Trouble Thinking

March 30, 2011

Dragon Age 2 Sure Was a Game

Filed under: Game Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 1:54 pm

It's... right behind me, isn't it?

So I finished up Dragon Age 2, and if I had to boil the experience down to two words I would probably say “No, I can’t do that. Go ahead and kill the hostages.”

Massive spoilers follow , so, you know.

It was basically a good time, most of the time. The only real problems with it were the plot, the role-playing opportunities, and the combat system.

Wait that came out wrong. Basically, like the previous game Dragon Age: Origins, I obsessively completed everything and was glad to have done so but also have just just a completely crazy number of complaints large and small. I’m not really certain that most of them are constructive either, but I’m getting these down on internet anyway because all of the things I’ve ever thought are important to every one of you mouth breathers.

Okay so first a bit of a rundown of the game: Dragon Age 2 is the second in a series of RPGs that I assume is really hoping to be this huge ongoing story, they’re not indicating the sort of three-parter story structure that has become standard when you do well enough to warrant sequels. The game lets you choose to be a mage, rogue, or warrior and then you’re plopped into the shoes of [First Name you choose but no one ever ever uses ever] Hawke. You’re a refugee from the Blight, a Fantasy World Bad Thing that has totally screwed up British Fantasy Place “Ferelden”. So you and your generally prickly and annoying family are forced to hit the trail and head to the port city-state of Kirkwall, where you’ll need to make your name.

The narrative is split into three parts, each separated by a time-jump of three years. The idea being to show you the consequences of your actions over a longer timeframe and allow you to see less of a straight “hero arises, defeats big bad” story and more of a story about the life of a particularly cool person.

There’s a framing narrative thing that the whole game is a story being told by one of your companions, Varric, but as they do precisely 2 interesting things with it over the course of the entire game, one at the very beginning, they may as well have not done that at all and just gone with a narrator and no extraneous explanation of the timeskips beyond “and then…”

So let me get down into what I disliked about the game, because what I liked is boring stuff like “it was a pretty well-made version of a genre I enjoy”.

Something on my face? Did I get it? No?

The Plot:

Disconnection. That’s actually the word I would use to describe my experience with this game. Sorry, hostages.

There’s a vast gulf between what the game says and what the game actually shows you and allows you to do.

Those time skips? Completely, absolutely extraneous. Nothing changes. Okay, small almost unnoticeable things change about the city like how many weeds are in the cobblestones, but other than that absolutely all maps in every location remain exactly the same. No characters visibly age over that decade, or change in any way in terms of gameplay or skills or equipment. The only real changes between acts are what quest strings populate the world. Sometimes it does allow for a more sensible quest (i.e. it took 3-6 years for XYZ to build up to this point or to establish a foothold or to nurse a grudge) but there’s not all that much reason for them on display. The tensions that exist as the game begin come to a head as the game ends, but not for any reason that’s been built up to over the past decade. One of your companions simply brings things to a head because hey it’s game ending time.

And hell, the map and asset reuse is insane. There is one mansion in Kirkwall, one Cave in the Sundermount, one Mountain Pass. Quest after quest tells you you’re hunting XYZ or exploring ABC but you are hit over the head again and again with the knowledge that no you aren’t you’re returning to The Only Mansion for the 25th time. It’s incredibly exacerbated by the fact that the mini-map is always the exact same in each of these environments, the only difference is that a previously open door is now a non-selectable object. The quests requiring you to return to these locations break your suspension of disbelief so hard they become rote exercises in the combat system. They may as well have replaced side quests with a Virtual Training room.

I found myself frequently feeling like a bystander at events that were supposedly things that were defining moments in my life. For instance, the three act-capping climaxes:

The Deep Roads?

Varric wanted to go, didn’t need me (really, could have hired any muscle he felt like, including any one or all of my companions), and he was the driving emotional narrative.

The Qunari already-in vasion?

Sure I stood next to Aveline as she set off the tensions, but it could have been a plank of wood in my place and everything would have proceeded apace. Killing the boss was certainly all me, though.

The Templar-Mage conflict?

Already happening as the act begins. In no way helped or ameliorated by my actions, save for a very weak callback to Varric’s brother selling a demon-ultra-sword/lightsaber to the High Commander of the Templar because hey why not? Anders sets things off just fine on his own. I even turned down his supremely obvious “can you get me 100 pounds of explosives for a …. potion” quest ending bit where you distract the head of the chantry so he can place his bomb. Guess he got someone else! Hell, the Templar/Mage conflict barely alters until the very very end. All the Mages in the city: still in their same spots, many selling fine mage-specific wares. No evidence of any more Tranquil ones, no particular evidence of any increase or decrease in the tensions whatsoever beyond the continued insistence that there totally has been by some of your party members. The one visible difference between act 1 and act 3 is that Templar are guarding the Keep.

