Saturday, March 26, 2011

PC: Dragon Age 2 review

(For a more positive review see 10 Things I liked about Dragon Age 2)

I understand there is a certain kind of people who take great pleasure reading ”The Lord of the Rings” on an annual basis. And enjoy it every time.

My initial reaction to these people was one of shocked horror. I love LotR, don’t get me wrong, but I managed to get through the first book before wondering why I wasn’t just watching the movies again. However, I forged a strange, but understandable, link with these people and their overwhelming joy of being fully immersed in a fantastic universe on a yearly basis.
My fascination was digital and called Dragon Age: Origins. And from the first time I put my hands on it, I’ve been having a go at it every year. Some times taking two completions in a row.

Dragon Age Origins. Love it. Now.
This statement should give you some kind of idea about my expectations, once I heard about Dragon Age 2 being released, several months ago.  And frankly, why shouldn’t I be excited? Why should anyone who enjoyed the first game not be excited about an epic continuation of such a classical and yet brilliantly told fantasy story, which was an obvious catering to the old-school RPG-puritans?
I could fill out an entire blog with reasons why I adore Origins. True, it never really lived up to its claims about being dark and sinister but at least it made an attempt. Ironically, one might say, what ended up working so well for the game was its connections to some of the old RPG-virtues, while at the same time implementing some interesting twists. This is not a task easily done. I’ve seen my share of RPG-settings. I was in way back from Eye of the Beholder and walked through deserts of Shapeir, The Land of the Green Isles, the realm of Middle Earth, The prime material plane of Toril, The chaotic city of Sigil, the sad town Tristram… Azeroth, Hyboria, A galaxy far, far away with knights of the old republic. We’d be here all night.
The point being: There are certain rules. You don't break or stray from them lightly.

Dragon Age Origins didn’t break these rules per se but it damn well managed to twist them a bit. Elves were still pointy-eared hippies but now lived under a state resembling apartheid. Mages were still powerful, capable of great deeds, but not your average Elminster out for a stroll. Instead they were tightly locked away by a zealous religious order. Under the Grey Wardens you learned that only YOU could save the world. But later you realized that this role really sucked. A lot.
Of course you’d still find ale-drinking dwarves out for fighting and the clichés about betrayal, love and redemption were still going strong. However, often you were put in tough moral dilemmas with no apparent good or evil choice. Your decisions had a great impact later on and sometimes you'd make a decision and regret it mere seconds later. Combine this with an array of really interesting party members, great voiceover and a thorough classic fantasy-story and you’ll see why Origins became one of my favorite RPG’s.
Fear leads to anger…
If you’ve been following the reviews or played Dragon Age 2 yourself you might be aware that the game has been received with…mixed feelings. Having just completed the last chapter of the game I can certainly say I understand why.
My initial reaction to this game was fear. Making sequels to great concepts is never something that should be done lightly. Due to its relatively quick release after the first game I was a bit worried about the amount of thought put into it.
It also mattered to me that every single DLC (maybe with the exception of Leliana’s Song) absolutely sucked. I seriously won’t ever trust in the sanity of anyone claiming they actually enjoyed Witch Hunt. Or didn't feel like they should've gotten just a little more for their money.

As mentioned Origins was, first and foremost, a gift to the RP’ers. And we loved it due to its awesome focus on dialogue, choice and character development. You could spend a great amount of time just strolling around camp, listening to what your companions had to tell.
I know a lot of people who weren’t keen on Origins for the same reasons. Too much involvement required, too much reading, too much story. In the end we’re all entitled to our preferences.

Now that we move on to DA2 we might ask - is this still the case? In LotR-language; would we remain at the first movie, rich in atmosphere and feeling (but sadly no match for a shit-faced Russell Crowe at the Oscars) or move on to the fast paced action-oriented style of The Two Towers?

