Disclaimer: Apologies for the insane length of this piece. I didn’t think it would turn out to be well over 3,000 words.
Eleven days left before DA:O comes out. Eleven. Long. Days.
BREAKING: Dragon Age: Origins has gone gold.
I am all a-titter (or should I say a-twitt – wait, that joke has been done to death) with the upcoming release of Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare has put together a behemoth of unparalleled proportions, and my patented spidey sense tells me the blogger and gamer community is practically convulsing waiting for the wait (that hurt your head?) to be over.
In the meantime however, I decided to put together this list of reasons you should look forward to Dragon Age: Origins. You know, just to shove you over the edge.
One: Developed by BioWare
If that sub-title doesn’t immediately give you a warm, fuzzy feeling and simultaneously increase your expectations for the game ten-fold, then you need to crawl back underneath that rock you have been living under. Aside from the fact that BioWare won the Game Developer of the Year award from GamePro in 2008, they have several intellectual properties that have done exceptionally well, both commercially and critically.
Here is a short list of titles from BioWare and their associated aggregate ratings from MetaCritic:
- Baldur’s Gate (1998) – 91%
- Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) – 95%
- Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (2001) – 88%
- Neverwinter Nights (2002) – 91%
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) – 94%
- Jade Empire (2005) – 89%
- Mass Effect (2007) – 91%
A few things should be apparent here.
First, BioWare has been busy bringing out award-wining, critically acclaimed titles every year for well over a decade now.
Second, BioWare is exceptionally good at introducing new intellectual properties, always a risky move, with startling consistency. By contrast, Blizzard Entertainment last introduced a new IP about a decade ago, and has been shipping out (glorious) iterations of the same three IPs: Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft. Like BioWare, they make brilliant games, no doubt. The difference is that BioWare keeps refreshing the formula with unerring consistency.
Two: Storyline and Lore
The folks over at BioWare are master story tellers. These days I am going through my first playthrough of Mass Effect. My character now has access to the first tier of spectre weapons. This has essentially made firefights a joke. Where I would have to try a few reloads and approach the battlefield with revised strategy, I now walk blindly into every combat situation knowing I will decimate and humiliate anything that comes in my path. That being said, the storyline in the game is so exquisitely constructed and so well executed that I can’t help but push forward, waiting for the next bit of lore and plot twist.
Instead of cookie-cutter stories that have shallow two-dimensional characters and plot devices, every game I have played from BioWare offers an unprecedented level of depth, structure and non-linearity in the story. The world feels alive, rich with a complex back story and dynamic, conflicted, flawed characters, each with their own agendas.
Background Elements: The Land
Dragon Age: Origins is no different. The kingdom of Ferelden is a complicated macrocosm brought to life by a well-knit fabric of intertwining lore. And although the game takes place mostly in this kingdom, it is a relatively small part of the larger continent of Thedas. Thedas, in turn, is likely one of many continents in the Dragon Age universe.
Background Elements: The Age
The current period of conflict in the game is known as the Dragon Age in the Chantry calendar, due to the recent resurgence of the presumed-extinct dragons. There have been eight ages prior (Divine, Glory, Towers, Black, Exalted, Steel, Storm, Blessed) and each has its own distinct story.
Background Elements: The Fade
The Fade is a metaphysical realm created by the Maker prior to creating the world of Thedas. Spirits roam this land, and every race in Thedas mentally enters this realm while dreaming. The mages are the only entities mentally aware of their presence in the Fade as they tap into the Fade’s energies when casting spells. The Fade has one physical presence in the world called the Black City, an unreachable location observed in the skies, infinitely in the distance. The mages also have a right of passage where their mind consciously enters the Fade and they fight demons to prove their mettle.
Background Elements: Lyrium
Mages use a rare mineral called lyrium to facilitate the the transfer of their conscious minds to the Fade. This mineral causes serious injury or insanity to anyone who comes in contact. The only race that is resistant to lyrium is dwarfs because of their extended exposure to the material in the deep places beneath the earth.
Background Elements: Ferelden Titles
- Freeholder: Land-owner
- Ser: Knight of the realm (male or female)
- Teyrns/Teyrna: War leaders, responsible for defending those sworn to them
- Arls/Arlessa: Commanders of strategic fortresses the Teyrns can’t oversee directly
- Banns: Freeholds choose Banns or Arls to pay allegience; Teyrns come from Banns
- King/Queen: The most powerful Teyrn. But even the King needs Banns to execute his will over the lands
Background Elements: The Blight
The Blight (with a capital B) is the event where the Darkspawn beneath the earth come across a slumbering Old God (a dragon), and awaken an Archdemon in the process. Unified by the will of this terrifying creature, they storm the surface with a vengeance. The blight (small b) is a disease spread by the Darkspawn that corrupts all living organisms. Crops die. Water sours. Black clouds cover the sky. Anyone who survives the blight infection transforms into the Darkspawn, thus multiplying their numbers.
