Dragon Age: Origins
Why No-One Has created a Lord of the Rings singleplayer RPG is a mystery. We've had online adventuring, we've had decent RTS games, and we've had beat-'em-ups with Gandalf-quad-damage-combos but, the canned LOTR: The White Council aside, no modern RPG from the original fantasy universe.
But BioWare are about to steal this unused thunder with their own world, but one which reeks of coneys, Sarumans and shall not pass!". After playing through your origin tale, of which there are two for each of the different playable races, you'll find yourself preparing for the battle of Ostagar, a towering city in the human lands of Ferelden, upon which the undead Blight are marching. Here so many Peter Jackson-shaped bells are rung it's untrue (that's his old chubby shape as well by the way) - the Fereldens have a thing for dogs, just as the Rohan love horses; there's a nearby country they won't ask for help from because of past grievances; there's a pyre that needs lighting to signal another army to enter the battle; and a bunch of growling monsters sitting outside the front door.
That's the setup then, but you'll clearly have been up to other mischief or valour during your time in Ostagar - before being asked to lead a party into a Blight-infested tower to light some sticks on fire. Depending on your origin (man or elf, high class or low class etc) people will react to you in entirely different ways and you'll burrow into entirely different conversation trees. Elves, for example, are second-class citizens in this world -so being lithe, sexy, pointy-eared and communing with nature won't get you too far. Instead it's more likely that you'll be confused with another elf, seeing as all of you look the same anyway. This theme of racism is helping make Dragon Age stand out as an RPG for the mature player who wants their fantasy dark.
While in Ostagar you'll finally conduct the ritual that confirms you as a Grey Warden: the Jedi of the piece who have been long-ignored by the complacent world at large. Sadly though the Blight have been growing in number in old dwarven halls and caverns, and have recently come across an Old God dragon (cough-Balrog-cough) that's whipped them into surface-smiting shape. This explains the shrieks, fanged skeletons, blight wolves, devouring corpses and ogres striding ominously into view outside Ostagar then, but how shall you slash them to bits?
Your party can contain up to four people, and seeing as this is BioWare they'll all be integral to your game plotwise, and you might be able to do sex with them to boot Fighting-wise however, as in Batdur's Gate II you can directly control them or let the computer fill in the blanks - and everything happens in real time, although if you want to pause the action and dish out a few orders while mopping sweat from your brow you certainly can. Different combat talents can be used (berserk stances, shield bashes, flurries of blows etc) and pre-scrap buffs are, of course, de rigueur since flaming swords and the like are never less than useful.
What is most impressive about Dragon Age's combat system are the magical abilities. Too often in roleplaying games the arrow-firing and sword-waving characters get the grittiest and most realistic combat. A magic user's fireball has never really been anything more than an extravagant projectile that discharges for a measly amount of damage. Here though, they have weight, grit and beautiful spreading flarfies. These magic explosions act like real fire rather than a way to remove exactly 20 health points. Cast a spell that rubs flammable grease over all and sundry means an inferno is yours for the creating. Conversely an ice-based spell can extinguish said grease-fuelled infernos, making the area chilly and (we assume) slippery, but cool to walk on.
Spells can be coordinated and even merged to tremendous effect, so playing as a magic-thrower in Dragon Age will be a real possibility for those who normally avoid such a class like the Wailing Death. Dragon Age: Origins is looking every bit the successor to Baldur's Gate that we've been promised. Too often games are labelled as epic, but we can't describe this game any other way.
Not Only Is Ray Muzyka the co-founder and joint-CEO of BioWare - the world's finest RPG developer - the man also holds an honest-to-god medical degree.
If I'd had a heart attack during our interview, or needed an emergency tracheotomy with a pen, Muzyka MD would've been on hand to save me from the brink of death or stab me with some stationery. On the other hand, if I'd been with some nonqualified numpty, I would've died, probably with biros hastily lodged in all sorts of ineffectual places.
So with my safety assured, I started inquiring as to the progress of BioWare's latest roleplayer, Dragon Age: Origins. If there's anything about this game that's dampened your squib, it's most likely its seemingly generic fantasy setting, title and characters. So how hard is it for BioWare to avoid retreading that same old fantasy stomping ground?
"It's hard," admits Muzyka, "in fact we chose not to retread as much as possible. Rather than Tolkein-esque high fantasy, Dragon Age is dark fantasy - somewhere between the low fantasy of George R. R. Martin and the high fantasy of Tolkien. We're trying to pursue the best features of both types of fantasy, a mature gritty fantasy where there are choices that you make as a player, choices that will have conseguences. Sometimes a safe choice or a good choice may have a repercussion you're not expecting later on, which I think players will have a lot of fun discovering."
In a scene we'd been shown previously, such choices came to the fore. A guest to rid the forest of a race of feral wolf-men leads to an encounter with their leader, and the revelation that you've been tricked by some mages into slaying the remnants of the cursed canine civilisation. What follows is a choice to ally with the wolves or the mages, with the decision you make having huge consequences on the storyline.
"I think in games specifically you see more of the traditional high fantasy," explains Muzyka, "but I think people are going to be excited to see that you can have high fantasy elements while still having mature themes, gritty battles, and choices that have dark consequences. I think players will find that pretty exciting. That's why we're doing Dragon Age: Origins in the setting it's in."
And much like other BioWare epics such as Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur's Gate, the company you keep will consistently chime in with their opinions on your actions, either tutting in disdain when yon stomp a kitten, or cheering in approval as yon compliment an old woman on her looks. This time around however, yonr options aren't as clear-cnt and morality is muddy.
"There are a lot of themes that are relevant to any timeframe," claims Mnsyka, "the hostility towards the races and the fact that nobody really trusts one another. Yonr companions, the people who adventure with yon, are always judging yon on yonr moment to moment decisions and behaviours. And there are consequences to all of those things yon do. It's a timeless theme that I think holds true - it's a real-world vibe that we're putting into the game.
"So it's not as simple as making this choice and it being all butterflies and flowers, it's going to be about making a choice and there being harm to one group while another may benefit. Or maybe the greater good is worth the trade off in the short term. But those are going to be very emotionally impactful on you as a player."
The brief hands-on available didn't give a whole lot of time to become emotionally engaged with the characters - apart from one Legolas-type bloke who really didn't enjoy my penchant for gratuitous violence -but the underlying gameplay is made of solid BioWare stuff. It's a return to Baldur's Gate-style adventuring, which means we're steering away from the Mass Effects and KOTORs . of the genre, but it's great fun and surprisingly strategic. And one of the characters can turn into a bear.
Download Dragon Age: Origins
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode