It’s amazing to me that 2009 is already practically ancient history as far as video games are concerned. Yet, a lot has indeed changed, especially when it comes to presentation and storytelling. Where everything was (for some reason) meant to be dark, gritty and very brown back then, now vibrance carries the day.
Back then, morality systems and developing friendships/relationships with party members was the pinnacle of video game storytelling, but now that ethos has entirely disappeared. And, now that I’ve finally gotten back to playing Dragon Age: Origins again, I can kind of see why. I mean, it is a shame that practically everything about this era has been abandoned, but I thinking that much of it went away for good reason.
While I did finish a playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins back when it came out, I was never as big a fan of it as I was Mass Effect. I liked it enough to stick with the series, but that’s about it. I think I was just in the wrong mindset at the time. Like, I didn’t take any interest at all in Ferelden, the wider world or the lore.
Rather I was deadset on just barreling through the story as quickly as I could. As you might expect, this meant that I missed out on a lot of things, lore, worldbuilding and character development in particular. I also didn’t really appreciate the combat system, so I wound up just grabbing any abilities that sounded good and auto-leveled everyone besides my main character. Again, this naturally led to big problems as the game wore on. I wound being terribly annoyed by Dragon Age: Origins, and it was almost entirely my fault.
I came to realize that eventually as I played through the later Dragon Age games, but it really only sunk in once I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago. The world of DA:O is incredibly rich with lore and all it takes to see it is to take a little bit of time to look around and to read some of the many, many codex entries that you’ll inevitably accumulate. Not everything about the world is fully thought through, but there’s plenty that is. It really is a fascinating (if sometimes confusing) place.
Similar things can be said of the party characters and the game’s combat. Everyone does indeed have a bit of depth to them, making it interesting to talk with them (at least some of the time). As for the combat, I’d say it works pretty well once you actually put in the effort to learn how it works. I still don’t necessarily like it, but it’s not the awful system that I once thought it was. All that said though, I wouldn’t say that the game’s aged particularly well.
The first thing that jumped out at me playing Dragon Age: Origins is just how unpleasant it is to look at. I’m not talking about things like character models or anything either, that’s all more or less in-line with the standards of the time. No, I’m talking about the color palette. I get get that this is supposed to be a dark fantasy world where life is hard, brutal and short, but did that really demand that EVERYTHING be drab and brown?? Seriously, the amount of brown in this game is ridiculous! So much so that any break from it at all is a welcome relief, even if that relief is just plain ol’ grey caves!
There’s no true escaping it even then though. Most of the clothing and armor is just plain brown too, so even when you get into grey area you’re still dragging around a bunch of drab ugliness. Color in general is so muted too that even the stuff that isn’t brown gets overwhelmed by it. I remember this period in gaming being very brown and drab in general, but DA:O really takes the cake here. Seriously, if DA:O had color and vibrance in the same way that Dragon Age: Inquisition did, I think it would be a much more replayable game.
As for the battle system, even though I appreciate more now than I did then, I am glad that they went away from it in later games. It might just be that this style of combat isn’t for me, but I just find it boring. Sure, there’s some tension to it in the early stages, but once your get your builds going on each character, the game basically plays itself as you steamroll everything. This happens a lot in other kinds of games too, but this one is just way too hands-off for me.
I want to be more involved in the combat, even if the result is the same. I can’t help but contrast this with Final Fantasy XIII, which is often accused of being an auto-pilot game too. Yet, I found myself needing to pay a lot more attention to the battles than I do here, especially when it comes to bosses. I think this is one of the things that makes Mass Effect 1 more easy to revisit than DA:O; you’re actually playing it a lot more.
I don’t really have many complaints about the story; it’s a perfectly competent “unite the land and defeat the evil” kind of tale. The only real issue is Loghain’s betrayal at the beginning, I think. All the characters remark on how out of character it was for him to do what he did, and it really doesn’t make sense no matter how you slice it. By all counts, there were sufficient forces to win the Battle of Ostagar, yet the supposedly level-headed general pulls the bulk of them back because he just doesn’t like some of the king’s boyish attitudes and interest in th Grey Wardens. …Seriously?!
This guy, who does seem to understand the Darkspawn threat, is going to jeopardize everything and make it as hard as possible to address that threat because he sometimes disagrees with an otherwise apparently good king?! Yeah…no. I think BioWare was just trying to have its cake and eat it too with this guy. They try to justify him by having him say that he felt they didn’t have enough force to win, but…that rings hollow when we see the size of his army and don’t see the Darkspawn overrunning anything except for ONE village at the beginning of the game.
I suppose the last thing that I noticed was the clunkiness of the character relationship system. This was better developed in later Dragon Age and Mass Effect games (thankfully), but here it just doesn’t work very well. I think it’s mostly because of the Approval system and the developer’s attempt to stretch it across the game. I mean, the characters are more or less consistent with what they like and don’t like, but none of them are very flexible.
No matter how impossible the choice in front of the Warden may be, they’ll all STILL get hopping mad if you don’t make the decision they agree with. It’s like, YOU WERE THERE! You saw what we were dealing with! You saw that there were no good options, yet you act as though there were! Furthermore, you dare get on your high horse after ultimately leaving the decision to me anyway?! Get over yourself!
Alistair is the worst offender here, and it’s the reason I really can’t stand him. He’s the senior warden, yet leaves all the responsibility to the new recruit. And when that recruit is forced to routinely make tough decisions in difficult situations, he DARES to get angry and go off about how “surely there must have been a better option” and how he would have done things differently. Dude, these decisions should have all been your responsibility in the first place, but you took the coward’s way out and foisted them upon me instead! Seriously dude, shut up! At least Sten directly challenges me if he doesn’t like my decisions!
See, the future potential of the system is already present here. The characters do manage to elicit a real response from players. It’s just too bad that the approval system can be overridden with gifts and meaningful interactions are locked behind main story events. That’s my major complaint I suppose; thankfully it’s one that was addressed in the succeeding games. The thing is though, we don’t really see anything resembling this in modern games. Like, where did it go? There was real potential here that was almost fully realized in Inquisition, so why has nobody tried anything similar in the years since? It’s something I think should be explored further in modern games.
Revisiting Dragon Age: Origins has at least been interesting I think. For the time, it managed to offer some interesting things, particularly characters that could inspire real emotional reactions from the player. The combat system is also quite good if you happen to like that kind of system. With the exception of the character relationship system though, it’s not hard to see why very little of this game is reflected in the modern gaming space. It’s too easy to ignore the lore. The world is too “dark” for its own good. It’s overall unpleasant to look at, and its systems are too easily undermined. I’m not going to call it a bad game, yet I don’t see much to make it worthwhile now. I guess some games really are just a product of their time.
What’s your take on Dragon Age: Origins? Do you love it? Hate it? Not care about it? What about other games from this era?
Image from the Dragon Age: Origins Steam page