REVIEW: Dragon Age 2

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just gonna go ahead and say it:

Dragon Age 2 is the most disappointing thing I’ve played in a long time.

If you’ve been at least nominally cognizant of the discussions about this game going on across the internet over the last few weeks then you’re likely well-acquainted with the skepticism, complaints, and outright rage that has been directed towards BioWare’s recent sequel to Dragon Age: Origins. And while I certainly wasn’t pleased with the final product either, I’m going to try to present as balanced a review as I can to offset the paid magazine columnists and the nerd berserkers that have been waging guerrilla warfare against the game over on Metacritic.

Let’s start with the good, since it will probably be a shorter list than the bad and will keep me from spiraling into rambling anger right off the bat.

First of all, the game is greatly improved graphically. Those of you who played Origins will remember how… sub-par a great many of the visuals were. Textures were grainy, object clipping was abundant, and most environments suffered from that single color palette syndrome we’ve seen so much of in recent years. Dragon Age 2 fixes a great many of these problems. Character models and environments are more stylized this time around, textures are crisper (though admittedly not by much) and the game appears to have more vibrant colors that are more varied throughout the game world. And as an added bonus, we also get drastically reduced load times compared to Origins. From a technical standpoint, the game is improved on just about every level.

The audio is also fantastic, as is usual for BioWare. The soundtrack, composed by Inon Zur, is wonderfully put together and is implemented perfectly. The music varies from dark and foreboding to inspiring to downright touching. You’ll get a few instances where the background music seems to swell a little too loudly while you’re in conversation but for the most part the sound is spot on. Voicework is also phenomenal. The elves have been completely re-worked to have Irish accents in order to make them feel like a more distinct culture, though the Dwarves still maintain their American accents from the first game. The dialogue is as good as ever, managing to pull off the fantasy vibe without feeling like a walk down stereotype lane, which is no easy task. At the very least, we can say that this game sounds excellent.

Sadly, that’s about the only thing I can praise with complete enthusiasm. Everything else is a mix of “didn’t care for it much” and “outright bad”.

First of all, there’s the combat system. Out of all the grousing you may have heard about the game, this is probably the single biggest point of contention. While Origins used an older-style real time tactical system which had a heavy emphasis on pausing battle to line up attacks and spells, Dragon Age 2 uses a more direct, action-oriented system more akin to Dynasty Warriors than Baldur’s Gate. Some people loved it, and some people hated it. I’m pretty much torn.

See, I played Origins initially on the Xbox 360, and the combat interface there was… unfriendly, to put it mildly. Using an over-the-shoulder view to play a game that was intended for a rotating isometric camera view can be a hair-pullingly frustrating venture. I later purchased the game for my PC (yes, I owned two copies of the same game at one point), and while my pathetic graphics card did not always like to cooperate with some of the higher-energy segments, the interface was far and away an improved experience. Combat balancing was still an issue, but hey, I could actually survey the battlefield now.

Dragon Age 2 acknowledged the problems the game had on consoles and so was tailored a bit more favorably towards those who prefer an ergonomic controller over a keyboard. This is what created the more reactive combat environment of the game, spawning the idea of “press a button and something awesome happens” as touted by the lead designer Mike Laidlaw. In a lot of ways this rocks. Your characters move faster and you don’t have to wait for them to awkwardly shuffle into position before they can start attacking. Characters no longer take damage if they disengage a target a microsecond after the enemy began their “I’m going to hit you” animation, which is an incredibly welcome improvement for me (nothing sucks more than being 20 feet away from an enemy and still taking damage from their melee attack just because their animation for it started five seconds ago when you were still right next to them). You also feel like a slightly more active participant in battles, as you’re sometimes literally leaping sword-first into crowds of enemies.

But then after you’ve played the game for a while this starts to get old. While in Origins you were always surveying the entirety of the battlefield trying to best figure out where to have your mage place a cone of cold so your rogue doesn’t get ganked by that Arcane Horror that’s been harassing her, in Dragon Age 2 you come to the conclusion that you’re simply pressing the A button… a lot. Yes, you’ve got more abilities that you can break out every once in a while and you can still order your companions to deliver certain attacks, but at the end of the day you often feel like you’re just spamming the basic attack button over and over again.

