Wednesday, October 19, 2011

10 Things I liked about Dragon Age 2

(Art by: Click to enlarge.

*If you haven’t played DA 2 … spoilers ahoy!*

If you belong to the myriad of fans who dearly loved Dragon Age: Origins and learned to hate the much debated sequel, let me first and foremost bid you welcome.
Now; let me strongly point out that this is NOT another beating of long-time dead (and severely smashed up) horse. I pretty much did that already (

In fact, let me summarize, in the shortest way possible, what I thought about Dragon Age 2.

I never disliked it for what it is. But for what it failed to become with only another year of development.

In fact; there were things in Dragon Age 2 that I _really_ enjoyed. A lot, actually. And in this essay I want to come to its defences just for a short time. Why, you ask?
I recently had another completion of it and this time without the massively high expectations that I held from Origins. You could in fact say that my disposition towards it was so low that I practically expected shit to be flung at me in high paced (but beautiful) fancy combat. In some twisted reversed way, I was actually going in with a mindset that could only be positively surprised.

My class was a rogue. Actually the sole reason I played it again was to try out a class that was apparently able to splatter those ANNOYING elites within seconds (I’m looking at you, Templar Hunter). Plus I wanted to try the hot female Hawke (who I admittedly preferred much over the male version). In general I had a much smoother playthrough this time, likely because I invested a lot of time setting up Tactics for my party.

And, as said, here are the 10 things that I must admit I really do like (or even prefer above Origins) in Dragon Age 2:

1) Fluent combat
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.
I never really connected with combat in Origins. Surely, when dual casting ice- and fire storms as a mage with my dear Morrigan everything was fun as ever. However, during my plays as rogue or warrior things got really clunky. I spent most of the time zoomed out for tactical purposes meaning I’d often see tiny figures poking each other in melee. All in all not very involving and felt more like a strategy game than epic combat.

DA2 solved every critique in this regard. Combat is faster and feels more involving since you’re up close. The speed and brutality in which it is executed works so well to its advantage.
There is just about no downtime and even though the teleporting waves did seem rather peculiar there is also a certain joy to the feeling that they can keep coming and you will never stop killing them. Also; your people move! A lot more than in Origins. Just look at the attack cycle of the rogues. I will admit, that’s how I’ve always imagined a rogue attacking. Swiftly, precisely and with just the right sound before they tumble on to the next victim.
As everything else about this article it’s about personal style. Just as you will find people worshipping the new lightsaber combats from the recent Star Wars movies but also those who cling to the old, rigid and slow style.

I use to say that Origins with DA2’s combat system would indeed be the perfect game.

2) Anders
I never got the sheer amount of trash talking some of the party members had to put up with from the fans. Granted, some of them were below par. For example I never took a liking to the either Bethany or Carver. Maybe because they never got the chance to be in my party that much. At the same time Fenris never developed beyond the Final Fantasy Emo-Reject even though his side-quest was decent.

Another who often got verbally abused is Anders which is a fact I truly fail to fathom. I never played Awakening so not sure how much I’ve missed in this regard, but I instantly took a liking to his slightly depressed and yet idealistic personality.
In many ways I also loved the whole Justice-concept. It actually had great potential once you think about it. They could’ve expanded more upon the uncertainty whether you spoke to Anders or Justice at any given time. Also, Anders’ reaction to slaying the young mage during his side quest does seem genuinely human initially. Sadly the game doesn’t follow up all that much in both regards which is a shame.

A lot of people have bashed Anders for being an anonymous whiner who didn’t contribute much to the game besides healing. I find that statement flawed. As a character Anders is the one most true to his conviction throughout the story, even more than Fenris who was actually willing to betray his beliefs in the end and siding against the templars. Anders is torn apart by the firmly held ideal and the recognition that his methods for achieving it are far from perfect. In fact some would say downright stupid.
In other words Anders was another personification of the old Nietzscian teaching; you can fight monsters but once you gaze into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you. Anders fought fanaticism with fanaticism and the results were, not surprisingly, catastrophic.

3) Varric
A lot of people agree that the tale spinning dwarf was one of the highlights of the game and I am certainly not one to disagree. I loved Varric even from the demo. He showed us that dwarves don’t need beards, tankards and axes to be awesome. You must admit that’s quite an achievement.

