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Dragon Age 2: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

I was a fan of the first Dragon Age game.  The characters were memorable, the story and world gleamed with that Bioware quality they always put into such things, and the combat encouraged actual tactics.  However, the old school style of just choosing exactly what you want to say in conversations via big blocks of text left something to be desired, especially after Bioware’s OTHER nerdgasm, Mass Effect, used a fully voiced main character.    Dragon Age definitely has a place in my gaming heart though which made me very excited to for Dragon Age 2.  After playing the game, I found it difficult to truly decide if Dragon Age 2 was a great game or something slightly less.  Some of the character interactions and plot points are as incredible as anything Bioware has done to this point, but for every “woah!” moment there seems to be a “meh” to balance it out.  I enjoyed my 40 plus hours with game immensely, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it could have been better.

Meet Varric, he will be your narrator. In a wise move by Bioware he is also your most sarcastic and witty party member.

The first difference between Dragon Age 2 from Dragon Age 1 is seen right away in character creation.  No longer are you a nameless and voiceless hero of a race of your choosing.  Hawke is the main character of Dragon Age 2, and his is the only story you will witness.  This turns out to be a good thing though, as Hawke (male Hawke anyway, I have yet to play as female Hawke) is an interesting character armed with some very solid voice acting.  In fact the voice acting for this entire game is almost uniformly sterling.  A few minor characters sound a bit stiff but anyone who plays anything close to a major role in the game is “hey that’s pretty good” at worst.  Voice acting isn’t worth anything without interesting things to say and luckily the actual plot of Dragon Age 2 is just as memorable as the first and told in an interesting and unique way.  The game opens with a dwarf, quickly named as Varric, being captured and interrogated about his knowledge of “The Champion” (that’s Hawke, although why he’s called that you’re left to discover through playing.)  As Varric relates the tale, the whole game plays out as a flashback, which lends itself to some really interesting effects.  The biggest is how the story is structured, namely that the game is divided up into different time periods.  The game opens with Hawke arriving in the city of Kirkwall, detailing a series of events, then jumping ahead three years.  This happens multiple times, which gives the game some of its greatest strengths and also some glaring weaknesses.

On the good side, the passage of time allows for Kirkwall itself to change.  More importantly, it allows the people of Kirkwall to change as well.  It was immensely satisfying to come across a character I helped in the opening of the game and see how my actions changed them, given how in-game time it might be six years later.  Bioware did an excellent job of bringing back characters that were afterthoughts, leading to a more than few “no way it’s THAT guy!” moments.  The time break ups do a great job of making the world a place that evolves along with Hawke.  Now it would be nice if I felt like Bioware did this mechanic as a new way to present a story just because it can do awesome stuff like that.  I’m sure that’s partly true.  However I think a more realistic and sobering reason was probably involved as well.   The entire game takes place in and around the city of Kirkwall.  The actual locations Dragon Age 2 takes you too along the forty plus hour journey are remarkably few for an RPG.  The first “timeline” of the game this isn’t an issue.  The city itself has five or six different locations on its “world map” (think of a bigger version of how Denerim operated in Dragon Age 1).  These are quite large and varied in terms of look and design, which is all good at first.  Throw in an additional 15 or so areas of various sizes outside the city and Bioware was going down the right path.  The plot of the game deals very much with Kirkwall itself, so I understand the reason to have the whole game be in one place essentially.  However that became an excuse to explore the same areas OVER and OVER again.  By the third “timeline”, as I was running around the docks area of Kirkwall again, I realized I knew every nook and cranny of this place and would probably just find some items in different corners than last time around.  The city is big yes, the locations have a differing look yes, but neither holds up well enough to justify being the locations you will spend most of the game in.  Sadly, this problem extends even to the various (and to be fair to Bioware, still numerous) other smaller locations the game will send you too.  These locations will straight repeat themselves.  One of the games early missions has you fighting your way through a cave to come out the other side.  Prepare to see this EXACT same cave layout at least five more times throughout Dragon Age 2.  This goes for almost every location in the game.  In fact, this whole detail reminds me greatly of Mass Effect 1.  While the main story missions took you to exotic locales that were finely detailed and with their own unique style, the side missions involved running through the same three templates of cargo ships over and over.  Replace cargo ships with cave, camp, or mountain and you have Dragon Age 2.

Map of Kirkwall! Prepare to be spending some quality time with this screen.

I know this caused quite a stir even within Bioware.  I listened to a podcast recently in which Dragon Age 2 lead designer Mike Laidlaw was asked directly about the repeating environments issue.  I’m paraphrasing, but his point was that they had more quests and encounters than they did environments.  So in an excellent philosophical game question, do you start cutting quests so the environments are all unique?  Ideally neither happens, but Dragon Age 2 enjoyed a quick development cycle for an RPG of its length, coming out under two years apart from the first.  I’m not sure why Bioware felt the need to get the game out so fast, but spending some time to create some new locations for all the quests the game has to offer would have gone a long way.  I’m glad the developers chose to repeat environments instead of removing content, because Dragon Age 2 has some of the most compelling plot lines, both major and minor, of any game I’ve ever played.  I just wish the settings around those plots did them justice.

I won’t spoil any direct plot points, but if total surprise is your goal, avoid this paragraph.  The Qunari, newly redesigned to have horns and be much more physically intimidating, play a large role in the story and every glimpse into their society is fascinating.  Their presence in Kirkwall is small in numbers but a good chunk of the game revolves around the effect they’re having on the city.  Themes of racism, religion, fanaticism, and even terrorism are all touched upon in meaningful ways without being preachy or cheesy.  One quest in particular, dealing with a Qunari mage, is one of those video game “wow” moments that will stick with me.  Some of those same themes are explored via the relationship of the mages and templars.  Mages are controlled (essentially imprisoned) by the templars in the Dragon Age universe for their own protection, as all mages are possible targets for demon possession.  It’s a different take on the traditional fantasy genre that Dragon Age 1 explored as well and is used to great effect here.

