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Game Info:

Dragon Age: Origins – Ultimate Edition
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Released: November 3rd, 2009
ESRB Rating: Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content 
Available on: Xbox 360, PS3, PC (version reviewed)
Genre: Role-playing
MSRP: $30

Editor's Note: The console versions from what I can tell strip out some of the mechanics found in the PC version, and may provide a different experience combat-wise, but the story remains intact.

I'll be honest, I spent most of my gaming life playing Japanese RPGs which means I never had the chance to play games like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights or Morrowind. I didn't know they even existed until a few years ago. But that's okay, because BioWare's Dragon Age series aims to bring that classic Western RPG feel to a new audience (yours truly). Though my experience with the genre is still relatively fresh, I'm glad to report that Dragon Age offers a rather deep gaming experience with an engrossing world full of cool lore and bloody combat. Should be noted that the version reviewed here is the Ultimate Edition which includes all the downloadable content as well as the Awakening expansion in one bundle. 

The continent of Thedas has a bit of a problem. The vicious Darkspawn flood to the surface every few centuries with an event known as a Blight. To quell this Blight, inhabitants of Thedas formed the Grey Wardens, an army of powerful warriors more than capable of handling the Darkspawn forces. And guess who's selected to be a new Grey Warden for the latest Blight set in the country of Ferelden? Yep, you.

In Origins, you create a customized character from three different races, hailing from different backgrounds. For example, as a Dwarf, you could be a Commoner or a Noble, both of which offer unique starting stories. Depending on the type of character you end up with, interaction with most NPCs and party members will change slightly when you talk to them. Elves may be standoffish to your Human Mage where as they may welcome your Elven Rogue. Dwarves will still be grumpy and short with you no matter what race you choose, however.

As far as classes go, the options are Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. While that sounds a bit too vanilla at first, leveling up in the game opens up multiple paths for you to choose. When playing my Dwarven Rogue, I had the option to either go with a combination of stealth and backstabs, pure in-your-face melee, or mess around with a ranger archetype. Or I could mix things up and tailor-make a Rogue that does most of these things. Mages do have a wealth of options, too, ranging from the four elements for pure damage, or one could use healing, support, and even death magic. Warriors can either tank and taunt enemies, shoot arrows, wield two-handers, dual-wield, and more. Later on, the classes can further specialize their focus; for instance Rogues can have Bard abilities for even better team support. Regardless of the path you take, all classes have their place and felt fun to play.

After fussing around with how your character looks for twenty minutes and playing through the interesting tutorial-esque origin story, you'll be able to start the game proper. The main meat of the game involves grabbing a party and taking it to the Blight's front door. Now, what I mean by that is that over the span of the forty-to-sixty hour story you'll be picking up allies, defeating bosses, making your way through dungeons, completing quests, and experiencing some neat set pieces. You'll move to a nearby city or village from the world map, find out what's wrong, and attempt to then deal with the issue with politics, dialogue, or (usually) brute force. The sheer amount of options open to the player is pretty bewildering at first due to the game's non-linear nature. Those who would rather take a detour to brush up on lore - all recorded in a chunky codex - or sidequests definitely have that option. But if you're like me and would rather play the main story, there's plenty of direction as to where to go and what to do.

Highlights:

Strong Points: Expansive world filled with interesting locales; impressive voice acting; visceral combat; party members are multifaceted and come with unique stories; entire package offers around 80-100 hours of gameplay, double that on further playthroughs.

Weak Points: Overall story feels largely generic; some areas drag on for too long; dialog options can be a bit confusing; technical issues, some involving quests and class balancing; armor isn't diverse enough

When done with Origins, players can then transition into the Awakening expansion. Taking place several months after the events of Origins, the land north of Ferelden, Amaranthine, is under constant pressure from remaining Darkspawn, political bouts, and roaming mercenaries. Stationed at Vigil's Keep, the now Warden Commander oversees cleaning up Amaranthine, protecting its people, as well as fortifying the keep itself. You'll have a new party to get to know as all of your previous allies from Origins have moved on, save one. I was a bit disappointed at this fact, but there are a few cameos spread around Awakening for those who wanted to see their favorite team member again. The team this time around are still interesting, and with two specific characters, hilarious. Even though Awakening is probably about half the length of Origins, the level cap is raised from 20 to 30, new specializations are brought in, and you can buy items to reset your character's own stats and skills, as well as those of your new party members.

One thing that stood out during my first playthrough of Origins would have to be the battle system. Characters can be viewed from a third-person perspective that can seamlessly transition into a top-down bird's eye view that offers a nice panorama of the battlefield. Your party for the most part is controlled by highly customizable tactics, a list of commands that the game will cycle through depending on the situation, but you can always pause the game to give out specific commands when things get hairy. And pause you will. I wasn't particularly used to the methodical and strategic nature of Origins' combat system which requires micromanagement of characters. With a wide array of abilities to use in battle and different ways you can approach one conflict, your party make-up can and will change how you fight. One indoor environment my party was going through came up to a room full of guards. I paused, had my caster queue a blizzard over the room, had the tank ready to block the door so they couldn't escape, and pulled back my two rogues, ready to switch to bows to help mop up the stragglers. I unpause and the plan worked flawlessly.