There are several factors that make Varric stick out. Physically he’s on the short end of the spectrum compared to your other party members and to my knowledge he’s the only one with a signature weapon. It’s an old fantasy convention but it still works great for building identity.
Another part of his charm is the shroud of mystery that also characterises other great fictional characters (The Joker comes to mind). You can basically never tell whether he’s being flat out honest or just pulling your leg. But rest assured, he’ll have a comment for just about anything. As if he’d been waiting for the opportunity the entire time.

Varric is also associated with some of my favourite quests. Apart from the main story I’m talking about resolving the conflict with his brother and the absolutely brilliant narrative of him storming his mansion. The following quest in the haunted house is fun albeit a bit of a letdown in the end.

He’s also the only character that seems like it turned out just as they (the developers) intended. You always had an impression what they were trying to do with the other party members but…something just got in the way every time. A small part didn’t work or they needed more depth. The only problem I see with Varric is that we needed more of him.

4) Merrill
Some hate her and some love her. I absolutely love her.
This is perhaps the most personal choice on the entire list, but I really liked the babbling socially awkward elf.
I kind of understood what they were trying to do with Merrill and her sub plot, but it never really appealed to me. Like so many other things in DA2 it wasn’t explored enough or given enough detail. Just as I felt it started getting up to speed it ended which is a shame.

You might ask what’s left to like then. I can only say pure personality. I liked how they made her both cute as well as a slight comic relief, which is something we didn’t get to see that much of in Origins (No, Ogden wasn’t a comic relief, he was fucking annoying). The real strength of Merrill lies in the specific moments, especially when romancing her.

5) Aveline’s Romance Quest
I’d almost feel sorry for poor guardsman Donnic had it not been for the fact that this quest line is one of the best in DA-history. Perhaps because it’s a reminder of those wonderful tasks that with all its charms and wits totally derive you from the main story.
If you didn’t involve yourself in this quest it’s best summarized as the very professional Aveline, captain of the guard, has a crush on one of her guardsmen. Naturally, confrontation is absolutely out of the picture so she’ll have to call on Hawke and friends to do the dirty work. Initially you’ll deliver minor tokens of affections then set up a date and finally clear a patrol point of monsters so she’ll have an undisturbed (and romantic) stroll with her heart’s chosen.

Of course it’s all so extremely awkward and it just keeps getting worse the further it goes. This is one of those great little quests that stood out once the game was completed and the one I always look forward to. From a psychological point of view I don’t think one should underestimate the importance of these elements. Basically every guy I know who’s played DA2 remembers this quest. It gives the game style and identity. Please, could we see some more of this in DA3?

6) Kirkwall
I like the idea with Kirkwall.
I like the concept, the general design and how the various elements play together albeit nothing new is brought to the table.
The problem with Kirkwall was that it could’ve done with a lot more development or personality. The various districts are in fact quite good and some of them could’ve stood more out than some of the areas in Denerim. Especially Darktown had atmosphere.

The city did feel like it had a story. I never really felt the same for Denerim that seemed extremely fantasy-generic in my book. Not that it was bad but it wasn’t anything besides another human settlement housing royalty.
It doesn’t look that bad either. As mentioned in my previous review I didn’t understand the hype about the city being ‘full’ but the streets are only sparsely populated. This was done well in Assassin’s Creed, so why not in DA2?

7) The templar-mage conflict

Again, it’s a great idea. But once it became really important in the game the timing seemed way off.

We learned of the bitter long struggle between the Circle and the Chantry back in Origins and thanks to the brilliant structure of said game we couldn’t really pick an objective winner in this debate. Both sides carry their share of bad apples.

In DA2 this is only emphasized which is great. After all, this conflict is one of the milestones of the DA-universe and is a close resemblance to several aspects of our real world. Some times it’s just impossible to judge between two evils, especially when they only exist thanks to each other.

In Origins I felt it was a bit too easy to gain sympathy for the mages since they were pretty much the victims all throughout the game. A few exceptions existed but were mostly portrayed as renegades or mad men rather than an institutional problem.
In DA2 we were taught that power corrupts and if none were to keep such power in check the world would surely perish. Wynne went to great lengths to tell us about the dangers of weakness when utilizing magic (opening yourself to demonic possession) but it never seemed that prevalent. On the other hand the mages of Kirkwall seem to fall like flies to blood magic the more they’re pushed by the templars.

This conflict seemed a lot more real and authentic. And there was no ‘real’ solution. Even when all hell broke out in the end I frankly ended up shrugging since I had no idea what to do. There was no definitive answer besides the one based on personal preference.