The new look Qunari. Where the hell were Sten's horns in the first game? 😦

Much like how the dialogue system went the route of Mass Effect, so did two other major game systems; inventory and combat.  No longer are you able to equip every party member with different armor, that distinction falls only to Hawke.  All characters can equip weapons and accessories( rings/belts/amulets).  Hawke has slots for chestpiece, boots, gloves, and helmet just like in the first game while party members only have one piece of armor that stays with them throughout the game.  This armor piece can be upgraded and will evolve in looks as the game progresses but the lack of customization really hurts.  Mass Effect 2 did away with most of the inventory system and I felt that game was better for it.  This game suffers for it.  The entire system feels rushed because while Hawke is of course only able to use the armor of his class, (mage/rogue/warrior) the armor designed for the other types will show up as well.  I played as a rogue and was constantly annoyed that I would find mage robes with amazing stats and had nothing to do nothing but sell it.  Come on Bioware, if you are going to deny us the ability to equip our party members, have the game do the decent thing and not drop items that will be useless.  It ends up feeling like at one point the game would allow for fully customizable party members but it was later scrapped.

Only I wear the pants in this game! Seriously, I'm the only one that can equip pants.

Combat was also overhauled for Dragon Age 2, with better results than the inventory system.  The biggest difference is that no longer are basic attacks toggled on or off.  The A or X button on your controller will be getting quite the workout, in particular if like me you played the obscenely fast attacking rogue.  It actually reminded me of Blizzard’s Diablo with the constant clicking of the mouse to attack.  The result of all the button pressing is that I found myself issuing mid combat orders to my party members much less often than I did in the first Dragon Age.  This was off-putting at first but as all characters gain levels and abilities, combat begins to click.  This is helped by the expanded “tactics” slots, which are basically if then commands you can program characters to do.  The AI is better this time around too, with party members behaving in mostly appropriate ways to a given combat situation, provided you spend some time in the tactics screen.  I played the game controlling Hawke almost exclusively and letting my companions do their own thing.  I enjoyed it greatly, but I could see how fans of the first game would find the different feel distressing.  As my rogue would leap around the battlefield, able to teleport behind enemies to perform backstabs and slamming twin daggers into the chests of my foes so hard they would literally explode I found myself missing the slower combat of Dragon Age 1 less and less.

Dragon Age 2 had all the makings of a great game.  Visually it’s a definite upgrade over the first.  Bioware is so good at telling stories at this point it’s insane.  However, I can’t help but think a significant delay would have helped the experience a huge amount.  The rushed feeling of the inventory system and the lack of unique location assets really do stand out.  It’s disappointing because Bioware should have (and appeared too!) learn these lessons from the first game and Mass Effect 1.  My theory is that, for whatever reason, Bioware felt they *had* to get this game out quickly and were willing to cut a few corners to do it.  This is a high quality game that RPG fans will enjoy, especially fans of the first Dragon Age.  I hate to say I was let down by a game that was fun and engaging all the way through.  Knowing what Bioware is capable of makes it hard to not imagine what this game could have been.  As it stands, it’s a solid sequel absolutely worth playing.  But a game of the year it is not.

The amount of blood in this game is just as crazy as the first. Having long conversations with all parties involved being drenched in blood returns as well and it remains somewhat strange.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m almost 50 hours into the game right now and will probably finish it tonight or tomorrow night. It has been sucking all my free time this month. However, I agree that it’s not great, but merely damn good. My biggest complaint is, like your review said, the lack of locations. I’ve just dug through every little nook in Kirkwall three times now. It was redundant the second time. By the third time, if not for the strong characters, I would’ve turned off the game for good. I would’ve liked more Deep Roads, more forest, and another city or two. Maybe even just more major locations in Kirkwall that get unlocked in the newer phases.

    The reuse of caves by just putting a cookie-cutter block in the doorway was lame, too–they could’ve at least updated the map so that doorway wasn’t still on there. My last complaint is that I rarely felt challenged. The first Dragon Age had crazy hard battles that sapped my healing potions dry and left me scrambling. In DA2 there were maybe two fights where I was in serious trouble (so far).

    Still, DA2 is a Bioware game and it has that Bioware feel that we all love. Dropping a month of free time into this game is still time well spent. I just wish for more map and less mainstream “dumb down.”

  2. I agree 100 percent on the doors, really, this rock slab just magically slides up? Enjoyable for sure though. There had to have been a clandestine reason why this game had to be put out so fast right?

  3. I guess they wanted to beat the Summer Dead Season with this release (does such a thing even exist anymore).

    I beat the game last night. I was completely satisfied with my ending. There were a few buggy parts: a certain someone kidnapped a certain someone. Instead of beelining to the Wounded Coast to make the rescue, I stopped by my house to rune up. This certain someone was happily standing around inside my house like nothing happened and I could even select this certain someone for my party when I left the house. Lame. Anyway, the ending was awesome and I can’t wait for part 3!

  4. […] Dragon Age 2: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back (faceplantreview.wordpress.com) […]

  5. I agree, however I do not agree with their reuse of enviornments. This entire game was a let down besides the battle system and the graphics; both were exceptional. However, the characters were no where near as great as the characters on DA:O. How BioWare left out the process of building a relationship, and building your character’s fame plus their ability to use their cunning level to change the outcome of the dialog left me extremely disappointed. I almost prefer my mute character on DA:O to the talking Hawk; however it was nice to hear the way things were said. Over all I’d say this game was mediocre at best, and I won’t re-play it again unlike I have with many other RPGs.

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