BioWare's legendary expertise in the realms of expansive, immersive RPGs is in no question. Their back catalog is a pantheon of PC classics spanning multiple genres and a variety of settings. Despite their recent critical (and commercial) success in the realms of Sci-Fi, a lot of fans have been hoping they'd return to their roots and craft another epic fantasy role playing game. The wait is over, for Dragon Age is here.
Described as a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age leaves the land of Faerun (and the Dungeon's & Dragons system that created it) behind but retains the core feel and gameplay style of that well regarded series (particularly Baldur's Gate II). Presented in third person 3D, players are able to take direct or indirect control of their player through a range of camera levels and modes, pausing the game to switch party members or determine tactics at any time. The game can be played entirely real-time if preferred, with a range of difficulty levels which will affect how much you might need to pause to consider your options at the very least.
The "Origins" part of the name comes from the fact that the game is intended to be the first in the series as much as it comes from the wide range of origin tales available. Each race / class combination has a specific origin story which the player completes before taking part in the core story of the game as a whole. There's a wide range available, each unique and vastly different to each other and well worth playing through even if you play no further with that character once you complete it.
The environments are rich and alive with characters and detail that will be affected by your actions. At every turn you'll find a situation that will resolve itself according to your behaviour. How you decide to react will affect not only your own development but how people perceive you - most importantly, how the people in your party will perceive you as well. For some, more decisive or aggressive actions will earn their approval while at the same time, doing something direct will cause another member of your party to become more distant from you. There's no perfect way to behave and indeed, the options available are often not clear-cut as to what the outcome will be. Fortunately you'll find items you can give to people as gifts to curry their favor, often offsetting the negative opinion they'll have formed due to you laying waste to a village of crippled children (for example).
Combat requires the player to select a target and an action from their action bar. Simply right-clicking on a target will cause your character to perform its default attack, something you'll spend a fair amount of time doing between skill cooldowns. Movement is either by using the WSAD keys or by right-clicking the ground, while holding the right-mouse button and moving the mouse allows the player to move the camera around (good in combination with WSAD). Dead enemies often drop items, which can be collected (like chests or herbs, etc) by right clicking on them; this can sometimes (thanks to the very tight collision boxes around clickable objects) result in you moving instead of gathering or looting, which is a little annoying compared to similar games.
Characters in Dragon Age (friends and enemies) are "solid" (meaning you can't just walk through them). This can result in some fiddly situations where you can't get in and start swinging your sword at things because your party members are in the way. Combined with the occasional situation where your character won't attack for unknown reasons (simply standing there while someone wails on them or a party member), combat can feel a little stilted. When it works however, it works well, with some massive creatures to fight and combat that generally involves a large number of combatants over a large area.
You can dive in to the tactical decision making of your NPC party members thanks to a very impressive and powerful user interface. Simply set a trigger (such as party member health below 50%, etc) and then set a preferred action. Triggers can be stacked and result in NPCs that play as you want them to, tanking, healing, dpsing or in some other way performing a role as you define it. For the most part, this works very well and will allow you to adapt the way your party approaches each situation without feeling like you need to micromanage them. Thanks to the "pause anytime" interface, you still can hold their hands if you need to.
Quests (both of the side and story variety) are well handled through the game's user interface and the content of quests gives players a lot of options as to how to complete them. Each quest (and many other situations) are met with a series of interactive cutscenes in which your character will navigate the available dialogue options as you determine how best to approach a situation. These cutscenes are frequent and often lengthy but you can skip through them by pressing escape to bring up the selectable options before the cutscene completes.
Cutscenes are presented in the classic "you choose an option but your on-screen avatar doesn't actually say it; other characters simply behave as if you did" style of RPG story telling which, while it works, still feels a bit odd that your on-screen persona is a mute. NPCs don't tend to make direct eye contact with your character either and they animate weirdly when turning their heads. Otherwise, the presentation of the cutscenes is generally very good, with skin and faces being something the graphics engine handles very well.
The rest of the game, however, is something the graphics engine doesn't handle very well - graphical prowess is not something this game is going to be remembered for. Fortunately, that's something of a theme for RPGs so Dragon Age doesn't really stand out by having pretty crude presentation much of the time (sometimes it looks quite nice, which is all the more jarring for the rest of the time).
The sound is generally very good, with convincing battle sequences happening in a soundscape which suits whatever fantasy environment your crew finds themselves in at the time. Character voices are mostly very good with only the occasional line delivered in a ham-fisted manner. The cutscenes, of which there are many, are all tightly scripted and solidly delivered - no small feat given the variety and quantity thereof.
At the end of the day, Dragon Age is a very nicely delivered RPG with loads of content to explore, plenty of replayability and genuine options to choose in the branching dialogue. Sure, it's far from the prettiest game ever (and would struggle for that title against games from several years ago at least) and there are some quirks to the core gameplay, but none of these things are enough to offset the pure, old-school PC roleplaying aweome that is at the centre of the game. It's BioWare, it's good and it's about time. If you're even remotely interested in RPG gaming, get into it without hesitation.