When discussing BioWare games, most people will cite either Mass Effect (more specifically the second game but sometimes the first) or Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn as BioWare’s best. No doubt they are worthy of being brought into the discussion, but many forget Dragon Age: Origins, one of their largest scale, most ambitious, and least flawed games. Likewise, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic must also be brought into this discussion. But this article is dedicated to the nearly forgotten masterpiece that is Dragon Age: Origins.
All of the aforementioned BioWare games have a place on our RPG tier list. In fact, the BioWare game with the highest amount of role-playing is actually Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic which ranks in the prestigious tier 3 in that article. Dragon Age: Origins belongs to tier 4, while the Mass Effect trilogy resides on tier 5 (with tier 1 being the most role-playing). So some may ask, why do we find Dragon Age: Origins to be BioWare’s best game?
There is more to an RPG than just how much role-playing is possible, and Dragon Age: Origins is more than a formidable RPG in its own right.
Dragon Age: Origins was released in 2009, after a very long development period. It is often referred to as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate; while they have the same kind of gameplay, Origins is much darker thematically and also far more story-driven.
It uses a heavily modified version of Neverwinter Nights 2‘s Electron engine, called Eclipse engine. It doesn’t have nearly as many configuration options as the Neverwinter Nights games, and DirectSound3D is of course omitted since it was released just as Windows 7 came out, but nonetheless the amount of configuration it does offer (especially in gameplay and UI) is clearly a lot more than most modern games. Unlike classic RPGs such as the Neverwinter Nights games however (and like more modern games), Dragon Age: Origins lets you connect to BioWare’s website for real-time tracking of your in-game achievements. Thankfully this online connection isn’t mandatory. On that note, unlike the Neverwinter Nights games, Origins does not feature multiplayer.
With Dragon Age: Origins and also Mass Effect, which came out two years earlier, BioWare set new standards for themselves for art design. Origins, despite the dated technical graphics at release (which we’ll go over later) was stunning to behold and still is today with mods. But without mods, the art style trounces its fidelity. Every region of the game has distinct architecture and textures, and thankfully we get to explore plenty of it. It is a hub-based game, like many RPGs before it, and encourages exploration. The levels aren’t quite as large as Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, but they are quite detailed and filled with side quests, both hidden and obvious. It features more locations than Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (also known as KOTOR), but doesn’t have a location as big as KOTOR’s biggest. Individual levels are much less linear than Neverwinter Nights.
This game was also BioWare’s second to take on their more cinematic, involving storytelling approach with all NPCs being voiced. This is now the standard today after all, although Dragon Age: Origins benefits from the interactivity of a good RPG.
Plot progresson is open-ended for the most part; not at first but once you reach a certain point in the main quest, you are given numerous objectives and can pursue them in any order freely.
Furthermore, both this game and Mass Effect (only the first one) were the last BioWare games designed primarily for PC. Ever since then, their attention has turned to consoles which has led to many noticeable downgrades, especially for the newer Dragon Age titles.
This PC focus is so clearly evident in the user interface, and also in the amount of configuration it offers for visuals, gameplay, and UI. The in-game HUD for example is excellent for mouse and keyboard, being designed around point-and-click navigation and interaction.
As with other “cRPGs” Dragon Age: Origins lets the player create his/her character, offering a choice of three races; human, elf, dwarf. The player also chooses one of three classes; Warrior, Rogue, and Mage, although Mage is unavailable to dwarves which is part of Dragon Age lore—dwarves cannot use magic as they are immune to the effects of lyrium, a mineral-like material related to magic. This immunity comes from generations of dwarves living so close to the material, which makes sense.
Origins goes one step further than every other single player RPG in existence however, by offering six different “origins” or prologues. These are the playable introductions, which are between 90 and 180 minutes long. Six different introductions of such a length is unheard of outside of this game, and it’s one of the best examples of this game’s ambition.
The origin you get is dependent on both your race and class, although any dwarf character gets a choice of two origins, as does any elf warrior or rogue player character. The six origins are:
- Human Noble – Available only to human warriors and rogues.
