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BioWare’s ‘Dragon Age’ is a Fiery Epic

Have any plans for the next, say, four months?

It could take you that long to tackle "Dragon Age: Origins," a new fantasy role-playing game with roughly 100 hours of game play - not to mention optional downloadable quests that expand the world even further.

BioWare's dark, single-player epic features plenty of combat, storytelling and exploration - and is sure to impress even the most finicky RPG fan - but it's not a perfect "10" when it comes to production quality. More on this shortly.

Considered the spiritual successor to BioWare's "Baldur's Gate," the groundbreaking Dungeons&Dragons-inspired computer game from 1998, "Dragon Age: Origins" resurrects classic RPG conventions, beginning with the ability to select your protagonist's gender, race (human, elf or dwarf), class (warrior, mage or rogue) and appearance.

Depending on your choices, the beginning of the game will play out differently as you watch the story unfold with a cinematic sequence. A human male warrior, for example, will witness the destruction of his family's castle, and will escape unscathed with the aid of a Grey Warden, the last of a legendary order of fighters. If you chose to play as a female City Elf, though, you'll find yourself kidnapped on your wedding day at the start of the game. All story lines weave together in a much bigger tale surrounding the resurrection of an ancient and powerful arch-demon.

Other decisions you make throughout the game will also have an effect on the story, such as with whom you make alliances or deciding the fate of a given character. Much of these story-altering moments are as a result of selecting various responses from a list of dialogue options.

As you set out in this huge fantasy world with your well-balanced "party" of characters, which will change from time to time, you'll engage in gratifying third-person combat by employing your skills (such as swordplay, archery or magic), as well as executing special attacks, combos, defensive maneuvers and group tactics.

Progressing through the game's numerous mandatory and optional quests allows you to "level up" your character by spreading points around in a few key areas, including strength, dexterity, willpower, cunning and so forth.

The map, which is of the nation of Ferelden (part of the much larger world of Thedas), becomes available once you complete the game's prologue.

"Dragon Age: Origins" is fun and challenging, but the six-years-in-the-making RPG shows its age. Compared with many other video games today, the characters, animation and special effects look dated - but at least it doesn't detract much from the game play. Another issue is that you never hear your own character speak, as you do in other BioWare games, such as 2007's "Mass Effect." This takes some getting used to as your peers talk around you but your character remains silent as you read and select from the dialogue options available.

Shortcomings aside, RPG fans in search of a meaty game with plenty of depth and replayability won't be disappointed with "Dragon Age: Origins," a masterfully crafted adventure that offers a lot of bang for your buck.

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