The basic premise of Dragon Age is, I suppose, a fairly standard fantasy affair. A Dark Force called The Blight that has been dormant for centuries is rising again in The South. The Grey Wardens – a force dedicated to stopping it – are recruiting to fight once more and through whichever of the six origin stories you choose to bring yourself into the world of Dragon Age, you join the ranks. Before long however The Grey Wardens are almost wiped out and it’s left to you to save the world. However, the ‘you’ in Dragon Age is what stops it being a standard fantasy affair and turns saving the world into something brillaint.
Your race, class, and gender in Dragon Age affects your unique origin story. A Human noble will start in a palace with a silver spoon figuratively in their mouth. A dwarf will be underground, possibly outcast by society because of their heritage, or perhaps a noble. As an Elf living in the city, I was someone who had lived in slums their entire life, had their wedding day ruined, and their cousin raped – all because of despicable human nobles who had the power to do so. This introduction set my mindset and affected choices with sweeping consequences; everything that happened afterwards was informed by this massive introduction that Dragon Age gave me. And I do mean me.
I was a City Elf; oppressed by humans and bitter for it from the outset. I rose to fight injustice in a brutal and bloody manner; after experiencing first-hand the cruel enslavement and horrific abuse of Elves, I was forever sympathetic to those in similar situations. I couldn’t tolerate seeing the same unpleasantness being put onto other people – no matter what race – and I worked to stamp out discrimination and downright bullying throughout the world, even as my troop and I fought against the omni-present Blight. I felt bound to other Elves because of the oppression we shared. I despised the Humans who felt they could bully and abuse us. I killed anyone who thought they had a right to behave like this to anyone for whatever reason. I was ruthless, and always fair – although sometimes I had to make sacrifices for the greater good.
It’s a testament to Dragon Age that it made me behave like this; I always play RPGs as a complete dick – killing people for money, stealing for fun, siding with the baddies, just screwing everyone over that I can. Here, I just couldn’t; I was firmly in the role of Darrian The Elf; being nice to people I cared about and lethal to those who offended my morals.
And there were people I cared about. As the story progressed, people joined me on my quest; Alistair, the only other surviving Grey Warden, was bound by duty to work alongside me. It became more than that – we became friends, sharing histories with each other, chatting about whatever. We knew and trusted each other. Then there was Morrigan. I would do anything for Morrigan – I killed to make her happy. She was a witch and we fell in love, even if she was sociopathic and could turn into a giant arachnid on occasion. I had definite emotional attachments to these people.
Perhaps more impressive is the believability of bit parts and background NPCs. Everyone in Dragon Age has a story – a proper personality, be it the high-born mother willing to die to save her son, the dwarf fascinated with Magi, or the cowardly shopkeeper just trying to survive; the countless number of these people and their stories shows how vast the story of Dragon Age is.
Aside from the sprawling, epic narrative; aside from the meaningful, complex relationships; and aside from the brilliant, well written character interaction; there is combat. Flaming swords and people shooting lightning from their hands. Here it is brilliant, near perfect. Three chosen companions fight alongside your character. These can be either Mage, Rogue, or Warrior – but each base class has customisable skill sets allowing you to tailor them to your needs. For example, while both me and Alistair were Warriors, I wore light armour and wielded two swords for maximum damage proficiency and Alistair wore heavy armour so he could sit and take damage if he needed to, kitted out as a mage slayer and tank. Morrigan, my beloved witch, stood in a purely support role as a healer/de-buffer, and then I had another character called Shale – a giant Rock Golem – who just did nothing but attract attention and take damage. It was an efficient team and in the end they were mostly automated.
Dragon Age lets you set up combat tactics for each character – a set of rules to follow during a fight. If my health is less than 50%, use the weakest health potion we have. If Shale is being attacked by Magic, attack the enemy. It’s a system that works, a system that you can fine tune to make your unit efficient enough to get through most scrapes on their own. You still need to intervene sometimes of course, but it’s a joy to watch your fellows fight without micromanagement. Combat is complex, engaging, varied, violent and amazingly animated. It feels connected and physical – people get impaled and decapitated; characters get covered in blood. Like the rest of Dragon Age, its combat is a mature version of the staple RPG experience.
A game like Dragon Age doesn’t come along very often. I engaged with it on such a personal level, being in the world, being an Elf. I had relationships and experiences that I’m never going to forget. Never have I had such a level of enjoyment with a game over such a large amount of time, and never have I been so emotionally invested into a plot. Dragon Age made me care, it made me want to save the world and bring people to justice, it made me want to stand by my friends no matter what the cost.
To write what I’m about to – a single sentence and a simple one at that – is a considerable risk for a serious games journalist. It risks being dismissed as hyperbole, or rose-tinted ranting. I hope you trust my judgement enough by now to trust that it’s nothing but sincere awe and deserved praise. Here it is: Dragon Age is the best game I have ever played. Nothing out there has compared in bringing strong narrative, brilliant mechanics, and characters that I care about. I endlessly love Dragon Age, and anyone who craves a game that offers more than shooting faces needs to play it.