- Mage – Available only to human and elven mages. Elfenmagier
- Dalish Elf – Available only to elven warriors and rogues.
- City Elf – Available only to elven warriors and rogues.
- Dwarf Noble – Available to any dwarf character.
- Casteless Dwarf – Available to any dwarf character.
Yes, each origin is completely different, set in a different place with unique characters save for one character, Duncan, who always appears to pull your character into the main plot. Also, each origin has its own distinct subplot that spans throughout the game, and each one brings unique character interaction, dialogue, and side quests later in the game.
Almost every RPG that allows for character creation with multiple races/species needs something like this. It adds so much to the game’s role-playing capabilities, as well as the game’s story and overall immersion. Each origin is excellent as well and there is no common favorite really.
After you create your character, you are thrown into your prologue. Every prologue has a strong hook, and they all result with the player character joining, either willingly or by conscription, a legendary order known as the Grey Wardens.
As with every BioWare game other than Dragon Age 2, you play as a hero who sets out to save the world. The evil in this game is known as the Darkspawn, which are corrupted humans, elves, dwarves, and qunari. Legend goes, the taint that turns people into Darkspawn is the result of ancient mages invading the Golden City (basically heaven) in order to usurp the power of The Maker (God). This is hardly a spoiler, as the opening cinematic explains this. Whether or not it’s true remains to be acknowledged, but it probably is true.
And the Grey Wardens? They are the legendary order who exist only to battle Darkspawn. You are inducted into their ranks following whichever prologue you get, and the game takes off from there.
As with most newer BioWare games, the plot also involves uniting people to fight this world-threatening evil, although it is of course possible to fail and have hardly any allies. Yes, this plot is trite, but Dragon Age: Origins does the best job at making it work. The story is told with more finesse than any other BioWare game. As we have grown accustomed to with Mass Effect, the focus is on the characters, and the character development does not disappoint. Highly interactive, highly involving, much like the Mass Effect trilogy and Dragon Age: Inquisition of course, but with better dialogue than Mass Effect. No wasted or pointless dialogue to be found in this game. The interaction, quality of the characters, and the events that unfold throughout the game all combine to make for one of the absolute most emotional experiences in gaming.
Some companions are more developed than others, as expected from such a large cast, but nevertheless the entire cast is excellent and everyone has their share of memorable dialogue and moments. Morrigan and Alistair in particular are the most developed companions, and Morrigan in particular is arguably BioWare’s best character ever.
Origins does set out to write a more memorable antagonist as well, Loghain Mac Tir. He isn’t just evil like Inquisition’s Corypheus, it is actually possible for players to sympathize with him and it’s easy to see reason in the way he acts. But either way, no player will fully agree with him. This isn’t like Game of Thrones which, in the first few seasons, pulls the viewer in different directions resulting in different viewers siding with different characters. On that note, A Song of Ice and Fire is officially cited as an inspiration for Dragon Age: Origins, but there are hardly any similarities.
However, Origins does an excellent job at having the player visit other cultures, such as the dwarves of Orzammar, the Dalish elves, the neglected elves living in ghettoes in human cities. The main quest will take you to all of these places, and it provides strong moral conflicts in each with many different outcomes. On this note, the ghetto of Denerim (a major city in the game, and the location where the player is exposed to the city elf culture) is toward the end of the game and isn’t given the same time and development as Orzammar or the Dalish elves.
This brings us to the “choice and consequence” design of Origins. Not many games do a better job here. The choices are generally obvious, but the consequences are rather realistic, with the game containing both massive scale and smaller scale consequences. Much like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Inquisition once again. The plot branches out quite a bit, even if you always end up at the same end location. In addition, the game has an abundance of ending variation (ending slides).
