As "spiritual successor" to the Baldur's Gate series, BioWare's upcoming fantasy RPG has a lot to live up to. Not to mention a console port expectation that no PC RPG has ever fulfilled.
It doesn't help that the game is being touted as a "new" take on the fantasy genre, or that the PC ship date was shoved back to coincide with the console release. But BioWare may yet deliver on all their promises. They have all the ingredients of a good game, plus some genuinely interesting ideas that haven't made it into any other game quite yet.
The newest of these ingredients - the approvals system - was showcased at the latest Dragon Age: Origins demo. Actually, it looks a lot like the character interactions in Baldur's Gate II - but in that game, characters wouldn't do better in battle if they liked you. Origins shakes things up by giving you an invisible approval score among your party members. Certain actions you take or choices you make affect the score, netting you approval or disapproval. The more a party member approves of you, the more effective they are in combat - and you also get the Baldur's Gate II perks like hidden side quest or romantic relationships. The less the party member approves of you, the more likely they are to up and leave like they do in Baldur's Gate - but in Origins, they could possibly turn against you, if you do something they really, really disapprove of.
For my look at this interaction system, I watched a BioWare employee play through a quest called The Defence of Red Cliff. The village - called Red Cliff - is being repeatedly attacked by the game's primary evil, The Blight. The game is largely an open world after the first few hours of tutorial play, so this quest doesn't occur at any particular point in the game's timeline - but I was told it was "after the first third" of the game.
The demo master's party consisted of slutty sorceress Morrigan, archer Liliana (a.k.a. Girl Legolas), and the sullen Sten, plus the generic human Grey Warder main character. The demo master chose to play his Warder mostly as a Nice Guy - offering to help the village fight off the Blight and even agreeing to rescue some drunk blacksmith's daughter. He did choose to kick in a door and gave one snippy response in a dialogue tree; but for the most part, I felt like I was watching "Boy Scout Goes to Middle Earth."
Morrigan and Sten shared my cynicism - as soon as the demo master started spouting heroic platitudes, the sorceress made some quip about rescuing kittens from trees and Sten nagged about needing to go do other, more important stuff. An icon list appeared on screen when the dialogue tree to accept the quest ended, informing me that Morrigan and Sten disapproved of the Grey Warder's actions while Liliana approved, possibly laying the groundwork for a romance with the Warder later.
BioWare didn't confirm or deny the depth of the relationship system in the game (e.g. we do know that you can have more than one relationship at a time, but we don't know if homosexual relationships are possible for both genders). They did insist that it was "classy" and highlighted a new.gift system where you have to find out what characters like and give them those things to raise their approval rating. For example, Morrigan likes jewelry, but she doesn't like rocks; she will take a rock if you give it to her, but you have to load her up with trinkets to get a spike in her approval rating. Sounds like a dating sim, really - but if jewelry is what it takes to bump Morrigan's approval up enough to unlock her best spells (or at the very least keep her from turning on me), then so be it.
The next ingredient that could make Dragon Age: Origins a good game is the combat system. It's not especially new, but it is detailed and effective. BioWare has already shown off a bit of the spell-chaining in the combat system; cast an ice spell to freeze an enemy, cast a stone spell on yourself so your fist is rock-hard, and then punch the frozen enemy to shatter him to bits - a la Terminator 2. But this time, they showed their tactics system in action.
Like many RPGs, Origins lets you set the behaviours of characters so that you don't have to babysit them in battle and make sure they don't blow all the healing items. The usual defaults are aggressive, passive, defend or whatever; a few games get super-specific at the level of setting the exact health percentage a character needs to be at before the mage to casts heal. Origins keeps both layers of management, letting the player get ultra-micromanagement-y with who casts what and under which circumstance or allowing them to stay out of it altogether and let the game decide who should be doing what based on class, equipment and skill level.
