It was with some trepidation, dear reader, that I stepped into the cavernous maw leading into the Dragon Age: Origins presentation room. The stalwart adventurers alongside me did not share my fear, seemingly expecting rewards for their sitting down in the fire-lit chamber that awaited. I’ll stop writing like that now.
I’ve been worried about Dragon Age: Origins for awhile. I love my RPGs, and I love my BioWare RPGs, but something about this has yet to really ring true for me. In part, perhaps, it’s the teenager-baiting: the emphasis that the trailers and previews have all had on the sex and violence. This presentation, I’m afraid, was no different.
Marc Laidlaw, the lead designer of the game, was the one taking us through it. For those who aren’t in the know, the game largely revolves around the Grey Wardens, an organisation modelled after the ideals of the classic Paladin – a self-sacrificing group dedicated to the destruction of evil. In this case, they’ve been watching and waiting for the Blight, an event that happens once every few ages and pretty much heralds the apocalypse, as Dark Spawn rise and start laying waste to the world. It’s been so long since the last one that the Grey Wardens are now a much smaller group, and few have faith in them. Naturally, you play a Grey Warden. So far, so relatively standard, but Dragon Age has been marketed as a dark fantasy title. What this seems to mean is that it has a lot of sex and violence, and aby Marilyn Manson, in addition to the fantasy stuff.
When we got around to the game itself, we saw the party’s camp. This, Laidlaw explained, was later in the game, when we’ve struck up good relationships with our party. Apparently, female archer Liliana has fallen for our player character quite heavily, but seductive sorceress Morrigan, wearing something most Page 3 girls would take issue with, has also been flirting with us. What to do?
Give Morrigan her mother’s dark tome, apparently. This pleases her sufficiently that it raises our relationship with her and Inspires her. Inspirations look like a series of buffs based on your relationship with a particular character – in this case, Morrigan’s magic was now more powerful. The other “benefit” was that her flirting shot through the roof, purring something about how her tent is so cold and she needs someone to warm it up. So, sex, then, resulting in whooping, cheering, and wild applause from everyone else in the room (no, seriously) which was a reaction that made me feel slightly ill. The cutscene was cut short, with Laidlaw saying that they had to keep something for the full version. Great.
The upshot of it is that actions have consequences. Sleeping with Morrigan didn’t go unnoticed by Liliana, who, on our next conversation, asked why we were toying with her emotions, and essentially asking us to choose between her and the sorceress. Upon learning that Morrigan can shapeshift, someone in the assembled crowd laughed and shouted that it was an easy decision. So poor Liliana got her heart broken, and her relationship level dropped as a result. If relationships drop low enough, we’re told, characters may leave the party, and they hold opinions on pretty much everything you do in the game.
The other segment shown off was a little earlier in the game, in the attempt to acquire Morrigan’s mother’s tome. Her mother is a witch who kills others to extend her own life, it seems, and plenty of people have tried to kill her before, so she’s no slouch in the combat department. It also appears that she’s after Morrigan. We skipped through the majority of the conversation in order to get to the fight quicker, with Laidlaw pointing out that Flemeth – the mother – didn’t seem surprised by the party turning up, and even somewhat disparaging about how Morrigan has finally found someone to dance to her tune. Manipulation? From a sorceress wearing black dental floss? Really?
Then Flemeth turned into a dragon.
The combat looked very MMO-like, in terms of the action bars, as well as how positioning played into the fight. Flemeth in dragon form doesn’t really have any “safe” areas; the tail can swipe, the feet can stomp, and the head is a giant fanged dragon head, so take that as you will. The combat effects were impressive, with plenty of huge area-of-effect spells on offer in addition to all the shapeshifting and hacking, and the execution move to kill Flemeth, with the hero leaping onto the head, impaling it, and then slashing down, looked astonishing. Laidlaw wryly remarked that people always ask if you can ride dragons in the game, and this answers that question: yes, for a few seconds.
I’m on the fence when it comes to Dragon Age. It’s a BioWare game, so it’s going to be polished to within an inch of its life, and it’s almost certainly going to be brilliant. The combat is impressive, the Inspiration system is nice, and the relationship system and the gift offering seems like a neat update to the usual RPG conversations. That said, the emphasis that’s been placed on how “adult” it is with regards to the sex and violence just feels wrong. Both seem juvenile at best, and more juvenile, even, than the Witcher’s takes on both. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a cynical marketing tactic to get the non-RPG crowd interested in the game. But then, people who were presumably journalists cheered when the briefest glimpse of a sex scene was shown, so what do I know?
We’ll find out on 20 October, when Dragon Age: Origins will be released for PC, PS3, and 360.