In the midst of the fifth Blight, as refugees from the besieged nation of Ferelden flock north to the neighboring Kirkwall, a powerful empire in the Free Marches, a family endures the onslaught of Darkspawn and the terrible realization that they are outnumbered.
Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
March 8, 2011
March 14, 2011
Hell Hath No Fury Like A Dragon Scorned
In the midst of the fifth Blight, as refugees from the besieged nation of Ferelden flock north to the neighboring Kirkwall, a powerful empire in the Free Marches, a family endures the onslaught of Darkspawn and the terrible realization that they are outnumbered. But the heroic exploits of the eldest sibling of this family are not to be forgotten. As the Hero of Ferelden banishes the Archdemon at Denerim and reclaims the continent of Thedas back from the Darksapwn, Hawke’s legend is just beginning. It’s a grand legacy in scope, a campfire folk story passed down through the ages: the Champion of Kirkwall, as grand as he or she is humble, as pragmatic as he or she is idealistic. Hawke is at the center of a major turning point in the history of Thedas following the end of the Blight. As recanted by Varric, a dwarf and one of the Champion’s former companions, Hawke’s story is the focus of the game, and is of the utmost concern of Varric’s interrogator informally introduced as the Seeker. Often times exaggerated, but never far from the truth, Varric tells the tale of how this humble Ferelden refugee became the most important person in the city of Kirkwall. Or at least, that’s what one would expect to hear.
Instead, the means by which we see Hawke’s rise to fame make this Champion seem more like a hot shot errand boy. Tiresome fetch quests, lazy investigation missions and an assortment of copy-pasted kill quests have you running to and from the same handful of locations more times than I‘d like to remember. It's all the more insulting because these sidequests will consume the bulk of your time playing Dragon Age 2, never more poignant than the first 10 or so hours of the game during which you must accumulate 50 gold via the limited means I've listed above before you can even consider pushing forward with the story. It's not until this particular story quest where one starts to see a hint of the Hawke we were promised, only to - not 20 minutes later when you finish the quest - be thrown back into the den of wolves of more sidequest tedium.
Admittedly, near the tail-end of the game’s 25 hour adventure, the ante is upped and Hawke’s relevance and significance in the city of Kirkwall is more realized. Particular spectacular feats and otherwise insurmountable dangers are overcome by Hawke and company, earning Hawke the warranted praise the player has been expecting all this time. But at the end of it all, it’s hard to separate the fact that the quests by which Hawke is established as such a heroic figure are buried amidst a garbage bin of household chores and tasks more befitting of a city guard than a legendary figurehead. The result is either one of two things: a brief account of the heroic tale that is the Champion of Kirkwall's life through the barebones story, venturing off the beaten path only when necessary to scavenge up the funds to proceed; or, it's an aimless 25 to 30 hour adventure that occasionally sings the praises of this renowned, legendary hero amidst tiresome fetch quests and dull romps through uninspired and repetitive environments.
But length, tedium, and monotony would be less an issue if the combat was exciting enough, right? Right. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough there as well to hold Dragon Age 2 up to the level that its producers had anticipated. The framework of the system as a whole is good and shows tremendous potential over its predecessor’s rather slow-moving battles. Speed seems the new name of the game, and in some respects that’s appreciated. Your health, mana, and stamina are all completely restored after every battle, lessening the downtime from one and the next and getting players into the thick of things more frequently. The tactics system remains as robust as ever, giving the player complete control over the actions of his or her characters should he or she wish to take the reins. But otherwise, much of the characterization and customization has been stripped away. Aside from Hawke, companions no longer have specialization trees, but retain their character-specific abilities. Aveline, the first new recruit you acquire in the game, is best suited as a tank, indicated by her initial specialty of sword and shield and her character’s specific damage resistance and counterattacking abilities. Furthermore, characters no longer have the freedom to specialize outside of a particular weapon archetype, for the most part. As the player-character, between either Rogue or Warrior, Hawke can choose to wield whatever he or she desires. Whether dual-wielding daggers or bows for a Rogue, or a two-handed weapon versus sword and board for Warrior. Mages, of course, remain unwavering in their staff usage.
