The first challenge when coming to play the long awaited Dragons Age was that Steam had gone and broken itself, it got stuck in a loop trying to update the games which meant I couldn't run any of them.
After trying several of the purposed solutions with no luck I had to do a reinstall which naturally deleted all my steam games and the precached version of DA:O from my hard drive. I was less than pleased, however thanks to blazingly fast internet and steam actually providing an uplink of sufficient bandwidth I had redownloaded DA:O in an hour or so. MY only worry my possible loss of save games in various other games I had in progress ie borderlands torchlight and so on.
Anyway that drama out of the way I was into DA:O and ready to start my adventure.
First the task was to select a character to play. You can pick from three races and three classes Human Elves and Dwarfs then Warrior Rogue and Mage. The number of classes may sound a bit limited to people who've played some of the other D&D based bioware RPG's but there is more to this system than meets the eye. Beyond the 3 initial classes there are specialisation classes which offer their own bonuses and specific abilities. These are unlocked either through quests or in game books or even party members. You can take two specialisations per character and they are added at levels 7 and 14 but you have to unlock them before use (although apparently once unlocked they stay unlocked for future replays).
The avatar customisation is suitably indepth and I like the way it allows you to customise the portrait of you character used for selection and the like (a trivial feature these days but a nice touch). I picked an elven mage with a tattoo that made her look like she was an extra off of star trek. That sorted out and a random name pick later it was on to the begining.
The game starts with an origin story, there are 6 possible origin stories and which one you select is determined by a combination of race and class. Some settings have more than one possible origin story and you get to pick. With the mage class there's only one option so you don't get a choice.
So it was off to the mages circle to begin my quest. In the world of DA the mages are kept under armed guard by the templars who watch to see if they are turning bad and are ready to kill them or tranquil them (which turns them into emotionless automatons sort of by cutting off their magic) at the first sign of trouble. This is because mages were responsible for starting the darkspawn by abusing the terrible power of blood magic ... naturally I wanted me some of those blood magic powers. Since they were not on the curriculum at mage head quarters (they are a specialisation which can be unlocked in a quest further down the line) so instead I mostly concentrated on death magic ... how this differs from blood magic I'm not sure apparently draining the life of your enemies to use as your own and feeding off corpses for health is fine so long as their is no blood magic involved.
Anyway I won't mention the details of the origin quest so as not to spoil it for anyone but suffice to say it was well done and quite enjoyable. At the end I was bundled off to the grey wardens for the next part of the intro to the game, this is several hours in but we are still not really in the game proper this game takes a while before it gets going.
So next I had my indoctrination into the grey wardens with yet more questing. We learn more about the blight and learn about the party system. I won't say too much as it would spoil things but the game finishes it's setting up with a big battle and then it's on to the game proper.
You initially have two companions and you can have up to three active at any one time and it's fairly easy to swap them out. The grey warden Alistair and the witch Morrigan. Alistair is a good guy if a bit of a sarcastic one (he also technically out ranks you in the grey wardens but for some reason follows anyway), Morrigan is a devious character powerful mysterious and with her own agenda.
The game implements an approval system so your actions in the game (and when chatting to characters in the party camp a sort of meeting ground you can go to) can shift their like or dislike of you. If it reaches extremes it can lead to romance or them leaving your party. So far I've not paid much attention to this and my characters like or dislike has bounced up and down a bit I might investigate this more later.
Once you are out in the game world proper you have the task of gathering an army to fight the blight you have four possible allies (the mages, the daglish elves, the dwarfs, and the humans under Arl Eamon) and each of these has a mission which is usually a convoluted affair. You turn up to ask for help but something needs doing and so on.
There are also a fair amount of side quests for various groups in the game, you can work for some mercenarys or the chantry (religious nuts) or some secret rogue mage organisation. The quest are usually fairly straight forward go here kill that collect the hearts that sort of thing. In addition there is also some DLC one that gives you access to a castle and another that gives you a new party member. I went for the deluxe version of DA:O which came with the initial DLC in the bundle.
