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Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360)

Rated: 18.

Story: After hundreds of years, the Darkspawn once more threaten the kingdom of Ferelden. As a Grey Warden, one of the last of a legendary order of guardians, you must unite the land and embark on a quest to slay the archdemon which leads the approaching horde.

Of course, you'll need to recruit and equip a band of fellow adventurers along the way. Happily, there are a whole load of villagers on hand offering financial rewards if you don't mind ignoring Armageddon for a while in order to go into the woods and locate/take/kill whatever they require recovered/delivered/dead this time.

Gameplay: It's a third-person role-playing game where you run round fairly confined areas, battling monsters and talking to whoever you can find. You can have up to four characters in your group at once and switch between them at will. Fights involve pointing each character at a target and giving them an order, such as performing a special attack or casting a spell. They can also be given a list of general tactics that the computer will perform for you if you want to concentrate on simply controlling one of the characters.

Much of the game is spent having conversations with the people you meet on your travels. This can bring fresh info, new quests and the approval or disapproval of your companions, depending which dialogue options you choose.

There's also plenty of sifting through equipment and choosing new abilities as your character gains experience and accumulates loot.

Think Knights of the Old Republic with a Lord of the Rings setting.

Save System: Save at almost any time when not in a battle or conversation. There's also an auto-save when changing location and before tough fights.

Comments: If you like computer role-playing games with a Tolkien-style setting, you should go buy this now. It's an epic tale with some excellent twists, significant moral choices and plenty of opportunities for beard-scratching while poring over skill selection. Despite some very traditional design decisions, there are a smattering of innovations that make the game more enjoyable than many predecessors, such as the way your party's health regenerates automatically after combat.

If you're new to RPGs, you should download Knights of the Old Republic from Xbox Originals first. It's more polished, easier to get to grips with and has light-sabers.

If you'd rather shoot things, however, you might want to look elsewhere...

Dragon Age has many rough edges. There are a host of little niggles in the interface and some serious flaws in the combat controls (on 360, at least). It's impossible to order characters to particular spots, for instance, meaning you have to move each one in turn while the rest get on with the battle by themselves. This makes complicated tactics very hard work, especially as the characters are prone to wandering off or switching target when you're not paying constant attention.

Creating computer-controlled strategies and action plans for each character is all very well but it's a lot of pain for not much gain. At normal difficulty, the defaults are good enough. On a higher setting, anything other than pausing the game every few seconds to issue manual commands is liable to get you killed.

The voice acting is generally OK, although Claudia Black's performance as the witch Morrigan isn't great. It's like she did the whole thing with one eyebrow raised. Matters aren't helped by her script full of stilted, olde worlde turns of phrase. These mix rather oddly with the Buffy-esque quips spouted on a regular basis by Alastair, the other main companion.

Despite these quibbles, though, Dragon Age is still a fantastic game. There's no end of depth to explore and many choices to be made. Just as with Fallout 3, watching the end credits of Dragon Age creates an urge to start again immediately and do everything differently. This is only encouraged by the fact that there are six different opening acts, depending on what race and profession you choose for your main character.

With an expansion already out, I could easily still be playing this in a year's time.

Conclusion: If you know what a D20 is and enjoyed the extended version of The Lord of the Rings, you'll find this totally absorbing. If you can't tell the difference between an armour value and a defence rating, the experience is liable to be tedious, complicated and fiddly.

Graphics: Surprisingly weak, especially close up on walls and ground. After twenty hours you'll have forgotten what other games look like, though, and it will all seem pretty enough.

Length: Very, very long.

Rating: 4/5.

(If you buy Dragon Age new before the end of April, most copies should come with a free code to download an extra companion and some armour. These aren't essential but mean there's no point buying second-hand if you're only going to save a couple of quid.)

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