. Dragon Age: Origins was one of the most anticipated titles at the time, especially due to the success of BioWare’s Mass Effect. It received huge critical acclaim and even won Game of the Year from many gaming publications. It undoubtedly set the foundation for a monumental new gaming franchise. Being one of my all-time favorite games, I was more than eager to revisit it to see how it has stood the test time.
Set in the country of Ferelden, one of many countries in the fictional world of Thedas, an evil force known as the Darkspawn have once again resurfaced and threaten all life within it. The Darkspawn horde are commanded by the Archdemon, an old god in the form of a dragon with immense power. These waves of onslaught are referred to as a Blight, and have only been able to be pushed back far beneath the surface of Thedas with the help of the legendary warriors known as the Grey Wardens. Fighting alongside the other races across the land, the Grey Wardens have time and again been able to stave off the Blight, only to have them resurface every few hundred years. The story starts with our hero being called upon to join the Grey Wardens to help defeat the new Blight that is seeking to overrun Ferelden.
Like several RPGs before it, Dragon Age: Origins starts off letting you customize your character by choosing your gender, race, class, and physical appearance. Where it differs from a lot of other RPGs is how it begins. There are six different openings you can experience, each based on your race and, to an extent, your class. Right away this makes Dragon Age: Origins unique and offers incentive to try multiple playthroughs. This is what made me so instantly enamored with the game ten years ago. I started off my first playthrough as an elven mage, while my husband chose his usual human rogue path. I was floored to discover how different the games were for a good chunk of the beginning. Eventually they all lead to the same point, but the sheer diversity of player options when first starting the game impressed me like none other. In fact, they still do.
The entire story within Dragon Age: Origins is remarkable. There is a rich world here, with lots of history and secrets to unfold. Not only does the main game and its various side missions paint a vivid portrait of the world of Thedas, especially its focal point of Ferelden, but there are also hundreds of books, tomes, and passages you can find and collect that will further detail the lore of Thedas. I’ll admit that during my first playthrough I only read a handful of these collectables and most of those were only because they were essential to the main plot or current quest. However, the next time around I was craving to know more about this world so much that I thoroughly read everything I found. I was blown away by the depth of it. The only other games I have experienced with this much intricacy are Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games.
It’s not just the main story that blew my socks off, the characters are some of the best written I’ve ever seen. Dragon Age: Origins features a somewhat large group of companions and each of them have their own backstories and dilemmas. Many RPGs have this type of system, but not the extent portrayed here. Never before had I seen so many different characters so fully fleshed out with such deep and personal story arcs. I was so heavily invested in every one of them that every choice I made I had to really mull over for a while. Going back and playing it again ten years later, I can say that nothing has lost its impact.
At the time, the gameplay was somewhat polarizing between players. It features an extensive button mapping setup with highly tactical combat mechanics. A lot of fans of old school RPGs were frustrated by the “stupidity” of the AI when controlling the companions. This was mainly due to the fact that they never took the time to assign moves and instructions to those companions in the Tactics Menu. Turned-based gameplay this is not, nor is it a simplistic hack and slash.
Players like myself loved the strategic nature and level of control that this combat system allowed. Playing it again now, I have to say that I still love it, for the most part. I will admit that many of the animations are frustratingly slow and even with the combat tactics properly setup, the AI can still be ridiculous at times. This is something that they were able to improve upon in Dragon Age II, but that’s an article for another time.
As impeccable as the story remains, the graphics are another matter. Dragon Age: Origins did not age well at all visually. This was to be expected since the game is ten years old and made for such limited hardware. But since the whole look was going for realism, every rudimentary shape and muddied texture is glaringly obvious. A lot of the facial animations are still somewhat decent, but the body animations are horrible. Many of the characters walk around looking like they’ve got a stick up their backside. Then there’s the hands. Good lord everyone’s hands look like cheap back-scratchers have been sewn to their wrists. They never move. They are always stuck in a permanent open clawed state. With so many other passable animations, why didn’t anyone work on the hands? Did they run out of time or money before implementing the proper movements?
As atrocious as some of the visuals may be, the sound design is still top notch. The soundtrack is phenomenal with it being largely orchestral with a choir. Each area has its own distinct sound and the melodies stick with you long after you’ve turned the game off. This is one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a game and it still invokes an emotional response from me ten years later.
The voice acting is also fantastic. There are so many stellar performances from fine actors like Steve Valentine, Claudia Black, Simon Templeman, Tim Curry, Kate Mulgrew, and many others. Not a single performance falls flat. They each add their own personality to their characters and add to the vibrant tapestry woven throughout Dragon Age: Origins. Their performances almost make you forget about the unmoving claw hands of their characters. Almost.
Dragon Age: Origins is a game that despite its tarnished visuals, has stood the test of time. I had just as much fun playing it now as I did ten years ago and I’m sure I’ll still love it in another ten years from now. The story, lore, and characters are in a league of their own. If you haven’t played it yet, I urge you to lose yourself in it. In my opinion, it still remains the best of the franchise.