Also lending to the idea that your game is now less tactical is the fact that enemies now spawn apparently from right out of the damn void every time you turn your back. Origins generally allowed you to see all of your enemy combatants at the outset of a skirmish, meaning that you could position your long-range characters just so to best set up a proper kill zone while still keeping them safe. You can’t really do that this time around because as you continue to kill enemies more will show up to take their place. More often than not these enemies will spawn behind you and before you know it, your vulnerable elven spellcaster has three giant spiders and a walking corpse slashing at her fragile, unarmored body until her minimal amount of hitpoints disappear faster than a sorority girl’s self-respect at a frat party.

This is not a fun game mechanic.

When enemies literally start falling out of the sky (I know it’s supposed to look like they’re jumping down from rooftops but I’m on a rant here so just go with it) and slashing apart your squishy companions who you attempted to place at a safe distance it just starts to feel like the game hates you.

“Oh, you think you’ve won, have you?” it says to you with a malicious cackle. “I think not, fair player. Behold! A dozen bandits have spawned behind you and your rogue now has a broadsword where their liver used to be.”

Other altered gameplay features include the revamped inventory, which I’ll give credit for not going the Mass Effect 2 route and basically stripping it out entirely, but still feels like an unnecessary “streamlining” of a feature that worked perfectly well before. You’ll still find weapons, armor, and items same as you did in Origins, but now every piece of equipment comes with a “star” rating, supposedly informing the player of which armor sets and weapons are better suited for their level. This basically takes all the thought out of equipping your character. Whereas before you would have to compare weapon stats to optimize your loadout, now you can just look at the star rating. If that axe has five stars and that sword only has four? Use the axe. Apparently BioWare thought we somehow became too stupid to interpret numbers. Thanks guys. Big vote of confidence there.

Of course it didn’t even manage to get that incredibly stupid feature right. Sometimes the star rating for an item will simply be blatantly wrong. A ring slot item that gives you +4% fire damage is not under any circumstances better than one that gives you +4% fire, nature, and spirit damage. But the game thinks that it is. It’s almost as if the game implements this system to counteract our supposed idiocy when it comes to simple mathematics… and then punishes you for using said system.

Oh, and another lovely “addition” to the inventory system is your complete inability to swap out your companion’s armor (or in your dwarven rogue’s case even their weapon). Found some sweet mage robes that you want to give to your healer? Nope. A set of fire resistant heavy plate that you’d like to give to your tank so she’s better suited to taking on that dragon? Nuh-uh. Now, you can marginally improve companion’s armor by finding small upgrades scattered throughout the game world, at shops, or through plot points. But there are only about five of them per character, and only one will alter their appearance in any way. I suppose this was supposed to help create a more “set” character design for each of your companions but I miss tweaking my party for certain combat environments, or for simple bad-assery (Oghren in the Legion of the Dead plate armor anyone?) and I never felt as if simply giving a character a different pair of pants detracted from their established character in any way, but apparently the folks at BioWare disagree with me.

So after all of that, we figure that we can at least take refuge in the story: the one thing BioWare games have always managed to do right. Remember a while back when I wrote that super-pretentious post about the place of the epic in video games, and how Dragon Age pretty much nailed it in every way?

Yeah, don’t expect that here.

Dragon Age: Origins had you deeply embroiled in a story that was admittedly clichéd (save the world from an ancient evil) but was so marvelously presented that you didn’t care. No, scratch that: you didn’t simply “not care” but rather you embraced its classical structure for what it was and loved it all the more. You traveled the vast reaches of Ferelden, gathered allies, faced impossible foes, forged iron-clad relationships, and defeated the Blight. There was a sense of real accomplishment there. For amidst the somewhat fatalistic backdrop (the Blight will happen again and more people will die in droves until the Old Gods of Tevinter are all slain) you knew that there was hope: these enemies could be defeated. They had been before, and they would be again until the threat of the Blight was gone forever and Thedas could perhaps reach some semblance of security, safe from the Darkspawn hordes.