I decided, despite of my fears, to preorder it. It didn’t seem like such a big deal and besides I was quite sure I wouldn’t get THAT disappointed. After all it seemed almost foolproof.
EA had their little thing going, choosing to release the game at various dates across the world. Why, I have no idea. But it seemed kind of ridiculous to me. Especially when you’re patiently watching the clock, waiting to be let into fun-land, while all kinds of posts pop up around you from people playing it through piracy.
It doesn’t really seem…fair.

Of course you gain some bonuses for preordering so I assumed they would more than make up for it.

Anger leads to hate…
Despite my initial frustration about release I was more than happy when Steam finally decided to show a little “Play” button. Logging in was fast as was adding my “special bonus” on my Bioware-profile. This consisted of two weapons, a shield, a dog and a black market in Kirkwall.

It’s hard to find a place to start this, so I assume I will begin with the obvious question.

Is it as good as Origins?

The short answer to this is no.
Keeping my just presented fondness of Origins in mind I imagine one could only see this coming about a mile away. After all, nostalgia is a cruel mistress.

Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game

I’ve heard mentioning that the meta-score of the official reviews circles around the 8/10 whereas the fans provide it with a meager 3,7. Somehow indicating I wasn’t the only one out there feeling that my old favorite bed-time-story had been publically abused.
I imagine a lot of this disappointment also stems from high expectations established by the demo which was (frankly) mostly about showing off a brand, new combat system. An awesome combat system, no arguing. To me, this was a signal that I should expect the same amount of epic storytelling with smooth combat in between. Again, you might accuse me for being unreasonable comparing it to Origins.

You know, like comparing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There is a lot of familiarity but also alienation to be found in DA2. You’re once again presented with the basic choice of Warrior, Mage or Rogue, each of them offering their respective paths of specialization. Some of them are certainly more interesting (and powerful) than others. You will notice that you aren’t allowed to pick either a race or a background but only your gender. Thereby, much of the background-stories from Origins are lost.
I personally went for a male warrior wielding a sword the size of an NBA-player.

Get a (social) life!
There has been a lot of discussion regarding (Lady) Hawke and whether this ‘Mass Effectzation’ was indeed a wise direction to take. I never really liked ME that much, partly due to the fact that I was following a protagonist more than playing my own character. This is, of course, a psychological preference as to whether you prefer deep immersion and various forms of imaging (in Origins I always had a pretty good idea of my character’s voice) compared to watching a story being told.
The advantage is that all your dialogue is spoken out loud although the game and I tend to disagree about the interpretation of cues (one time I chose a reply that, to me, seemed morally encouraging but Hawke meant it was time for severe scolding of my companion).
Luckily, the game has decided to cater to the emotionally challenged by introducing minor symbols representing certain styles of response. The top group is blue or green and indicates “Good” or “Hippie”. The middle purple group represents “Off topic” by jokes and/or cynicism and bottom red is “Shut up, and move on!”
I usually name it “Sparta!”
My warrior used it a lot.
I am not surprised that many RP-puritans (myself included) found this to be some of a setback, and would rather have had a more varied form of interaction. I frankly got used to it but you can’t help feeling this might be a little too much. Romances, an old favorite convention in several Bioware-games, are clearly indicated by a red heart next to the relevant dialogue-option. This removes a significant amount of mysticism that certainly enshrouded the majority of the Origins-romances. On the upside, all of your companions in DA2 have turned bisexual. So there really is something for everyone.
While present, romances in DA2 are limited.

Please don’t make me wear this!
Customization is at a low-point in DA2. You have full control over Hawke but for the rest of your party you’re limited to rings, necklaces and weapons. Eventually you might find minor upgrades to their armor so you can add runes. I imagine this is something that could eventually be fixed by a fan-made mod.
Some people loathe inventory management and I am truly agreeing that I didn’t care all that much either in Origins. But on the other hand, I am not sure it was that much of a problem. Hell, I didn’t even mind the inventory-system in Mass Effect 1. I have no idea why people bitch so much about it. In DA2, however, it bordered reductionism.
Your party of teenagers who'll never let you tell them what to wear. Ever.
Letting your companions keep their original look with very minor changes is a great idea. Psychologically it’s also a visually awesome way to identify and remember them, be it a named crossbow, white emo-hair or a lovely pair of…eyes. It shouldn’t be impossible, however, to integrate more control regarding their armor-choices and instead provide visible, but still subtle, signs of improvement.
I stopped caring half-way through the game, only spending time to look over my companions’ weapons when I found something that seemed clearly like an upgrade. The game even rates your gear with stars so that you no longer have to think for yourself about what's great and what's not. 
I am aware that on nightmare (I mostly played on hard) doing this is much more important.

