Let’s just get this out of the way at the start: Dragon Age: Origins is the best western RPG I’ve played this console generation. Just how good is it? Read on to find out.

Dragon Age: Origins is a single player RPG made by the same developer as the Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic series, and while you can see some similarities, it is vastly improved from its cousins. Electronic Arts and BioWare teamed up to release the spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate franchise back in November on XBox 360, PS3 and PC. They followed that up with a Mac release right around Christmas.

Upon starting the game, you get the chance to use a pretty extensive character creator to design your hero. Along with setting the standard race, hair and skin color, you get to pick the definition and set of eyes, nose, lips, and more. The character creator alone is extensive enough that you could spend a good while just tweaking your character’s looks. After you’re done with that, you select the class your character will play from the seemingly simplistic set of rogue, mage, and warrior, but when combined with your race selection, determine the first few hours of gameplay. There are five origin stories to play through, each requiring a different combination of race and class, but upon completion of that, you join the Grey Wardens and the real adventure begins. Ferelden is beset by a horde of evil creatures called darkspawn, who are led by the “Archdemon.” The Grey Wardens are entrusted with the job of protecting Ferelden from this onslaught at the Battle of Ostagar, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, it was not the final battle everyone had hoped for. After the battle, your hero is joined by a young Grey Warden named Alistair, a templar with a surprisingly good sense of humor, as you roam Ferelden, trying to keep order in the country and combat the darkspawn forces. Along the way, you meet a variety of characters including Oghren, the drunken dwarven warrior, and Morrigan, the self-serving witch. As you roam around the world, these characters will interact with each other, providing amusing conversations that add life and depth to the characters on your team. Some of the best conversations involve Alistair and Morrigan as he is a goody-two-shoes templar who would normally be sent to kill a free witch (called a maleficar) like Morrigan. In the world of Ferelden, with only a few exceptions, mages are kept in a tower where they study their craft and are kept hidden from the general populace. Due to the immense power a mage can have, they are kept under watch  by the templars to protect both themselves and the people of Ferelden.

Bioware did a fantastic job making sure that the story of Dragon Age: Origins is hardly set in stone. There are a variety of quests and events in the game, and many of them have multiple ways of resolving them, which result in a very different story in each subsequent replay of the game. If you choose not to kill a certain person early in the game, they may come back and join your party later or help you with a favor in government, but by killing them, you wont get their help later on or may end being chased for revenge, etc. Also, aspects of your character such as race, class and gender will often give you different dialogue options, opening up even more variety to the story. The downloadable quests further enhance the game experience by allowing your group to gain another place to set up camp, revisit the site of the Battle of Ostagar, and add an additional character named Shale. As the story progresses, your character can grow close to your fellow adventurers, which give them improved stats in battle and in some cases allow you to start a relationship with them. The depth of the characters and the story branches in Dragon Age: Origins are something rarely seen in most Japanese RPGs and even most western RPGs. While there is no new game+ that allows you to keep your character levels and whatnot, it’s hardly necessary as each playthrough really should stand alone in its story. When the expansion pack Dragon Age: Origins Awakening hits stores next month, you’ll be able to carry over your character and decisions from the original to the expansion, making for even more variety in the storyline.

In between story sequences, there’s plenty of fighting to go around. The battle system is mostly in real time, but the use of certain skills such as cone of cold will pause action and allow you to aim the spell. You also have the ability to pause battle and enter your inventory to search for a proper spell or item to use, which makes things a little less stressful for the inexperienced gamer. When you have a full party, you’ll have four fighters on the screen with the computer controlling three of them. You’re not completely reliant on the game’s AI, though. Each character has tactics slots that let you set conditions for certain actions to occur automatically, like an improved version of Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system. Dragon Age offers three difficulty settings, and I played almost the entire game on the normal setting. It provided a decent challenge at times, while most of the simple battles were still pretty easy. The easy level is a cakewalk; it minimizes effort and time spent in battle, and is good for just playing through for the story, while the hard difficulty definitely requires you to think and plan out your strategy and character leveling for most battles. You can let the computer auto-level your characters as the game progresses, but if you choose to do it yourself, you’ll get to manage their increases in stats such as strength and cunning, and select new skills and spells at regular intervals. The higher the difficulty you play on, the more important it is to have your character levels planned out ahead of time.

As great as the story options are, perhaps what makes this game are the characters and their dialogue. Electronic Arts landed some great voices for this game including Claudia Black as Morrigan, Steve Blum as Oghren, Tim Russ as Zathrian and Kate Mulgrew as Flemeth, and there were great performances all around. There’s nothing like taking a break from fighting off wolves to hear Claudia Black harass Steve Valentine for being a virgin and hear him getting all flustered. The soundtrack is all orchestral, and I never found myself getting sick of the music, even on a 50+ hour playthrough. Perhaps the biggest complaint about the 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins is that it’s not as nice graphically as it could have been. The game is by no means ugly, especially on PC where you also get some different camera angles, but the XBox 360 version does show some minor flaws in the texturing. However, for the most part the game looks great. The environments, character designs and character creator are all befitting the medieval fantasy setting of Dragon Age, nothing too flashy or brightly colored, lots of natural colors and earth-tones.

Dragon Age: Origins was originally a PC title that was converted for release on consoles; so, if you want to see it at its best, the PC version is your best bet, but if you are a console gamer at heart, you can’t go wrong picking it up on XBox 360 or PS3. There’s definitely a reason I picked Dragon Age: Origins as my game of the year for 2009.

Graphics: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Story: ★★★★★★★★★★
Gameplay: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Balance: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★★★
Overall: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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