Dragon Age: Origins
An epic and near-perfect role-playing experience for everybody
In computer role-playing game circles developer Bioware is well known with such classics as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic in their resume. So when word got out that they were developing yet another role-playing game, billed as the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate no less, there was a lot of excitement, including from yours truly. Late last year this came to fruition when they released Dragon Age: Origins to rave reviews. I decided to wait until this past Spring to dive into the world of Dragon Age because that’s when I had planned to get an upgraded iMac, which would allow me to experience the game in all its glory. When I finally got to dig into Dragon Age it didn’t take me long to figure out that it’s the best role-playing game I’ve ever played, and quite possibly the best single player game I ever played of any kind.
You see Dragon Age has all the qualities that we’ve come to expect out of any great game – great story, memorable characters, fantastic graphics, great voice acting, and incredibly fun gameplay. But what sets it apart for me is how amazingly accessible it is for those with various physical disabilities. Usually when I run into a game with all the great qualities I just mentioned various interface hurdles make the game difficult for me to play, or maybe even impossible. I am happy to say there are no such hurdles with Dragon Age which is a huge reason why this already great game shoots to the top of my all-time list. I’ll talk about this more later in this review but for now a little about the game itself.
The story in Dragon Age isn’t really unique but it’s very well done. The story takes place in the mythical land of Ferelden during a time of chaos and civil unrest. You start off by choosing one of the three base classes (warrior, mage, or rogue) and one of the three races (human, elf, or dwarf). You can also choose a background for your character. This is where the word “Origins” comes into play. The choices I just outlined will determine where your character actually starts in the game and what your origin story will be. So, for example, if you decide to play a dwarven warrior or rogue you can have either the background of a noble or that of a commoner. There are six different origin stories with each putting you in an entirely different location, complete with their own quests and storylines. This serves as both an introduction to the game mechanics and to the world of Ferelden as seen through the eyes of the character you have chosen. The origin story you choose not only determines your character’s background but also how NPCs (non-player characters) will react towards you throughout your adventures. For example, elves are considered second-class citizens by humans so if you choose to be an elf don’t expect the best treatment from humans you may encounter. So obviously there is a fair amount of re-playability with Dragon Age because once you finish the game you could start over with an entirely different character and experience the story in a completely different way.
No matter what character you choose to play you will end up being recruited into the Grey Wardens, an ancient sect of warriors who are often called upon to deal with any major crisis that happens to arise. In this case it’s a blight, which is something you will learn that the Grey Wardens have been called upon before to deal with. During a blight armies of darkspawn, led by an archdemon, come up from the underground with the sole purpose of destroying all life. Aside from dealing with all the political strife your task as a Grey Warden is to recruit allies and raise an army capable of defeating the darkspawn. Now there’s actually a lot more to it than that but I don’t want to give too much away. You also will learn quite a bit about your adventuring companions, even going on quests related just to them. Your relationship with your companions is a big part of Dragon Age as is the moral choices you’ll have to make throughout the game. These choices will affect how your companions and the game world in general perceive you. Where your companions are concerned such choices could lead to them taking up arms against you or even becoming a romantic partner! I have to admit there are quite a few difficult choices to make throughout the game, with some being rather unpleasant, but that’s part of what makes this game so great. So many games these days are a little too cutesy for my taste but that isn’t the case with Dragon Age. It’s a very dark and adult–natured game which is very refreshing to me although it’s not for children.
The graphics in Dragon Age are astounding for the most part and really draw you into the game. There were many occasions where I just had to stop and enjoy the scenery. The sound is also very good but the voice acting is phenomenal. Bioware has employed some well-known talent, including Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek Voyager) and Claudia Black (Stargate SG–1 and Farscape) to provide voices for the characters – and there is a TON of spoken dialogue in this game. You can turn on subtitles but since most of the voice acting is really good you’ll probably want to listen to it. The music of Dragon Age is also fantastic, highlighted by a solo that is sung by one of your companions at a certain point during the story. I have to admit that moment caught me completely off-guard and I was stunned when I heard it. It’s an absolutely beautiful song! So good that I added the music to my music library.
So now I’m going to tell you how the accessibility of this game takes it to the next level. First, let me start off by saying that much of the game can be played with the mouse. There are large, easy to distinguish buttons on the screen for performing various actions and calling up various informational screens (like your inventory, spells, and so on). I often talk about the importance of windowed mode in games because it allows software-based assistive technology, like KeyStrokes, to function and help you play the game. Dragon Age plays perfectly in windowed mode and you can move your cursor between the window and your desktop without any issue. So this means you have visual access to helpers like KeyStrokes, SwitchXS, and Dragon Dictate. You can use the keyboard combination “Command-Return” to toggle windowed mode on and off or force the game to launch in windowed mode by following the instructions I used in my review of The Sims 3 which can be found here. Just substitute Dragon Age for The Sims 3 in these instructions. There are a bunch of keyboard commands that make playing the game a much more enjoyable experience so I created a custom KeyStrokes panel just for Dragon Age. I used the “smart transparency” feature of KeyStrokes to keep my custom panel hidden unless I mouse over the area of the screen where it’s located. This way my KeyStrokes panel wasn’t obstructing the view of anything in the game window when I didn’t need it. This custom panel mostly contains camera control buttons but there are also pause, right-click, and screen zoom buttons for example. The screen zoom button activates the Mac’s built-in zoom feature for any situation where something is too small (like text) for me to make out (I generally sit pretty far away from my Mac while I play games). Ultimately I didn’t have to use the screen zoom button all that much because of an add-on I found that allows you to customize the text sizes within the game. It’s called the "FtG UI Mod - More Readable Fonts and UI” and it made a significant difference in my enjoyment of the game. So if you find the text or any interface elements difficult to see I highly recommend this mod. Installing mods in the Windows version is apparently pretty painless. For the Mac version mod installer you’ll need a third-party free utility called “Modazipin” which can be found here. The font mod I just mentioned can be found here. The mod will work by itself with default settings but if you want to tweak those settings (and you probably will) you’ll need the companion application to do so. When I discovered this mod there was only a Windows version of the companion application. However when I e-mailed the developer about a Mac version he compiled one for me in just a few hours! How’s that for service! You can find that application here.
