Spell combos are an admittedly unusual sound feature to include in an out-and-out classic RPG like Dragon Age: Origins and, if we’re honest, we’re not entirely sure the concept sits in all that well with the rest of the gameplay mechanics. The idea makes sense, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to build into a game, or a worthwhile one.
Spell combos are pretty much what they sound like; essentially combinations of spells that you can use together to create an improved or new effect. They’re happily distinct from the usual idea of an action combo though – it’s not a case of hammering attack button to send your axe spinning around the room, decapitating people. Instead, it’s a mechanic based on considering how spells might interact with each other, for better or worse.
As with most RPGs, the spells you can cast (and those that are cast at you) usually create some sort of non-magical effect. The fireball spell doesn’t just cause magical fire damage, you see; the magic comes about in creating an actual ball of fire that you can throw. The fire itself may be magical in origin, but it’s still fire and should therefore be able to interact with more than just the target.
Some farts are more devastating than others
And that’s how spells work in Dragon Age: Origins. Spells can cause reactions in the environment, as we mentioned earlier, but they can also interact with each other if you plan your moves carefully. Using a Grease spell to blanket an area in flammable and then setting the whole thing ablaze is only the tip of the iceberg too. Using spell combos you can steamroll and snowball your effects together in a number of different ways, none of which are listed when the game starts and all of which have to be unlocked through experimentation.
Having found ourselves plopped down just before the boss battle in the Wizard's Tower and with several mages in our party we got a chance to test this for ourselves, albeit accidentally. While desperately throwing spells at the evil arch-wizard we managed to stumble across a number of storm-based spells which has obviously been deliberately set up for us to use. Among them were titles like ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Tempest’, which pelted enemies lightning and thrashing winds.
Getting our two wizards to cast these spells one after another threw the weather effects together to create a new combo which, according to the on-screen update, was called ‘Storm of The Century’. The effects of the previously distinct spells began to intermingle and feed off each other. What had started as a few blasts of lightning and gusts of wind quickly escalated into a cyclone that literally filled the tower, disrupting enemy attacks while hail spiralled around the walls of the narrow stone pinnacle. It really was the perfect storm.
The issue of whether or not spell combos really belong in an RPG like Dragon Age: Origins is still a thorny one though, as while the effect is undoubtedly cool and unique among the genre, it also causes a bit of a disconnect between the player and the world. The world of Dragon Age is 3D, but it’s not fully interactive or physically realised, so when the cyclone blew we were admittedly left wandering why no books were flying off shelves or furniture toppling.
Ka-pow! Bam! Loud noise!
Really though, it’s not worth putting too much criticism on a single gameplay element like this. The fact that tables aren’t overturned by fireball shockwaves never bothered us in Baldur’s Gate and while we noticed it here, we’re happy to pretend to ignore it. It’s a real non-issue, in other words.
Else-wise, our second look at Dragon Age: Origins was remarkably similar to our first hands-on preview of it; we liked it. The game looks set to offer an immersive and interesting RPG experience and the way the story is laid out with a recruitment-based storyline should help give the game a lot of structure. We still had some problems acclimatising to the moveable camera and WASD controls, but nothing we didn’t quickly learn to cope with.
Normally this is the point in the preview where we recap on the minor flaw we think are affecting the game and say that it’s best not to worry about them because the developer still has time to iron them out. We can’t say that about Dragon Age though as the level of polish here is simply astounding and there’s very little to improve on. The only real issue is that we’re not sure we can wait until Q4 for the final release!
Dragon Age: Origins is set for a Q4 2009 release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. It will published by Electronic Arts.