The only known way of stopping a blight is by defeating the Archdemon leading it. Only Grey Wardens have been able to accomplish this feat over the Ages.
Background Elements: The Grey Wardens
The Grey Wardens are the elitest, bravest and most fearsome of warriors in the world of Thedas. They make the ultimate sacrifice in their pursuit to bring peace to the land and to defeat the Darkspawn. In order to become a Grey Warden, one must undergo the Joining. This involves, in essence, consuming a Darkspawn’s blood, and surviving the resulting infection and transformation. If the recruit comes out of the ritual alive, they are bound to the order of the Grey Wardens, sworn to fight the Darkspawn to the last breath. The ritual awards them the taint, an ability allowing them to be constantly aware of the Darkspawn’s presence, and vice versa. This unique ability was the turning tide that allowed the Grey Wardens to vanquish the first and subsequent Blights.
– Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden
The taint has unfortunate side effects. It cuts a Grey Warden’s life quite short. Instead of withering away because of the ever-present disease in their blood, Grey Wardens instead experience the Calling, where they descend into the earth, beyond the gates of Deep Roads, alone, armed with the armor on their backs, the sword in their hilt and their command of magic . They take the fight to the Darkspawn deep within the bowels of the earth, ending their lives with purpose.
The last Blight was over 400 years ago. The Grey Wardens have since faded into legend. Currently, Duncan leads this fearsome group, and there are only two dozen Grey Wardens left in the world.
Background Elements: The History
Here is a short history of the world, put together with the help of the Dragon Age Wikia:
- Elvhenan, the kingdom of the elves, covers most of Thedas.
- The elves come into contact with the mages of the Tevinter Imperium. Due to unknown reasons, they started losing their immortality and begin isolating themselves from the human race. The mages wage war against the elves, enslaving most of the race and extending their control over most of Thedas.
- A group of Magisters (ruling mages) manage to enter the Fade in their physical form. This violation of the metaphysical realm has dire consequences. They are transformed into the first of the Darkspawn, awaken the first Archdemon, Dumat, leader of the Old Gods, and lay waste to the lands. This is the First Blight.
- The Deep Roads, a series of tunnels and passages beneath the earth, home of the Dwarves, is overrun.
- The first Joining of the Grey Wardens takes place. The Blight is defeated by the Grey Wardens.
- The Imperium is beset by two simultaneous conflicts. A tribal horde, led by Andraste, blaming them for the Blight, wages war. At the same time, the enslaved elves of the Imperium rebel. The Imperium loses its might and several large portions of the kingdom. It never again fully recovers.
- The elves are given Dales as a new homeland.
- The Second Blight occurs. Hafter unites the Alamarri tribes and becomes the first teyrn.
- Calenhad unites the Clayne tribes into a single nation, becoming the first King of Ferelden.
- The time of the Third Blight is currently unknown.
- 400 years prior to the events of Dragon Age: Origins, the Fourth Blight occurs.
- The Blessed Age begins.
- The Orlesian Empire conquers Ferelden and rules it for almost a century. It is the most powerful nation in Thedas
- In the 97th year of the Blessed Age, the events of the preceding novel, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, begin.
- A year before the Dragon Age begins, the Battle of River Dane takes place.
- At some point in the Blessed Age, a dragon awakens and goes on a rampage, causing the following age to be named the Dragon Age.
- The Dragon Age begins.
- In the second year of the Dragon Age, 28 years prior to the events of Dragon Age: Origins, King Maric Theirin successfully rebels against Orlais and re-establishes Ferelden as an independent kingdom.
- In the tenth year of the Dragon Age, King Maric readmits the Grey Wardens in Ferelden. They had been banished two hundred years prior.
- Thirty years into the Dragon Age, when the story in the game unfolds, the Fifth Blight begins.
Sold yet? Realize that I have only gone through a very condensed version of the lore, and I am only on reason number two of seven.
Three: Voice Acting
There are hours upon hours upon hours of recorded voice-acting in the game. BioWare has effectively ensured that no two characters will have the same voice. So is it the same set of 20 guys doing a bunch of different voices for the whole game? Turns out the cast for Dragon Age: Origins is a ridiculous 144 different individuals. The most notable of these are Tim Curry and Kate Mulgrew.
Compare that to, say World of Warcraft. How many Goblins have you clicked on that say “Time is money friend!” or Gnomes that say: “My, you’re a tall one!” in the exact same voice?
Four: DLC’s at Launch
Dragon Age: Origins will ship on November 3, 2009. Most developers provide additional downloadable content several months into the release to give the player additional areas in the existing world to explore.
BioWare, trend-setter extraordinaire, will have two DLCs available on the day of the release.
The Stone Prisoner
The village of Honnleath is overrun by the Darkspawn. A lone stone figure stands at guard the town’s heart. This once powerful golem can be unfrozen from his perpetual prison and become part of the player’s party of adventurers. The golem comes with a rich backstory (that is shocking, really), extensive voice-acting a unique follower quest. You can also tend to the mysteries of the village and bear witness to additional unfolding events that delve deeper into Dragon Age: Origins lore.
