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A Look at Dragon Age

Dana Massey Posted:
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Betrayal is a huge element of this game. In nine hours, I learned to trust almost no one in the Dragon Age world. Seriously, Bioware filled this world with jerks... and I mean that as a compliment.

Naturally, after I got the initial tutorial stuff out of the way and met my family, I went to bed and woke in the middle of the night to find fighting in the hallways.

My father had been betrayed and while he sent his army out to deal with another threat, a rival swooped in to attack his seat of power.

With my trusty attack dog (the first of the permanent party members you meet), I set out to try and save my family. Now, before I continue, I feel I should point out to fans of Fable II that this dog is nothing like the one there. This guy could eat the Fable dog for breakfast and go back for seconds.

Just a quick FYI here, skip the next three paragraphs if you don't want any story spoilers.

Quickly, I found my mother roaming the halls in full battle armor, ready to help fight her way out. She joined me. Sadly, inside the apartments, my father was nowhere to be found and my brother's wife and daughter had been killed.

So, we set out into the halls to find my father. There, you get an introduction to the importance of persuasion. You find panicky palace residents ready to flee and can convince them to stand and fight if you play the conversation correctly. They're a big help.

Eventually, you fight your way through this mini-dungeon and realize that the palace is going to fall. With your elder brother at war and your father no where to be seen, you're encouraged to escape, lest your family be exterminated entirely. Naturally, on the way out, you find your gravely wounded father. A tear jerking conversation ensues - and I'm not kidding, this game has some of the finest digital acting I've seen - and the end result is that your mother and father stay behind as you go off to safety, escorted by a Grey Warden who you've promised to join.

FYI, it's safe to read again!

The Grey Wardens are a group in the Dragon Age mythology that stand vigilant against the Blight, an ancient phenomenon where every so often a great, demonic evil arrives to attack the races of that world. Unfortunately, it has not happened in so long that people have begun to believe it to be a thing of the past and the Grey Wardens paranoid relics of a long forgotten era. When the Blight returns, as it does at the start of the game, they must do all they can to fight it off and slay the single beast that controls this rising evil.

Naturally, your character becomes one after his origin story.

Dragon Age is set in a very dark universe. They explained it like this: fantasy is like Lord of the Rings, which everyone is familiar with. High Fantasy takes those elements and makes them exaggerated, fantastical and extra happy. Flying squirrel carriages and floating cities, for example. Their brand of fantasy takes those same elements and changes them, but makes them grittier, darker and full of shades of moral grey.

For example, the Dwarves in Dragon Age look like Dwarves, but they're far more of a highly political people. The Elves of Dragon Age are quite literally a slave race, bossed around by others and treated like second class citizens. Each element looks like what people expect, but there is far more to them than one would assume right off the bat.

They've also set out to ensure that this lack of black and white, good and evil, extends to the entire game. There are lots of huge choices that can totally alter the way the game goes, and rarely is it so simple that you know one will help you grow horns while the other will polish that halo. I discussed this in more detail in my initial blog on the subject.

Under the hood, Bioware had to invent a new ruleset to power the game. D&D is out, so what did they do? They made their own.

"D&D has never been a ruleset designed for a computer," noted Darrah. Instead they made a system that, according to Darrah is "something under the hood that's much more complicated, but [with] a user experience that's more streamlined."

There are a few core skills to pump your basic points into (strength, dexterity, etc.) as you gain new levels. You also gain points that unlock new abilities. For example, my warrior could unlock new shield skills, focus on two handed swords or even start practicing some ranged attacks. The leveling process is the same for all characters, including the story one, although, the others are obviously married to their core class... and the dog has less options! Although, I will add, he has some advantages too. As a tank, he always closes at a run, which makes him a beautiful little missile to harass casters and archers that tend to hang back.

Naturally, I couldn't go visit Bioware without asking what if anything Dragon Age has taught Star Wars: The Old Republic and visa versa. While they couldn't speak to specifics, they did note that the original Lead Designer of Dragon Age left the project more recently to head down to Austin as their Creative Director. Clearly, with the same guy at the helm of the MMO who helped originally put Dragon Age together, the two will no doubt share some ideas.

The game will launch with a complete editor, kind of a version 2.0 of the Neverwinter Nights editor that proved so popular, especially in the online community. Unfortunately, while that could be used to create small persistent worlds, the Dragon Age editor doesn't allow for it. It adds all sorts of fun features, like a cinematic editor, and the ability for people to totally re-record (or add new) voice overs.

For launch, the game is 100% single player. Laidlaw told us that it was simply their philosophy that if they cannot do something amazingly well, they don't even try. Rather than divide their focus to really polish co-op or persistent world support, they wanted to make a great core experience that every purchaser of the game will enjoy.

While he was careful to promise nothing, he didn't rule out the possibility that in a future update or expansion they'll introduce a robust online system. They know how popular those worlds were for the Neverwinter Nights community and don't take that lightly. Time will tell what, if anything, comes on that front.

It was a great change of pace to check out a game that isn't an MMO, but still has many lessons it could teach the genre and has clearly learned a thing or two from it. Does this game belong on our game list? Of course not, but it was one of those rare times when we had a chance to see something that, while not at all an MMO, should be of great interest to a huge number of our readers.

Dragon Age will be released for the PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on November 3rd. The PC version will come with the Dragon Age editor for players to create their own adventures.

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Dana

Dana Massey