Bioware has been working on Dragon Age for about six years. What began as a PC-only successor to their Baldur's Gate series is now also coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Here's my take on the first hour of the game.
One thing to bear in mind is that the beginning of the game is different depending on which character you choose. Your character's history plays an important part in the Origins of the game's title, providing an assortment of starting areas based on the combination of race and background you've selected. So this is just one of six beginnings.
And with that, I pop the disc in my PS3 and press Start.
00:00 - Like any traditional RPG the first thing you see upon starting a new game, once the opening cinematic is out of the way, is the character creation screen. Taking your advice, I create Margaret, a female dwarven rogue. She has fetchingly braided auburn hair and child-bearing hips. I opt to spend my handful of attribute points upgrading her Dexterity and Cunning while learning the Stealth, Combat Training and Dual-Weapon skills.
00:04 - Margaret begins as the younger sister of a whore who works for a heavily-bearded chap called Beraht. He seems like a tool so I give him lip at every opportunity. Still, it looks like I have to play his game (read: run errands for him) for now. I need to meet some dude called Leske to deal with a certain matter.
00:06 - The conversation system is an odd one-sided experience. As you choose dialogue options your character is mute throughout, leaving all the talking to the NPCs with whom you are speaking. I shouldn't be surprised by such a throwback to the style of Baldur's Gate or even KOTOR, but it feels weird having seen how Bioware handled chit-chat in Mass Effect in a much more dynamic and involving way.
00:09 - Before I head outside to find Leske, I stop to chat with my mother in the next room. She's drunk, which apparently is par for the course. I show her little respect and my sister has to intervene to calm the mounting row. Later, mum!
00:13 - Leske seems a little cocky for his own good, so I cut him down to size with a pointed remark about his "sceptre" being a little "soft". The job Beraht has for us involves a smuggler who's been cutting Beraht out of the loop. Leske joins my party and we head off.
00:16 - Wandering around the underground dwarven village, I get a few Fable II flashbacks. In part it's the chunky architecture and lo-res textures, but mainly it's the sluggish framerate. A few beggars are idling about, some lazing in doorways, others milling about wherever their pathfinding takes them. I stop to chat to the only beggar highlighted with a name rather than merely "Beggar" and ask him about this smuggler. He wants some coin, so I try to Intimidate him. I fail and move on.
00:20 - Leske and I leave the slums behind and venture into the more salubrious part of town. Here, the guards sneer at me and the generic commoners express their disgust for my kind. A man named Kasch propositions me: he sells teeth to nobles and, seeing as I still have all my own, he offers me some silver in exchange. From telling him where to stick it, I discover that being "casteless" means I'm not actually able to be employed in legitimate work and that I probably shouldn't be flaunting the fact I work for someone like Beraht. Leske grovels profusely and persuades Kasch not to call the guards. I remember his name for later.
00:23 - There's a few merchants in this part of town, but I have no money to buy anything. Feeling a little lost, I check my quest journal and realise Oskias, the smuggler, was last seen at Tapster's Tavern. A quick look at my map shows I'd walked straight past the tavern a minute earlier. Inside the tavern there's a bartender, several generic "Patrons" and a guy sitting at a table. That's Oskias.
00:27 - Oskias seems like a bit of a loser. As soon as he realises we're Beraht's thugs, he starts whimpering about not wanting anyone to get hurt. I try some Persuasion and, when that doesn't work, I try some good old-fashioned threats instead. Oskias clams up and inevitably we're going to have to teach him a lesson.
00:30 - Combat! I'm controlling Margaret while Leske does his own thing. Hitting X instructs her to attack the current target, in this case Oskias. The other three face buttons access whichever skills or items you've hotkeyed. Tapping the square lets Margaret use her Dirty Fighting skill, hitting Oskias with a low blow that leaves him stunned for a few seconds. He goes down fairly quickly after that in what can only be described as a meat explosion, his body seemingly disintegrating in a cloud of blood and gibs. Hilariously, both Margaret and Leske are covered from head to toe in blood spatter, looking like Dexter after a particularly satisfying night. It really is quite ridiculous.
