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I Know What You Did Last Winter: Reviews in Haiku Part I - Dragon Age: Origins
by Greg Mengel

The best part of my Christmas every year has to be the two weeks of holiday vacation annually squandered by plowing through my video game queue like a man on crusade. Usually that list consists of big titles that I wanted to play during the year, but couldn't, for reasons only Thor knows and understands. My list this year - Dragon Age: Origins, Assassin's Creed II, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Prototype.

Since GGTL was on construction-induced hiatus during that time, I had the luxury of playing these games without telling any of you on the internet anything about them. It was nice for awhile, but after a month of not writing, I'm ready to get back on the horse.

That's why, for absolutely no reason at all, and in my enthusiasm for being back, I'm going to share my thoughts on those games I played with you in the way Buddha intended - introductory haiku format. Each review I write will open with a single introductory haiku, to get you in the mood. Consider it a slice of literary foreplay. I'll write my reviews in the chronological order with which I played each game. First on the list? Dragon Age: Origins. Check it out after the jump.

Dragon Age: Origins

Not quite Baldur's Gate
Cliché, like a good old friend
...with some Dawson's Creek

Set in the world of Ferelden, Dragon Age follows the path your character, an elf, a dwarf, or a human who through some strange twist of fate somehow finds him or herself yanked from their normal life and thrust into the ranks of the Gray Wardens after meeting their stoic leader, Duncan. The Gray Wardens, it turns out, are an ancient, secretive society of warriors and mages whose sole purpose in life is to combat a wave of evil, called "The Blight." This Blight, you find out, apparently shows up every century or so to declare total war on peace and happiness. Its ranks include a massive horde of monsters called "Darkspawn," ugly, orc-like humanoids with horns and severe gingivitis, all led by an evil demigod inhabiting the body of a dragon, known as the Archdemon. Darkspawn are known for rampaging on their own, but when they do it's mostly aimless, like vikings attacking olde English villages, and leaving after a couple days worth of raping and pillaging vacation. When an Archdemon leads them, however, the Darkspawn are a formidable force, like Attila the Hun, only with thousands of these monsters. Oh, and a f**king dragon.

Dragon Age has its ups and its downs. On the positive side of things, its story is fun, even if it is undeniably stereotypical fantasy (see: Yahtzee). But what it lacks in setting creativity, it makes up for in interactivity. It's like a choose your own adventure novel the size of War and Peace. It's easy to forgive/ignore glaring age-old fantasy stereotypes once you start swimming in the game's sea of character development. Ferelden did throw a few fantasy curve balls that surprised me, though, like the fact that humans consider city elves lower class citizens, and treat them like an untouchable caste in the capital city of Denerim. That's a big step from the perfect, seven-foot tall immortal elves, who could all quit their jobs as druids and watchers of the forest to take jobs modeling for Victoria's Secret. For those, we can thank Tolkien.

Interactions with followers are spectacular. Almost all of the characters you meet in the game are believable and well-written, especially your followers. Each one of them is a true individual, and will respond to your actions - and those of your other followers - according to their own personal backgrounds and beliefs. By talking with them and interacting with them in general, your avatar will build relationships with these characters, be them for good or ill. These relationships you cultivate will span from the purely platonic, to the friendly, to the slightly-more-intimate-than-just-friendly, to playing footsie under the table, to the physical. If you so choose, you can get sinful with a tons of people you meet, including, but maybe not limited to, a domineering witch, a curious bard, a self-conscious knight, a bi-sexual elven assassin, a scantily clad pleasure demon, a saucy pirate wench, or... a sheep. Those are all of the options I've heard of, thanks to both my own play time and the internet. Most of these encounters come complete with a short, soft core video clip (NSFW!) set to an artist who could very well be Enya.

The gameplay in Dragon Age is as easy or hard as you make it, which is nice, because if you play the game on Hard, it will be hard. Like, legitimately. One useful feature is the ability to upgrade characters' "tactics" slots. These allow you to program followers to fight a certain way without the player's supervision during battle. For example, if you want one of your mages to take on the role of main healer, you can just program him or her to use a healing spell when a certain trigger occurs, like when a party member's health goes below 25%. In long, heated fights, it's definitely nice not to have to worry about pausing every thirty seconds to forcefeed your tank a million potions - he'll do it himself.

The best feature in Dragon Age might be its six different playable origin stories. Each option offers a different introduction, and this is not only unique and interesting, but will effect the rest of that playthrough. For example, if you start the game as a male Dwarf Noble, then he will be the second son of the Dwarven king. Without spoiling the story for you, I'll just say that dwarves will treat you differently throughout your journey than they would if you were a human or elf, and you'll get lots of chances to discuss your royal past. That playthrough will feel very different than your next round through the game as a female Human Magi. Or a sassy Elven Commoner. Or a haughty Human Noble. Being able to experience a completely different story arch each time you restart the game with a different origin makes the game hugely replayable. After beating Dragon Age for the first time, I found myself back on the character creation screen immediately, trying someone new.

Now for the downs, rapid fire. The main plot of the game, as compared to other RPGs, is short. Like that of its great-great-great-great-grandpappy, the legendary Baldur's Gate. It clocks in at an average of forty or so hours of play time. Of course, if you do all the available side quests, you can probably milk out another dozen or so hours in one run, so it's not that big of a deal.

Like I mentioned before, the story is cliché. The plot pushes the envelope of fantasy RPGs by immersing players some not-yet-trodden complex subjects (like elves as servants), but its core is still centered around an epic storybook struggle against an epic evil that can only be destroyed in an epic fashion, epically. It's just too much epic. Also, I expected to hear more reasoning about why these Darkspawn are so intent on destroying humanity as Ferelden knows it. Are they just that evil, or are elves infringing on their ancestor's lands? Is there an ancient cultural misunderstanding? Did - I dunno - a drunk dwarf urinate on a holy Darkspawn graveyard two-thousand years ago, sparking two millenia of conflict? When asking why these things commit genocide, I can't accept the answer that "they're just evil." Hitler had a reason, Leopold had a reason, Vlad the Impaler had a reason, the Darkspawn should have a reason, too.

Finally, there are bugs, and a slow frame rate issue. Standard issue stuff.

In a year when epic RPGs have been pretty hard to come by, Dragon Age hit the market like a fresh glass of water in the Sahara Desert, in a duststorm, during a seven-year drought. Yeah, its story was predictable and a little on the short side, but I still had a great time playing it. All in all, it was good, old-fashioned nostalgic fun, and worth a rental, if not an outright buy. If you're looking for an RPG that you can pick up, play for fifty hours, beat, and then discard forever, then keep waiting for Final Fantasy XIII. If you want a solid fantasy game that you can replay seven times and still get something new from, then stop what you're doing and go buy this game. Go. Now. Andale!

Come on... Do it for the sheep.



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- Greg Mengel

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