Such is not the case for companions. Instead, each character comes stock with their specific weapon type and cannot change out of that. Aveline will always be using a sword and shield, and the aforementioned Varric is a rogue stuck with his prized crossbow. This applies to armor, as well. While Hawke’s entire armor set can be swapped in and out, head to toe, your companions can only receive new weapons and new trinkets, rings, or belts. Their basic armor, that which they are seen in during cutscenes, battle, and anything else in-game, cannot change. It can, however, be upgraded, so the player is not entirely restricted from beefing up their characters. But this strict policy of no armor change enforces the game’s linearity, a taboo not commonly found in western RPGs. This also gives each character predefined roles and reduces their viability as anything else.
Combat itself, like the rest of the game, quickly falls into the trap of monotony. You will enter a fight, spam the same number of key spells or abilities, and move on. Only you won’t move on just yet. Perhaps one of the game’s most frustrating design choices is what I like to call swarm mentality. The idea that if you throw a large number of enemies at the player, this will create a satisfactory level of difficulty. Instead, it makes battles drag on longer than they should, while the basic tone of them never changes. Frequently you’ll have waves of enemies spawning and respawning one right after the other, sometimes upwards of four or five full-sized waves of enemies before that particular battle is over. Thus, it becomes more about outlasting the foes - many of whom literally just materialize out of thin air after the previous wave is defeated - then it does about conquering the challenge with strategy and skill. Dragon Age: Origins had its fair share of attrition, but never to this extent.
It seems only fitting, then, while on the subject of monotony, to discuss the game’s dreadfully restrictive environments. While Origins, too, had some environments that were frequently revisited, few games today don’t. The problem is that Dragon Age 2 doesn’t just revisit these locations, it takes place entirely in them. Yours to explore is the city of Kirkwall, the same city of Kirkwall during the night, and the surrounding wilderness. No more than a handful of noteworthy locations exist in each setting, and you’ll return to some of them upwards of a dozen times throughout the game’s adventure. Kirkwall itself will prove the most uncanny location, so don’t be surprised if you actually memorize the entire city’s map during your time playing it, not out of the brilliance of the level design, but out of the frequency of running through its hollow corridors and drab city streets.
The city seems to lack a distinct personality. Its stark, stone walls do signify a sense of presence, but it is a castle-city, so that’s to be expected. The surrounding lands are typical: caves, forest, mountains. The most inspiring of them is the Wounded Coast, a winding path that overlooks what appears to be a graveyard of ships on the shore below. I applaud it for its disparity to the rest, but still cannot condone the relative frequency of its use. Few other things serve their design well and stand out as memorable, and not just in the level structure, but in the adventure, too. A minor number of boss fights and one particular speech by the Qunari leader are among the best parts of the game, completely overshadowed still by many of the more significant events in Origins: the battle of Ostagar, defending Redcliffe, the Fade, the entire Brood Mother sequence, and the game’s climax at Denerim.
The city isn’t the only thing to lack distinction. Characters are shells of a shell; half-stock personalities who spend more time bantering like children than they do focused on anything of relevance. The once-proud, now crestfallen knight is reduced to a whiny, blushing school girl who resorts to playground puppy love antics to gain the attention of the man she admires; the could-be heroic and vengeful Dalish servant spends his off-hours wallowing in the despair of his miserable existence. Two other characters are particularly noteworthy, however, and I venture to say are the most memorable ones to come from Dragon Age 2. The snarky dwarf Varric, whose role is not dissimilar to the previous Oghren, though much less a drunk and more persistent on his tasks, and the Qunari leader, the Arishok, whose significance is rather minimal until the middle portion of the game, but in these few moments he shines brighter than anyone else on this cast. Not even Hawke him/herself escapes the hell that is forgotten character land. Admittedly, the most excited I got at characters in the game was when few of the noteworthy ones from Origins made brief, but rather poignant cameos.
