I’ve read a number of reviews on Bioware’s latest epic RPG Dragon Age 2 lately, and thought I’d throw my two cents in as well. Overall, the reviews have been glowing, there has been much lauding the tighter graphics, amped up action and the fully-voiced dialog. Reading these early reviews got me amped up to jump in and start playing as soon as I picked up my pre-order—although I didn’t since I am an adult and skipping work to play video games would be foolish. As a warm up to Dragon Age 2 (DA2) I spent February playing some of the additional content that’s available for Dragon Age: Origins, as well as playing the demo that is available for DA2. Suffice it to say I was primed and ready to go.
As a veteran to Bioware games I knew what to expect as far as character creation goes—a ridiculous number of knobs and levers to pull, creating a character that is approximately a more ruggedly handsome version of myself. So with that, I chose my character class—dual wielding rouge—and went on my merry way, slicing a bloody path out of the ruins of Lothering. It didn’t take long for me to notice a few differences that initially frustrated me, but ultimately either made no difference, or ultimately made the gameplay smoother.
One being the remapped start/select buttons. In Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) the start button brought up the standard menu screen—save, preferences etc.—and the select button brought up the character menu—map, journal, inventory, and stats. In DA2 the select menu only brings up a map of your current area, while the start button brings up a mash of the character and gameplay menu. Having just come off of DA:O this really screwed me up for the first few hours—the part of any RPG where you’re leveling up quickly and constantly swapping out gear. Like I said, frustrating, but not debilitating.
Leveling up and swapping gear is when I noticed that you can’t change your companions armor. At first I was a little “WTF,” but as I continue playing I found that I enjoyed not having to micro-manage everyone’s armor. You can still equip your companions’ weapons—which are now restricted by class—and stat-altering accessories including rings belts and amulets. Even though you can’t swap out companion armor sets, you can enhance their armor with runes, which is a lot more manageable than having your inventory bloated with random armor pieces to constantly sort through. Streamlining the armor also helps to maintain a consistent look for your companions throughout the game.
This also means you’re free to dump any armor that doesn’t fit your character class. There’s no need to hoard that awesome-looking Blood Dragon armor that was imported from DA:O because if you’re a rouge or mage because you’ll never wear it anyway. (a rouge could wear it if you bumped their strength, but there’s no point in doing this because better armor is quickly availbe)
The big new additions to Dragon Age 2 are enhanced graphics, fully-voiced dialog, and action-packed combat. Too bad this is where Dragon Age 2 tends to have it’s greatest drawbacks too. The graphics, while somewhat stylized, are leaps and bounds above anything in Dragon Age: Origins. Although, if you play the Dragon Age: Awakening expansion pack or any of the later DLC such as Witch Hunt you’ll notice a significant graphics enhancement from DA:O—on Xbox 360 at least. Anyway, the character models are smoother, the textures are more detailed, and the character races actually look unique—dwarves are no longer gorillas in people costumes. And the visual effects are hella-tight, chock full of dynamic lighting.
Despite the graphic enhancement, DA2’s environments are terribly repetitive. In between primary plot quests you spend a lot of time running from one end of a Kirkwall neighborhood to another trying to tick off a litany of fetch-quests. These areas—Lowtown, Hightown, The Gallows, etc— while somewhat unique from each other, suffer from suburb-syndrome. The streets are windy, all the buildings look the same, and you will get frustratingly lost if you spend more time watching the action than the tiny “your are here” map at the top of the screen. Even then, this little map takes some getting used to.
Then there’s the fact that DA2 reuses scenery like it was built by a high school drama department. From what I can tell, every sub-quest interior is reused at least twice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been through that same damn warehouse from a different entrance. What really chafes my tits is that Bioware didn’t even bother to texture over doors that aren’t being used, the doors still appear on screen, and they’ll even show up on your map, but are simply unusable. Which is frustrating because you end up playing “which door do I use” to find your way through some areas.
The fully-voiced dialog is a nice touch. I didn’t notice much during my initial play through of Origins, but during my most recent play sessions the dead mute silence of my character was really odd, especially during the supposedly emotion-filled scene at the end of Witch Hunt. So, yeah these new emotions are a welcome change of pace in DA2. The dialog options are also improved upon in DA2, depending on how your carry the conversation you’ll get more diverse options including letting companions speak, or shaking an NPC down for extra coin—which is usually frowned upon by your companions. You do have to be careful though, the enhanced dialog can take unexpected turns. For instance, I inadvertently started down some romantic chit-chat with Anders and he was pissed when I had to let him down gently.
