Dragon Age: Origins (Ultimate)
Release Date: 3rd November, 2009
Platform: Windows / Mac / PS3 / X Box 360,
By Chris Picone, 22 July 2017
Updated: 22 August 2017 (basic to ultimate)
Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) was released by role-playing giants Bioware in 2009 and is recognised as being the “spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate”. The game is almost eight years old at the time I am writing this, although I only discovered it around three years ago as an Origin “on-the-house” freebie. I liked it so much I went back and bought the deluxe version with all the DLC. I hadn’t planned on writing a review for such an old game, but this particular article is in response to fan requests. However, Dragon Age also holds a special place in my heart as, for me, it was the game that broke the eight year CRPG drought following Baldur’s Gate and Arcanum.
Unlike the Infinity Engine games, DA:O has a camera control function that allows you to switch between top-down and third-person, and you will find yourself using both. The game takes place in a unique high fantasy setting which revolves around demonic influences and an imminent blight. The world is heavily themed and well-developed. Although there are elves and dwarves, that’s about the extent of the generic fantasy elements you’ll find in this world filled with chantry priests, blood wizards, witches, and templars.
The start of the game is determined by the race and class you choose for your character. For example, you may begin the game in one of the great underground cities as a dwarf noble, until political machinations force you into the greater world as an exile. Or as an apprentice mage, locked away in a remote tower with the circle of magi, learning how to access the spirit world known as the Fade. Regardless of which origin story you play through, circumstances will ultimately lead to your character becoming a Grey Warden, charged with protecting the world against the darkspawn and the demonic threat from the creatures of the fade. To become a warden, one must drink darkspawn blood, which either kills the imbiber or imbues them with the taint, allowing them to sense the darkspawn’s presence. As fate would have it, the darkspawn attack, which would not be unusual except that this time they come with an army instead of a raiding party and the presence of the Archdemon can be felt, making this the beginning of the first blight in over four hundred years. Human treachery leads to the death of the king and victory for the darkspawn as one of the nobles flees the battle, taking his army with him. With the army broken and the kingdom descending into civil war, your job becomes that of a diplomat, using old treaties with the Grey Wardens to enlist the aid of the elves, dwarves, and the circle of magi, in order to create a new army to combat the demonic threat.
While in top-down view mode, the graphics fairly resemble Baldur’s Gate graphics, except that it’s three-dimensional and modern. This view is great for exploring maps, or for strategizing during larger combats. Zooming into third-person lets you immerse yourself deeper in the moment, so you can examine your character’s surroundings in greater detail or watch your character fighting demons up close. The user interface is very minimalistic, maximising immersion while still displaying all the critical information.
DA:O was five years old by the time I played it, and eight years old while I write this, and yet the graphics are still more than acceptable by today’s gaming standards – at least as far as RPGs are concerned. I can only imagine the graphics would have been cutting-edge at the time of release.
The orchestral soundtrack featured in DA:O is particularly good, not only helping add to the demonic fantasy atmosphere, but notably adding to the sense of drama and danger throughout the game. The game also features high quality voice acting in both cut-scenes and in ambient dialogue throughout the game, and for a staggering number of characters. The main character is not voiced, which I usually prefer in these games as your mind normally does a good job of filling the gap for your “own” voice.
DA:O is a very complete RPG experience. Character development is largely managed through a skill tree which is extremely flexible without being overwhelming and really allows you to shape your character to play the way you want. You will explore the world and uncover its lore. You will engage in diplomacy and political intrigue. You will talk, you will fight, you will run, and you will sneak. Every decision you make in the game has both an immediate and long-term impact. Most CRPGs do this these days, of course, but DA:O handles it better than most.
Exploration and interaction with the map is dealt with in a manner that isometric role-players will be familiar with. More interestingly, your non-player characters will talk to each other spontaneously as you travel. Only dribs and drabs, but it does reveal titbits of lore and character background, and really helps with immersion as you watch characters and their relationships develop seemingly organically. You can also engage your party members in dialogue at any time, although they will only reveal so much at a time and conversations are kept short, significantly helping to avoid wall-of-text expositional dialogue that so many RPGs are plagued with. All significant dialogue is managed through mini-cut-scenes and incorporate accompanying action, so that you select your dialogue option and then watch the scene play out up until your next decision. The dialogue options are all meaningful and surprisingly intuitive; rarely will you find that you will want your character to say or do something that isn’t on the menu. Combat is a hybrid between isometric RPGs and MMORPGs, where combat is real-time with pause so you can strategise and control multiple characters, but also consists of special abilities that can be triggered, passive or activated, with cool-downs, and so on. This prevents combat from being reduced to “click-and-wait” or “click, repeat” experiences. It also adds an additional tactical layer to combat, making things far more interesting than they would be otherwise. To make things even more interesting, DA:O strays from the fantasy cliché where your characters are heroes capable of achieving things even whole towns cannot. You will use the world at every turn. For example, the allies you manage to recruit through the game will join you in the final battles. One of the most memorable moments for me was during the siege of a town where the townsfolk actually constructed defences and joined in the battle.