I am all for slice-of-life roleplaying. But you know what would have been more interesting than everything that happened in the main game? Taking a look at a year of adventures in the mercenary company I joined at the beginning of the game, which was unceremoniously skipped over to get to a less interesting point in my character’s life. Committing to a story where the protagonist was in no way involved in the world-changing events going on around him or her would have at least shown some initiative and maybe allowed them to focus on character-building and personal stories that I could actually affect with my actions. Having the protagonist be a ride-along is just not all that fun.

I am almost certain you're not supposed to hold them like that.

The Role Playing:

Again, disconnection.

I played a mage. Well, I say “played a mage” but actually I played Hawke with the ability to use magic during combat sequences and wear a dress.

This game goes out of its way to insist at every opportunity that there is a simmering tension between Mages and non-Mages. It constantly references the destructive potential of magic for both other people and the practitioner. Demons figure frequently, offering chances at great mystical power in exchange for time-share on your mortal body, leaving any mage a possible font of demonic power if they get tempted and doubling as a metaphor (demons are all sin-based, Pride/Desire/etc). It’s a well-established fact that being a mage is a dangerous, dangerous thing to be. People so distrust magery that all children showing signs of magical ability are sent to the Circle of Magi, both trained and confined, in order to protect the public. “Apostates” who operate outside of the Circle are at best criminal and at worst demonic.

Oh!

Oh no, don’t be worried.

Not you. You don’t have to deal with any of that. That’s all the stuff they say about the game world. When you play, you’ll be able to comfortably field 3 Mages at a time if you want. No one will look askance at you or your mage companions. Magic items and artifacts and even mage-specific wares will be plentiful and sold in stores. Neither you nor your companions ever need worry about demons doing shit about shit to you. You can use the Forbidden Arts just fine and completely without consequence. It’s not even a story point, you just drop a Specialization Point into “Blood Magic”. Your experience as Mage Hawke will be in no way shape or form different from your experience as Rogue or Warrior Hawke in any way!

I think this was probably my biggest disappointment with the game.

Bioware has created, within the restrictions of Medieval Fantasy World, a pretty interesting place. I love the way they’ve created a world where there’s an understandable simmering conflict between security and the basic rights of sentient beings. It’s all very well-considered. In the writing. In the actual game that I played, it’s not just ill-considered, it isn’t considered at all. Nothing proceeds as it would if I were a Mage in Kirkwall. No one reports me, ever. I never deal with the Circle, ever. I don’t meet Templar until I’m the Champion of Kirkwall. No one I interact with can tell I’m a mage, despite seeing me unleash magic just then to kill some mobs. I had around 5 or 6 conversation options all game that allowed me to reference the fact that I was a mage, usually followed by responses that refused to acknowledge the fact. (My favorite: “Hey! I’m a Mage!” “Yes, but you need to understand that Mages aren’t people like you and me.”).

I know I’m a big old dork-pants, I know that. But a big part of the fun of an RPG for me is that I get to play a defined role that appeals to me. It can be a complicated endeavor involving lots of dialogue trees and branching quest options, or it can be very simple but effective. Mass Effect, a much simpler series in terms of dialogue that focuses more (particularly in the sequel) on combat, did a pretty effective job simply by giving me the option to be a dick. Oh I was a massive, hilarious jerk. I was an ugly cuss with a mean streak out to save the world and hurt my teammate’s feelings. It wasn’t deep but I felt like I was able to play a character of my own choosing within the restricted range they gave me to play with. I specifically was not a nice Shepard, and a nice Shepard played in a different context than I did.

In Dragon Age 2, they never actually gave me the opportunity to be who I was trying to be. The character of Hawke is so vaguely defined and bereft of custom responses that I ended up mostly sounding like Snarky Bystander.

The weird part is, Dragon Age: Origins did a great job with this aspect of the game in my opinion. I had a lovely experience playing as a principled and hard-bitten Dwarf Commoner. I had joined the Grey Wardens less out of a sense of duty than as a chance to escape. Thrust into command by chance, I took it as an opportunity to assert my will on the world in ways I was never able to as a member of the underclass, never forgetting that it was my duty to make things right rather than abuse my power. Certain aspects of conventional human morality escaped me, and I was sometimes unable to understand that pragmatism didn’t always apply when the situation was outside of my cultural and social context. I had enemies back home and I got one over on them. I got to see beyond the obvious due to my deeper knowledge of Dwarven society and use that understanding to manipulate the political process of the Dwarves in such a way as to create a more egalitarian society. I made hard decisions that I thought were necessary. I kept things professional with my co-adventurers out of a deep mistrust of anyone who wasn’t with me purely for the coin. My party members and I clashed at times, but usually in ways I could understand and appreciate. I had a sweet dog.

In short, I played a role. And you know am a big nerd.

