“Dragon Age: Origins” review

We should all be used to compelling, immersive role-playing games from Bioware by now, but “Dragon Age: Origins” stands out even while following in the footsteps such games as “Mass Effect” and “Knights of the Old Republic.”

“Dragon Age” sets its roots in familiar swords-and-sorcery territory, but Bioware’s always-great writing and wonderful design set the game apart from its genre competitors. You’ll enter a world in a time of crisis, and you’ll have to get your hands dirty to have any hope of making things right.

The nation of Ferelden is under attack by an army of monstrous Darkspawn (like orcs, but tougher), who are led by an archdemon determined to rule. Your actions will determine the future of the fight, but you must first decide on your own past. There are six unique beginnings to the game, and your choice will have a great influence on how your story unfolds and how you interact with the world. There are two human origins, noble and mage; two elven origins, city dweller and Dalish nomad; and two dwarven origins, noble and commoner.

You’ll spend a few hours playing through your background story — my character began as a small-time dwarf criminal in the slums of an underground city — before being recruited into the Grey Wardens, a group of knights who cut ties with their pasts and families to fight the malevolent Darkspawn. Remember the choices you made in your origin, though. Although you leave to join the Wardens, the effects of your decisions even in the early stages of the game can be far-reaching, and you might not be as far from home as you think.

The consequences of the choices you make are driven home by the sense that each culture has its own history, each character has his own motivations and feelings, and that the Darkspawn threatens it all. “Dragon Age” offers a feast for the mind and the eyes. If you find yourself interested in the tales you hear and the books you see, the game’s codex has information on all of the nations, characters and enemies in the game. But the design of the places you visit makes them feel real without requiring you to memorize backstory. The ornate Circle Tower, which is the home of Ferelden’s mages, and an ancient temple you’ll come to in the course of the main quest deserve special mention.

You’ll need to gather a group of allies to defeat the Darkspawn, and some of my favorite moments of the game have been the quiet ones at your party’s camp. There are laugh-out-loud moments involving your hound interacting with (and often annoying) your compatriots; moments of great character development and interesting conversations; and some grace notes, such as the bard in your party singing a somber song she learned as a girl, that simply make the game and its characters feel more alive.

The voice acting, especially for the members of your party, is top-notch, which adds to the immersion. You’ll want to learn more about everyone you travel with, but you’ll have to get them to trust you first. To that end, you can find or buy gifts for them, which can open up new dialogue, side quests and possibly romance. As your companions grow to like and trust you even more, they can gain permanent stat boosts that strengthen in tandem with their admiration for you.

These boosts can be invaluable in the game’s bruising combat sequences. You’ll fight with three party members at a time, and finding the right mix is crucial. If you want to be an archer, keep a melee specialist with you so you can loose a barrage of arrows without enemies in your face. If you like to smash Darkspawn skulls from as close range as possible, it pays to have a mage who can heal you and cast protective spells.

And you’ll need lots of healing during battles in “Dragon Age.” The combat is intense and fun, but it’s also the area in which the game has its biggest flaws. The tools you’re given to lead your party in battle generally work, but it’s the tools you lack that can cause frustration. For example, you cannot position your party members unless you order them all to stop moving completely, which removes a strategic card from your deck.

Another shortcoming is that you cannot set targets or order an ally to attack a specific enemy until it is dead. As a result, your allies tend to run to whichever character you are controlling at the moment, even if there are enemies that are closer.

Each party member has a list of tactics that you can use to assign context-based actions, such as using an area-effect spell when surrounded by enemies or a poultice when health drops below a certain level. The great advantage to tactics is that you can set standing orders for your allies and avoid micromanaging their every attack or potion intake. They prove to be incredibly rigid in following the orders, however. For example, if a tactic requires your mage to use a certain level of potion to refill her magic, she will use only that level. Even if her magic is drained, she will not use a different magnitude of potion unless you pick out the action for her in the heat of battle. This forces you into a kind of micromanagement that the tactics are meant to avert.

These combat-related headaches require you to choose between allowing the battles to flow freely, which is more fun but potentially catastrophic if your a character refuses to heal himself, and continually pausing the action to select each spell or potion, which can turn battles into a long slog.

But when combat in “Dragon Age” is working like it should, it provides some really rewarding moments. Winning a tough fight (especially if you’ve failed a few times before) is a visceral, satisfying experience. Your character can uncork some flashy finishing moves on enemies, and there’s enough variety of loot to make you want to search every body.

If you or one of your party members “dies” during a battle, he will revive as long as someone in your party survives, but he won’t come back at full strength. He will suffer from one of a variety of injuries, such as a wrenched arm, which reduces attack speed, or a torn jugular, which applies a penalty to the Constitution stat. These injuries are curable with kits you can craft from components or buy from vendors, but the concept is a clever way to ensure that combat has consequences.

There are too many facets and intricacies of “Dragon Age: Origins” to fit in one review. Perhaps the best praise I can give it is that it worms its way into your mind and stays there. I find myself frequently trying to figure out where the game will go next and what sacrifices my character and my friends will need to make to get there. Ferelden’s a dangerous place, but I still want to dive back in.

Score: 9 out of 10
Developer: Bioware
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Rating: M for Mature