Fun Factor / Replayability
DA:O takes a healthy 40+ hours to play through. The game is designed to be re-playable – it only has a fairly limited selection of classes and races to play but it boasts six different origin stories, character relationships that change depending on companion selection and decisions throughout the game, and a world that is drastically impacted by the actions of the protagonist which lends to differing play throughs. However, I found that because I became so involved in the story and so attached to the characters, that everything was still too familiar to play through the game again although I do plan on going back after an extended break.
Before I delve into each piece of DLC, I must commend Bioware for their seamless integration of the expansion material, which make it feel like it was always part of the main game rather than tacked on. Please note that I’ve only covered the major components of the DLC. I didn’t bother reviewing “Gift & Pranks” or the bonus in-game items as that stuff’s pretty expected and mundane.
The Stone Prisoner
I absolutely loved this content. It’s not a big one, adding only a small village and an abandoned thaig (a Dwarven underground settlement) to explore. But it adds Shale, an intelligent golem, as a player character. Shale uses elemental crystals as his weapons and armour, and you get a host of golem abilities such as the ground slam and boulder hurl to play with. Abilities aside, Shale is by far one of the most interesting followers I’ve ever come across in a CRPG.
Warden’s Keep is another small piece of add-on content, a singular quest that takes you to a fortress in a new location known as Soldier’s Peak. During the quest you get to explore a dark event in Grey Warden history and learn why the Grey Wardens rebelled and were expelled from the fortress. The Warden’s Keep DLC also comes with a party chest and a few other knick-knacks.
Return to Ostagar
Another piece of content I was grateful for. After the battle of Ostagar at the start of the game, you are locked out of the area. In theory I guess there’s no reason to go back there – the battle is finished, the place is in ruins, and scavengers have no doubt already looted the bodies. Nevertheless, you feel cheated. There could be something there – if not valuable, then something that might provide some insight behind the betrayal. That opportunity to go back and explore the location is exactly what this content provides. You do get to discover some of the political agenda, but you also get to have your revenge on some of the darkspawn and retrieve some of the King’s armour that had been appropriated by darkspawn officers after the battle. A fun jaunt.
Sequel and stand-alone quests.
I must also commend Bioware on the approach they took with the rest of their DLC. Instead of just adding “more of the same,” they took the opportunity to explore different elements that the player was probably interested in, but which couldn’t feasibly be explored through the main game. Whether the DLC achieved what it was trying to do was sometimes a different matter, but I cannot fault the approach. Each of these took around 2 hours to play through.
I’ll talk about the Witch Hunt DLC first, because it’s the DLC that really grabbed my attention. After everything that happened in DA:O, the one thing that really stuck with me was what was Morrigan’s plan? Did she truly betray me at the end? Had she been betraying me all along? And if she was legitimate, how could her plan have ever possibly been a good idea? Unfortunately, this DLC was a bit lacklustre, and probably the worst of the bunch. It sees you searching a library for books, and then delving into a couple of short, linear, uninteresting dungeons, fighting the same enemies at various checkpoints. And in the end, none of your questions are answered anyway.
The Darkspawn Chronicles
The name of this DLC is a bit misleading. What this actually is, is another chance to play through the final battle, but as one of the darkspawn vanguard commanders, which is a very cool concept. You also get to enthrall darkspawn followers, allowing you to take control of ogres, shrieks, blight wolves, genlock archers, and hurlock emissaries. And so, led by the Archdemon’s will, you fight your way through the town, killing off your favourite player characters one by one. The battles vary in difficulty and force you to utilise multiple strategies for success, culminating in a final great battle to protect the dragon. Where the DLC falls short is that there is minimal opportunity to level up or develop your character. I realise it’s taking place during a single battle, but using the same few abilities in every single fight gets tedious, even when you get to play with unique darkspawn abilities. Once you’ve had your ogre throw a few rocks and your shriek sneak attack a few enemies, the novelty has largely worn off, and for some reason the main character only has a couple of basic fighter abilities. That aside, this DLC was a lot of fun.
