Blind Review: Dragon Age: Origins: A Gamer Blahhhg Exclusive

As a young site that still retains that baby-fresh smell, Gamer Blahhhg does not yet have the kind of industry pull needed to gain early access to reviewable code upcoming games, or even free review copies of new titles when they launch. Other sites might shill themselves out to publishers, trading inflated scores for free merchandise or all expenses paid trips to exclusive “press” events. Gamer Blahhhg has more integrity than that, or at least I’ve never been tempted so as to prove one way or the other.

But I don’t think the fact that I haven’t had a chance to play a game should be an impediment to my ability to write a review. We’ve all read reviews on the “legitimate” sites that don’t seem to contain any information beyond what you might find in an official press release. That’s why I’ve decided to launch a new feature here at Gamer Blahhhg: the Blind Review. This will be review-like articles about highly anticipated games nearing release that I have never played. I cannot and will not guarantee the accuracy of any information contained in a blind review, and Gamer Blahhhg reserves the right not to stand behind the scores assigned.

With those disclosures out of the way, please enjoy our first Blind Review of Bioware‘s new RPG Dragon Age: Origins releasing November 3rd, 2009 for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

Dragon Age: Origins, Retrocentric Innovation

Even if you created a non-human character, Morrigan is supposed to be your twin sister...
Even if you created a non-human character, Morrigan is supposed to be your twin sister...

Much has been written already about Dragon Age: Origins from Bioware, makers of the Baldur’s Gate games. Dragon Age was conceived as a PC title first, heralding a return to the classic PC RPG gameplay all but perfected in Baldur’s Gate II. Originally slated for release on PC early this year, the game was delayed to allow console ports to ship along side of the PC version.

I’m glad to report that the game’s PC release has benefited from the additional time for polish and bug fixes that might’ve required patching post release otherwise. Those worried that the game may have been dumbed down for the console audience can also rest easy. If anything, the game is openly hostile to PS3 and 360 owners through a great many dialog options in the game that denigrate their ilk.

On PC the game controls very well with a keyboard and mouse setup that allows for both over the shoulder, MMO style exploration of the game world and a zoomed out, overhead isometric view that mimics the old Infinity Engine’s strategic view perfectly. Strangely, on the consoles control is completely text based. Like the old Zork games and other pre-graphical text based adventures, you control your party by typing in actions you’d like them to perform, hoping you’ve guessed the correct verbiage to progress. I recommend investing in a chatpad so you aren’t stuck using the on screen keyboard of the PS3 and 360.

Bioware has talked a lot about the way your player character’s origin has a major role in the way the plot unfolds. You can chose from 3 races, 2 genders and 3 classes. Depending on what race and class you’ve selected you must chose one of the 6 character backgrounds which will inform the narrative.

No matter what choices you make when you create your character when you start the game you are working as an arborist in a national forest in southeast Ferelden. The opening sequence walks you through the basic controls as you take your character on their normal rounds through the woods. You learn how to move, cast spells, quaff potions and even fight when you are asked to take some dying limbs off a sick tree. At the end of this tutorial you are approached by a mysterious cleric who enlists your services in a dangerous mission, the Templar’s census of local Dragons. Performed once every 100 years, you need to find, identify, question and learn the age of every dragon within the kingdom of Ferelden.

Dragons don't like it when you try and extract a core sample without asking.
Dragons don't like it when you try and extract a core sample without asking.

Why have they sought out an arborist for such a task? It’s simple: like trees, the only way to be sure of a dragon’s age is to count its rings. You will not be alone on your journey, however. The Templar’s have provided an line of discretionary credit you can use to hire help. There are many, interesting, powerful and expensive NPC to recruit along your travels. The concept of grinding reputation may be familiar to you if you have played any MMOs. In Dragon Age it is important as a means of increasing your character’s credit score allowing for the hiring of the best party and access to the highest tier equipment.

Once your party is assembled and working well together you can begin the primary task of seeking out dragons. You will travel through a wide variety of diverse environments looking for signs of dragon habitation and seeking out information from the locals. When you find a dragon you have several ways to approach the goal of discovering their age. You are of course free to confront them directly with violence. If you are able to kill one you can cut it open and count the rings at your leisure. You can also use diplomacy to talk the dragon into providing a core sample. You also have the option of forgoing physical contact entirely and spend your time in the many libraries around Ferelden searching the archives for birth announcements, birth certificates and other documentation to establish an exact age.

Like any good RPG, Dragon Age has a solid basis of strategic combat to compliment the twists and turns of the plot. Combat is handled with a pausible real-time system similar to the Baldur’s Gate game. This works best on the PC where you can pull the camera all the way back for the best tactical view, and where you can pause with a single button and not by typing out the word “pause”. The skill trees in each class offer a wide variety of play styles creating a more diverse range of distinct builds than you might expect. The way different magical effects interact in combat also create a sense of endless possibilities.

Aside from dragons, you will also find yourself at odds with a huge number of monsters, bandits, wild beasts and a scourge of demons overrunning the land. A great deal of intrigue and history is hinted at by the main plot, but you are free to explore these aspects freely in side quests or further library research. The main story stands tall in the tradition of an intellectual’s journey as your character uses their wits and expertise as an arborist to uncover conspiracies and ultimately save the world and maybe even find love.

Aside from the drawbacks present in the console version, I would not hesitate to recommend Dragon Age: Origins to anyone. It is an extremely well put together game with an effective complex of interesting game systems, classic gameplay, fresh approaches to problem solving and stylish violence. The music, visuals and voice acting all complement, rather than detract, from the core experience. I’m already looking forward to seeing the series continue through DLC and a teased at sequel.

Score: 73 Mega-Fonzies