5. Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
It once seemed like the epic RPG might have been finished. The Witcher had come out two years previously, but was divisive and didn’t manage the scale of a Baldur’s Gate. And while Dragon Age had been known about for years, and was in development for more (perhaps even more than a decade), expectations were dampened by a bad marketing campaign (what on earth did Marilyn Manson have to do with the Darkspawn?) and a ludicrous emphasis on its far poorer console port. So when one of the best RPGs of the 21st century was released, it was perhaps something of a surprise.
Despite following a very traditional structure (visit four different enormous regions, building up to a climactic battle), the overwhelming volume of history, lore, culture and conflict that was in place from the very start let Dragon Age define itself as a massive new world. Stepping away from D&D, it was all BioWare’s creation. With six different openings, each providing a significant insight into the varying races and cultures and their fraught co-existence, there was this incredible sense of place, and of a place in time. The story of which you were a part – the re-rise of an ancient army of specialist warriors, the Grey Wardens, in response to the return of Darkspawn to the lands of Thedas – began a thousand years ago, and stretches wide around you.
This was combined with a superb real-time combat system, where you could pause at any time and give orders to your party, or even pre-program their AI to behave in ways useful to you. BioWare’s incredible ability to write fleshed out, memorable companions was in full effect, among them the marvellous Alistair, troubling Morrigan, and really peculiar Leliana. Oh, and the officious Sten, and hilarious stone golem Shale. At over 100 hours long, each location is enormous, packed with quests, and bursting with character. Looking back on Origins is like remembering a year of your life, those weeks you spent under the Frostback Mountains, the political machinations of your time in Denerim, visiting the rebellious elves in the Dales. Or remembering the horror of the elven slavery at the hands of the Tevinter Imperium, or the disturbing treatment of magic users by the religious rules in the Chantry. Or simply camping under the stars with your friends, listening to a song from Leliana, and maybe having a flirt with Zevran.
Its enormity never feels like filler (well, maybe it does in The Fade), and its scale is justified by quite so much to do, change, or meddle with. Its characters feel like friends, its battles like something that genuinely mattered. Dragon Age: Origins is an extraordinary creation, unmatched since in terms of its meticulously detailed vastness. Although, bloody hell, Oghren was a dick.
Notes: The “Skip The Fade” mod remains useful for re-playing. Dragon Age was presented so badly by BioWare that in 2009 its E3 presentation caused press to laugh out loud at its attempts to impress with a sex scene. Few games sites told the truth about that – we did. It’s hard to think of any game that has had such a chasm of difference between its abysmal pre-release campaign and its stunning finished product.
Read more: Matt Lees on how Dragon Age: Origins got evil right.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Dragon Age: Inquisition has proved a touch divisive, but give it a look. You’d also do well to play The Witcher 3, and the mighty Pillars Of Eternity. But go backward too, and check out Neverwinter Nights 2, and both Baldur’s Gates.
4. Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Were this a Guns ‘n’ Conversation list, the middle act of Bioware’s sci-fi trilogy would surely be atop it. Yes, much of what purists consider an RPG to be has been excised in favour of direct action and on-the-spot decision-making, but in terms of spirit, playing a roving space captain trying to restore peace to the galaxy one planet at a time and in her own sweet time has never been bettered. Mass Effect 1 didn’t quite know what to be and Mass Effect 3 was a victim of the need to resolve dozens of dangling story threads, but 2 has focus, a meaningful sense of behavioural choice and, most of all, momentum. It all culminates in one of the most thrilling and potentially tragic third acts in recent memory. Mass Effect 2 also boasts what might just be roleplaying’s finest musical moment. I am the very model of a scientist salarian indeed.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Obisidan’s wonky but appealing Alpha Protocol has much in common with Mass Effect, but goes for a secret agent theme rather than alterna-Star Wars. The Witcher 3 also offers arguably superior behavioural roleplaying.
3. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
As far as certain types of fellow on certain types of forum feel, this was Bioware’s last great game. They’d stick with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulesets for a little longer after this, but the combination of sourcebook purity, the relative timelessness of the 2D art and a complete, well-escalated and impressively dark singleplayer storyline keeps it a solid favourite. This was Bioware setting out their stall as roleplaying kings rather than fans, and even if they’ve long since said farewell to its heavily statistical and strategic combat, it’s absolutely the foundation of the memorable characters and moral agonising that makes Mass Effect and Dragon Age so popular now. And even games like Anthem have a lot to… no, no I can’t do it. Anthem was terrible.
Notes: The recent ‘Enhanced Edition’ is probably your best, as it includes more whizzbang, including the critical high-res support. There’s also a decent amount of new quest and writing stuff, but a vocal contingent of fans feel that’s a reason to pass.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Pillars of Eternity is the closest we’ve got to a latter-day Baldur’s Gate, while Divinity: Original Sin also has a look at classic cRPG values but through a more action-orientated lens. Speaking of which…
2. Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017)
Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios
I have a note on my desk that reads: “KILL MAGISTER HOLIND”. You may wonder why. This non-descript NPC is a virtual nobody in one of the most sprawling and detailed RPGs of the last decade. He is a guard like many others, he has no items of worth, and takes no part in any of the game’s many quests or storylines. But if you scroll to the comment section of his wiki entry, you will note that he does one unforgivable thing that the other guards do not. He kills your cat.
It’s just one moment of many in which Divinity: Original Sin 2 will catch you off-guard. This is a detailed RPG full of overlapping quests and character arcs. It is lacy with stories. You can play co-op with a pal, go to opposite ends of the same island, and meet in the chambers of an angry bossmage with wildly different motives for dealing with him. But even as you play on (and argue over who among your party of reprobates deserves to become a fresh-faced God) it’s the small moments that build the biggest stories. I have not played Divinty 2 for months, but I still have that note on my desk, a reminder of the one quest that matters: kill Magister Holind.
Notes: You can create and run your own multiplayer RPG campaign using a whole suite of in-game tools, which is reason enough to make this list.
Read more: Two dogs in Fort Joy are named after the developers pets. Our Divinity: Original Sin 2 review said: “From its origin stories to its brief emergent narratives, few games let you take part in better tales than this one.”
What else should I be playing if I like this: Its predecessor, Divinity: Original Sin could be your thing. But many other isometric RPGs could qualify, such as Torment: Tides Of Numenera.