Combat in Dragon Age is mainly handled in the same way as it was in BioWare’s previous fantasy RPG, Baldur’s Gate II. If you’re not familiar with Baldur’s Gate II though then let us just tell you that it’s a very good thing.
Playing on the PC the default camera position is high and at a slight angle, so that it looks down on the 3D world in an almost isometric perspective, but the camera can also be controlled too. If you want to get down at shoulder level, perhaps to get a better view of your surroundings when exploring new areas, then you can do that with no issues whatsoever.
For combat though, the aerial view is a real necessity, especially when you’re warring with magic users like we were. The sheer number, size and fidelity of the mystical effects can quickly crowd the screen otherwise, filling your view with auras, trails, whirlwinds and all manner of cool swirly lights.
Just like Baldur’s Gate, the combat is a complex affair when you get down to the actual mechanics of it because, although it’s presented in real-time by default, it actually functions on a round-based system. Actions, be they spells or attacks, happen in cycles that run together one after another, allowing the game to be a strict, fair RPG underneath while still having the gloss of an action game. It’s a system that’s worked well in the past.
Kill it with fire!
Confusing the issue a little though is the ability to pause the game whenever you want, or to set up auto-pause events that kick in when certain events happen, like finding a trap or when an ally is downed. The auto-pause not only allows you to turn the game from an action RPG to more of a turn-based model if you want, or you can just go with the flow and mix the two ideas as needed. That’s the approach we took, tapping in and out of pauses as we piled more and more commands on our party of four.
There are two main features which distinguish the combat of Baldur’s Gate from that of Dragon Age, with BioWare desperately wanting to focus on one of those two today. They are interactive environments and stackable spell combos, the latter of which was the one BioWare was pushing and both of which are laden with more buzzwords than a marketing executive drowning in TPS reports.
Interactive environments are pretty much just what they sound like and are something we’ve had a chance to fiddle with before in our last Dragon Age: Origins preview, but it’s basically the RPG equivalent of the explosive barrel. There are now specific items in the game world that players can take advantage of, like spilled oil that can be ignited to damage enemies or water-logged areas that can be frozen.
Taking advantage of these environments is never crucial to advancing in the game and, if we’re honest, they aren’t exactly easy to spot either. We’ve gotten so used to the static nature of the environments in RPGs that when fighting enemies at a river crossing our first thought isn’t usually to back them into the stream and hit them with a lightning blast to electrify the water.
That said, the conventions and habit of individual gamers shouldn’t really have any bearing on the usefulness of this feature. It’s there and it’s fun and you can use it if you want. That’s really all there is to say about it frankly, especially considering how eager we are to talk about the much-cooler spell combos...