One very nice touch is that the biggest decisions the plot has you make has direct impact on the last ~2 hours of the game, the final missions. It ends with a war, and the commander of this war as well as which allies you have, if any, are the result of choices you make earlier in the game. Remember we talked about making alliances being a major plot point? If you fail to do so, you failed to do so. These allies won’t be allies, thus they won’t be present in the final battle. And it isn’t just, “Will X be there or not” rather it is, “will X, Y, or nobody be there.” Having choices cumulatively affect missions like this is the proper way to design an RPG.
Even though the game provides a plot that branches out substantially, it doesn’t provide the most dialogue choices. There is only one dialogue skill, called Coercion, although this affects two dialogue prompts which appear occasionally: Persuade and Intimidate. The game also contains numerous Truth and Lie dialogue options, in addition to the regular ones. Considering that, as with every other BioWare game since Mass Effect, it forces you to want to save the world (although your reasons can vary), the amount of dialogue choices is appropriate. Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t seek to provide the most role-playing ever, it just wants to do a great job with an amount less than KOTOR and Neverwinter Nights.
So the story involves uniting a nation to fight this Darkspawn threat. Every few centuries or so the Darkspawn threat grows exponentially as a giant tainted dragon, known as the Archdemon, emerges and leads the Darkspawn. This is known as a Blight, and Origins sees the beginning and end of a Blight.
Uniting the nation of Ferelden is no easy task however, due to fragile politics. You may recall how A Song of Ice and Fire was an inspiration for this game, but ultimately things are far simpler here, due to the story focusing on a much smaller number of politically powerful people. Simple, but effective is the best way to sum up the entirely of this game’s story.
Because of how much it can branch out, and because there are six different origins with each bringing overarching subplots, characters, and side quests, it really takes no less than six playthroughs to experience everything this game has to offer. That’s how good of an RPG Dragon Age: Origins is.
Those who have played any Dungeons & Dragons game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (either one or both), or Pillars of Eternity will feel somewhat familiar with Dragon Age: Origins. It is a pause-and-play party-based tactical RPG, featuring an attributes system, skills system, a party inventory with good sorting/categorization, and a leveling system with three classes and multiple specializations which are like subclasses. It also tracks so many stats not only for the player character but all possible companions, including kills and toughest enemy defeated.
Something that makes Dragon Age: Origins stand out is its support for both third-person and isometric gameplay. Not only does it have both, but you can set your zoom for third person and they give you a generous range for it. It is fully functional in both modes, to the point where the entire game can easily be played in either one depending on your preference. If only more RPGs had this; forcing the player into just one, especially isometric only, is not wise.
Another unique and stand-out feature, especially as a PC game, is the expandable hotbar. Every point-and-click heavy RPG needs this. No more being stuck with the usual 9 or 10 hotbar slots, as you can expand it to take up almost the entire width of your screen.
In terms of gameplay complexity/depth, it most closely resembles the KOTOR games. But let’s start at the beginning: the character creator.
The character creator was quite in-depth for the time, as far as creating your appearance goes. Not the most in-depth, but respectable even today.
Attributes and stats however were noticeably simplified compared to highly regarded D&D RPGs, such as BioWare’s own Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate games, and also Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. A disappointment but at least it isn’t dumbed down to the extreme levels that its sequels were reduced to. But to illustrate this, Dragon Age: Origins has only 8 skills although it can be argued that 2 of these aren’t real skills due to their passive nature. Awakening, the first and biggest expansion, adds 1 more (not 3 as it would make you believe, as the other two are Vitality and Clarity which just provides permanent boosts to health and mana/stamina respectively). Compared to the 28 skills of Neverwinter Nights, this is a serious downgrade.
Combat abilities in this game are arranged into a tree, like today’s games, meaning there is progression in unlocking new abilities. These abilities are referred to as talents, and each class has its own. There are also “specializations” which are subclasses, and each one has its own talent tree. Overall this is similar to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and also similar in quantity to Pillars of Eternity, but again, compared to Neverwinter Nights which has hundreds upon hundreds of usable abilities, and also hundreds of feats (Origins has no feats), it is a downgrade.