Less is more seems the new philosophy of BioWare on this endeavor. Gone are the aspects that truly made Dragon Age: Origins feel like your story. Sure, dialogue choices and interactions in certain key-moments will change the course of events for that immediate situation. Sometimes you will have to make a choice between the life or death of an NPC, and sometimes that decision will be entirely out of your reach. The game attempts to tell this story about Hawke and pretends to give you the freedom to sculpt it yourself, but it’s naive to believe you have as much control as you think because from the beginning you immediately know the ending - Hawke becomes the Champion. Is that a fault? Not necessarily. There’s absolutely no shame for wanting to tell a predefined story. The shame lies, however, on them for masking it under the guise of “make your own story“ RPG. About half way through the adventure you’ll realize most of your decisions have little to no impact on the story as a whole, they will only change how people perceive you. Events that are meant to happen in order to give way to Hawke’s rise will happen no matter what you choose, and even more than that, sometimes regardless of your decision, NPCs will give you the same exact response.
Something struck me about this specific criticism as I was playing the game. It was a comment made by one of the characters during a certain late-game companion quest. Aveline, as it were, was reliving tales of her younger days, recalling memories of her father who used to read stories to her about dragons and the like. She tells Hawke, "[He] wouldn't turn a page until I reached over and took his hand. He made every step of the story my choice." This particular line, the second sentence more than the first, seems to embody the idea of what a traditional western role-playing game has been, the kind that BioWare was once known for. Contradictory, then, is the idea that BioWare would throw in a line like this in a story that is, as I’ve mentioned, already pre-determined. You can dress it up with minor morality choices which may affect the player more than the story or characters, but in the end, you cannot change what is set in stone.
I struggle to say this, because Dragon Age: Origins was a contender for Game of the Year 2009 in my book, but its tepid and disjointed follow-up is nothing short of a disappointment. I hesitate to call it a terrible game as well, because it isn’t that far gone. Its mechanics work, and there is nothing inherently counter-intuitive about the design. But it is such a stark contraction to the ideas of what a good game should be, let alone a good sequel, that I cannot deem it worthy of high praise. The game succeeds only on a primal level - it is not broken, and it is far more bug-free than Origins. In the midst of some of the more barren months, perhaps one might find enjoyment in its campaign, but by year‘s end, it will be long forgotten. The framework has been set, and its potential is still waiting to be tapped. I just hope that happens before the next Blight.
Character models hold up well and some specific environments are gorgeous to behold, but the blandness of the city and the textures of many dungeons do more to insult the player than inspire them. Blood splatter also still proves itself nothing more than an annoying distraction.
Combat loses it luster after the first few hours, and by the middle of the game, you’ll have seen everything that Dragon Age 2 has to offer - sometimes thrice as many times as you’d expect.
The game feels more fluid than its predecessor, and certainly less bogged down by troublesome bugs, but one cannot help feel an element of speed in the design of the game too, not just in combat.
Voice acting and music are two of BioWare’s strongest aspects as a company, and once again they show their chops amidst the game’s mountain of woes.
As with any RPG, the element of replay time is of major concern. There is some warrant of that here, whether you choose to go back and pick a different character or different dialogue options to see their effects on the story. But ultimately, the grand scheme remains immovable.
In an effort to capitalize on the success of Origins, Dragon Age 2 does not fully realize what kind of game it wants to be.
Thumbs Down - Rental
In taking a page out of Yuzo's book, I am opting for this unconventional rating. This is a game I would still suggest anyone interested try out, because its unique design choices may appeal more to others than it has to myself, particularly the combat aspect of it. But it is not something I would suggest anyone skeptical to go out and purchase immediately, especially at full price, and especially for PC, which is $60 - $10 more than the usual price for PC games.