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Saturday, 16 April 2011

Dragon Age 2 review; better later than never.

First things first, I feel I should admit that, although I have played, and own, Dragon Age: Origins, I merely scratched the surface of the game. This was not down to a personal distaste for the game, but rather my aging laptop’s refusal to run it at over 10 FPS even on the lowest settings. In fact, I probably spent more time scouring the internet for solutions, and pleading with my puny in-built graphics card than exploring the world of Ferelden. However, that’s an (admittedly boring) story for another day.

Now, the reason I’m continuing to blather on about Dragon Age: Origins, whilst it is patently obvious this is a Dragon Age 2 review, is that I find it to be a particularly interesting counterpoint to what Bioware have served up for us this time. Even as I stuttered, lagged and cursed my way through Origins, I felt twinges of the Bioware RPGs of old; Baldur’s Gate 2 particularly springing to mind. It was a classic RPG setup; you were able to create a character from scratch, you had a fully controllable party (albeit with the new Tactics system); the battles, even at the early stages of the game, were challenging, requiring repeat attempts and different strategies, and, most importantly, there was an epic grandeur to your character‘s plight. All very satisfying.

In contrast, during my smooth cruise through DA2 I couldn’t help but wonder what Bioware was aiming for. Your choice of character is limited to three main archetypes (warrior, rogue, and mage) and, rather than being placed in an omnipotent position aloft your party member’s heads, you are plonked directly behind your chosen avatar. ‘Excuse me, good sir‘, I hear you proclaim, ‘if I may be so bold, may I point out that we are able to switch betwixt our allies with the facile nudge of a button‘. ‘Ah well‘, I riposte courteously, ‘I hesitate to suggest you may have missed my point, old chum‘. My quarrel with this design choice is not that you’re fettered constantly to your chosen character, it is that the camera angle you’re chained to, irreversibly transforms the game from the deep, engaging RPG is could have been, into an action-RPG at best, and a glorified hack’n’slash at worst.

You'll be seeing plenty of these fellas during your jaunt through Ferelden.

Okay, I’m almost certainly exaggerating the limitations of the camera, you can of course whiz your viewpoint around panoramically to examine the field of battle, or choose your next target, comfortably, but that is not what I want to do. I want to be able to gaze upon the battle as a whole, from above; have the ability to pause the battle and issue a set of commands without having to traverse clunky radial menus, and then, if I feel inclined, zoom in and view the result of my choices at ground level. Perhaps I’m an RPG purist, or perhaps I’m unreasonably demanding too much from a game designed around 14 pushable buttons, but that either way the sense of disappointment prevails.

It may seem like I have nothing positive to say about DA2, but if I claimed to not have enjoyed the game, I would be lying. The writing is up to Bioware’s high standard, and I genuinely felt an attachment to my compatriots. Varric, the charismatic dwarven rogue, who earned a constant place in my party, is a shining example of Bioware’s ability to bestow a video-game character with, well, character. Of course, there are some duds; Fenris the apathetic, floppy-haired warrior who looks to have been inexplicably transported straight from a generic J-RPG is one of these. I can safely say he never graced my side in combat. 

Here's Fenris. See what I mean?

The story in DA2 is far less grand than in Origins; instead of saving Ferelden from the clutches of the Darkspawn, this time the narrative unfolds at a smaller, more personal, level. The game opens with your village destroyed by the Darkspawn (heard that one before, right?), and then plots your rise to notoriety, from lowly refugee to the city of Kirkwall, to its eventual Champion. Bioware  puts a spin on this, however, by revolving the action within the game around a series of cut scenes which show Varric being questioned by a sexy French Templar, who believes you are responsible for some bad juju that is occurring in the ‘present’

This device has its pros and cons. On the positive side, the fact you know that ‘all this has happened before’, so to speak, gives your actions within the game a sort of resonance; knowing that what you do is, in the ‘future’, being investigated for crimes unknown. Unfortunately, this positive can easily be viewed as a negative, because it telegraphs the fact that this is indeed a ‘filler’ game for the final instalment; the true action is yet to come. Make of it what you will, but I think, although the story suffers from a lack of grandeur, there is political intrigue, and your character’s rise to fame is a gratifying pay-off, you genuinely feel important… in the game world, of course.

The plot pivots around this scene; will Varric rat you out?

The advancement system within the game is also rather satisfying. When you, or a party member, levels up you receive attribute points to distribute, and one ability point, which you can spend within several skill webs, depending on the direction you see your character going. There are many different build possibilities, and I can see hardcore fans replaying the game, even with the same class, due to the scope of different possible play styles. I played through with a rogue, and created a classic glass-cannon  build which was a lot of fun to play, but was rather one-dimensional.

One-dimensionality is also the main issue when it comes to combat in DA2. Most of the time you’ll be fighting four or five different types of enemies throughout the game, and - whenever you think you’ve defeated the last one - another wave will inevitably stumble onto the battlefield, from nowhere, ready to be massacred. The only really challenging fights, and the only fights to require necessary changes in the Tactics menu, are boss fights; dragons in particular. The first time I stared a dragon down the snout in DA2 was a special moment, but after the fourth or fifth try, after modifying my tactics (and Tactics) each time, it became more a gruelling task of chiselling down its meaty health bar, than an epic brawl with a reptilian behemoth. 

Looks cool, right? It ain't so fun on your fifth try...

Bioware attempted to quantify your relationships with your companions with an friendship/rivalry scale, which I personally saw as a waste of good development time. It seemed almost impossible to create a rivalry with one of your companions, unless you intentionally sought to piss one of them off. You can do this by choosing dialogue options that will ruffle the ideological feathers a particular party member, but, unless you’ve made the conscious decision to roleplay as a sociopath, it seems very difficult to get somebody to hate you. The only way to seriously damage a relationship with a companion is to decline a personal quest, which I see as a rather poor mechanic. I would have thought most players would want to experience the content they paid good money for.

The companion quests themselves are a mixed bag, but there are a few gems to be found. There is one in particular in which you assist one of your less silver-tongued pals in seducing a colleague, which provided a few genuinely funny moments, but at the same time added a layer of complexity to a character that I would have never expected to see in that particular light.

The quality of the numerous side-quests thrust at you during you adventures through Ferelden is comparable to the companion quests, there are the good, the bad, and the downright rubbish. The problem with many of the quests is their persistent predictability; before you even enter the hideout of a supposed child-molesting, cannibalistic, xenophobe (not an actual example), you know that there will be a heartbreaking reason, or misunderstanding that will explain the offender’s actions, and you will be given the decision to let him go, or kill him outright. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and some of the decisions you have to make are genuine moral dilemmas, but generally this is not the case. The constant recycling of environments is another issue I have with this department of the game. You will visit the same decrepit mining tunnel, lava filled dungeon, and generic mysterious cave multiple times throughout your adventure, which does a really good job at breaking immersion.

Overall, Dragon Age 2 is a solid game, better than solid actually, it is a good game, but it could have been more. It almost seems as if Bioware (probably under EA’s instruction), have seen their other trilogy, Mass Effect, currently relishing in popularity, and have consequently compromised the RPG aspects of the Dragon Age series in order to appeal to this market, which - to me - is very disappointing. I don’t think anybody asked for a fantasy Mass Effect, did they? Well, maybe they did, but I sure as hell wasn’t one of ‘em.


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