But then again, compared to modern day ‘RPGs’ Dragon Age: Origins is usually more complex and offers more possible character builds. Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin are exceptions; they are both more complex and more diverse, allowing for more character builds.
Dragon Age has its own attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Willpower, Magic, and Cunning. Very strange, especially when you examine how Dexterity works. It increases your chance to hit with melee weapons, just like Strength, and it increases damage from melee weapons. It also increases your Physical Resistance score just like Constitution, in addition to the usual functions of this attribute (chance to hit with ranged weapons, damage from bows, Defense). A strange attribute system that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and aside from Strength/Dexterity/Constitution it isn’t very “fundmental” like Dungeons & Dragons or S.P.E.C.I.A.L. are.
Because of how universal Dexterity is, and how it adds to Physical Resistance exactly as Constitution does, Dexterity is more important than Constitution even for heavy-armor “tank” melee builds. Keep this in mind.
So, while Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t boast the best, most diverse, or most realistic stat system, it is one of the absolute most fluid pause-and-play games ever made. Even today in 2016, seven years later, it is wonderfully fluid. Combat pace is a bit slow by today’s standards, but far faster than most classic games and it isn’t painfully slow at all.
Not only does it have fluidity on its side, it has a real-time party AI scripting system known as Tactics. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here is an example:
Every pause-and-play RPG needs this. The Neverwinter Nights games have something vaguely similar, with those games offering things that Origins does not, and vice versa. The best of both worlds would be ideal, but considering how rare either customization system is, I’ll take either one.
Proper configuration of your party members through Tactics will greatly improve the flow of battles. I still do plenty of pausing and managing myself, but I can at least trust my party to act appropriately under most circumstances on their own.
Enemy AI is typical for this type of game. They never do anything ridiculously stupid, but they aren’t nearly as intelligent as say XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Classic difficulty or XCOM 2 on the equivalent difficulty, which should be the benchmark for tactical AI.
Terrain is also incorporated into battle design, unlike almost every classic RPG. This improves gameplay and makes combat even more tactical.
Where it is less tactical than the Neverwinter Nights games and to a lesser extent Divinity: Original Sin is in statistics and statuses; those games have more specific enemy strengths and weaknesses, more possible statuses, and a much wider variety of magical attacks in the Neverwinter Nights games. Divinity: Original Sin is innovative for its use of elemental statuses; water puddles can form dynamically, and they can be electrified to alter the battlefield. Fires can spread dynamically as can poison, not to mention poison is flammable. Characters in those games can have so many different status effects and specific vulnerabilities and immunities, so that it becomes much more complex than Dragon Age: Origins.
Also, spells and abilities in Origins operate simply on a cooldown system, although there is also a mana bar which drains for every spell that is cast. Thankfully mages have a default magic attack that doesn’t use up mana, only spells do.
Another distinct gameplay feature is the spell combination system. Casting a fire spell on an oil surface will make for a far deadlier explosion for example, and casting two certain types of glyphs on the ground can have interesting results. Spell combos exist for every spell school.
Compared to the newer Dragon Age games, as well as The Witcher games and your other typical modern day RPGs, Dragon Age: Origins might actually be overwhelmingly complex. Those coming from action RPGs may be overwhelmed by the pause-and-play system and lack of in-depth tutorials.
The difficulty of Dragon Age: Origins is very well balanced, particularly on Hard mode. Generic human, elf, and dwarf enemies have roughly equal damage and health compared to the player’s party, there is full friendly fire, status effects have no bias against or for the player’s party. The amount of healing items found throughout the game world are still fairly modest. On Nightmare difficulty, healing items become very scarce and enemies become slightly more damaging. Normal difficulty is very forgiving, to the point where it should be referred to as Easy. Easy difficulty should be referred to as Very Easy.
Although regardless of difficulty, enemies cannot use many of the most powerful spells (although they can and do use a few of them at least, particularly on harder difficulties), and they are unable to effectively use spell combos. This is unlike Neverwinter Nights in which you will see high level enemies use very high level abilities with devastating effect.
