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E3 2009: Dragon Age: Origins Hands-On Impressions

BioWare is making a huge showing at E3 2009, with no less than three completely unique role-playing games. The company's fantasy opus, Dragon Age: Origins, deals with dark fantasy, with a story that's filled with violence, lust and betrayal. Players take on the role of Gray Wardens, who are the only ones that can fend off the Blight, an event where dark spawn rise up under the command of an arch demon and destroy everything in their path. Only Gray Wardens know how to kill an arch demon, so they are the only ones that can prevent the annihilation of humankind. Along the way, players will make decisions that will drastically impact the flow of the story and collect an entourage of allies, each with their own motivations.

In the presentation, we were able to get an in-depth look at what some of the gameplay entails. A major part of the game includes maintaining relationships between your allies. Completing related quests, like obtaining a book of dark magic, and offering it as a gift to the sorceress Morrigan not only increases her approval of you but will also inspire her. That means her effectiveness in combat increases through bonuses due to the leadership decisions players make. Other decisions include an instance when the player gets caught in a love triangle with two of the main characters. Pursuing a romantic relationship with one character has major consequences, and characters react according to the player's decisions. The player's dialogue choices impact the balance of the relationships and how they feel toward you.

In some instances, the player can even choose to betray allies, as one instance demonstrated. We had to find and defeat Morrigan's mother - who is also an extremely powerful sorceress - who indicates that Morrigan may be manipulating us to her own ends. We were presented with the choice to either follow through on Morrigan's behalf or turn on our long-time ally. For the purposes of the demonstration, we chose to battle the old woman, and at that time she transforms into a giant dragon and the entire party needs to work together to bring it down. After a long battle, the encounter ends with the player's character jumping atop the dragon's head and running his sword through it, which simultaneously answers two questions. Yes, there are indeed dragons in Dragon Age: Origins and yes, you will be able to ride them... for a little while.

We were able to play the game for a short while after the presentation, but at an early part of the game when there's only one other person in the party. Even early on in the game, we were presented with some fairly weighty moral decisions. In this instance, we had to choose between escaping a cave to tend to our wounds after finding out the object we were looking for was already broken. However, leaving would mean leaving an ally behind, who had been captured by the dark spawn. Our guide insisted that there was no chance our ally could have survived and that searching for him was futile, so players must decide what kind of leader to become: one that cuts his losses for the greater good or the kind that leaves no one behind.

Combat proved to be challenging, since we were too preoccupied with cutting up dark spawn to make use of the freeze time feature and our melee oriented Gray Warden got overwhelmed by archers. Fortunately, our secondary character was an archer and was able to finish off the remaining creatures and revive the main character. During the course of the game, the AI worked well and gave us healing whenever possible. We didn't see controls to set the characters' disposition to aggressive, defensive or passive, but we have little doubt that those features will be included. Players can only have a maxim of four people in the party, including the main character, but we were told that there will be a very large selection of characters to choose from. Altogether, Dragon Age: Origins is shaping up to be a dark and violent tale, filled with plenty of action and bloodshed... a sort of fantasy gamer's wet dream. The game is scheduled to release on October 20th on the PC and Xbox 360.

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