I've never been a fan of Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Oblivion, or Fallout 3, so I was surprised that I actually enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins. I was fully expecting it to suck judging by the screenshots and trailers depicting scantily clad women clambering up mountains, faces frozen in perpetual sneers. So...color me surprised when I sat down to play the game and realized twelves hours later that I had yet to eat.
A major factor on whether or not I'm going to play a game is character design. A badly designed character is a killjoy for me and I could give a shit less what the game is about: I dont want to look at a ridiculous outfit or jumbled mass of polygons that is trying to pass as a human/humanoid/what-the-fuck-ever for hours on end. This is partially what tanked my interest in other BioWare games, and I was very pleased that they finally got something right as while building my character(s) I was not possessed with the irresistible urge to find a close-faced helmet and wear it 24/7 regardless of class (which I had to do in Neverwinter Nights 2).
Despite this however, there is still the typical issues with female characters: armor sometimes doesnt cover parts that need it the most, and you can disguise yourself as a clown via the eyeshadow and blush options during character creation...seriously. I cannot reconcile with the thought of female characters "freshening up" between gory battles. I dont know why the hell thats even an option. They look as though they'd be more at home on a street corner, trying to grind quests of a more carnal nature. Thankfully you can turn that shit off.
So they mostly got the looks right, lets talk mechanics as many games manage to leap the first hurdle just to stumble face first into the next. On this Dragon Age mostly delivers, as your options are very limited, especially at the start. I know people say that if you put up with it long enough that they (can) expand, but thats only partially true (and I'll hit on that in a moment). Character creation operates par for the course for fantasy RPGs: pick a race, a class, and then its time to venture forth into the world and rescue it from whatever "a doings that are a transpirin'."
You get three races. Thats right, three. Human, elf, or dwarf (so...an assortment of humanoids of varying heights and not much else). You also get three classes, and in case that's not limiting enough, humans and elves can choose from all of three classes while dwarves only get two. Sure, there are "in-game" reasons, but I dont give a fuck: players like being able to make decisions and that's just one more dwarf combination I wasnt going to play.
There are six origin stories in the game, but humans have to start in a human city, dwarves in a dwarf city, and elves can pick either the woods or aforementioned human city. There is technically an extra background for humans and elves, but you only deal with that if you play a mage.
Each class provides you with several categories of thematic talents like sword and board, two-weapon fighting, and two-handed weapons for warriors. There is a bit of bleedover for the warrior and rogue on the subject of duel-wielding, but otherwise each class is mostly a unique snowflake or...whatever. At levels 7 and 14 you can pick up a specialization which gives you a few few stat kickers and four more things to blow your talent points on. The downer is that specializations require specific events to unlock (like getting/talking to certain NPCs when they are at a high enough affection rating), or you can just hit the books at around 20+ gp a pop.
Umm...there are also skills, but you'll only end up using half of them and most of those dont even require activation like Coercion and Combat Training (for rogues and warriors-only). The others can be handy for triggering quests, but from what I could tell only having the first rank in the skill was necessary. *shrugs* I am pissed that there isn't an option to try and break locked doors and chests that you cannot open. Also, its kind of redundant to get a message that says, "you need a key." No shit? I thought that's why I was trying to pick the fucking thing!
And thats about it for characters. All of the staples of your typical RPG, just not enough variety for my taste.
On the topic of sparse features, I'm also going to bring up loot, by which I mean there isnt any. I didnt change robes until about level 7, and thats because I stole them from Wynne when she was forced into my party. I think I also stole her staff. I didnt change out gear again until around level 12. Partially because almost nothing for a mage ever dropped, and mostly because what did was fucking worthless. I figured it was a mage thing, but the same thing happened when I rolled a rogue: magical gear is few and far between, and you'll stick with that Borrowed Longsword for a good long while. It took me until level 15 to afford a dragonbone dagger, and I'm still using the longsword in my other hand! I'm saying have Diablo-levels of loot shooting out of the severed neckstumps of rats, but for fuck's sake throw a little variety in there.
Combat is often a mixed bag of joy and frustration. You can pause the game at any time to issue orders, which is a nice feature since the AI has only a tenuous understanding of the word tactics. Its also handy for digging through your packs for healing items since you'll be knocking them back at a frenetic pace.
The worse cases occur when you have to deal with one or more mages behind a phalanx of guards and archers. This has been the source of many a reload as I try to find a way to fuck with the AI and lure out a few enemies at a time to thin them down before making a bum rush at the goddamn wizard that's throwing out chain lightning or fireballs. Blood mages are even worse, and there's a part in the game where you get to plow through an entire dungeon full of the bastards. I eventually just left, leveled up elsewhere, and came back later with magic-stopping arrows and weapons plated in magic-resistance runes. Which...is bullshit. I shouldn't have to go through that much preparation just to barely survive, and I've been touring Ferelden on easy.
The highlight of combat is when you throw down with ogres, as sometimes you'll perform a badass finishing kill where you leap up and bury your sword in its chest. Its a visceral treat that doesnt get old since you rarely fight ogres, which is a damn shame. I'd prefer to have some for each monster, but I'll take what I can get.
"But Antioch", you say, "if both the character options and combat are lackluster, then why exactly are you wasting your valuable time playing this game?" Short answer: the NPCs. Thats right. Not the quests, loot, or grinding, but the people that you team up with to do all that shit.
Most of them are optional, but you invariably blunder your way into all of them throughout the course of the game. You can get by without using any of them, and they level up regardless so if one of them pisses you off you can leave him/her/it at camp and not fret about being forced to rely on a grossly underpowered nancy later on. Hell, you can even kick them out of the party at any time for any reason. If you dont give two shits about the narrative or interacting with pretend people, they still do their part in filling in gaps when it comes to party composition: you got bitchy young wizard, old wizard, ditsy red-headed archer, duel-wielding elf, typical whiny fighter, dog-thats-better-than-the-fighter, typical non-whiny fighter, and optional golem (in that you have to buy him).
For me, I actually got a kick out of talking with them and learning more about their personalities and pasts (some of which comes back to bite you in the ass). Each character has an affection rating that is relatively easy to grind if you know what to say and give them the right gifts, which lets you learn more about their personality and histories (some of which come back to bite you in the ass), but also grants bonuses to attributes. So, something for both camps I guess. I also enjoyed the fact that depending on who you have in your party, they will automatically engage eachother in dialogue, which adds a nice immersive quality to it all.
As an aside, yes you can screw up to three members of the party (since one of them plays the straight man/woman) and yes they have their clothes on the entire time, which I suppose makes it equal parts intriguing (that they can do it with clothes on) and boring.
I wouldnt say that any specific elements of it are especially intuitive or mold-breaking, but the visuals and characters are interesting enough to maintain interest while engaging you in a standard fantasy RPG experience. Much of the designs make sense and look cool, and cleavage bearing outfits arent too common. I cant say that Dragon Age is a true spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate since I didnt like those games at all, and to me that might give a bad impression or turn away others who likewise didnt care for it: its much, much better...by which I mean its above average, which in turn means its well worth your time if your into fantasy CRPG fare.