I have already done the DLC quest that gets me the castle (the wardens keep) it was a well put together quest with a good story and quite enjoyable and it offered some real benefits in game like a chest to store stuff in (which doesn't sound impressive but it's something the game needs as you have quite limited inventory space and no ability to drop stuff so you either have to destroy things or not collect them) and even some more powers.
The inventory thing is one issue I was having I was constantly hitting the limit of the inventory space (which is upgradable for large chunks of ingame money) which is fairly small for the length of missions (several of which are lock ins so that once you start you can't go back and dump stuff with a trader or if you have it at the wardens keep. It was usually a choice between keep the good stuff I've found and not load up on Healt/Mana potions or lose things I didn't really want to lose.
The game does have a habit of giving you cool stuff you can't use I was carrying around several upgrades to my party's weapons and armour which took many levels to be able to use taking up precious inventory space.
The game also has a crafting system which allows you to make traps (which I don't know about but some of them seem to be grenades), poisons (which can be applied to weaponry for bonus attack stuff), or herbs (which allows you to make potions health and mana). There are several levels of these skills and some of the party characters have them so you don't need to use your skill points on them in your main character (though there are rare times when the skills come up in dialogues that mean only your main character can used them) it adds a nice easy cheap way to make mana and health potions (mana potions or lyrium potions as the game would have it are pretty easy to load up the ingredients for health is more tricky the primary ingredient mainly being found in the world in limited quantities) as you get more skilled you can make better potions or traps or poisons that require more complicated ingredients.
The game works more or less how you would expect from having played this sort of game before with some newish enhancements. You can play in a realtime fashion selecting targets and fiddling with abilities switching between characters on the fly or you can hit the space bar to pause the action and select your next move with more time. The difficulty is such that on anything more than easy you'll need to use a more tactical approach pausing the action to set things up or jump in when your characters get into trouble. The main new feature is that for characters you aren't directly controlling the game has an automatic system called tactics these are a set of simple rules as to how they behave. Where this differs from the usual crappy party ai is that you can adjust it to exactly how you want, telling characters to use their abilities as and when certain criteria are met or prioritise certain targets. It's a fairly useful addition that makes the management of the party a bit easier though even with it the game is tough enough that you really have to intervene to keep things going.
Difficult is a bit of a thorn in the games side normal mode is pretty hard battles are challenging and so far have required me to chug health and mana potions like my characters have a hole in them that drains the stuff out as fast as they drink it. If every battle is so tough that at least one of my characters get's incapacitated just making my way down a hallway it's a bit beyond normal difficulty. Still it is something that the developers are working on and the recent patch has supposedly improved things a bit.
Graphics are pretty good the detail in the characters and the environments is top quality and it has this feature that means your characters get covered in blood in fights meaning a lot of in game cut scenes will look like your party has been bathing in the stuff. Spell effects are nice with some nice particle effects. Audio is also good the voice cast is wonderful with the likes of tim curry and claudia black in leading roles.
The morality system and how your choices shape the gameworld have thus far been fairly light I have seen one change that I probably caused and even on outcome of a quest that was only possible because I had completed another quest before it. It's a nice subtle touch that hopefully leads to better replay value and hopefully will pan out more as the game progress.
Downside that I can see of this game the difficulty is fairly high which will put a lot of people off, when almost every fight is a single mistake away from party wipe and requires you burn through potions it can be a tedious pattern of quick save die load die load die load die load scrap through by the skin of your teeth quick save die ... and so on. Which leads me neatly to the next downside really long load times, it takes a ridiculous amount of time to load making area transitions tedious and the whole save die load die load cycle even more frustrating. In some ways these are niggles as so much of the rest of it is great but still it's areas that I would have hoped had better polish.
All in all this is exactly what I was expecting it to be a bioware RPG in the classic style with all the modern additions of fancy graphics. Though they have dispensed with the D&D world and rule set it feels familiar in it's construction and setting and by going their own route they have much greater freedom to craft the path you can take (and the long term story of their world across the how ever many dragons age games there will be). Their strengths in story telling shine and while this isn't a game for everyone it is something fans of baldurs gate and Neverwinter Nights would enjoy. Oh but avoid the console versions I've heard bad things, this is a game for a PC. Consoles don't have the right interface or pedigree for a game of this magnitude.