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The GoodRecent BioWare products such as Jade Empire and Mass Effect made some RPG pundits frown. Simplification and streamlining seemed to have infiltrated the camp of the creators of Baldur's Gate. As a minor character from Brothers Karamazov eloquently put it - "Pfeh! A pfeh!". I can relate to those sentiments: even though I enjoyed playing Mass Effect, a big part of me missed wearing Leather Gloves of Arcane Horror +3 with increased damage to half-hobgoblins or whatever.
Dragon Age can be considered a return to the roots to a certain extent. In terms of depth and complexity it is somewhere halfway between the company's first master series and Knights of the Old Republic, and generally comparable with Neverwinter Nights 2 in the way it approaches the genre.
Dragon Age builds upon the real-time-with-pause battle system popularized by its creators' earlier games. The game makes full use of it, and on harder difficulty levels it is a real tactical challenge. Smart enemies force you to plan and experiment. Sending a thief to backstab, putting archers far away, luring enemies one-by-one with your tank, ordering mages to cast delightfully treacherous spells that would render enemies helpless while you hit them with melee weapons - everything is back with a vengeance.
The game introduces its own character-building system, which works very well and provides a nice breath of fresh air after the omnipresent D&D. Lack of variety in initial character customization is compensated by extensive ability trees, which are particularly interesting for spellcasters. Items, equipment, spells, abilities are plentiful, and naturally your companions can be customized the same way as the protagonist.
A new fictional fantasy world was created specifically for this game and its future sequels. This world is believable, and a lot of optional background information makes it truly come to life. It has a developed religion, racial conflicts, political relationships, various cults and factions, etc. The schemes of human nobility, the stubborn secrecy of the elves, the brutal caste system of the dwarves - everything is stored in the Codex, which is a pleasure to read.
The writing, like in most BioWare games, is excellent. Some of the dialogues in this game surpass even the highest achievements of their earlier works. Your sharp-tongued companions provide too much witty banter to mention, but sometimes you'd bump into such thought-provoking conversation that you'll forget about the rest of the game and immerse yourself in a discourse about God and the world.
What would a BioWare RPG be without party members? Actually, we have an answer to that question. Luckily, companions make a triumphant return, having much more important gameplay-related roles than in the company's recent titles. Each and every one of your party members is a fully developed, interesting character, and much attention was paid to their relationships with the protagonist. Romances are for the most part convincing, and you must study your potential partner's psychology thoroughly to have success.
Quests in the game often come with tough moral choices. Does a man whose family was brutally killed still have the right to exact revenge on the culpable nation after generations have passed? Should we keep a powerful invention to protect an entire nation if it requires to turn people into mindless slaves? There are several "to kill or to forgive" situations where I honestly didn't know what to do - the "pro" and "contra" were both too heavy.
The formulaic story is made more appealing by convincingly portrayed characters and interesting sub-stories. The process of getting to know the different races and organizations in the game is more exciting than the schematic fight against the Darkspawn. Dramatic, well-directed cutscenes help to enhance the story as well.
The BadWhile I was playing the game (and enjoying it), a tiny voice inside me kept saying: "been there, done that". Even though Dragon Age honestly avoids the alarming over-simplification characterizing BioWare's recent work, it is still very careful and doesn't like taking chances. I can't help comparing it to Baldur's Gate II, that went on to expand and enhance; Dragon Age, on the other hand, is comparatively low-key. I'm thankful that it preserves crucial elements of the genre, but in my opinion it could have preserved more and be more generous with them.
Yes, there is exploration and there are choices, but they are done in a somewhat convenient fashion. One thing I didn't like in Baldur's Gate II was the elimination of seamless traveling; Dragon Age follows the same route, but reduces the amount of side quests that would take you to optional areas. The locations themselves tend to be a bit too small and straightforward. I haven't encountered a city I could be lost in for days, running around and hunting for quests.
Dragon Age is also too "hands off" for my taste. There are no physical activities in the game, and you can interact only with those highlighted objects that serve a clear gameplay-related purpose. I don't think this is the right direction of RPG development. In particular, 3D games naturally call for more realistic interaction, serving to immerse the player into the world.