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First impressions: Dragon Age: Origins

One of the more interesting games we saw at the recent Game Developer's Conference was Dragon Age: Origins, combining inventive gameplay with a dangerously nerdy Dungeons & Dragons vibe.

Remember to stop, drop, and roll! BioWare

One of the more interesting games we saw at the recent Game Developer's Conferencewas a large-scale RPG called Dragon Age: Origins, combining well-trod sword-and-sorcery clichés with an inventively twisting plot and an advanced branching dialog engine (where the main character often affects the story by deciding what to say to other characters).

If all that sounds too "hardcore gamer" for you, that's a shame, although understandable considering the dangerously nerdy Dungeons & Dragons vibe of the game's marketing pitch to date.

Despite the elves, dwarves, and renaissance faire outcasts that populate the game, we could see the heart of a mainstream, Hollywood-style action/adventure beating underneath. The developer, BioWare, is responsible for several big crossover hits, including Knights of the Old Republic (a Star Wars RPG), and Mass Effect, a sci-fi (or is that "syfy," now?) game with some of the best intelligent dialog trees we've seen.

Unfortunately, in the segments BioWare demoed behind closed doors for us, all that inventive, involved gameplay is buried under uptight, wooden characterizations of medieval characters that seem to be trying to do Shakespeare in the Park, or at least the dated, stagy delivery of an old fantasy film.

The problem (and it's an industry wide one) is that while movies eventually evolved a more naturalistic acting style during the 1950s (in films such as On the Waterfront), most video games have never been able to make that leap -- instead of Marlon Brando, they're still doing Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn.

That aside, we were impressed with the tight interplay between the four members of your band of adventurers -- tact and diplomacy is required to keep friends from becoming enemies. Strategy types will appreciate the combat system, in which one can let allies figure out how to fight for themselves, or program extensive instructions for what to do in specific situations (for example, order an ally to always attack a certain kind of enemy first, or to never use healing items).

We're looking forward to seeing more of this game over the next several months, and Dragon Age: Origins will be available for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 late in 2009.