The life and times of the Dragon Age series
With the Dragon Age series soon set to return with Inquisition, Aaron looks at the history of the popular RPG...
Although it may be a short series when compared to some other, long-running releases, BioWare’s Dragon Age hasn’t let this get in the way of carving out its own loyal fan base. This is one of the biggest testaments to the game’s success in delivering a true D&D experience in a digital medium, and developer, BioWare, is soon going to revisit its fantasy epic with Dragon Age: Inquisition. Before we delve into this new adventure, let’s explore the history of this rich series.
Fittingly enough, the first Dragon Age title was 2009’s Origins, which stands not only for the birth of the series, but for the six classes of hero you could pick in the game. The first game was influenced by BioWare’s previous works, as well as external fantasy sources, including the then largely unknown George R. R. Martin book, A Song Of Fire And Ice, which we’re now all very familiar with thanks to the success of Game Of Thrones on TV. The developer also cited the works of painter, Frank Frazetta as inspirations. His works included the likes of Conan The Barbarian, and Conan The Destroyer, the images of which can be seen influencing designs used in many RPG titles and other games, and sometimes these games have even copied his works directly, most famously Gauntlet and Castlevania.
A key aspect BioWare reached for in Dragon Age was the more realistic approach to fantasy (like that of George R. R. Martin), and a desire to return to the world of the classic PC RPG. After all, many would see the PC as the home of the genre, and we were setting forth on noble quests on home computers long before the RPG became popular on console. The platform also benefited from being able to host a more complex control system, which lead to the ability to develop more flexible and unique game mechanics. Simply put, the PC was, and many would argue still is, the best platform to develop a deep RPG for. Whilst Dragon Age: Origins also launched on Xbox 360 and PS3, it’s the PC version that’s seen as the best.
The game flew in the face on the ongoing convention of making new breeds of RPGs, including some of BioWare’s own projects like Mass Effect. Whereas Mass Effect was a very new, and unique take on the RPG, fusing it with shooting and sci-fi, Dragon Age was in many ways, the polar opposite. It used the traditional RPG framework from the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, and layered on a modern, technical upgrade to visuals and the game mechanics.
In many ways the game played similarly to past classics, but it did so with a new level of detail previously unobtainable, and this was all wrapped up in a deeply detailed story, a world full of lore, and a fully voice acted cast.
One of the major refinements BioWare made was with the combat, which was one of the most strategic and challenging systems yet seen, with some encounters requiring very careful and skilled planning, and the right combination of characters, skills, and timing. It was digital chess in a very real sense, and one that hardcore RPG player found to be brilliant.
The real magic, however, was the game’s ability to embrace both hardcore RPG veterans, and genre newcomers alike. As difficult as the game could be it didn’t alienate those taking their first steps into real RPG play. Sure, it was always challenging, and is still one of the hardest traditional RPGs around, but the controls, combat and many game systems were also accessible, with simple tricks like letting the player pause combat at any time in order to consider and implement their next moves at their own pace.
The fact that the game was supremely enjoyable on consoles, with their more limited input options is another great achievement of the game, and regardless of which platform you played the game on, Dragon Age: Origins was a perfect example of the modern RPG, one that wasn’t afraid to cater to veterans with its almost retro approach.
The core game was received very well by critics and players, and the series quickly became a big success for BioWare, and publisher, EA. It spawned a whole collection of DLC add-ons, ranging from extra characters and armour, to new locations and missions. Some of the DLC was used to expand upon the past events of the world, as well as the factions within it, such as the Grey Wardens. A full expansion as also released called Awakening. This was a new campaign that told of events after Origins’ main story.
The overall story of Origins was an excellent good vs evil tale, and one that spanned a whole region of the game’s world, offering an eclectic mix of dungeons, caves, fortress, and large battles. Replayability was also assured thanks to the six different possible origin stories to play through, and multiple endings. It was no surprise, then, that EA green lighted a second game.
With the huge success of Dragon Age: Origins, EA and BioWare soon announced a sequel. Dragon Age II was released in 2011, and prior to its arrival, fans were understandably excited at the chance to revisit the world of Dragon Age, this time with an even larger world, deeper combat and more rich lore to uncover. Sadly, events took a turn for the worse.
Although you’d be clearly wrong to call Dragon Age II a bad game, as it was, taken on its own merits, a decent RPG, it just wasn’t up to the level of Origins, and some poor design decisions resulted in plenty of fan fallout, and lower critical opinion.
Dragon Age II was a game clearly affected by the ever-growing dominance of consoles, and this was plainly evident in the streamlined interface, and more arcade-style controls and combat. Although battles were still enjoyable, and could be challenging, the level of tactical planning and flexibility was lost in favour or a more instantly gratifying feel. Difficulty was less about varied enemies with different strategies, but more about sheer weight of numbers, and waves upon waves of foes rushing you.
The world was another area that left a lot to be desired, and instead of the varied and interesting selection of locations seen in Origins, the game took place almost exclusivity in and around the city of Kirkwall, a rather bland setting that just couldn’t compete with the more interesting environments of the original, let alone competing titles like Skyrim.