I’ve always had the feeling that DA2 eventually decided having this conflict as the central turning point after trying the expedition and the Qunari. If so they should’ve gone with it from the very start of the game instead of just hinting at it. There is enough power in this dilemma that it could easily have carried the story on its own.

8) The demo/trailers
It might sound as if I’m getting desperate here but I assure you of my sincerity. There are very few games in this world that actually managed to get me hyped before release but DA2 certainly is one of them.
Perhaps this is the reason why I’ve raged so much about the animated fight between Hawke and the Arishok not being in the game itself. It was brutal, over the top and felt so god damn epic. And once the demo arrived I distinctively remember my first attempt with a mage and how my jaw instantly dropped when I saw the attack-animation. Origins taught me that attacking with a staff was a bit like poking thin air monotonously and eventually magic projectiles would emerge (yes, I’m aware how creepy that sentence might sound). This was over now. Combat was fast and dynamic; it was as if I’d never tire of it. Once the demo was over it slapped you in the face with a huge “To be continued!” sign showing a long series of upcoming ingame moments and you couldn’t help squealing ‘Oh yes, please!’ under the weight of its boot.

This game got to me way before release. It’s really interesting to notice. I was so extremely eager to play it and stared angrily at Steam for several days before the morons decided to unlock it. But it was good to hear the first reviews from people playing the pirated version long before the rest of us.

One could argue that this compliments the deceit rather than the brilliance of the demo. I’m not one to claim the truth. I just know I was deeply impressed with them.

9) The murder of Hawke’s Mother
Another quest I thoroughly enjoyed, even though it came to one of those annoying standstills. IIRC you’re pretty much unable to advance this quest any further until the plot lets you. And if I were severely annoyed by this it meant I cared.
I’ve always been a sucker for investigation, be it in games or pnp. They’re fun, even when sticking to the simple formula of running all over the city on a railroad of clues. Which is frankly how DA2 handled it most of the time.

Kirkwall Dating Service didn't work well for Leandra.
Perhaps because she was more into brains than looks.
 I would, however, have loved to see them go even more out on a limp. Seeing Zombie Mother Hawke shamble towards me was…mildly upsetting. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t comforting but try and compare it to your first encounter with the Brood Mother in Origin’s Deep Roads. The entire setup, execution and revelation of this horrific abomination was brutal to say the least. They could’ve gone to even greater lengths to horrify us with what the mage did to Hawke’s mother.
We’re roleplayers (many of us). When we encounter someone being zombiefied we pretty much react as if they’ve got the flu. It happens all the time.

10) The Qunari
Again, this is an idea that’s so good and regrettably had too little development. I have no doubt that the original incitement for letting the Qun play such a huge part of DA2 is to portray another clash between control and freedom. And show what happens once you have too much of either.

Bringing a war of existentialistic points of view into the game was great but it always seemed so forced and isolated. I actually loved the whole idea of the Qun and understood why it gained so many followers in a city like Kirkwall. As the Arishok mentions it is in many ways a festering pile of filth containing countless of souls without any real purpose. The debate gets interesting when we start asking whether this justifies the theft of personal freedom.

Just like the templar-mage conflict this could’ve been the focus for an entire game. It seemed ideal to expand upon the flaws of fanaticism and religious tension especially when they clash with political virtues. For example when convicts start converting to the faith but you can’t tell whether they’re believers or simply seeking protection in a strong militant clergy.

Some people have bashed the Arishok for being a cardboard cut out antagonist, but I never connected with that criticism. He was the frustrated, slightly depressed and yet unhealthily zealous leader abiding by the only teachings he knew. I understood why some people would want to follow a leader like that.
As an antagonist the Arishok was fucking Shakespeare when compared to Meredith.

There are several things to like about DA2. It’s not a horrible game all in itself and there are redeeming factors. It rightfully deserves some of the beatings but again I’d like to point out the analogy: There are no bad children. Only bad parenting.

We can only hope that the developers (the parents in case you haven’t guessed) will indeed learn from what worked and what didn’t. I frankly don’t believe we will see anything like Origins in the next ten years or so. But I DO believe that what we’ve seen in DA2 could turn the third instalment into a brilliant game if used correctly.

If you like me were pissed beyond recognition about DA2 not being the Origins 2 you had hoped for, I’ll recommend giving it another try once the dust has settled. There are some points worth noticing that doesn’t make it (entirely) the bastard it was crucified as.

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