Soldier’s Peak is haunted by the undead, some say the ghosts of betrayed Grey Wardens. Other claim demons have overrun the land and decimated the grounds. Whatever the case may be, this DLC continues advancing the lore, uncovering a terrifying secret buried for generations. Players can also unlock new abilities and powerful items.
Five: Content in Advance
To say that the game media has been saturated by an endless stream of teaser content from BioWare is sort of like saying the U.S. economy has hit a little bump. We have seen a never ending barrage of screenshots, wallpapers, videos and a kickass cinematic, leaving us drooling for more.
But BioWare is not yet done. Last week, they released the Dragon Age: Origins character creator. Released as a separate download a full two weeks before the game launched, the character creator allows you to play around with the most elementary step in RPGs: designing your alter-ego. It’s a fairly robust system, with a lot of customization options. For instance, there are up to nine sliders for just the nose of your character. The ESRB rating for the character creator is also misleading, but that’s neither here nor there. In addition, you can save your characters and export them to the game when it comes out. Using this feature will also give you a unique item in game, The Lucky Stone.
Dragon Age Journeys
Yesterday, EA also released a flash game, Dragon Age Journeys, that allows you to play some of the events leading up to the Dragon Age: Origins release. What’s truly amazing is that completing certain tasks in the flash game unlocks up to three items in the actual game itself. You need to be signed into your EA account while playing, and said items will be automatically added to your character’s inventory.
I have seen two full-fledged reviews of the game so far.
PC Gamer gives it a whopping 94%, one of their highest ever. Their final verdict: “A truly astonishing game. Vast, vivid and microscopically detailed. Dragon Age is the RPG of the decade.”
That’s some lofty praise. The following are some additional tidbits from said review, shamelessly copy-pasted from HotCoffeeBurns’ post here. No point in re-inventing the wheel.
- “Thus begins Dragon age, one of the most enormous and astonishing of games. It’s an unashamed high-fantasy RPG, rooted in the most traditional soil, yet set in a highly original world.”
- “This is not a game that can be simply explained. How does it begin? It begins in six completely different ways, and each of these can be met with a wildly different approach.”
- “Whether you play as a human, elf or dwarf, a rogue, warrior or mage, a noble or a commoner, Dragon Age requires a smart use of your wits and weapons.”
- “You can approach combat in a couple of ways, depending upon your personal preferences and the difficulty to which you’ve set the game. In theory, setting it to easy should let you fight in real-time, where you select opponents and issue instructions from a row of tiled attacks, spells and special items familiar to any MMO player, as the fight happens.”
- “As you and your party level up, at levels 7 and 14 you get a point to spend on a sub-specialism that opens up new talent trees. A warrior, for instance, can choose to be a berserker or champion, among others. A mage might opt for shapeshifting, allowing her to morph into an animal during battle. A superbly useful talent for a rogue is ranger, which allows you to call an animal to join your party.”
- “Humans are the dominant race in Ferelden. Dominant in some extremely unpleasant ways. Until a few hundred years ago elves were the slaves of humans. In theory they have been freed, but those who live in cities remain second-class citizens, forced to live in slums, either begging or finding menial work in human houses. A small number of elves broke away to live in the Dales, these “dalish” elves are attempting to recover their lost culture. Bitter and vengeful, they kill all humans who wander into their territory. The dwarves live in the Frostback Mountains. Mages are feared and loathed by all. Your first two hours playing as a human noble will have almost nothing in common with those of a dwarf commoner or Dalish elf. While you’re taught the basics of combat, and introduced to party mechanics, the rest is unique.”
- “Whether you play as a male or female, there are various characters with whom you can fall in love. However this isn’t a genderless universe, and a gay relationship will be recognized as such.”
- “The ending, which is different depending upon how you’ve played, manages to deliver on the anticipation built up, surprising you with new twists, and creating an appropriate sense of scale.”
- After 80 hours of gameplay over 2 months: “This is the most enormously detailed game world I’ve experienced, its history stretching back thousands of years, its cultures vivid, beautiful and flawed, the battles enormous, the humour superb. Roleplaying games now have a great deal to live up to.”
“In the middle of reviewing Dragon Age, I had a couple vacation days scheduled. During my long out-of-state weekend, the game was constantly popping into my mind – how I could have won a fight differently, or how I might spend my next few talent points. As soon as my flight landed back in Minneapolis, I didn’t even fight the urge; I drove straight into the office and spent an entire Sunday night in front of the computer fighting darkspawn and saving Ferelden. The number of titles that can foster this level of dedication and obsession are few, and Dragon Age: Origins is among the best of them.”
Seven: MMO Follow-up
Not confirmed. But I bet my bottom dollar they will make one. It is just too damn good to pass up.