I might mention that I will never call DA2 an easy game unless you insist on rushing through it on easy or normal. There are challenges.

I believe adventure is THAT waaayyy?....
After you’ve come to terms with your limited party-management and interaction you might just wonder what this whole game is all about? If you’ve played the demo and seen the trailer you can’t help getting the feeling that Hawke has become important, one way or the other, and now it’s up to you to go find out how.

To be honest the initial part of the game isn’t exactly bad and manages to cater a bit to the Origins-culture. You escape Lothering. The town in which you made a stop in the previous game (and in my case pestered children, chantry-speakers and merchants). With your family you decide to make your way to the far-away-city of Kirkwall, which is only made possible by the divine intervention of Flemeth. The iconic witch you might’ve slain in Origins, who’s now back, alive and apparently had a boob-job.
As a return for the favor, Flemeth tells you to deliver an old amulet to a Dalish-Keeper once you manage to get into the city. You, of course, assume that this would be your main-quest and that this amulet must be very special.

Frankly, it isn't...

After you reach Kirkwall you’re spending some time with red tape, trying to get into the city. You’re told it’s crowded with refugees from Ferelden who are now seeking shelter from the blight and that your journey has been in vain. Of course, with a quick twist of fate, a series of events make sure you’re allowed to enter and stay with your douche-cheapskate of an uncle, forcing you to begin your epic quest from the lowest socioeconomic layers Kirkwall has to offer.
You manage to hand in the amulet, Flemeth returns and implies that she’s been expecting her doom. This was her get-out-of-jail-card. From what I could tell this was all we ever see of her in the game and you’re left standing behind, wondering what happened to the main-plot.

To break the gruesome truth, DA2 doesn’t have a main-plot. There is no blight, no imminent threat to the world and neither any looming antagonists. Your warden did the dirty job in Origins and now you’re out to make a name and a fortune for yourself among the fine citizens of Kirkwall. Meaning that the game takes place over 10 years from when you arrive. This overall macro-structure is beckoning but more or less wears down into a series of fade-to-black-sequences that could as well represent a week or a month. I assume that “Join Hawke on his mighty adventure up the social ladder, fulfilling the destiny of economical heritage on a journey stretching itself over one full month!” doesn’t sound as awesome.
Still, you can’t help feeling a bit disappointed.

So, what’s the micro-structure, you might ask?

Lots and lots of them.
I can’t think of any game that I have ever played featuring so many side quests as DA2.  And I even love side quests!
As long as they tend to appear alongside a coherent plot, which is where DA2 drops the ball.

In your log you’ll see your quests separated into "Main" and "Side" which roughly translates into “Quests that will move the story onwards” and “Quests you can only do in this chapter and therefore want to do first!”. I have no qualms with this. I prefer to solve as many of them as possible. And when you think you’ve depleted the pool more tend to drop in through your mailbox (literally).
The quality of these quests vary a lot, though.