Dragon Age 2 is a framed narrative: imagine the Princess Bride where the actual person telling the story exists in-universe. The tale of Hawke (that’s you) is related to Cassandra, a Seeker of the Chantry (basically like a super-powerful, military intelligence branch of Dragon Age’s version of the Catholic Church) by one of your former companions, a suave dwarf by the name of Varric. This creates an interesting narrative structure in that sometimes Varric will… exaggerate certain parts of the story. Cassandra will occasionally call Varric out on these sensationalized tidbits or will ask questions about certain key decisions you make during the course of the game, bringing your focus back to the storytellers and how the tale of Hawke relates to them in the present.

The story begins with you as a refugee of Ferelden, fleeing the very Blight that you faced as the Warden in the first game. Your only aspirations: to find a new home for your family and maybe stop people from kickin’ you around all the time. The first act consists mostly of this. You spend your time simply trying to gain a foothold in the city of Kirkwall (hope you like it: you won’t be going anywhere else the entire game). Things at this point feel basically like a series of fetch quests. You go someplace, you find/kill something of little to no consequence, you take it back to the quest giver and he gives you a shiny gold sovereign and a chunk of XP. Lather, rinse, repeat. This trend sadly isn’t limited solely to the first act. The rest of the game will see you doing basically the same thing. I honestly can’t remember the point of about half the missions I did in this game. It feels kind of like Grand Theft Auto in that you’re just carrying out simple tasks for people with only a vague (and somewhat selfish) end goal in mind.

There are exceptions to this, of course: a few gems that stand out here and there. For example, in Act 2 we get to have a lot of interaction with the Qunari, who I found incredibly interesting based on the limited exposure I had to them in Origins. An understanding of the rigid Qunari mindset is necessary to interact with these guys even marginally successfully, and that slim understanding that you do have ensures that each conversation with them will be… an educational experience, shall we say. The overarching thematic conflict is also quite good, and feels like a loyal continuation from the issues we encountered in Origins. Basically, the Templars and the mages in the city of Kirkwall are at each other’s throats. The Templars are often seen as being prejudiced and oppressive towards the mages, while the mages (and this may require a bit more intuition on the players part) are genuinely dangerous, therefore at least partly validating the Templar’s (and everyone else’s) mistrust of them. This contrast of chaotic danger and abuse of control is one of the more striking examples of grey vs. grey morality that we saw in the first game, and is what will occupy a great portion of your time and attention throughout the course of this game, especially in Act 3 where the excrement well and truly impacts the oscillating cooling unit.

Of course by the time you get to Act 3 you’ll likely be wondering how you got there. You started off as a refugee, regarded as being below even the lowest class in Kirkwall. Then you did some random fetch quests. Then you got sorta famous and then you got even more famous and then… the climax happens? I guess? There doesn’t seem to be any real driving force to the narrative. In Origins, you knew exactly what you had to do: stop the Blight. Here, you have no such goal. You’re just kinda strung along for all these disjointed adventures and so by the time you finish the game you don’t really feel like you’ve accomplished anything. It’s a very empty feeling after the exuberance that came with defeating the Archdemon and y’know… saving the freaking world.

But hey, Mass Effect 2 had this problem, right? That game had a horrible plot and suffered from a similarly stripped inventory system, but still managed to be great. It did this on the strength of its characters. Sure, the plot had more railroad tracks than Grand Central Station, but hey: we got Mordin Solus out of it so I’d call it a wash. So perhaps Dragon Age 2 could similarly mend our broken dreams with some truly fantastic characters, the likes of which BioWare has given us before.