In Dragon Age 2, I was pretty jokey. And I guess at the end I chose to stand with the Mages? They forced me to choose one or the other side, and then I killed both of them anyway because there was a bossfight that is exactly the same if you choose Templar. I did also have a sweet dog, though. Although he was useless in fights. Every conversation was basically [Mages] or [notMages]. I played little part in securing my family’s fortune, as it was preordained by the game that events would transpire as they did. I suppose I managed to save my brother? They did do a few decent bits where your brother or sister is saved/killed based on some of your actions, but there’s a severe paucity of interaction with them after the events, presumably because they didn’t want to waste resources on a character who might be dead.

Dance battles figure more heavily than previews would have you believe.

The Combat:

I get where they were going with it. The easiest way to see the difference is to look at a mage. They look badass in Dragon Age 2. All flipping and spinning their staffs and shattering the earth with their power and suchlike. But that sound and fury signifies some pretty boring shit. The combat system has been streamlined in small but significant ways (talent trees are smaller, spells/skills have shorter cooldowns, Mages are decent ranged attackers), but the most important change was really the idea of what a fight is supposed to be.

Fights, all fights every fight time, proceed like this: a group composed of approximately 50/50 ranged/melee mobs rushes into attack range. You use every skill and spell you have, and then another wave comes and you use every skill and spell you have, and then… repeat X times where X is 3-7 based on fight difficulty and location. Most literally teleport in from nowhere, completely eliminating any sort of positioning tactics because well, your careful positioning of ranged characters out of the melee melee won’t do a damn bit of difference when Wave 2 drops straight onto their skulls from the Enterprise. Tactics generally boil down to basic MMO mechanics. You use a tank for aggro, a mage to buff, and a rogue to deal single-target DPS. This sort of thing gets way more boring when it’s just you directing the action, and the skills are stripped down to a bare minimum.

For all the jazzing up of basic combat animations, the combat just doesn’t ever become interesting. It’s not just that assets got reused on the locations, either. Almost all fights pull from the same small basic stock of characters, with slightly different skins. The difference between a Dwarven Assassin, a Carta Assassin, an Invisible Sister, a Shadow Warrior, an Assassin and a Templar Hunter? Nothing. Not a god damn thing. By completely abandoning the idea that the people you’re fighting are anything like you, they remove the possibility of making you feel like you’re dealing with people. Rather than being a matter of a well-equipped group of clever bastards managing to overcome a superior foe you’re just a group gunning down mobs that trigger when you get close enough. There’s not even a casual attempt to make it seem as though anyone you’re fighting is doing anything but being triggered by some very simple across-the-board tactic settings. All Mages use the same spells in the same manner at the same time in all fights. Bosses aren’t stronger or better equipped or cleverer, they simply have high health and one or maybe two Super Attacks.

The fact that fights involve waves just makes it even less interesting, as it’s not even “you run into a clearing where they’ve boxed you in and placed archers on the high ground” or “you’ve caught them off guard, and assassinating their rearguard sentry has allowed you to get the drop on them” so much as it is “they’ve surrounded you! and done it again! and again! and… seriously we can go on like this”. You may as well fight a series of increasingly large health bars for all the actual differentiation between killing various random mobs in the same frigging location.

Gear is equally boring, with the same issue of disconnecting you from the world. You find gallons of gear, spilling out of every nook and cranny of the game world. Unfortunately, it’s useless. All of it. In my travels, I think I equipped a total of 25-30 pieces of gear on my four characters, most of them quest rewards. That might sound like a reasonable amount, but you get hundreds of individual pieces, each completely and totally uninteresting. The majority of the armor you find is unwearable due to class restrictions, and your party members can’t equip it because I guess they wanted to keep them unique-looking. That means a good third of the equipment you find is trash. Then you get dozens and dozens of “Rings”, “Belts”, “Gloves” and other completely vanilla items that provide benefits so mundane they might as well not be included. A +34 attack ring? Wow, that makes my +33 attack ring and my +32 attack ring look like yaaaaaaawwwwwwn. The determination to make every area a treasure trove makes all items equally mundane. Anyone who played Mass Effect 1 knows how infuriating it can be to slowly come to despise new copies of the same boring equipment dropping during every fight. Gear also bears little to no relation to the actual things you do. Aside from a few drops from bosses, enemies and the environment appear equally likely to drop all manner of useless bullshit.

And that’s not even mentioning the inclusion of actual labeled “Trash” in your inventory. I honestly would have preferred if they’d taken the inventory system out, like Mass Effect 2.

So in conclusion, Dragon Age 2 sure was a game. I’m not certain if anything it did was actually an improvement on Dragon Age Origins. I mean, it’s not a bad game. But it was pretty substantially disappointing in really infuriating ways that should have been foreseeable. In their attempt to grab a wider audience’s interest, Bioware threw out the baby with the bathwater and then also shot the baby. It’s a step back for Bioware, which is disappointing to see coming off of them making amazing design improvements in Mass Effect 2.

2 Comments »

  1. Ditto. Dragon Age 3 has it’s work cut out for it to fix this series.

    “… Wave 2 drops straight onto their skulls from the Enterprise.”

    ROFL

    Comment by Archytus — March 31, 2011 @ 10:45 am

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