Some of them are brilliant and include the old “fuck you, game!” hard decisions between bad or…bad. In rare occasions you might even encounter old friends from Origins (I had Alistair, and if you’re romancing Isebella and let Zevran live you can actually have a threesome later).
To a less satisfying degree, you will be forced to make minor choices as to whether you should let  bad guys (often possessed by demons) live and atone for their sins or take on the role of Judge Dredd. While satisfying the first couple of times, Kirkwall does indeed seem to house a significant percentage of blood mages amidst its population.
In the bottom you find “Mr. Hawke, please go to a mine and slay all the spiders?” along with the fetch quests. Fetch quests pop when you pick up an old ring in a dungeon and must return it to whoever talented Level 0-NPC in town who explicitly states that he must have lost it…deep in the dungeon. You never get any dialogue, cinematic or anything. You click the person, receive 50 silver, and off you go.
Calling this a quest is taking the piss on people. Instead, just let the boss drop 50 more silver and spare us the feeling that you’re taking us for idiots.
A few quests are downright unforgettable, though. A particular enjoyable quest involves one of your companions who decides to storm a mansion by his own and slaughters legions of guards (Arnie-style). At the end it is revealed that this was, sadly, all talk from his part and you then get to play the mission again, as it really happened. This is a really nice touch.
The main-story (if you could call it that) consists of a series of chapters. Initially you’re looking out for your (poor) self as you try to scrape 50 gold together, so you can join a dwarven ass-hole and his expedition to the deep roads. So you can become even richer.  Later (YEARS LATER!) racial conflict stirs among the citizens and the foreign Qunari.  Once dealt with, you’re back to the old Origins-question as to whether the Templars or the Circle of the Magi are to be trusted.

You’ve been waylaid by enemies and must defend yourself!
There isn’t much to say about combat in DA2 except that it’s awesome. I loved the tactical element of Origins but even in the final battle I found myself tempted to merely pass it on easy. I wanted the story to progress and not spend 10 minutes making tactical decisions. Especially when I was tired or just needed to relax. DA2 solves this by a fluent and smooth system that can easily be set to whatever level you might so desire. I am aware of the issue with friendly fire being only available at Nightmare-mode but then again, AOE-spells aren’t the bread and butter for mages as they used to be in Origins. They still pack a punch but there are several other, and equally important, options to consider.
In a graphical sense there is a lot of eye-candy as well. And I must admit, even in the last battles I (mentally) yelled “FUCK YEAAAAAAAAH!” whenever I charged into a group of templars and saw them splatter in a whirlwind. It’s just what this game does to you.

DA2 still features plenty of gore.

Dungeons are mostly boring and predictable. DA2 is a huge proponent of recycling, for which you must respect it. It goes to such great lengths as to reuse its dungeons and mansions! Initially this won’t be a bugger but once you see the same warehouse-model appear for the fifth time the taste of rushed game inevitably spreads in your mouth.
I’m not sure exactly how to describe that taste. I imagine it involves asparagus.

Most of them are also very linear with locked doors and corridors strongly hinting where you’re supposed
to go. Annoying as it is, this points out the thin line between too much and too little dungeon. Compared to, say, The Fade-mission in Origins, which has always been my absolute hate “dungeon” due to its length. It’s a nice reprieve to see short and efficient dungeons. Hopefully, future dungeon designers will take lessons from this and form a synthesis empathizing logical flow with several opportunities for side questing.

Combat in DA2 is quick and enjoyable, and definately a force of the game.
You might recognize several aspects from Origins, regarding dungeons. Both the Fade and the Deep Roads are back, albeit only for a very limited time. Again, this seems extremely rushed and only included in order to capitalize further on the brand. The same counts more or less for the option to include your former save game from Origins. I had some references to the werewolves I released, a bit of talking of the holy urn and King Alistair appearing, mentioning that ‘people should call my old character by his name instead of the hero of Ferelden’. While I certainly may have missed something,  I had hoped for more description about the impact of my choices back then. I.e. what long-term effect did the urn have? Was it really a great idea to let Alistair marry the queen? Did I live happily with my Leliana?

Hate leads to suffering (massive spoilers ahead)
Up till the final chapter, I somehow liked DA2 for what it is. Even compared to Origins, I was more or less ready to provide it a 7, maybe even 8 if the ending was awesome.

