As a Dalish elf I spent my years a nomad, living amongst my tribe and rejecting the subjugation the humans show our brethren who still dwell in our homeland. A fateful day hunting with my friend and clansman, Tamlin, brought us upon a trio of humans running scared from a cave, which they claimed housed treasure. After our inquisition of the three, we left none alive, and ventured into the cavern.
Our trek was met by strange opposition, as we fended off ravenous creatures and even the undead—but it wasn't until we found the supposed treasure, when my story truly begins. After defeating a beastly guardian, a mystical mirror engulfed Tamlin and left me for dead, poisoned from a shock wave of its dark power. Had it not been for Duncan of the Grey Wardens, I would have not survived. He returned me to my clan's camp, and though a human, Duncan was able to peaceably visit with and convince our leader that I was to join him in the fight against the Arch Demon and its hording Darkspawn.
But the journey to becoming a Grey Warden isn't the same for everyone. BioWare are notorious for delivering to players adventures full of choice and rich fiction, and Dragon Age: Origins isn't a stretch from such a vein. In the two days I spent at the studio's Edmonton headquarters, I was able to taste all three versions of the game (PC, 360 and PS3), in order to get a feel for what “Origins” really means. As the elf, my story differed slightly from the others' on either side of me. Though interactions and backgrounds changed depending on which of the six character types we played as, we all battled the Blight at key points, had choices to make, and delved into a realm of dark fantasy.
We all played similar instances after our origin stories ran their course, but nearly everyone had a different experience to relate, something Mike Laidlaw, Lead Designer, says is the biggest strength of the game. To Mike, the story “...is you, as a Grey Warden, fighting the Blight,” and it's something everyone shares in common. However, it's small differences along the way that reveal different party members to play with, equipment to find, and even battles to fight. I, for example, switched between two characters, testing out how dialogue choices played out. While a majority of responses resulted in nearly the same outcome, just in different retorts, I managed to play the early dungeon once with a fellow elf, and once without: something typical of the rest of my time with the game.
Variation and nuanced experiences are even evident with those playing the game at the studio. According to Laidlaw, “There are people upstairs who have played the game and who didn't even know you could get that guy.”
A staged demo of the Redcliffe locale showed how different decisions lend to more drastic outcomes while also justifying the word “Dragon” in the game's title. Here, the party consisted of Wynne, a devout mage of the Circle of Magi, Moriggan and Leliana: the former a sarcastic pessimist of the dogmatic Chantry, and the latter a whole-hearted faithful. Clearly, there's tension.
While you're Mission Log tells you you're supposed to recover the Ashes of Andastre, you don't have to. Through dialogue choices, outcomes played off of the tension and ranged from teaming up with Moriggan to fight Leliana and Wynne, to murdering a scholar trying to document the recovery. Choices didn't end there, either, as after grabbing the ashes, you can either return to the city or exit Stage Right to initiate a battle with a massive High Dragon.
Your experience with the game is also dependent on which format you play. Both perspective and control mechanics are different between the PC and console versions. Truthfully, the game felt more at home on the PC with hotkey spells, mouse controls, and spacebar pauses that allow you to plan your actions: setting spells and buffs, moving characters around, and switching between ranged or melee weaponry fluidly. Also, the game looks cleaner and more detailed, as exemplified by detailed leather weaving on the hilt of swords in cutscenes. Perspective manipulation from a Baldur's Gate isometric view to third-person with the rotation of a mouse wheel also allow for tactical advantages over the console versions.
Hardware restrictions on the consoles, however, helped in the development process as the team was more aware of scaling issues for lower-end PCs. While powerful PCs process ambient activities such as strutting chickens with ease, Laidlaw and team had to employ “creative strategies” to tackle memory limitations on the consoles, and thus PCs with lighter hardware.
With core content developed on the PC, the intent was to bring similar experiences across the formats, but with specialized attention paid to user interfaces and gameplay. An on-screen radial wheel, similar to that in Mass Effect, pauses the action and allows you to choose special actions or target characters and items. Similarly, two sets of X, Y and B (or Square, Triangle and Circle) presets give you quick access to a limited number of abilities.
Such mechanics ensure console players are set for a feeling entirely separate from the PC gamers when it comes to action and strategy. But it's only the PC version that will come with the ability to create and manipulate everything in Dragon Age. Sure, BioWare is looking into the possibility of console players accessing community created content, according to producer Fernando Melo, but from launch, those with a mouse and keyboard will have access to the same tools the developers used to create the game.
With the Toolset, your only limitation is your coding skills. Yet, no matter how creative you are, a soon-to-be-launched BioWare social networking site will allow players to take their creations online, build teams of designers and plan large-scale projects, while also tracking their progress made in the main game. Depending on preferences set, equipment dropped in user-created missions can even be transferred to story play. Essentially, BioWare are giving you the tools not only to cheat your way to victory, but to create wholly unique content including voice-overs and cutscenes—hell, you could re-create the entirety of game from the Darkspawn's perspective, provided you had the time and help to do so. The Toolset and network are so robust, in fact, that studio designers are referencing Wikis created by beta testers for documenting purposes.
For those keeping track, the PC release of Dragon Age: Origins was pushed back to match that of the console versions—a decision many were not fans of. Be thankful, however, as the extra time has allowed the team to pack more content into an already expansive game. It's hard to fathom even more side-quests and varied experiences, since even ten hours netted differing stories played, characters met and experience gained. BioWare has an impressive track record when it comes to role-playing games, and it seems like Origin's grittier fantasy will fit in nicely with their portfolio.