The first hint that BioWare’s “Dragon Age: Origins” would be my favorite game of 2009 came just a couple of hours in, when one of the world’s inhabitants refused to believe that my character, a woman, could possibly belong to the Grey Wardens, a group of legendary warriors devoted to ridding the world of evil. As I progressed, it became a common thread: characters in the game world reacting to the seemingly inconsequential choices I’d made back in the character creation menu.
Like past BioWare efforts, such as “Mass Effect,” “Dragon Age: Origins” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $50 on PC) is a single-player role-playing game that takes dozens of hours to complete. It’s set in the kingdom of Ferelden, in the larger game world of Thedas, a setting Electronic Arts-owned BioWare clearly intends to revisit.
Though its swords-and-sorcery setting won’t win points for originality, differing scripts for male and female characters make it the first game in which I’ve experienced a “sisters are doing it for themselves” camaraderie with another female character.
The customizable script extends to the game’s racial dynamics, as well. The treatment of elves by the game’s humans casts a light on the ugliness of racism without being preachy or controversial. I’m looking forward to replaying “Dragon Age” as an elf, in part to see how being the subject of persistent racism affects my attitude toward Ferelden and its people.
Upon creating your character, you’ll play through one of six different origin stories, determined by which combination of race (human, elf or dwarf) and class (warrior, mage or rogue) you select. (For those unfamiliar with medieval RPGs, mages are spell casters, whereas rogues excel at sneaking, stealing, assassinating and talking their way out of trouble.) Once you finish the origin story, your character is recruited to join the Grey Wardens, whose members are tasked with ridding the world of darkspawn, an evil subterranean race currently operating under the direction of an archdemon, or fallen god. Near the end of the first act, Ferelden is riven by civil war, and your military mission becomes a diplomatic one, as you seek to unite the kingdom against the common threat.
While this rightfully makes “Dragon Age” sound like boilerplate, Tolkien-inspired fantasy fare, Ferelden and its denizens are infused with a profound depth and personality.
For most of the game, you’ll travel with three companions, selected from a pool of nearly a dozen. Each supporting character has a distinct attitude and set of motivations, as well as a sliding scale that indicates how much he or she approves of your leadership. If you fall out of favor with certain characters, they’ll abandon or even turn on you. If they like you, some may fall in love with you. As they grow to trust you more, they’ll reveal more of their personalities and backgrounds, often opening up new quests.
Of the half-dozen regular companions I had, each was well-written, expertly acted and worth “getting to know.” Oftentimes as my party wandered around, my supporting cast would strike up a conversation, philosophizing, bickering and even flirting with one another. As I set about saving the world, I found myself weighing how each of them would react to the difficult decisions that lay before me.
And what decisions they were. While “Dragon Age” follows the standard video gaming convention of presenting players with a robust slate of choices, it refreshingly steers clear of the shopworn good-vs.-evil trope. Whereas most games, including BioWare’s past efforts, make it abundantly clear when you’re choosing “good” and when you’re choosing “evil,” many of the options in “Dragon Age” are morally ambiguous, with consequences that become clear only after you’ve committed to a course of action.
Despite a deep game world, brilliantly crafted supporting cast and moral nuance, “Dragon Age: Origins” has its blemishes. Menu and inventory screens can be clunky and difficult to manage, and a crucial camera angle that lets PC players view battles from a top-down perspective is missing on the Xbox 360 and PS3. While it’s not a huge issue, a spell that lets its caster revive fallen comrades within a small, designated area becomes a lot more confusing and frustrating to use minus that camera angle.
It’s also worth mentioning that the combat system, which requires a lot of pausing and managing of tactics, abilities and items on the fly, won’t appeal to gamers who prefer to do battle in real time. But if you feel no shame in setting the difficulty level to “easy,” it should be enough to allow you to experience 2009’s best told tale with nary a hitch.
Blogger’s note: While “Dragon Age: Origins” was my favorite game of the year, a number of games came close. I’ve already written about games that didn’t make the cut because of time constraints. Coming Friday: The runners-up.