However, there has in history been no bigger letdown than the half-assed ending presented in this game. Without going into too much detail tensions arose to massive heights between the mages and the templars. The mages wanted to be free from the oppressing grasp of the knights. The knights wanted to retain strict control with the use of magic, lobotomizing anyone suspected of being a practitioner of the dark arts.  And truly, some of the mages really did seem to revel in evil and even turned Hawke’s mother into a zombie. In that way, it was douches versus douches.

In my case, Anders took the decision for me and blew up the grand cleric, meaning I chose to stand by the mages and my companion, being the good leader I am. This culminates in an epic battle in which the Archmage himself turns to blood-magic and you surprisingly have to take his abomination down. As you rush out to meet the templars you’re beset by evil mages all over town, trying to fry your ass. Does this even make sense? Why would they, as I am clearly on their side?

In the end you make it to the cathedral in which the knight commander confronts you. She’s one of those types, you know. The bitchy woman who takes pleasure when she, overbearingly, tells you that you’ve fucked up, and should never do so again.
Luckily, you get to smash her around. She is killed and the screen fades to black.

You’re told tha the mages burn the city and that chaos rises (so yes, they really were asses, all of them). Hawke and friends escape and the interrogator who’s been listening to the entire story sets out to find him. On her way she meets Leliana (with no mentioning of her relation to my Warden-character. It seems like this only happens if you pay for DLC) and….

That’s it.

Nothing more. At the height and culmination of your decision, when you escape and everything is set in motion, Bioware decides to place what could as well have been a fat, hairy ass on your monitor, spewing out narrative shit as if there was no tomorrow.
You are left hanging with a plot that spontaneously comes to a halt when it should keep up the pace. This is basic stuff when it comes to story-analysis. Chaos is resolved by order, which is only done by the protagonist. You simply don’t end a story like that. It doesn't even qualify as a cliffhanger.

There is a very fine line between a cliffhanger, and stepping on the narrative brake too early. In the case of DA2 I am sure Bioware intended to make a cliffhanger saying “What happened to Hawke? Find out by buying our later DLC/DA3!”
Instead you end up with no clue and not the slightest sense of accomplishment. It doesn't feel like you've completed a story being told. Which, in itself, is hard enough due to the fragmented structure that DA2 is using for its 'plot'.
You’re given so very little hinting as to what happens, where your companions go, what happened with you and your romance exactly, what about your remaining family (in case there is any), what about the city, what about everything? I am aware that this could be set for future expansions but even when I ignore that fact that 90% of all Origin DLC was horrible you're left with nothing to go on. Let's stay with the LotR-theme. At the end of every book/movie you're pretty sure the story goes on. We get closer to the final confrontation. But we also get a conclusion of the book in question. Frodo survived the first part of his journey. There was victory at Helm's Deep. This was concluded.
This feeling is nowhere near present in DA2.
This was the point that really broke everything about DA2 for me. I didn’t expect such a lousy finale with so little feeling of conclusion. Even the final battle reeked of…blandness. I didn’t even notice that “this was it!” before afterwards.

I am not joining the choir of fans, flaming the game for being sucky and lame. DA2 is a good game in its own rights and I’m much more inclined to hate it for what it failed to become as to what it is. Everything was rushed, a lot of things were fixed that didn’t really need fixing and with only one more year of development I am certain you could have topped Origins. A game with a coherent, epic story, optional side quests and significantly more NPC-interaction. All combined with the new combat-system. This game would've been a killer.

I imagine we can only hope so for DA3 but in the end, games like Origins pop up once every 10 years or so. In the end, this is what makes them special. But that is no excuse to tell us that “we shouldn’t compare it to what was better!”.  You always will, if you loved what came before it.

I have no doubt that DA2 managed to cater to a population which lacked the interest and time to fully appreciate Origins. It kicked out the rest who now look at a slightly entertaining, but diminished, shadow of former glory.

Swooping is bad, Bioware. So are rushed games.


1 comment:

  1. I concure. But would only give it a 5/10. As it really lacks the epic feel of Origins.