So while the third-party solutions I mentioned above make a huge difference with Dragon Age there’s also some built-in features that make the game very easy to play for just about anybody. First and foremost there is the “pause” button. It’s not something we haven’t seen before but it’s incredibly useful in Dragon Age. It allows you to pause the game at any time, including during combat. While the game is paused you can give each character in your party an order which they will execute upon un-pausing the game. This can be immensely useful during combat and sometimes absolutely necessary as the action can be fast and furious at times. So if you can’t operate your mouse and/or your keyboard quickly enough you need not worry here. You can take as much time as you like. If any particular combat encounter is still too difficult you can even change the difficulty settings on-the-fly. On a few rare occasions I did have to change the difficulty to “easy” but 95% of the time I played the game with the difficulty set to “normal”. And there’s one last important feature that makes Dragon Age easy to manage for even the most physically challenged people. There is a built-in tactics system that you can bring up by clicking on the “tactics” button at the top of the screen. The tactics window allows you to automate how your characters react to various situations. There are various presets available or you can make your own custom settings for each character. To create a single tactic for a character you select a condition on the left-hand side and a corresponding behavior for that condition on the right side. Each character has a number of tactical slots (and more can be earned during the game) that you fill out this way. Once you have the whole list of slots filled out for a character that character will automatically conduct themselves during combat based on those tactical settings. The game cycles through these lists of tactics from top to bottom during both combat and exploration. So you need to prioritize the tactics list for each character in order to make sure they do the things you want them to do in the correct order. The game will skip a tactic in a character’s list and move to the next tactic if the condition is not met. So, for example, if you set the first tactic on a character’s tactic list for the character to drink a health potion when their health is below 25% then the game will ignore that and move on to the next choice in the list if the character’s health is above 25%. So basically the game will keep analyzing a character’s tactical list, stopping to perform an action, when a condition is met. It all sounds pretty complicated, and admittedly it does take a little while to figure out, but if you manage to do so the game becomes a whole lot easier. Once I got the hang of using the tactics system I didn’t have to micromanage every combat encounter. Instead I usually focused on just controlling my own character and letting the tactical settings I created direct the other members of my party. This also allowed me to watch a lot more of the action during combat encounters as I was no longer overburdened with worrying about every character in my party. A more detailed explanation of tactics in Dragon Age can be found here.
If you’re even the slightest bit interested in role-playing games and haven’t yet played Dragon Age: Origins then do yourself a favor and get this game immediately. Great storyline, graphics, characters, action, romance, gameplay, and being very accommodating to both physically disabled and visually impaired gamers make this about as close to perfect as a game can get in my estimation. However, be prepared to spend a lot of time with this game. It took me around 150 hours to complete the game! Granted that’s not exactly a record-setting pace, as I’m the type of player who likes to explore every nook and cranny in games like this, but it’s going to take you awhile to complete no matter how quick you are. And even when it ends you can start over again as another character and experience the game in an entirely different way. On top of that there’s an expansion available that adds a major campaign that takes place shortly after the events of the original game. There’s also a bunch of DLCs (downloadable content) available for a few dollars each that are essentially mini quests that provide more background to some of the supporting characters you adventured with and closure to some of the many storylines. I must warn though that Dragon Age is not for children as there is a fair amount of violence and adult subject matter. The Windows version is available just about everywhere. The Mac version is available as a digital download only from a GameTree Online and Direct2Drive. Note: the links above are for the “Digital Deluxe Version”. There is also a “Standard” version available for the Macintosh. Since it looks like the Digital Deluxe Version is now only $10 more than the Standard version I think it’s worth it to just get that version. Have fun storming the castle!
Macintosh Minimum System Requirements:
- OS: Mac OS X 10.6.2 Snow Leopard or higher
- Processor*: Intel Core 2 Duo Processor
- Memory: 2 GB RAM
- Graphics*: ATI X1600 or NVIDIA 7300 or greater
- At least 17 GB of hard drive space for installation
- Download File Size 8.70 GB.
Windows Minimum System Requirements:
- OS: Windows XP SP3/Vista SP1
- Processor: Intel Core 2 DUO @ 1.4 GHz/AMD Athlon64 X2 @ 1.8 GHz
- Memory: 1 GB
- Hard Drive: 20 GB Free
- Video Memory: 128 MB (nVidia GeForce 6600/ATI Radeon X850)
- Sound Card: DirectX Compatible
- DirectX: 9.0c
- Keyboard & Mouse
- DVD Rom Drive
Windows Recommended System Requirements:
- OS: Windows XP SP3/Vista SP1
- Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 (2.4 GHz)/AMD Phenom II X3 720 (2.8 GHz)
- Memory: 2 GB
- Hard Drive: 20 GB Free
- Video Memory: 512 MB (nVidia GeForce 8800 GTS/ATI Radeon HD 3850)
- Sound Card: DirectX Compatible
- DirectX: 10
- Keyboard & Mouse
- DVD Rom Drive