I am an RPG fan. A big RPG fan. The roots of this love can be traced back to my early days, with games like Secret of Mana and Zelda: A Link to the Past; cartridges I bought using my student grant as that was obviously much more important than books and food. You should also bear in mind that £45 in those days was a lot of cash, back when the world was black and white. Anyway, what this rambling introduction is leading up to is this: with the increasingly powerful generations of consoles came new opportunities for the makers of RPGs to blow us away. And thus it was Bioware who stepped up to the mark, with an entirely new experience that was unleashed onto an unsuspecting world. So come with me down memory lane, where I look back at what made Dragon Age: Origins – Ultimate Edition so great, following a year after the original release.
The real draw, the hook, for me with any RPG is the story. I suspect that this is why so many people invest so much time in this genre in particular; when you have created a character, and invested in their backstory, the urge to see what happens next is strong, dragging us forward, almost against our will. The character creation part of Origins was particularly good, giving a range of races (Human, Elf or Dwarf) and a variety of classes to choose from (Warrior, Mage or Rogue). Each race and class combination had, uniquely I think at the time, its own backstory and “tutorial” that lead to us joining the Grey Wardens. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game, creating multiple characters in order to see what backgrounds they came from.
Now, with the mention of the Grey Wardens, I feel the time has come to discuss the narrative in depth. I would normally give a spoiler alert at this point, but we’re talking about a game originally from 2009 – over ten whole years ago – so if you haven’t played it by now, well… why not?
Ferelden, the country we find ourselves in, has a problem. Many years ago, the Dwarves created a network of underground highways, called the Deep Roads. These Deep Roads have been taken over by the Darkspawn – the baddies of Dragon Age: Origins. Now, every now and then, the Darkspawn manage to find an Archdemon, a powerful, god-like dragon that makes them stronger, and at that point the Darkspawn pour out of the underground and attempt to take over the world above. These events are called Blights, and so far the world has withstood four of these.
Now, the Grey Wardens, a group of warriors who belong to no nation, are charged with defeating Darkspawn and preventing Blights, and as such they are always looking for new recruits. Our fate is to join the Grey Wardens, via a ritual that sees the recruits drinking Darkspawn blood. Most people who try this ritual die at this point, and if the recruits survive, they are marked by the process, becoming able to sense Darkspawn when they are nearby. Luckily we survive and become a Grey Warden, which is good given that a new Blight is about to begin. As we take part in the battle, tasked with lighting a beacon to let the cavalry under the command of Loghain know when to attack, we instead see Loghain quit the field and run away, leading to the catastrophic collapse of the good guys and the death of the king, Cailan. Loghain then goes on to blame the Grey Wardens for his actions, and to demand the heads of any surviving Wardens. Obviously, we can’t let this stand, and the scene is set for a titanic tussle as we attempt to unite the kingdom, deal with the traitor and defeat the Darkspawn!
Now, we aren’t alone in this endeavour, and we can recruit a party of companions to the cause. These include Alistair, the Grey Warden who recruited us, and Morrigan, a witch and daughter of a swamp witch named Flemeth. Leliana is a sister of the Ferelden Chantry, the organised religion of the game, Sten is a powerful Qunari warrior, while Oghren is a scruffy dwarf with a taste for drink and violence; not necessarily in that order. Wynne is a powerful mage who makes a useful healer (every good party needs a healer!), Zevran is an Elvan assassin, and there’s even a dog that can be recruited and named. Every good game has a dog. There’s also a DLC package that was released called The Stone Prisoner, and with this installed a Golem called Shale can be added to the party. As you can imagine, having what is basically an ambulatory rock on your team helps with the early fights in particular.
Following on from Bioware’s earlier game – a certain little thing called Mass Effect – the options for romance are many and varied; basically, if it has a pulse, you can woo and bed it. Male, female, it makes no difference in this game; love is love, and that’s all as it should be. Pursuing the companion of choice is almost a full time endeavour in itself, and with conversations to have and gifts to give, the route to true love is always pretty rocky.
Graphically, Dragon Age: Origins was very much of its time – I think that is the kindest way to put it. Played out in a third-person perspective, the combat was always interesting, as if you and your companions were involved in a ruck (and believe me, there was enough to go around!) then the character you were controlling at the time of the fight starting is the person you started out with, if that makes sense? You could switch between characters at will, and while the AI were capable of attacking and helping out, they weren’t great at keeping themselves healthy. Judicious use of the character swap mechanic and a swift healing potion or three was usually needed. Of course, trying to keep an eye on what you were doing, the health levels of the party and defeating the foes in the process was pretty much a full time job.
The way the combat flowed was pretty interesting as well, with each person having a variety of abilities that could be used, each of which had a cooldown period. As a rule of thumb, the more powerful the attack, the longer the cooldown. Attacks could be queued up, and the characters would carry them out one after the other, so it could be attack, attack, heal for instance, which is a good way to try and stay alive. Obviously, gaining EXP from the fights allowed you to gain new powers and become stronger, so taking part in as many rumbles as possible can only be a good thing.
The lore that surrounded Dragon Age: Origins was also a particular highlight, strong enough for the lead writer, David Gaider, to publish a number of novels, as I highlighted in my recent article detailing the best novels based on games. Why do mages hate Templars; why do Grey Wardens get treated with contempt in most of the kingdoms; why do Dalish elves hate humans? All these questions and more are answered in the comprehensive backstory of the Dragon Age universe, and it’s the attention to detail and the planning that make it so compelling.
Interestingly, when the game was conceived, there were no plans for follow-up games, and the success of Dragon Age seemed to take Bioware by surprise. The plaudits were astonishing, winning a number of “RPG of the Year” awards for the three platforms it was released on (PC, PS3 and Xbox 360), and perhaps best of all it was listed in the book “1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die”. That right there is a win in anyone’s book (see what I did there?).
So, these are my memories of Dragon Age: Origins Ultimate edition; a game that is dear to my heart. Romancing Morrigan (because why wouldn’t you?!), fighting beasties, making difficult choices, defeating a Blight – it was all in a day’s work for a Grey Warden. So, now it’s your turn, dear reader: what do you remember about this game? Did you play it, and if not, have my scribblings made you want to play it? Let us know in the comments! Oh, and for those of you who have EA Access, the game is playable using that service.