I think you’ve spotted the trend at this point. All together now:

This is probably the first BioWare game where I haven’t completely loved at least one character. Knights of the Old Republic had Jolee Bindo, Mass Effect had Wrex and Ashley Williams (that’s right internet, I actually like Ash: deal with it), Dragon Age had Sten and Morrigan. Dragon Age 2 has… a few characters that you don’t care about nearly as much. Ultimately, I don’t think this is a problem with how the characters are written. It’s obvious that there’s something there to make pretty much every character truly likeable (except for Anders, who has become a bit of an extremist jackass since we saw him in Awakening). No, the problem here lies in how the game structures your interactions with them. You can’t talk to them in the open world, only in their respective “home base” environments, and even then only when the plot allows you to. Try to talk to somebody when they don’t have a quest marker above their head, and all you’ll get is a canned sound bite that you can’t respond to. Compare this to being able to talk to your companions whenever you liked in Origins, with dozens of branching conversation trees and thousands of lines of dialogue which helped you to really understand the character. To this day, I haven’t met a character (or a real person for that matter) that I felt I had a relationship of “grudging respect” with more than Sten. And Morrigan has probably the single best example of emotionally torn motives in video games. Comparing these interactions to the minimalistic banter you are allowed to partake in within Dragon Age 2 is… depressing.

Finally, one of the major aspects that is touted in all of BioWare’s RPGs, the concept of choice, is equally diminished. Ultimately, it feels like your actions have no impact on the story whatsoever, adding to the disheartening feeling that you are simply along for the ride and not a real driving force for the plot. Your final (and artificially binary) choice in the game’s finale doesn’t appear to have any real impact other than what enemy types you’ll be fighting; the boss characters (one of which is simply a recycled model from an Origins DLC module, by the way) are the same and the results of the battle remain unchanged. And keep in mind that this is probably the single biggest choice in the entire game. And it does nothing. How do you think the rest of your decisions played out?

The only real discernable areas where you actions carry any weight is in regards to your companions. Choosing to help the chantry with a job will likely piss off your bordering-on-jihadist-douchebag mage companion, who thinks the Chantry is to blame for… well, everything. Similarly, aiding apostate mages in their schemes to escape the Templars generally won’t sit well with your guard captain companion, who sees this as disrupting the rule of law. Taking actions that your companions agree or disagree with will earn you friendship and rivalry points, respectively.

Of course, the game even manages to screw that up pretty good since even characters who have a full rivalry score will stay with you through their crisis points where they would normally leave the party. Remember back in the days of Baldur’s Gate where doing stuff your allies didn’t like would cause those crisis points? Hell, if your levels of righteousness fell below a certain level (or above a certain level if you’re doing the evil party thing) they’d turn on you right then and there. But this game somehow reasons that pissing your companions off enough will cause them to stick around.

Actions should have consequences. But the only consequences you feel in this game are the ones that the plot dictates you must experience.

There are a number of other issues that I could touch upon here, such as the unacceptably high number of quest-breaking bugs that crop up in the late game, the blatantly recycled environments, the lack of any real ending (probably so that it can be sold to us piecemeal as DLC), and the horrible distribution process enacted by EA. But if you’re really that interested you can just take a look at the BioWare forums: all I’ve talked about and more is debated nigh-endlessly over there, though sometimes a little more… vehemently than might be logical.

Dragon Age 2 is not truly a horrible game, as it may sound like I am suggesting here. In truth it’s significantly better than most games out there on the market. The problem is that it has the Dragon Age name attached to it. While most of the lore remains intact, this is simply not Dragon Age as we know it. Had it been shipped under another name, then I probably would have loved it. But it needs to stand not alone, but as part of a franchise: a franchise which was declared to be “the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate”.

This is not that game. It is instead a rush job; likely forced out too quickly by the folks at EA who demanded that a sequel to their newly acquired IP be shipped as soon as possible, presumably so they can force out another sequel shortly thereafter and keep milking us for all we’re worth. It doesn’t help that most of Bioware’s writing staff is likely dedicated to other projects at the moment. With Mass Effect 3 announced for sometime next year and The Old Republic MMO (a massive project that could make or break the company) slated for launch this summer, it’s understandable that significantly less effort went into this game than did its predecessor, which had a production time of almost five years.

That said, these justifications don’t truly wash away the bitter sense of disappointment this game left me with. I’m sure I’ll come back to play it again sometime in the future, but until then I’ll just take solace in the fact that I’ll always have Origins. If you need me, I think I’ll be back in Ferelden. Maybe I’ll roll an archer this time…

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