Seldom have we felt such dismay and sheer disappointment when presented with a new Bioware title. Theirs is surely not the most consistent of libraries, but it would be a disservice not to recognize their continuous establishment of new standards in the western role-playing genre. But “Dragon Age” seems to be a mere compendium of all that has been done before under the Bioware banner, with every element screaming of unfathomable familiarity, just now stripped of its time-bound ingenuity that granted its past appeal. This makes “Dragon Age” feel, from the very early moments, awkwardly dated. Such matter is all too evident in the tactical combat system – a hark back to the old days of over-complicated micro-management and hard-plodding of “Baldur Gate’s” “Dungeons & Dragons” skeleton, with but a scent of modern game design in the form of a poorly implemented “Final Fantasy XII“-esque gambit system. This spirit of sodded revivalism goes to the point of overlooking simple technical evolutions, with a return to pre-“Mass Effect” dialog trees and generic character designs and animations. Such musings may not ruin the experience, and could even content players who still revere those massive tomes of rules and numbers and written lore that defined pre-computer role-playing, but their nature is ill-fit for the realm of the video game, where the experience of adventuring and storytelling can be made so much more elegant and dynamic, not to mention more intuitive and natural to the senses, with real time interactions and cinematic exposition.
Granted, such glaring faults could’ve been easily downplayed, as others have in the past, should the narrative background prove captivating enough to warrant involvement of players in that world. But Ferelden, the realm where action takes place, is probably the most derivative piece of pseudo-Tolkien fantasy since “Neverwinter Nights”, more even, one visibly corrupted by Peter Jackson’s film adaptation and a hedious, absurdly violent, comic-book dark-fantasy aesthetic. And one cannot even immerse in such a poor virtual world properly, because exploration feels confined by claustrophobic loading screens and over-world maps, robbing the space of that precious sense of physical presence and vast, unshackled exploration that recent RPG’s such as “Fallout 3” and “Mass Effect” reveled in. But most telling of all coming from Bioware, is the lack of a proper cast of characters (with minor exceptions) and a mere skimming of Drew Karpyshyn’s traditional themes of morality. This, and the fact that development was helmed by what appears to be a secondary team inside the studio (Brent Knowles, Mike Laidlaw and James Ohlen), makes it painfully clear that “Dragon Age” never was meant to be one of Bioware’s finest, but a mere back-step in their long run of role-plays.