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Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age: Origins was the first game I played on the PS3.  While I enjoyed the thrilling plot which was influenced by difficult decisions that the player is forced to make, the PS3-unfriendly inventory and party management menus made the game difficult for me to fully enjoy.

Game Play

Dragon Age is a role playing game set in a classic fantasy world with Humans, Elves, Dwarfs, Trolls, magic and the like.  The game play is primarily comprised of three aspects: real-time combat, party management, and interactive conversations.  During combat the player can control one party member at a time and easily switch between members.  Predefined tactics can be configured for party members for when the player isn't manually controlling them.  Party management consists of managing party attributes and abilities (e.g., magic spells, sword techniques, etc.), inventory and equipment.  Finally, interactive conversations with non-player characters in the game present the player with decisions which effect the plot of the game, including how other non-player characters (e.g., your party members) receive you.

Story

The story is a standard good against evil epic tale.  The land of Ferelden is in turmoil.  A blight of demons and demonic creatures is growing and threatens the kingdom.  Unfortunately, the kingdom is on the edge of a civil war.  As a Grey Warden, protector from the blight, it is your job to unite the kingdom of Ferelden so that the blight can be defeated.  Depending on your starting race and class you will be treated to a unique introduction to the world.  My character, a human mage, started the story by taking a final mage test before being recruited as a Grey Warden to fight the blight.  Friends of mine had different starting classes and had very different experiences.

The story is guided by your decisions.  In conversations players are be forced to make difficult decisions that go beyond the typical "bad guy" or "good guy" choices.  The repercussions have interesting results and will leave
players
players wanting to try the game a second time to really see how things will change if different choices were made.

Critique

Although the story isn't entirely engaging, the way that the story is told is very well done.  Voice acting throughout means that it's fairly easy to immerse yourself into what is being said, and the choices that you have to make mean that you actually do care what the outcome is.  Though I only played through once, one might have a greater appreciation for the result of the choices the second or third time around.  If your video gaming time is at a premium and you like having the full game experience from every game that you buy, you may be disappointed with Dragon Age unless you plan multiple 25+ hour plays.

I usually favor being the "good guy" whenever I can, but this game classifies players into various shades of gray by forcing them to make decisions that have difficult to predict outcomes.  Unless I play the game again, I won't really have any measure of how "good" I was, since it feels impossible to please everyone.  So if you prefer the fantasy based game where you are the stereotypical all good doing hero, then Dragon Age might be frustrating to you.

The controls and mechanics of the game didn't work very well on the PS3, since the user interface was clearly designed for the PC.  With a mouse it is fast and easy to select random elements on the screen, such as targets, party members, and abilities.  This makes it much easier to control a party and manage many different abilities on the PC.  The console version tried to use a pop-up wheel menu that was launched by holding (default) or pressing L2 and navigated via the thumb stick for options that aren't mapped to buttons.  Since the wheel menu isn't big enough to hold all of the available spells and abilities, there are multiple pages in some areas of the wheel menu which made searching for abilities tedious.

It is obvious that the designers tried their best to find a way to include all of the functionality of the PC version into the console.  To me this is a huge mistake; for many games, the PC is to the console as flying an airplane is to driving a car.  In a console version of a game like Dragon Age, I would have much preferred a complete redesign of the user interface so that one never has a second-class system feel.

Party management also felt tedious to me.  Since you can only view one party member at a time, it's difficult to quickly manage inventory and equipment for multiple members.  I ended up leaving party members with their starting equipment for most of the game.  The inventory list also includes equipped items, which means that you have more things to scroll over to get at what you want.  I think that the inventory and equipment management should have been on separate screens so that each interface could do each task well, instead of one screen that did both tasks poorly.  Managing your party's skills and abilities was fairly easy, though a fixed game preference to automatically manage party members (including equipment) would have been nice for those of us who only want to focus on our own character, or don't want to take the time to learn about which skills and abilities are important.

Since the game lost me with party management and a lousy user interface, combat was merely time spent between story dialog.  The areas that you do explore aren't particularity large and are separated by long load times which shouldn't exist in this era of gaming.   Periodically there are unexplained spikes in combat difficulty, leaving the unprepared (i.e., me) to face even more long loading screens, and occasionally temporarily lowering the difficulty to keep the flow of the game.

Conclusion

Dragon Age has the feel of a PC game that was ported to the console.  While the story telling works just as well on the console as it would on the PC, and is very well done, the same user interface and party management techniques that work well on the PC should have been redesigned from the ground up to work well with a console controller.  

Unless you crave a mixture of strategy and action, combat will be something you do between dialog, with extremely long load times when you die after unexplained pitches in difficulty.  To get the most out of this game you'll definitely want to have multiple plays to experience the wide range of story paths and character classes, and be willing to sacrifice a lot of your personal life.  If this is your type of game, you should be playing on the PC where I'm certain it is much more enjoyable experience.
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