If you've ever played a fantasy game (say, Dungeons & Dragons) or read any of the genre's greatest stories (say, The Lord of the Rings), Dragon Age: Origins will feel instantly familiar. The latest role-playing game from developer BioWare (the outfit behind the Baldur's Gate series and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) invites players into a fantasy milieu that is both intricate and expansive. So intricate and expansive, in fact, that I'll begin this review by admitting I won't even come close to doing it full justice.
In broad strokes, then: An ancient evil stirs in the forests of Ferelden. The cursed Darkspawn—the misbegotten remnant of demon-like mages who once sought to usurp the reign of the Maker in heaven—have returned after a 400-year hiatus. Defeated by a coalition of humans, elves and dwarfs four centuries before, the Darkspawn are again unleashing their so-called Blight upon an unsuspecting world. And the whisperers say they're led by an archdemon who takes the form of a … dragon.
It's up to only a few noble warriors known as Grey Wardens to keep it at bay.
After you choose your gender, race (human, elf, dwarf) and class (warrior, mage, rogue), the adventure begins. Depending on your choices, you'll work through one of six origin stories. I played as an elvish mage, which means that my story began in the intrigue-filled halls of the Circle of Magi.
The balance of the story then revolves around your character and his (or her) party of other adventurers (all controllable by you) securing the aid of the dwarfs, the elves, the humans and the mages for one last, climatic battle against the Darkspawn and the archdemon.
Gameplay is divided between combat and role-playing in towns where you gather necessary information before taking your next steps. Lots of orc-like enemies called Genlocks and Hurlocks (and the occasional ogre) mean there's no shortage of opportunities to advance in levels while mastering your abilities.
As for visceral violence, Dragon Age: Origins isn't the most gory title I've ever played. But it's hardly sanitized. Blood spatters freely when you get attacked by some enemies (wild dogs, bears and huge spiders, for instance). Mages' fire-based spells set foes and friends ablaze. And an accurate finishing shot has the ability to decapitate some opponents. Cutscenes include more gruesome imagery, such as impalings and a Darkspawn feasting on a human being.
This being a fantasy role-playing game, we've also got to grapple with how it deals with magic—which in Ferelden is interwoven with the realm's religious history. It seems to be modeled after Christianity. It's not Christianity, mind you, but there are obvious similarities. We hear stories about a breach between the Maker and humanity as well as the tale of the singing prophetess Andraste. Her chants have become the biblical-sounding scriptures that the faithful recite at the many chantries in the game (basically, churches).
Given the mages' role in rebelling against the Maker, many of the faithful look with deep suspicion upon magic and magic-wielders. Knight-like templars are tasked with going after apostate mages—those who've rejected the tight rule of the Circle of Magi. Some of these rogue magicians, called blood mages, have indeed earned that suspicion by dabbling in black arts that give them dark power over the blood of their enemies.
At virtually every juncture, players face hard moral choices. When a demon possesses a young boy and begins reanimating the dead, for instance, you have to choose whether to kill the boy or enter the spirit world itself to go after the entity that's inhabiting him. And it may seem reasonable for a tribe of elves to request the killing of marauding werewolves … until you learn that the beasties are themselves another group of elves under a curse. Whom should you choose to help?
The game won't tell you what's best. At least not straight away. But choices like these influence how characters respond to you—especially other characters you meet along the way who can become members of your party. More folks on your side is a good thing. But even in this arena of "doing good to get good grades," things are a bit murky. Because if your approval ratings soar high enough, you are given opportunities to flirt, kiss … and have sex.
Some members of your party, such as the Grey Warden Alistair and the apostate mage Morrigan (whose costume barely covers her breasts) will gladly sleep with members of the opposite sex. Others pair off with no regard to gender.
Sex is implied when we see images of two underwear-clad characters holding one another and kissing. You can pay for the "services" of men and/or women at a brothel. A subplot involves the abduction and rape of a group of elvish women. And you can decide to conclude the game by sleeping with Morrigan in order to produce an heir.
There were many moments where I wasn't sure what to choose as I played. Right and wrong in Ferelden is as murky as it sometimes is in the real world. But that's not the game's downfall. Because while forks in "life's" road might be either amoral or merely ambiguous, other issues are obviously and objectively problematic—especially when it comes to sexuality. Being presented with the "opportunity" to ponder casual sex with a prostitute or a teammate isn't a mental exercise that takes much effort—or one that I need to be engaging in at all, for that matter.