Dragon Age: Origins

You'll spend a lot of time in Dragon Age: Origins covered in blood. Your characters, as one later acknowledges, engage in regular slaughter and mayhem. So you'll have to endure watching your player-created character and his party members engage in important conversations while covered in buckets of blood. It's morbid, a bit humorous, but quickly establishes the tone of this dark fantasy role playing game.

Originally released in Fall 2009 for the PC and game consoles, Bioware and EA shocked the world by announcing a Mac release of Dragon Age only months after the initial release. Released for the Mac in late December thanks to the Cider Portability Engine, Dragon Age: Origins is an epic RPG that takes as much from Bioware's other title, Mass Effect, as it does Tolkien's tomes on elves, dwarves, and men.

Sure, you'll be trying to save a world populated by dragons, shape shifters, and magicians. But the dialogue, relationships, and tone of the story are that of a gritty soap opera rather than a clear-cut battle between good and evil.

Your player-created character is customizable in appearance and personality. You'll make his or her moral choices and this will directly impact how people relate to you and the possible outcomes of the game. If you're a saint, you'll please certain party members, gaining their trust and possibly their romantic interest. If you're a self-centered jerk who kills innocents, you'll alienate those same party members while gaining the trust of more morally flexible characters.

There isn't a clear right and wrong in every situation either. In one scenario, you're faced with killing a child who is possessed by a demon, or letting his mother take his place as a sacrifice (of course, other decisions you've made will open up other possibilities--like trading the boy's soul for infernal rewards).

On my MacBook Pro 2.66GHz running Mac OS 10.6, Dragon Age was stunning. From the fire effects of enemy spells to the gush of blood from a blade, the details were beautiful and realistic. Unlike some RPGs, there isn't a major drop off between cut scenes and combat; the shadows and shading were impressive in both. There are some moments of slow-down, particularly in the bigger environments, but on the whole I was impressed with my machine's ability to handle this high-end game.

I'm not a role-playing game person by nature. The level grinding, terrible turn-based combat systems, and annoying dialogue that usually plague the genre have turned me off. As a game reviewer, I frankly don't have the hours necessary to get involved in a truly immersive experience.

But Dragon Age is making me amend my notions of RPGs. The combat is in real time, the plot is compelling and I never was bored with its pace (so I never noticed level grinding) and the dialogue (though I wish some of it was skippable) was on the whole well written. The voice actors were on the whole solid. I especially enjoyed the sarcastic quips of Morrigan and the elvish rogue that seemed to channel Antonio Banderas.

Combat isn't just about throwing the same spells and swords at your enemies and hoping they win. Strategy is paramount. The combat system provides a potent set of tools for your battle plans, drawing from Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur's Gate series. Instead of turn-based combat, you can control your party members in real time and pause the game to give individual orders or modify a player's tactics thanks to a handy "tactics" tab. For example, I played as a mage with some potent healing spells, so I set his tactics tab to heal his allies when they had less than fifty percent health. Meanwhile, I deployed my tank to draw enemies to him by activating an ability. I had my rogue set in a preset "scrapper" arrangement and I personally controlled our witch, Morrigan, because I like to micro-manage her crowd control spells.

You only can have four players in your party at any one time and one of them must be your character. On your first playthrough, one of your major frustrations may be encountering an NPC who wants to join your party but your own character has significant overlap with their abilities. You don't want to have three mages in your party, so I found it hard to turn away the healer Wynne's abilities or Sten's warrior strengths or Leliana's uh, singing? Actually, Leliana and her strange Eastern European-accented-battle-nun-weirdness were replaced early on by the elven rogue Zevran.

Still, you'll encounter a lot of really compelling characters and have to micro-mange their tactics and armaments and have to make some tough choices as to who (and what--given the initially small inventory) you bring along. That said, you can leave a party member behind for a segment and if the rest of your characters have leveled up, so will they. This concession is important, especially if you manage to anger one of your party members enough that they decide to leave or fight you.

Below are some spoilers. Ye have been warned.

As cinematic as the Lord of the Rings films, Dragon Age has enough jaw dropping moments to keep even this reluctant RPG player interested. I started as a mage and though that has perhaps the most boring origin story, I was still totally floored by how they introduce the forbidden blood mage sect of magic. The first battle with the darkspawn and the introduction to the overarching plot was also spectacularly well thought out, as was the execution many of the side plots. That said, this is a completionist's nightmare--there's simply too much to do in the game and too much to see, and every decision you make will open certain paths and close others. I had a certain character in my party so I was able to beat a pirate queen at cards, but I lacked the charisma to get her to bed. Both paths would have unlocked the duelist ability she was going to grant me, but one was much more fun.

While this is the first game since Call of Duty 4 that's flirted with a five mouse rating, there are some gameplay elements that could be improved. You'll want to save after every major battle because autosaves are few and far between. It's simply good advice too in case you want to go back and see if your conversation can go a different way a second time. The dialogue is on the whole fantastic, but I wish that some of it could be skipped when the characters repeat themselves. Sometimes, particularly some missions in the fade, I'd kill a character and the NPC I talked to would still be talking about them like they were alive.

There's no multiplayer component, which some players will cite as being a weakness. In Bioware's defense, they've made a compelling and immersive experience that is as fine-tuned as a clock. Every piece and character is exactly where it should be. By introducing the chaos or universality of millions of users shaping the world, the game would lack the impact it has on the individual player.

Macworld's buying advice

Easily the most compelling RPG I've ever played, Bioware once again proves that they can weave together great writing, beautiful graphics, a compelling story, and a versatile battle system to make a game more than the sum of its parts. Even though Bioware already has the critically praised Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic series to their credit, Dragon Age represents a major step forward for the genre and a gem of a game. I never thought I'd use the words "innovative" and "fantasy RPG" in the same sentence, but Dragon Age: Origins also earns the words "fun" and "addictive."

[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]

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