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Bards will sing of the day when courageous men and women stood against the dreaded darkspawn and smote them with the mighty press of an A button.

"Dragon Age: Origins" will definitely please fans of fantasy role-playing games. It unfolds like a medieval epic loaded with violence, lust and betrayal. It offers a rich tapestry of characters, settings and events. And it’s truly epic in scope, boasting 80 hours of game play if you follow each of the quests.

The M-rated game was developed by BioWare for Electronic Arts. BioWare has a long history of creating successful role-playing games, including last year’s "Mass Effect" as well as "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" and "Baldur’s Gate." "Dragon Age" falls right in line with those great titles.

You start the game by creating a character. After selecting a gender, you choose a race — human, dwarf or elf — and class — warrior, mage or rogue. You then set your abilities and attributes and choose a personal background, which will determine which of the six opening missions you play. You can also shape your appearance, but the options aren’t nearly as wide as those offered in some other games.

No matter how you start life, you soon end up as a member of the Grey Wardens, a legendary band of warriors who struggle to keep the evil darkspawn from overrunning the land. Your job is to rally the humans, elves, dwarfs and mages to fight the invaders.

In addition to the main mission, there are numerous side quests — finding this and killing that — that add texture to the story. And at each turn, there’s someone willing to talk your ear off, adding depth to the characters and events.

You can travel with up to four members in your party. You can switch among them, controlling their actions and managing their possessions and attributes. However, you can also let them run on auto pilot if you prefer.

The console version of the game does an excellent job of streamlining the complex controls and menus familiar to fans of fantasy computer games. However, they might still seem a bit daunting to a novice. Fortunately, there’s usually plenty of time to fumble through the menus and figure out what you want to do — even during combat, which halts when the menus are activated.

The darkspawn aren’t the only enemies. You’ll find yourself battling everything from bandits to dragons. Most of them behave pretty "realistically," advancing, withdrawing, fighting and casting spells differently as the situation changes.

To combat these foes, you’ll have a good selection of weapons, but also dozens of special attacks and more than 100 magic spells.

The graphics look pretty good on a smaller screen but seem a little soft on a big HDTV. Despite that, the environments usually offer a lot of detail and atmosphere and the characters and effects are well presented.

The game earns its M rating precisely because of all the violence and lust mentioned above. While severed limbs don’t litter the floor after a battle, blood flows pretty freely — but that can be toned down in the options menu. And like BioWare’s "Mass Effect," the player can choose to engage in a liaison with a party member that plays out on screen.

The game is constructed to encourage multiple playthroughs. In addition to the six distinct openings, the story line offers many points at which you can make game-changing decisions.

However, there isn’t really a morality system like those made popular in RPGs like "Fallout 3" and "Fable II." Although actions can change the course of the game and affect how a specific character feels about you, they don’t seem to carry much ethical baggage.

Developers expect gamers to spend a lot of time in this interesting fantasy world. Downloadable missions are already available, and more are to be released over the next two years.

That should be enough to keep the bards singing for quite a while.

Platforms: Xbox 360 (tested), PlayStation 3, PC

On the Web: dragonage.bioware.com


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