As you play through the main game you get to hear bits and pieces of Leliana’s dark past before she joined the chantry. As you probably guessed, this DLC lets you play through that piece of history, which turned out to be a refreshing experience. As this adventure takes place in Leliana’s past, she isn’t an epic hero yet, so you’re forced to go back to playing with low level characters and equipment, and having to try and resource manage your spells, stamina, and potions. And in fact you aren’t playing a hero at all, you’re playing a thief who is open to creating a bit of disharmony amongst the elite. Instead of battling hordes of darkspawn you find yourself engaged in a bit of petty larceny, and sneaking into (and out of) nobles’ homes. As is the norm for DA:O, everything eventually goes pear-shaped and you must escape execution before hunting down your betrayers. It’s nice and short, fun for a bit of a bash and good for something different.
The Golems of Amgarrak
The dwarves send a message to you, the Warden-Commander, to help search for a party of dwarves that went into the deep roads and never came back. For some reason, you decide this quest is worth your time, and not something that could be tasked to your soldiers. The descent into the deep roads is pretty stagnant. You’re hindered by a basic switch puzzle which sees you going through the same few rooms over and over again, battling basically the same group of monsters in the same rooms, that spawn as you hit each switch. The battles are quite tough, being against groups of golems, but are unimaginative and repetitive. You also get your own golem to control. He doesn’t have crystals like in the stone prisoner DLC but he does have a few against-the-grain mechanics that you can unlock throughout the adventure. If you didn’t already get to play as Shale, this DLC might have had more appeal.
DA:O – Awakening
Awakening is the sequel to DA:O, and takes place shortly after the main story ends. It takes around 20 hours to play through, and I have a lot of nice things to say about it. As a whole, it was a nice addition to the story line and took you to some interesting new places as well as another trip to the fade. The quests were fun and the story, although a little cliché, was fairly solid. However, the delivery was awful and the game felt incomplete. A few of your favourite player characters returned, but many were missing, happily replaced by new ones. The new characters are an odd mix of interesting and boring. Justice, who is a spirit from the fade shoved into a body in the real world should be interesting. However, he quickly declared himself as a bland knight-type character who just wants to wander the world doing good and killing evil, and no further development really takes place. You’re also lumped with the son of the betrayer from the original DA:O, who believes that his father was wronged and who harbours a strong grudge against the protagonist. This promises some interesting dialogue and story exploration, except that again it doesn’t really happen. He quickly learns that his father was exactly the bad guy he was made out to be and then decides, just as quickly, that you’re a pretty good guy and that’s that. He’s keen to restore his family name and that means following you around killing darkspawn with no further questions.
Right at the start of the game you’re dumped into a world with several locations on the world map you can visit as well as the option to explore the town you’re in, replete with dungeons. The initial town situation seems interesting – it calls on you to make decisions about where you spend your resources. Do you send men out to protect the farmers? Or to clear the mines? If you do, you’ll have less soldiers to protect the keep, but if you don’t there may not be enough food, and or you will lack the resources to strength the walls. This sort of decisions are perfect RPG decisions and what made DA:O so great but unfortunately, unlike DA:O, they didn’t seem to have much actual bearing on the game.
There would be no reason to go to any of the other locations except that, unlike the original where the side quests were threaded through the story line so they felt organic, you also start with access to every quest on the chanter and merchant boards, so that practically every side quest in the game is already in your journal ready to go. This is probably the worst aspect of the game. There doesn’t seem to be any urgency with the main quest so it makes sense to go about tackling the side quests straight up to pick up some experience points and equipment to prepare before advancing the storyline. I’m glad I did because as soon as you do tackle the main quest and advance the storyline, you’re immediately thrust into the end game sequence. And that didn’t feel complete either. One of the towns is being attacked so you split the party up to go protect it, while leaving the rest behind to protect the keep from the starting town. When that’s finished, you go on a jaunt down some dungeon to face off the main antagonist, and then suddenly the game’s over. What would have changed the game from poor to great would have been an opportunity to face the battles in the keep with the other half of your party. Then you could have experienced the results of the decisions you made at the start of the game, with strengthened walls but less defenders and so on. And there are two “end bosses,” except that instead of working your way from one to the next, one of them simply finds you along the way, reveals a bit of story, and then vanishes leaving you wonder why he was there in the first place.
So the sequel could be summed up as a “great idea, poorly executed,” although as I mentioned earlier, I still enjoyed it. It did its job, letting me re-visit the world I’d fallen in love with.
DA:O is, to date, one of the best CRPGs I’ve ever played. The world and lore is incredibly well developed, the story was really engaging and full of surprises, and the characters were some of the best designed I’ve ever come across. Combat was strategic and interesting, and dialogue was exceptional.
If you’re into CRPGs, get this game. It’s easily one of the best I’ve ever played. If you can, I’d recommend picking up the ultimate edition. The stand-alone missions are a bit hit-and-miss but there’s something there for everyone, and the expansions definitely add to the game. And now that the game’s as old as it is, you should be able to pick it up quite cheaply.