It is said it was the hubris of man that brought the Darkspawn into the world: a rampaging evil, swelling up from underground, that attacks without mercy or purpose. It has been over four hundred years since the last Blight, but even those who remember believe there will never be another. One man disagrees. Duncan, head of the Grey Wardens in the nation of Ferelden, sees all the signs of a coming Blight. He is seeking new members to join this most elite band of fighters, for it is only the Grey Wardens who can defeat the Archdemon at the centre of the onslaught.
Thus begins Dragon Age, one of the most enormous and astonishing of games. It's an unashamed high-fantasy RPG, rooted in the most traditional soil, yet set in a highly original world. This is a story of humans, elves, dwarves and mages building a tenuous alliance in the face of a terrible evil. It's about sacrifice, death, passion, death, adventure, battle and more death. There's an awful lot of death.
This is not a game that can be simply explained. How does it begin? It begins in six completely different ways, and each of these can be met with a wildly different approach. An excellent portion of the game to relate would be my adventures in the dwarven city of Orzammar, except there's little chance that you will experience the same events in the same way when you get there. The relationships you have, your allies and enemies, your party - they all form an experience unique to you.
What will be common to all is the combination of dialogue and combat. Whether you play as a human, elf or dwarf, a rogue, warrior or mage, a noble or a commoner, Dragon Age requires smart use of your wits and weapons. Combat is a combination of real-time fighting and turn-based handing out of orders. You have control of all in your current party (which has a maximum of four characters), as well as an elaborate Combat Tactics system that enables you to all but program your team's AI. But there's also an entire realm to explore, and a central, overwhelming theme of acculturation within its many towns and races. This is about politics, moral philosophy and love. And about killing dragons with swords.
No matter how you approach Dragon Age, combat will be your constant companion. While there are many encounters a silver tongue can end peacefully, you aren't going to be reasoning with the Darkspawn, enraged demons, or bandits and assassins. This is where balance in your party is essential. The game's unfriendly difficulty settings (more on this later) don't leave much room for a gang that doesn't have at least one healer, a couple of strong melee fighters, and someone capable of combat both at range and close up. Fortunately you've no shortage of suitable candidates.
You can approach combat in a couple of ways, depending upon your personal preferences and the difficulty level to which you've set the game. In theory, setting it to Easy should let you fight in real-time, where you select opponents and issue instructions from a row of tiled attacks, spells and special items familiar to any MMO player, as the fight happens. Choose Normal, and you'll have to make consistent use of the Spacebar to pause and jump between characters, lining up their next move. This might be to heal themselves, change target, use a particular special attack, or aid another. Hit Space again, watch those moves play out, then pause once more. It's a form of self-created turn-based play that encourages enormous involvement.
Further to this are the Combat Tactics. Each character has a limited number of these slots (expanded through levelling up and choosing particular skills) to which you can assign specific actions to be performed in specific conditions, using cascading menus. These can be as simple as picking 'Self' then 'Health', then 'is < 25%' then 'Use health poultice: least powerful'. Or as complex as 'if party member Leliana' is 'Being attacked by melee attack', then 'Deactivate mode: Powerful swings'. And so on. With at least five or six slots available for each character, this enables you to set up an elaborate array of specific behaviours so that your party can enact your will without constant babysitting. It's most useful for getting members to self-heal at the right times, heal each other, and switch from range to melee weapons in particular circumstances.