Crispy Gamer

Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360)

It's rare that I spend this much time on a game with as many problems as Dragon Age: Origins. It's even more rare that I'm enthralled enough, despite many issues, to want to keep playing for a great deal longer.

With this fantasy role-playing game BioWare ditches many of the advancements of Mass Effect -- like emotion-based dialogue trees and accompanying animated "performances" -- and goes resolutely old-school. But as a friend once said when the Beastie Boys rediscovered their roots on "Hello Nasty," the old school was never quite like this.

Superficially, Dragon Age looks like a dozen other fantasy RPGs. A young hero is assimilated into warrior subculture, then tasked with undertaking a quest to save his civilization, each step of which leads to additional side quests. There are elves and dwarves, dragons and chainmail, swords and bows. Arrows and spells fly in battle. Young gamers will think it looks a lot like World of Warcraft; those who've been around will instantly recall BioWare's 1998 RPG Baldur's Gate.

Dragon Age: Origins
Yep, you'll fight dragons. Don't take one on too early (you'll have opportunity to do so) because you'll be roasted.

BioWare hasn't just recalled the feeling of that earlier effort. The aesthetics are there, too. This is one brown, blocky, ugly game. It would've looked great on the original Xbox. I played on the Xbox 360, but the interface was obviously designed with a PC in mind. Nested submenus accommodate your spells and combat commands; accessing all but your most-used commands takes concentration and renders any combat beyond one-on-one encounters awkward at best.

The world isn't quite a routine Tolkien knockoff. Elves are a societal subclass often relegated to slums. Mages are looked upon with suspicion and policed by magic-resistant Templars. The frontier of civilization is threatened by a definite enemy, the Darkspawn, but civil war still brews. Keeping your head down and going with the flow seems like the best way to stay alive; there is scant glory in heroism. The real danger isn't the encroaching Darkspawn (which really are stripped straight from Tolkien) but the selfish motives of men. Oh, OK, that's Tolkien, too. Dammit!

But there are the characters, written with enough detail for you to earn an emotional connection, and the possible ways to approach the story, which are as plentiful as the loot you'll scavenge. The witch-mage Morrigan is resentful and sneaky, but powerful and an essential battle ally. Alistair is a warrior with confidence issues and a past he's afraid to live up to. I could go on, but I'll limit myself to this: Get a dog when the opportunity arises, and think twice about executing a would-be assassin who can become a valuable party addition.

Dragon Age: Origins
Alistair looks fierce all covered with blood, but the guy's got some issues. Treat him nice.

For every two or three hours of grind, you'll hit a tension point that is more potent than the climax of most games. Just playing through my character's prologue (I've rolled a few heroes, but my primary playthrough was with a City Elf mage), I had to think long and hard about how to resolve two conversations. Should I put my allegiance in a friend, or with my superiors? Who do I trust, and who do I sell out?

Those tension points set the tone for the entire game. While the grind is off-putting, coupled as it is with interface difficulties that had me reloading some battles a dozen times, the best beats in the story are like treats dangling from a stick, leading you on. They're not groundbreaking or original; quite a few places felt like homage to established styles. Here's the "Twilight Zone" moment, here's the Alexandre Dumas point, etc. But they work in context, and they take advantage of each character's weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.

Turning points in the tale, both those obviously major and many seemingly minor, become real moments of existential character assessment. "Moral choice" is a pathetic marketing term that has been applied to many games in which proffered binary "either/or" scenarios really represent no choice at all. Yet in a series of games that includes Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, BioWare has been one of the few developers willing to revel in the grey zone of moral relativity. Dragon Age is a respectable achievement in that arena.

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Conflict can spring up within the party as easily as without. Every member of your motley band of adventurers has an opinion of your choices and actions. They're not shy about expressing their approval or lack thereof. There's a meter for each character that gives you a general idea of how they feel about you, but it doesn't have to reach rock bottom before they'll decide to split or take action.

For example, I was in the middle of one quest, arguably an unnecessary detour from the path to the main goal of the game. I didn't see it as a sideline, but Sten, a stoic warrior I'd gone to some small trouble to remove from jail earlier in the game, was vocal about his opinion that we were wasting our time. The impromptu conversation led to an argument, which Sten thought I lost. He proclaimed that he was taking over the party. We fought and I won, barely. At that point I had a couple of dialogue options: commanding, passive-aggressive, whiny, etc. Figuring that Sten would respond best to command, I treated him like a dog that had just stepped out of line. My reward? This message: "Sten approves. +6."

Dragon Age: Origins
Thought the other screens look pretty? They're PC versions. This is what you'll see on the 360. Sigh.

As I delved deeper into the mysteries that bound the lives of my party members, though, irritations generated by the clunky interface never eased. I found that I had to save the game like I was playing a late-'90s PC game; that is, manually and often, as the auto-save was despicably unreliable. And without frequently exploring each character's submenus, it was far too easy to forget unlocked spells and abilities.

Most frustrating: Routine battles could turn into decimations, as no matter how intricately I used the options to program my party's artificial intelligence, characters rarely used abilities to their fullest. Each character has a set of "tactics" slots through which you can specify various battle conditions and how the character should respond. So you might tell a rogue to use his bow when enemies are at middle distance, but to get in close and activate his dual poisoned weapons when they approach to melee range. In theory, this offers the ultimate in AI customization. In practice, it turns into a chore with unreliable results.

The weakness of the party AI was drawn in sharp relief in one encounter where I faced shadow recreations of the characters. The enemies appeared tuned to attack at full power, and immediately devastated my own intricately tuned group of adventurers. The abilities open to each character are interesting and balanced, but applying them properly in battle is a serious and often infuriating undertaking. I often felt as if I was fighting the game, rather than the enemy.

Dragon Age: Origins
Morrigan: the greatest pain in your ass, and an essential party member when it's battle time.

If I had been playing on a PC, I would have been brave enough to turn on one of the upper difficulty levels that enables friendly fire. But on the 360, I figured that was about as advisable as jumping from a plane with no parachute.

Small bugs linger in the code. The most pervasive I saw came when saving near an unopened door. When reloading that save, the game treats the door as open even though it is closed; enemies behind it will see and react to you, but you won't be able to open the door. Area-effect weapons sometimes do the trick. Reloading to an earlier save always does. "+5 to frustration."

But as those penalties mounted, I still wanted to hunt down the next big decision. A well-known breed of RPG player is a loot hound. They'll click on for hours in search of the most elusive little trinkets and weapons hidden in a game world. BioWare's game makes me feel like a variant: the conflict hound. I'm a pig sniffing for conversational truffles, digging through everyday dirt for those small, rare moments where characters and situations come together in potent sequence. Dragon Age has kept me hunting for a few dozen hours already, and the reward is sweet enough that I'm going to keep at it.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.