2009 Reviews

Dragon Age: Origins

  • Review Date: 2013-12
  • Release Date: 2009-11
  • Developer: Bioware
  • Rating: 9.5

This is a review of the ultimate edition of Dragon Age: Origins, meaning it has all of the official DLC's included. I'll review those separately on another page. But there's also an important tweak: two mods installed named Improved Atmosphere and JB3 Textures, which I'll get into later. If you are yet to play Dragon Age: Origins or care to return to this epic long game, it can look a lot better with those tweaks.

When it comes to game of the year for 2009, I'm still to play most of the contenders; Batman, Left 4 Dead 2, COD: Modern Warfare 2, Assassin's Creed 2, Uncharted. Between them, MW2 and Batman swept the awards with Dragon Age: Origins normally top ten. DAO is my first venture into the top games of 2009, and what a epic it is. I'm not going to speculate too much against those other titles (maybe just a little). But L4D1 was a big disappointment with average looks, repetitive gameplay and no story, so I don't see L4D2 fixing that. MW2 brings the same sub-ten-hour game every year. Assassin's Creed is the most overrated game I've possibly ever played. Even before playing them all, I'm seeing Batman being the only real contender against DAO.

One of biggest pro's of DAO is it's playing time - I sunk 40 hours into it, not including any of the DLC's which will probably add another 10 hours. How can you even compare this, a game that's at least five times the length, to most other games. I'm not talking about wasting time in the same areas either. DAO is full of unique levels and there's not too much back-and-forth over the same areas. Much of DAO was exploring new environments; I actually only did a small portion of the side quests for two reasons. Obviously I was always eager to get on with the main quest but also the side quests were often for very little reward.

That's one thing I missed in DAO where at least half of the best equipment is actually just purchased in stores. The rest is gained usually at the end of a main quest, with very few from side quests. Starfang Sword was one (with DLC installed), which then glitched and completely removed it from my items. with probably the only other decent item I got from a side mission was the Juggernaut armor. Alas, this is a minor niggle.

What DAO did was immerse me into a world and have me addicted to playing it. I literally spent about 4-5 days on this game, doing almost nothing but playing DAO. I'd go to sleep thinking DAO and eager to wake up the next morning to sink another entire day into it (it's christmas... I'm on holiday). As much as I loved Fallout 3, it didn't have me so addicted to finish it within a week. Hell, on the second full day I spent on DAO I actually only had breakfast and played non-stop till midnight! It takes a pretty good game to keep me playing non-stop for that long. A normal shooter I'd be sick of after several hours because it's always just the same thing. But that is the nature of an RPG, keeping you playing to upgrade your characters, find new equipment and generally just explore new areas. DAO pulls it off wonderfully.

I won't go too much into the storyline, but no one does it better than Bioware. The different permutations and choices you can make to affect gameplay are fantastic. In some ways I felt a bit like there was too much time spent on fighting the new king, instead of focusing on the true enemy. It felt like at the end the final level as you battle the Dark Spawn was a bit of a bonus level. But again, that's just minor.

Another issue with DAO is it's difficulty progression and lack of tutorials. There were some features in DAO that took me a while to realise what they existed, because nothing is really explained enough. I guess it's assumed you play a lot of RPG's - but I don't. This made some of the earlier stages a bit more difficult than later stages. There is a fine line where you want difficulty to change the more you upgrade and the more powerful equipment you get. You need to feel like it's actually of use, not just ramp the enemies up at the same time. If I went to all the trouble of saving up to purchase an insanely expensive new weapon, or spend a few hours upgrading my skills, I don't want to get out into the field only to find the enemies have all upgraded to match. I want carnage on the edge of my blade! But in fact the final levels against the Dark Spawn were remarkably easy. Some of the boss fights were also rather easy, though I did have three very powerful melee characters (a rogue with Paragon armor and the Starfang!). But then there was the odd battle that was very difficult and I just scraped through. The fight with Kolgrim I was a rinse-and-repeat. The final battle against the dragon I had to try over and over again. That end battle, without a doubt, needed a damn save point midway through). You can spend twenty minutes doing it perfectly, only for a few Dark Spawn to surround a character and kill them within 2-3 seconds before you have a chance to dish out health. Much of DAO's difficulty comes just from not being able to save while you're in fight mode. You can't save until all enemies are defeated.

Overall, it must be difficult to properly balance an RPG, and some of this was simply my learning curve early on. Combat on the whole was very fun and addictive.

As promised earlier - the mods. I can not believe DAO was released as it as, when only a couple of easy mods have dramatically improved the looks of the game.

The first mod you have to install is JB3 Textures. http://www.nexusmods.com/dragonage/mods/15/?
It's like taking a slightly blurry image and sharpening it. This fixes 700mb worth of low quality textures in the game. It's not huge, but noticeable on all the small things where you just get a sudden sharpening.

The other, most important, is Improved Atmosphere. http://www.nexusmods.com/dragonage/mods/577/?
What this does is improve the lighting of DAO. I didn't spend much time playing without it and back in 2009 players probably just accepted what the game looked like and were happy with it. But occassionally in-game I'd turn the Improved Atmosphere (and SweetFX) lighting off - it just takes a key press - and be amazed at how much it had improved the look of the game. Before it was all murky, hazey, full of yellow/reds/greens. Improved Atmosphere gives it realistic colours with SweetFX built in just giving that extra bit of contrast.

Once those two mods are installed, the visuals of DAO are fantastic. Numerous times I just had to stand and look around, from Denerim with it's towers in the background, to the jaw-dropping Diamond Quarter of Orzammer, to the richly detailed castles, dungeons and caves. DAO is simply a fantastic looking game.

It seems logical to compare this to my pick for 2008 game of the year; Fallout 3, since it's also an RPG. On visuals, DAO beats it (as long as you have the mods installed); I much prefer fantasy to nuclear apocalypse. On story, DAO, no comparison. On the levelling system, they're about even. The only area I prefer Fallout 3 is an important one; combat, simply because I prefer the direct control first-person-perspective over top-view clicking. Also Fallout 3 had some more creative side missions. However it was also a shorter game, had some uneven combat, had far too much mindless walking around and also had some uneven weapons (by the end I turned into a melee combat machine with the Vampire Sword, which meant I barely used any other weapons).

Overall I prefer Fallout 3, because of that more action-oriented combat. DAO is played meticulously, often paused as you attempt to manage your team. That's not really my preferred style of play at all, but for what it is, Bioware have done it well. It's not necessarily an easy game, but it is very fun. All other areas - visuals, story, sound - are all fantastic.

Dragon Age: Origins