Everyone knows Bioware from their massive hit RPG title Mass Effect. Well, just a few months before the sequel hits, they have released Dragon Age: Origins for the PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3. Dragon Age: Origins is a return to Bioware’s roots in a way, since they used to more well known for games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. So if you haven’t figured it out already, Dragon Age: Origins is a dark fantasy RPG that blends more traditional Dungeons and Dragons systems with a dialogue and choice system similar to Mass Effect.

First off, let me start by outlining the Origins stories. Basically, when choosing your character, depending on your race, you will get an option of which origin story to start. There are 6 in total, and they make up the first hour or so of the game. So for example, as a dwarf commoner, you will have a different beginning than a human noble, and even a dwarf noble. These stories help to immerse you in the world of Dragon Age: Origins, and get you familiar with the game basics. Each one has decisions to make that can have lasting effects, and you’ll see characters from your origin story in other places, unlocking conversations that would not normally appear to a character with a different origin. These origin stories are very deep, and really do have lasting effects throughout your game, which I was happy to see.

Okay, so with that out of the way, lets move on to the combat system. Basically the game works as a standard fantasy RPG. Equip yourself and your other 3 party members with armor and weapons you loot from bodies or buy from shops. Then, go fight the bad guys. Your character will automatically attack an enemy you select, so no extensive button pressing is required. Up to 6 abilities or items can be mapped to the face buttons (X, Y, B, and then another menu of each once you hit the right trigger) for use, and have cooldown timers. However, the game also has a quick menu you can pull up in battle, freezing the fight and allowing you to use skills you may not have assigned to buttons. This is especially crucial for mages, as the game has over 20 spells you can learn. Though this is nice, it does get a little tedious going back and forth into the menu to pick attacks, as it breaks up the action a little too much.

As your character levels up, you can customize their stats, which are composed of the basics: Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Magic, Cunning, and Constitution. Though I won’t go into what they all do, just know that certain classes will focus on certain stats. Also, you get a point to put into learning a new skill or spell. The game is composed of a wide variety of skill trees that focus on certain playstyles. For example, mages have a fire skill tree that has 4 different fire spells that can be learned. Rogues have a skill tree that is for people who like to play stealthly, offering 4 levels of invisibility. In addition, every 3 levels (2 for rogues), your character can learn a new ability. How do abilities differ from skills? Well, they are more non-combat based things, such as coercion (which unlocks new conversation options) and herbalism (which allows for potion-making).

On top of all that, every class (warrior, mage and rogue) has 4 additional specializations that can be unlocked during your game. Your character can learn any 2 of their 4, at certain levels. So, your rogue could be an assassin/duelist, or bard/ranger, or any other combination. Each specialization not only gives various permanent stat bonuses, it unlocks an additional skill tree. So as you can see, you can really customize your character to suit your playstyle. I’ve made 3 rogues so far, and all of them play completely differently. Character customization is where the game really shines. Leveling up is pretty slow in the game (most people will barely reach level 20 by the end), so when you level up it’s really an exciting moment. Also, you level up your teammates, so you can customize them to your liking too. Really, there are infinite possibilities when it comes to different gameplay experiences.

Which leads me to my next point: The AI. Bioware seriously nailed how AI in a game should play. The enemies are smart, and will not just go for the first target they see. The enemies prioritize. They will go for a mage they know can heal your party. They will launch a full assault on your warrior up front to take him down. It really provides a nice challenge and you feel like each battle is a strategic tug of war. As for your team, the game has an extensive tactics system. Each person in your party has a tactics menu you can customize, telling them to do certain things in combat. And it can be as specific or as general as you want. You can have your warrior simply use a certain skill on the nearest enemy, or you can have him use that certain skill on any enemy that is attacking your mage. You can have your warrior use a shattering attack if your mage freezes an enemy. It’s all very specific, and you can make some very creative combinations to make sure your allies aren’t just wasting their attacks. Of course, you can also switch over and play as any of your teammates on the fly, in case you need them to do something right then and there. Really, any squad based game needs to take notes on Bioware’s approach, because it is a breath of fresh air.

Also, Bioware has crafted a story and world that will keep you immerse. I don’t want to spoil too much, as the plot takes a twist pretty early. Basically, no matter what origin story you choose, you are recruited to be a Grey Warden, an elite warrior against evil. A Blight is approaching the lands, which is a large gathering of evil creatures known as darkspawn, and it is up to you and the armies of the land to stop it. Though the story really heats up later, and makes you want to see what happens next. Also, everything in the game has a backstory, and codex entries provide you with massive amounts of information on stuff you see and hear about during your playtime. The characters feel real, and react realistically to your dialogue choices. The story is very well done and definitely emphasizes the ‘dark’ part of ‘dark fantasy RPG’. Of course, I would expect nothing less of Bioware.

There is plenty of extensive conversation to be had with the party members you accumulate over the course of the game, and your choices will shape their opinions of you. Decide to do something they don’t like, and they’ll let you know. Some of them may even retaliate against you. This provides more characterization and makes you feel like the people you travel with have an impact on your journey. They have feelings, and you end up taking those into account when you make decisions. Everyone in the game just feels very natural and realistic.

Of course, relationships can be mended, and by giving party members gifts and making favorable dialogue choices, you can bump up their approval of you, which rewards you in the form of stat bonuses and even new specialization unlocks. Also, there are love interests in the game you can pursue, whether you are a guy or girl. The game does not, however, use a meter or anything to track your ‘good’ or ‘evil’ choices in the game. Why? Because the effects of your choices can be seen in the world around you, instead of just being accumulated as points or something similar. Kill a merchant in one area, and you may lose some approval with a party member, but a competing merchant may give you a discount. Intimidate some thieves away from one area, and they may ambush you in another area with an even larger force. Your decisions are your own, and you do not necessarily shape your character into a hero or a villain. You simply shape the world around you as you see fit. In fact, at the end of the game, you get a briefing of the effects of your decisions in the future years. Seeing some little decisions you made have big effects later on is always a cool thing to witness.

I’m also happy to see the download content for the game. Mass Effect was an awesome game, but the download content was a letdown. Bioware definitely learned from that and at the time of Dragon Age: Origin’s launch already had 2 add-on packs for the game. One actually comes free with every purchased copy, and the other content pack is an additional sidequest that gives background information on some of the game’s past events. Both are well done, and Bioware has already promised another add-on before the end of 2009.

Okay, okay, I’ve praised the game enough. Time for some negative parts of this game. One of my biggest gripes about the game is the lack of multiplayer. This game really has potential to be a solid co-op game, at least for two people. I know Bioware isn’t exactly known for multiplayer, but the game could seriously benefit from it. Having your buddy cast a freeze spell while you go up as a warrior and shatter the enemy with a heavy attack would be so fun to do. It would just be a cool experience, and the game is definitely partially set up for it, having 4 playable party members already.

Another small gripe of mine are the graphics. Don’t get me wrong; the facial expressions are very well done. And the cinematics are epic. But from Mass Effect to this, the graphic definitely took a big step down. Trees look very plain and boring and indoor areas have a tendency to look very dull and ugly. The game just needs a little bit of a boost in the looks department, because the graphics it sports can’t compare to some of the games around nowadays. Even Mass Effects looks significantly better, and that game came out 2 years ago.

There are other minor things I could mention, but most of them are easily overlooked. When it comes down to it, Dragon Age: Origins was Bioware’s attempted to make an epic, dark, fantasy-based game, and they succeeded. This game is a must have for anyone who likes RPGs, no question. You will get hooked into the rich storytelling, the realistic characters, and the fun combat sequences. And after you’ve beaten it once, you’re going to want to play it again and again.