00:34 - On his recently obliterated corpse, Oskias was carrying a number of curious crystals, presumably the goods he was keeping from Beraht. I pocket them and leave the tavern as the "Patrons" focus on their drinks and not on the mashed-up merchant in the corner.
00:37 - Leske says we should head back to Beraht quickly, but I decide to try something first. I want to see if I can sell these crystals out in the market. Sadly I can't. I guess they're a quest item or something because they don't even appear in my inventory when I go to sell. Bah!
00:39 - Turns out Beraht's store is right next door to the tavern. When he asked what Oskias had on him, I lie, claiming he had but one crystal. He doesn't believe me and his henchwoman finds the second crystal in a body search. Beraht says he's got one more job for me and I'd better not screw this one up. There's a tournament happening today at the Proving Grounds and Beraht has a lot of money riding on a certain warrior to win. I need to drug his opponent to provide just enough of an advantage.
00:42 - Turns out the Proving Grounds is right near Beraht's store! (I know, I know, it's just the tutorial area.) Inside I can hear some looped crowd cheers to indicate the combat arena must be nearby. Leske dares me to introduce myself to someone known as a Gray Warden, a regal looking chap in a white robe and sporting a well-groomed beard. He seems a bit aloof, but didn't call the guards so I guess he's nice enough. Seems the Gray Wardens are looking for recruits. I think I know where this is leading...
00:45 - Yep, there's Beraht's favourite warrior, Everd, passed out drunk in his chamber. Guess who's signing up to take his place in the arena? I grab Everd's axe and shield and don his distinctive suit of armour, telling Leske not to bother drugging his - now my - opponent. I want to win this fair and square. Well, except for a bit of Dirty Fighting, that is...
00:49 - A cut-scene kicks in showing me and an equally well-kitted out dwarf striding into a huge arena. Some beardy dude bellows something important and the fight begins. I hit X to attack and... er... watch Margaret beat the crap out of this guy. I win! I look like Dexter again!
00:53 - Oh, wait. That's just the first round. Out comes a second challenger. Beardy dude does the honours again and the fight begins. I hit X to attack and... yep... watch Margaret beat the crap out of this guy too. I win again. Post-battle blood spatters are in the exact same spots. I vanquish a third challenger in the exact same fashion and am told by the beardy dude that I will now advance to the final.
00:57 - Oh! What's this? A drunken dwarf has staggered out into the arena. It's the real Everd. He's calling me an imposter. The beardy dude asks me to show myself. I could choose to continue the fraud and demand they arrest Everd. Instead, I remove my helmet, relishing the opportunity to defy my lowly casteless status. Beardy dude is irate and calls the guards. The Gray Warden I met earlier looks on with interest and thoughtfully strokes his exquisitely manicured facial hair.
00:60 - I wake up sometime later in a prison cell with Leske. And my hour is up.
So, the big question is… Do I want to keep playing beyond the first hour?
Hmm. Bioware make games that are meant to be played over dozens - or in the case of Baldur's Gate II, hundreds - of hours. Judging any RPG after the first hour, let alone a Bioware RPG, is foolhardy and perhaps even disingenuous. So yes, short answer: I will keep playing.
Longer answer: I'm just not feeling it. My comments around the dialogue system hinted at my disappointment; Mass Effect drew me into its world in far more engaging style, the dramatic presentation of its character interaction makes the stilted, one-sided conversations here seem prosaic and a step backwards.
Beyond that, the basics seem solid. Any reservations I may have held over playing a Bioware RPG with a PS3 controller are now dismissed. They've successfully streamlined the interface to accomodate the consoles; the most obvious commands are just one button press away. And similar to Mass Effect, you can dig deeper into a suite of tactical options via a radial menu that pauses the action. Also, it's not the best-looking game you'll ever see, but it does the job.
To a certain extent, my reluctance is personal preference. I've never been a fan of high fantasy. Even back in the early days of Bioware, I always preferred the quirkiness of Fallout and the strangeness of Planescape: Torment over the rather more straight-down-the-line Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. I'll keep playing until I feel like I've gotten more of a taste for the story and quest design, but I'm not expecting to love it.