Unfortunately, the more engrossing dialog structure and voice acting didn’t come with a more engaging story line. Aside from getting the heck out of Lothering, there is really very little to motivate you to become the Champion of Kirkwall. Sure there’s a war brewing between mages and Templars, and there’s Qunari—who have sprouted giant horns since DA:O—camping out in the docks, ready to put the smack down on the Free Marches, but in the time I’ve been playing there’s been no compelling reason to choose one side over the other. And there in lies the problem for me, the story is too full of gray. I like the power of choice, but when both sides of the conflict prove themselves to be dicks I’m more inclined to stand back and let them fight it out themselves.On top of this, events that are supposed to be all emotionally charged tend to fall flat. I mean, sure it sucks that your sibling gets smooshed by an ogre, but they are such a minimal part of the story at that point that you’re mother’s constant blathering about it gets old quickly. Between your lady-tank Aveline who’s a bore, and the sparkly emo elf Fenris who has a tortured past but is a prig, even your companions can wear thin after a while. It’s things like this that leave the player straining to become as immersed in the story as Bioware would like. Which is a shame, because immersive worlds and engrossing stories have been Bioware’s bread and butter for a long time.
The new and improve combat is one of my favorite parts of Dragon Age 2, I love that it’s more visceral, that you have to think on your toes and be tactful about how you approach a beat down. This is a dramatic improvement over Origins, where with proper planning you could set your controller down and watch the fight go down like a poorly choreographed stage play… and still come out on the winning end. While it’s taken some getting used to, I also appreciate the more refined skill tree which makes it easier to fine-tune your character class.
Like almost everything here, there is a flip-side to the combat that has been annoying the crap out of me, and that is the imbalanced gameplay. Having played through Origins, and having a firm grasp on the idea of battle tactics and stacking attacks for optimal results I felt confident starting out with the difficulty setting on Hard. For the most part, encounters are not overly taxing on Hard, with a little bit of strategery you can come out of most fights a health poultice short but relatively unscathed, at worst you might have one or two dead companions. That is until you hit a boss battle. Then the table not only turns, but gets kicked completely over and the little computer-generated DM takes a giant shit on your head.
This isn’t merely a case of hitting a high level quest out of order and paying for your transgression in pixelated blood. This happens during nearly every boss battle, including your very first boss encounter against that Hawke-smooshing son-of-a-bitch ogre. After trying and failing to bring the pain a couple times I got a little prompt during the loading screen that said something to the effect of, “Y’know, if you’re too big of a pussy to beat this guy you could always knock the difficulty down to normal.” And so being fully immasculated, I tucked in my junk, turned down the difficulty, and proceeded to put the hurt on that S.O.B.
After that I left the difficulty on Normal and quickly found that mid-quest encounters on this difficulty are insultingly easy. So, naturally I bumped it back up to Hard… That is until the next boss battle where I got my ass handed to me again. And so, I have fallen into a cycle of constantly switching from Hard to Normal and back to Hard over and over just to get through the game. I’ve even developed a rule that if I get creamed three times without even coming close to getting past the encounter I’ll switch it to Normal, just so I don’t feel like a total wussy. I’ve never played a game that I had to worry about fiddling with the difficulty setting like this before, and it’s frustrating to say the least.
So, I’ve had time to ponder why these boss encounters are so damn difficult while waiting for the last save to load, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what it is. Aside from the overwhelming swarms of reinforcements that the bosses get during the encounter and the occasional one-hit and you’re out moves that they’ll throw your way, the biggest issue I have is the health poultice cool-down time. I understand the need for a cool-down period, it keeps the game from being a cakewalk, but if a guy can’t focus on what he’s doing because he’s constantly checking for when he can use another poultice, there’s an issue. It’s like Hawke and company signed themselves up for the crappiest HMO plan in the Free Marches, and the player is being punished for it. Of course there’s probably some tactics-tuning that I need to do that will help alleviate some of this, but the issue still points out how imbalanced the boss encounters are to the rest the battles.
Actually, that is probably the best way to sum up Dragon Age 2, imbalanced. Bioware brought a lot of great new elements to the table with DA2, but all the bells and whistles lose their luster in the face of all of the game’s faults. With Dragon Age 2 coming out so soon after Origins you get the feeling that Bioware should have left this one in the oven until it was done. In spite of this, Bioware still produces some of the best computer rpg titles out there, while constantly pushing the boundaries of the genre, and for this I am still excited to finishing Dragon Age 2.
All images obtained from Bioware.