But don't get the wrong impression, the slower nature of Origins' battle is welcome due to the amount of challenge that each fight offers. I played through on the normal difficulty and admittedly got stomped several times until I edited my party tactics and changed up my strategy. So while there is a learning curve starting off, you will earn your victories through smart play.

Being set in a dark fantasy universe, there's a lot of messages and themes that show up during gameplay, most intended for a mature audience. While the topics of slavery, racism, revenge and more show up, the spiritual aspect found in Origins should be noted. There's a lot of talk of demons and the Fade, a dream-like area where they come from. People are possessed at times by demons which offer incredible strength or magical powers, most of which are channeled for blood magic. Being a blood mage is despised by nearly every character in the game, but the main character can choose to become one if desired (the class itself pulling spell costs from health instead of mana). One plotline involves a child being possessed by a demon and the player is given the option to kill the child, or have a blood mage perform a ritual to rid the demon. These blood mages do slit their wrist or take the lives of others to fuel their powers, sometimes even becoming a walking abomination of human and demonic flesh.

Along the same lines, sexuality also comes into the picture. A brothel in the game offers the player a chance to sleep with a male, female or transgendered character as well as an animal. Though nothing is shown, it is implied. Romances with those in your party can either be hetero- or homosexual in nature, and the option to sleep with multiple partners is available at the dismay of the first partner. When you do choose to sleep with the partner, kissing and suggestive positioning is shown, but characters keep their underwear on. It's up to the one playing if they want to pursue a platonic romance, a strict friendship, or if they don't want to see any sex, avoid the brothel and suggestive dialogue with allies altogether. The demonic material in the game is mandatory; the sex, however, is not. Jump to the objectionable material section at the bottom of the review for a better idea of what else the game has in it.

Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 86%
Gameplay - 18/20
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Stability - 3/5
Controls 4/5

Morality Score - 32%
Violence - 0/10
Language - 4/10
Sexual Content - 2/10
Occult/Supernatural - 2/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 8/10

The allies that join you on your quest are a pretty diverse bunch. As you interact with them whether in your camp or during the main storyline areas, you'll slowly find out about their past, beliefs, concerns, and possible quests you can undertake to help them out. Depending on your gender, you'll also be able to strike up a romance or two which other party members will talk about in passing mention. Your dialogue and attitude can either build the friendship or destroy it, all of which is shown on a meter on the character's screen. Your decisions during main quests can also affect party members, with some choices causing a party member to die or even leave you for the rest of the game out of pure disgust. Good thing there's quick saves in case things go south. 

Dialogue involves choosing from a number of questions and statements when interacting with NPCs, some coming off as snarky, intimidating, or persuasive. Sadly, your character doesn't voice any of these, but the amount of voice over from the other party members and NPCs make up for this fact. As you run around villages, forests, and the like, the occasional banter can be heard between party members, most of which is rather funny. Rivalries, comments about the Grey Warden's current squeeze, or even finding out more about one's culture help flesh out these characters in a refreshing way. And with dozens of hours of play time, there's a lot to listen in on. 

With that said, I found that being able to buy gifts (items hidden around the world that pertain to certain members) at the campsite cheapens the involvement one has with a team member. Why bother finding out about a character when I can just buy a few gifts, fill the friendship meter, and get the stat bonuses for doing so? I'm not sure if this is from the DLC or if it was part of the original game, but I found it kind of counter-intuitive to what BioWare was trying to do. As for the DLC itself, most of what's in the Ultimate Edition is integrated into the main storyline of Origins, including being able to pick up an extra party member or having a neat outpost for storing equipment. The Awakening expansion and a few of the seven DLC options included in this edition can be found in the main menu which helps extend the Dragon Age Experience for roughly another 40-50 hours. While I wasn't particularly crazy about some of the DLC (Witch Hunt easily being the worst), I did enjoy the new class additions and story found in Awakening as well as the rest of the DLC offered, especially Warden's Keep and the Stone Prisoner.

As big as Origins is, I understandably ran into a number of technical issues during my experience, the worst of which was losing my saves, even with the latest patch. Though I lost a hefty amount of game time on my very first playthrough, my consecutive playthroughs didn't have this problem. Other issues I ran into were quests not completing, being unable to leave an area, dead characters not reviving despite being out of combat, crashing to desktop, or audio cutting out mid-sentence. These were few and far between, but still worth mentioning. And while on the subject, I loathed the three to four hour Fade experience that's required by the main storyline; talk about lousy. Barely any story exposition, annoying combat, and frustrating puzzles. As finely crafted as Origins is, this particular story area was an incredible chore that sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the other locales. Thankfully, the rest of the areas in Origins didn't feel like it was thought up by an intern.