Even the character progression and story failed to really impress, and although it did get more interesting, and became actually very enjoyable after getting past the first few hours, many were put off, leaving the game as the black sheep of the family, so to speak.
As with Origins, various DLC packs were also released for Dragon Age II, and new characters, quests, and importantly, new locations were introduced. These bolstered the game, and placed it more in line with the original.
Despite mixed reviews, and a lot of negative feedback from fans, Dragon Age II still has a large, loyal following, and when compared to many other RPGs, it’s really not as bad as some may suggest, it just had very big shoes to fill.
After Dragon Age II, the series was a little quiet for a while on the video game front, but ever since the first game was released, an expanded universe has been growing, making the Dragon Age name bigger and bigger, drawing in an audience that may have otherwise been ignorant of the series’ existence.
Sticking to gaming, if on a mobile and social media level, Dragon Age has seen releases on Facebook (Dragon Age: Legends), as a Flash game (Dragon Age: Journeys), and on mobile devices in the form of Heroes Of Dragon Age. The latter of these is a squad-based strategy title, and comes under the ‘freemium’ genre of free-to-play titles.
Outside of gaming, Dragon Age spread out into numerous types of media, including a very fitting migration to a tabletop D&D-style role player which even included it’s own new game system and dice. It’s a great example of a genre going full-circle, returning to its original roots.
Various novels, graphics novels, and comics have also been written based on the Dragon Age universe, further expanding the game’s lore, and delving into even more adventures, and there was even an anime called Dragon Age: Dawn Of The Seeker, but was only released in Japan.
DC Direct released a series of action figures based on Dragon Age, and these included fan favourite, Morrigan, who ‘s set to make a reappearance in the latest Dragon Age title.
Finally, Dragon Age got a web series staring geek culture icon, Felicia Day. Day penned and acted in the series, called Dragon Age: Redemption. Day played elven assassin, Tallis in a six episode mini series. Redemption was released online to coincide with Dragon Age II‘s Mark Of The Assassin DLC, which featured the mini series’ characters, and missions based on it.
Playing a role
All of this just goes to show how much impact the game has had on the RPG genre, which is impressive given that it’s had a mere two main games, one of which most would agree was fairly average. But why? Story, pure and simple.
Dragon Age has many strong points, but one of the most important in any role playing game is the story, and the world its set in. Even the best RPG game mechanics would struggle to make a game enjoyable if the world it takes place in isn’t all that interesting or engrossing.
Take Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma, for example. This is a rock solid RPG, with some of the best combat in the genre. It’s a large, sprawling world with plenty of missions to embark on and monsters to slay, but it’s also one of the dullest worlds we’ve seen in recent times. The characters and lore are just not that interesting, and so the title suffers, despite it being a genuinely good game.
Now, look at Mass Effect. This is one of the best RPGs ever made, and this is largely down to the story and the universe. It’s arguably one of the most brilliantly handled worlds in gaming, with a rich lore that rivals the likes of even the mighty Star Trek and Star Wars in terms of quality and depth.
Mass Effect as a game, however, isn’t as great. Don’t hit the flame button, just yet. This isn’t to suggest the game itself is bad, far from it. Mass Effect is a superb game, but if you take the mechanics themselves, that’s the shooting, adventuring, and exploration, there’s little there that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. The cover shooting is great, but not as accomplished as the likes of Gears Of War, and the adventuring and RPG elements are relativity shallow (even in the more complex original, before it was streamlined even more). What makes the game truly stand out is the amazing attention to detail in the world, the deep lore, and the brilliant cast of characters. It’s what makes the game appealing, and makes it memorable.
Dragon Age boasts this, and has a world and a story that’s truly interesting, setting itself apart from it’s many competitors. It has a complicated and colourful history, which can be explored by players at their leisure by reading books and talking to the world’s inhabitants, and the characters you meet are all interesting, with some stand out villains, and even better companions.
Because the world is so well fleshed out, you really do feel involved with the game, and the fact you’re helping to shape the future of this storied place only adds even more enjoyment to a game that already has great mechanics behind it.
Face the Inquisition
Dragon Age has established itself as a frontrunner in the RPG genre, and has given us a new and absorbing world to play out our sword and sorcery fantasies in, and now we get to do so again with Dragon Age: Inquisition.
This time, however, we’re no mere adventurer, or down on his luck refugee, we’re going to play the head of the Inquisition, and this will not only deliver plenty of new possibilities, but will allow us to impact the world of Dragon Age in ways we’ve never been able to do before, and it’s set to be a larger world than ever before.
What’s more, BioWare is channelling the first Dragon Age this time, taking only the best features of Dragon Age II, and mixing it all together to produce what some are saying could be the best RPG of the year, even of recent times. Rest assured, it’s going to be big, bold, and deliver more of BioWare’s proven storytelling skill.
Dragon Age: Inquisition will be released on November 18 in the US, and November 20 in Europe, for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PC.
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