This writeup was originally titled First Impressions, but I've ended up playing much longer than I had planned on before posting this, so First Impressions no longer applies. I would call it a Review, but I feel like that term would be a disservice unless I had finished the game or played through a significant portion as well as experienced the content with different starting characters. But, I've done neither, instead spending my time as a Dwarven Warrior, stumbling around the countryside, looking for trouble.
VOICE ACTING AND CHARACTERIZATION
Once you start playing the game, it quickly becomes obvious that this game is driven by it's story and voice acting. Every single conversation you have is completely voice-acted (though oddly enough, your character never utters a word aloud during these talks, making him/her seem like a semi-creepy mute). On top of the main storyline voices, when back at your camp, you can choose to engage any of your party members (you can gather various party members in your travels, each with their own unique personality and interests) in a personal dialogue. These can vary based on previous actions, how the party member currently feels about you, and even items in your inventory! There have been a number of times throughout the game where I felt like I was watching a movie as a certain portion of dialogue played out.
It is not unusual for your party to have conversations amongst themselves while you're wandering around. And oftentimes, one or more of your party members will chime in during a dialog scene, giving their own comments and opinions on the matter. This is really well done and helps sell the world. The characters come to life at every turn, even without your direct input.
Getting used to the combat system took me a while. It is a fairly typical setup, with an overhead view and an action bar full of ability icons, but this game adds a few wrinkles. At any given point you can pause the action and issue new orders to your teammates. You can also give them predefined actions based on certain criteria via a tactics system. For example, If being attacked by melee -> use block skill.
It's a very interesting system. And once you dig into it, you can actually set up some fairly complex AI for your party members. Unfortunately, the limited number of tactic slots really hurts. I often found that I was barely able to give them some basic orders and tell them to try and use a healing potion when near death. It would be nice to have a couple of extra base tactics slots for each character, especially given the number of abilities and stances that are available. Even purchasing extra slots at every opportunity, it still was never enough.
Feeling fairly confident in my brain vs computer abilities, I decided to play the game on the Hard difficulty setting. I do feel challenged quite often, and some Boss fights can be particularly rough, but once I clued in to the healer necessity (see below), things got a lot easier, though it's still no pushover.
I do have to say that I am pretty unhappy with the over-reliance on healing in Dragon Age. Healing potions barely cover it and are an easy way to go bankrupt. Even my dedicated tank character, using all of his stamina-draining defensive stances, gets easily mauled. It's virtually required that you either pick up the healing-oriented party member early on, or you spec one of your other characters into the healing tree. Even if you make maximum use of your stuns and such, there is still way too much damage being slung about for any party to survive the onslaught.
Dying during battle has no long-term effect. Instead (assuming that your party wins), all characters that were depleted completely of HP during the battle get back up, though each will now have an injury that reduces their effectiveness in some way. However, injuries can be instantly removed with application of an injury kit. So this effect never really plays a part in the game unless you forget to use your kits. I found that I was much more likely to either win the battle outright, or fail completely, forcing a reload.
RANDOM THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS
Travel between sites is done in a simulated manner, with the player choosing where to go from a world map, and then watching a little blood-stained trail plod across the map, occasionally stopping for a random or scripted encounter. Once you reach a designated stopping point, there are usually a couple of zones there, one with friendly NPCs who serve as merchants and quest-givers, the rest for the local storyline events and for some random monster-bashing. The zones are pretty rigid, though they all have side quests and points of interest to be found if you go poking around enough.
I loved being able to complete the 'go kill these guys' quests without being required to have the quest beforehand (something that was promised in one of the infamous Warhammer Online promotional videos from Paul Barnett, but which was never delivered in-game).
I wish the talent trees were actually trees, giving you more branching choices rather than a bunch of linear ones.
When shopping with a vendor NPC, a handy-dandy popup window shows up when you mouseover an equipment item, allowing you to compare its stats to what you are currently wearing. Unfortunately, you are unable to compare items to anything any of my party members are using, which makes it a bit difficult to efficiently shop for your party members.
I found that there wasn't enough hotbar space to include all of a character's abilities.
I've had few instances of terrain trouble where a character would get stuck and not move unless I took control of them manually, and I've also had enemies hop up on benches where one or two members of my party would refuse to attack them
Sometimes story choices vanish for no apparent reason; sometimes you're offered dialogue choices that don't actually reflect what has happened previously (for example, one conversation choice I had at one point was 'So only one person can go through', but before this choice popped up, I had no idea that my progress in this particular quest would be limited to one person. That was revealed in another dialog tidbit that I hadn't yet accessed!)
It looks as if DLC will be a big part of this game, with no less than four downloadable options available right from the start (based on your purchase), plus several more available for completing certain parts of their browser-based game, Dragon Age Journeys. And on top of that, even though the game has been out for only two months, they've already released their next purchasable content for the game and have another expansion coming right behind it! They obviously plan on milking this for as much as they can. But if you're one of those players who gets a new game and rapidly burns through all the content, this might be good news!
And as with most games of this time, you can always turn to the mod community to find new and/or altered game content.
To be honest, Dragon Age: Origin was a little different from what I had envisioned. I was expecting a more open world like the Morrowind series. But Dragon Age is much more of a rail-driven game. Sure you can choose what order you visit the cities in, but visit them you will. And you will also solve many of their problems, one way or another. You can't really just go off an do whatever you want to for extended periods of time.
But despite my complaints and nit-pick, the story, characters and just plain 'fun-factor' are excellent. Overall, a very entertaining game.