As for the balance between classes, subclasses, and different weapons, warrior archer characters who use crossbows is essentially a forgotten playstyle without enough unique abilities. We don’t recommend it. Dual weapon rogues are somewhat underpowered in combat compared to warriors. Sneaking isn’t effective enough and backstabs should also be more effective than they are. Furthermore, two-handed warriors seem a bit less useful than sword & shield and dual weapon warriors even though they do have a distinct advantage in damage dealt per blow. So, balance isn’t perfect but it is pretty good overall. The different schools of magic are well balanced. If any playstyles are to be deemed worthless, they would be warrior crossbow archers and maybe dual weapon rogues.
At the end of the day, we have no major complaints for the gameplay of Dragon Age: Origins. Exploration is rewarding and combat is still fun. Even though its gameplay is much simpler than the great classic RPGs, the currency system is more faithful to the classic copper, silver, and gold system, while even D&D games usually only include one of those. 100 coppers = 1 silver, 100 silvers = 1 gold.
Our biggest complaint is that perhaps two playstyles can be deemed worthless due to a lack of balance with them. We would have preferred the gameplay to not be simplified compared to its D&D predecessors, and we would have preferred more classes and complexity in statistics and statuses, but none of these complaints jump off the page as being severe issues or appalling deficiencies. Although more spells and abilities would have been a big plus, as Origins does not appear better than average in this regard.
Audio & Visuals
We mentioned how the engine of Dragon Age: Origins comes from that of Neverwinter Nights (especially the sequel). In fact, Origins and Neverwinter Nights 2 are even compatible with the same anti-aliasing compatibility bits for NVIDIA cards, which has excellent support for sparse grid supersampling. Nonetheless, the overhauling that BioWare did is obvious. Dragon Age: Origins has a distinct appearance due to its distinct color palette and the overdone ambient occlusion style that actually resembles Amnesia: The Dark Descent (although Origins did it first, being one year older and for being in development much longer).
The graphics quality was outdated for its time though. 2009, the year of its release, is during the Unreal Engine 3 era. Mass Effect, which came out two years earlier, has higher quality graphics, as do most other UE3 games. Character models were above average for the time, but still trounced by high budget cinematic console titles like Uncharted 2 which came out the same year. Texture resolution was some of the worst for its time.
Other than the ambient occlusion, higher polygon count, and distinct color palette, it looks a lot like Neverwinter Nights 2, a 2006 game. Origins is DX9 based.
As we are writing this review many years later, our screenshots show the game with mods so they aren’t representative of how it looks without mods. Of course, everyone should be using mods when playing it. We have a list of recommended mods here.
With mods, the game’s visuals have aged wonderfully. Not because of sheer fidelity, but because of style. Although to some degree fidelity is involved too, particularly in anti-aliasing thanks to the use of 4x SGSSAA as shown in our screenshots. This results in a cleaner image than almost any modern game, as modern games tend to be incredibly aliased. As such, I personally prefer the clean, anti-aliased image of modded Dragon Age: Origins, especially combined with the high frame rate, over the technically superior but heavily aliased many modern titles such as The Witcher 3 and… almost every other mainstream game released from 2014 and beyond. This is of course bolstered by the very good art design of Dragon Age: Origins. It remains visually enthralling even today and that won’t ever change. The locations are a one of a kind, the lighting and color tones stand out and are memorable.
Dragon Age: Origins uses the FMOD audio API and has native support for 5 channel surround but not more than that. This also means it does not support EAX and no HRTFs are used. This is all a downgrade over BioWare’s own Neverwinter Nights which contained an advanced hardware-accelerated DirectSound3D and EAX 3.0 implementation as well as native 7 channel surround support. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is also DS3D based with excellent EAX effects. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 use OpenAL and the former contains EAX, so we can’t help but feel Dragon Age: Origins feels downgraded a bit here.
Nonetheless the sound effects aren’t bad, they just aren’t outstanding. What is outstanding is the soundtrack, which is one of the absolute best we have ever heard in gaming. It did win our Best Soundtrack of the 2000s award after all, making note that many other candidates were worthy of the award too. The main composer for this soundtrack was none other than Inon Zur.