At this point in the demo, the village militia rallied to fight off the Blight at dusk, when an evil green mist swept down into the valley. Our party of heroes stood at the bridge leading to the village, waiting for the zombies the Blight produces to come through the choke point. Morrigan cast an area effect fire spell so the zombies would catch fire as they came over the bridge, then cast invulnerability and anti-knockdown spells on Sten so he could wade out into the fire and hack the flaming zombies. Liliana picked stragglers off with arrows and the Grey Warder - because he was a rogue class - just hung out and occasionally back-stabbed zombies that made it past everyone else.
This is an ingredient that could go either way for Origins: the player perspective. It was the combat that really made this clear to me because combat works like it does in Baldur's Gate: you can pause during combat and issue specific orders to your characters, or just let the combat play itself out like a real time strategy game. In that game, though, you were in a zoomed-out RTS view by default. In Origins, you can choose to play in a zoomed in third-person action view. You can, but I can't see why you'd want to since combat is still largely tactical. Yeah, it's nice to see how detailed everything is up close while the fighting is going on, and maybe I could trust the AI to handle the other three characters while I play as just one - but I'm not sure I'd really enjoy it that way. I might get bored.
Whatever - back to the battle. After the skirmish at the bridge ended, a villager ran up to tell the party that there was a larger attack in the town square. It was about this point that I put my finger on what bothered me so much about the Origins cut scenes. It's not that the characters look strange - waxy faces with hollow eyes are to be expected in PC cut scenes - it's that your character, the Grey Warder, seems so dull in comparison to everyone else. BioWare brought in some very decent actors, even real Englishmen from England to do English accents; so it's just weird to see an emotional plea fall on the apparently deaf ears of "my" character who can't even talk or so much as lift an eyebrow in response to being yelled at. I guess Shepard having the power of speech in Mass Effect spoiled me.
Oh well - there were zombies to kill, so who cares about vacant-eyed everyman characters? The demo master zoomed out as the party ran down to the village square to show off the RTS view; it evoked so much Baldur's Gate nostalgia, I actually got a little verklempt. Once at the square, the demo master paused the game, commanded Morrigan and Liliana to run up to the steps for a ranged attack vantage point and then un-paused to order Sten and the Grey Warder into the fray of zombies flooding the square.
While this was going on, Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw explained the dynamic nature of the cut scenes. "Dynamic cut scenes" is a fancy way of saying that what your character does in the world is reflected in story cut scenes. For example, if the village leader that gave you the quest to defend Red Cliff died during the fight, another character would lament his loss in the quest-completion cut scene - if he lived, he'd be there, giving a speech about how awesome you are. Another example is from earlier in the quest: if we'd neglected to help the blacksmith, we would have seen all the militia wearing crappy armour instead of the shiny stuff the smith whipped up for them.
I can't say that that's a "new" ingredient for BioWare, or for fantasy RPGs in general (*cough* Witcher *cough*) - but it does sweeten the deal a bit. And depending on how far they carry it, it could feel new enough to be significant to the fantasy RPG genre.
Speaking of which, you'll be glad to know that BioWare isn't being idle with the extra time they have on the PC version while they figure out the console release: they've decided to "aggressively pursue" online features that will engender a sense of community around Origins and potentially lead to downloadable content. Nothing specific had been said yet (aside from a firm "no multiplayer"), but item creation or editing or sharing all sound possible and there already is an achievement system in place that may or may not tie into the online features (and may or may not be converted to Games for Windows Achievements).
It all sounds very spiffy - and given BioWare's track record, there's no reason to doubt that they can inject new life into a hackneyed genre with decent writing and voice acting. But I'm worried about the challenge of getting this experience on console intact. When I sat down to this demo, Laidlaw admitted that they hadn't even tested a controller scheme yet - not a good sign. At best, we'll get a clunky controller system that doesn't do as easily what the PC version does (think The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion). In the worst case, they'll have to actually change the game, cutting things from the console release or dumbing-down the PC version altogether.
As long as they don't cut the relationship system, I'm cool. And if they're going to be dicking around with item editing for online trading, I would really like to see a jewelry editor. Because if I'm going to amass a harem of battlemages, I don't want them wearing tacky pre-rendered junk. How's that for role-playing?