Though the game was released in 2009, the graphics still hold up well. Running the game maxed out, Dragon Age is quite a looker. Environments are detailed, facial animations are smooth, and combat is gritty. Melee characters have a chance to perform a killing blow on an enemy which results in a swift decapitation or slow-mo lunge into a lumbering ogre's chest. Granted, the blood covers characters so much to the point that calm dialogue with NPCs after battle look odd given how much is caked on them. Magical spell effects for fireballs and lightning storms are quite impressive given how massive and painful they look. Some landscapes can look bland or low-res, and character armor repeats too much, but overall the game is worth turning up the settings for. 

I didn't quite know what to expect when booting up Dragon Age. Though the dark fantasy elements can be seen as cliche, the way that Bioware presents them compelled me to continue playing, wanting to find out more about the world, its characters, and the development of the story. Since your actions change the world around you, each consecutive playthrough will offer a different experience altogether. Whether that's with a cutscene, or interaction with NPCs, it's always neat to see what would happen if you went with an alternative dialogue choice, or to find out more about that one guy you never used in combat or talked to. If you're in the mood for an RPG with gobs and gobs of content, or looking for something that takes the fantasy genre in a cool direction, you can't go wrong with the Ultimate Edition. As much as I enjoyed the game, be sure to check out the objectionable content section first to see if the game is right for you.

-- Jonathan "Keero" Harling

Additional Details:

Gamer's Gate provided CCG with a copy for review purposes. I've spent around 45 hours in Origins as a Dwarven Rogue, romanced Morrigan, and chose the relatively upright path as a Grey Warden. Time was spent checking out the Dwarf Noble and Commoner origin, as well as the Mage intro. I played through on Normal, switched to Easy a handful of times for particularly difficult boss fights. I've completed most of the Awakening expansion, still wrapping up a few sidequests before launching into the final hour or two of the game. A dozen or so hours were spent with DLC content and I also checked out a few community made modifications, including one for respecializing characters and fixing some broken abilities.

Objectionable Material:

Violence: Combat involves swords, maces, mauls, bows and arrows, as well as various types of magic. Melee classes like the Warrior and Rogue have a random chance to decapitate humanoid enemies in battle as a final blow. Bladed weapons cause blood to burst from most enemies during attacks, magic can freeze, ignite, or if using death magic, detonate enemies upon death. After battle, characters that were in melee combat can be seen covered from head to toe in blood splotches. Cinematic sequences show innocent people being killed, some tortured in one area near the end of the game. Blood mages cut themselves to channel their magic or kill others to continue gaining power. Characters are killed in a multitude of ways, including impalement or having their necks sliced. Though there are some options to reduce the blood (including user-made mods), the violence and blood can get extreme.

Language: Swearing found in PG-13 films are present, such as 's--t', 'b-tch', and 'a--'. I don't recall any f-bombs or sexual terms, but innuendo can be heard or chosen by the player during NPC interaction. Blaspheming involving the game's main deity, 'The Maker', is heard by some NPCs.

Nudity/Sexuality: The game features a brothel where the playable character can choose to sleep with both genders, a transgendered NPC, and even an animal. Sex is implied but not shown. Romances with some party members can also be with either a male or female regardless of the player's gender, and multiple romances can be had. These romances culminate into a sex scene, and while no nudity is shown, the characters are stripped down to their underwear and bra and embrace each other while kissing. A curvy 'desire demon' is talked to and fought during the game, she's almost nude other than having super thin covering (if that) over the breasts. The brothel is optional as are the romances. One would have to work at the relationship over the course of the game to reach the sex scene, but there are plenty of options to turn down such offers for pleasure.

Supernatural: Demons and magic play a very large role in the story, most of which are crucial to certain plots and areas involving magic must be visited by the player to progress. One area in the game, the Fade, is inhabited by both benevolent spirits like 'justice', but also by destructive demons that the player must fight. The practice of blood magic is forbidden, but the player can choose to use those abilities if desired. Dragons, the undead, the Darkspawn, ogres, and even werewolves are fought in the game at one time or another. One group of characters drink blood for a ritual through which the player must also take part in. A strict religious order worships one god, 'the Maker', while the elves worship a pantheon of gods. The magic and lore found here borders on the occult, so if you prefer a RPG to be squeaky clean, this wouldn't be it.

Other: Moral choices are made throughout the game, some involving life-or-death situations or the future of a group of people. One main quest asks if the Grey Warden would kill a child to destroy a demon, or use forbidden magic in a ritual to cleanse the boy. Alcohol is present, and one party member is a heavy drinker. Though not a drug, the magical substance lyirum is shown as an addictive substance. Topics like revenge, slavery, genocide, and murder are examined in Origins, as well as asking if the end justify the means. Personally, there were a few times when the choices I had to make made me uncomfortable, where both options had me sit back and take the time to decide what to do. As the game is aimed at adults, I wholeheartedly agree that's the only audience that should consider playing

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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