Voice acting for Dragon Age: Origins is also where it should be, for a cinematic character-driven experience that is entirely voiced saved for the protagonist. In other words, it is excellent.
Dragon Age: Origins, huge in scope with so few flaws. Simple yet riveting story thanks to the character development and interactivity from its role-playing, even though the role-playing isn’t elite. DA:O is not particularly excellent in design (save for some small things like the origins system and party AI customization), but it is excellent in execution.
Wonderful art design and attention to detail makes the world engrossing. Gameplay is still wonderfully fluid to this day. All of this makes it a timeless classic and arguably BioWare’s finest achievement. Compared to its sequels, Origins is still clearly superior in so many ways, gameplay design above all.
Compared to Mass Effect, here we have less dependency on sequels and a bit more role-playing, with less flaws/mistakes in writing and better dialogue. Compared to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic we have greatly superior character development but less role-playing and slightly simpler, less diverse gameplay. Origins art design is also on a completely different (higher) level than that of KOTOR.
Everyone who likes RPGs owes it to themselves to play Dragon Age: Origins. Even those used to pen and paper RPGs, which offer infinitely more role-playing than any video game, just to experience a solid RPG transformed into such an enveloping, riveting video game that will tug at different emotions throughout.
- Presentation: Dragon Age: Origins contains one of the best PC oriented user interfaces of any RPG, as well as plenty of customization and options to go along with it. The in-game achievement system is expansive and it’s nice to be able to view your characters online should you choose to upload them. The game is very well polished all around and gives us nothing to complain about here. 20/20
- Story/Writing: Like we said earlier, this game’s story is rather simple yet it is incredibly effective and emotional, thanks mostly to the companion character development but also because of the importance of player interaction on events as well as on characters. The plot, character dialogues/interactions/fates, and more can change so much depending on your choices. However, it isn’t very deep as it is yet another “hero saves the world” tale at the end of the day, and too many NPCs are just helpless people begging for your help opposed to actual characters. 16/20
- Gameplay: Fluid and intuitive, not horribly dumbed down, quite fun and a decent challenge on Hard and Nightmare modes. The Tactics system (real-time party AI scripting) deserves to be on its own hall of fame. Enemy AI shows some improvements over other RPGs, largely due to scripting though, not dynamic behavior (e.g., AI scripted to hide behind strategically placed barricades). Dynamically, it is noteworthy that some higher level enemy mages will use highest level spells against you, but they don’t utilize spell combos and they will not use the most massive AoE spells. Balance between generic enemies and the player’s party is seemingly perfect on Hard mode, and balance between available classes is above average but not perfect. The variety in character builds is good, but far from the best. A mage can possibly specialize in one of its five spell schools, but chances are you’ll end up using spells from three because there aren’t enough of each. Compared to today’s games, it is a bit more creative with the types of spells it has, although in this regard it fairs poorly compared to D&D RPGs and a few others. The Warrior class has some flexibility, more than recent RPGs, but Rogue is lacking. The ability to play in both third person and isometric, with each one being very well made, is a big plus. 18/20
- Audio & Visuals: While technically the graphics were dated for the time (environments in particular, character models and animations were above average for the time), the art design largely makes up for it. The lack of repetitive environments is very good; every major region has distinct architecture and texturing. A distinct color palette is present, which we feel fits right in with the rather dark tonality of the game. Sound effects are pretty good but not remarkable (and downgraded compared to previous BioWare games) however the soundtrack is one of the absolute best in gaming, and the voice acting is superb. 16/20
- Lasting Appeal: It takes no less than six playthroughs to experience all of what it has to offer, and because of how much the plot branches out, how much character interaction can change, and how much gameplay variety there is, six playthroughs doesn’t have to be tiring as long as you play differently and make different choices. An average playthrough is about 50 hours long. 20/20
- Overall: 90/100 (Incredible)