The Mixed Messages of Dragon Age 2

No game has ever inspired such vicious debate, such polarization, as Dragon Age 2. As the sequel to the enormously popular Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Awakenings, there are some big shoes to fill, and only so much game to fill them with.

Generally, in pre-release, there aren’t a lot of dissenting opinions on games. Previewers are not, generally, reviewers: they have little room to assert how much they dislike a game, because if they do, they’re stuck not getting any work. Generally, previews are separated by degrees: a good preview is one where the previewer says that a game looks good, the bad preview is where the previewer stops short of making predictions and (usually) emphasizes an upcoming review.

So this makes the absolutely opposite coverage coming from two respectable gaming sources, Destructoid and Rock Paper Shotgun, so utterly baffling. For the record, if I had to name two sites as the best, most noble and independent of publisher pressure games sites on the web, it would be those two. Both pretty frequently provide pre-release information on games, and both don’t generally stray too far from the noble paradigm.

With Dragon Age 2, it’s different. Rock Paper Shotgun is decidedly pessimistic, beyond what any preview would possibly say. Even the trailer designed to reassure long time fans missed the mark with them, as they still found reason to be skeptical. On the other hand, you have Destructoid, who’ve recently launched the most marketing speak tinged preview of a game I have seen outside of Gamespot, and this from a blog that rarely does that sort of thing.

Who’s right? Who’s dead? Why the hell is this game that few of us have played so god damned divisive.

Of course, it doesn’t help that even at the release of Origins, Bioware felt something like a company divided. On one hand, they were producing Mass Effect, a commercial paean to the sci-fi soap opera, an interactive Battlestar Galactica without the numbers and the crunch designed to appeal to the watcher of the Sci-Fi Channel (fuck its current name) and the player of Gears of War looking for a more cerebral game experience. On the other was Origins, which played like a love letter to Baldur’s Gate, the game that had made Bioware a household name in the first place. It was a conflict even older than that, though, stemming from the conflicting ideas between Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware’s figurative second son.

At the time, it was a conflict Dragon Age won. It sold more than Mass Effect, significantly more, and was brilliantly received. As an example of games writing, yes, it was fractured, but it was an engaging yarn nonetheless, filled with actual, honest to god moral choices, conversations with nuance and grace, and combat that played pretty tactically.

Then came Mass Effect 2, and a wave of statistics. Not to mention a wave of sales. It turned out that more people played Mass Effect 2 than had heard of Jesus Christ, and statistics affirmed that most of those people experienced the game as the most boring, awful class imaginable: the soldier, Mr. All Guns, All the Time.

This, I think, reaffirmed what Bioware had always thought: people are stupid, and you sell more games by selling out, making something a toddler can play passably. Dragon Age was an outlier, a successful complex game, and they couldn’t count on those to produce. So the smart money went to accessibility and making the game playable by the largest number of people, and the graphics appeal to the largest number of people. If you’re looking for character design elements like that, the push to make all the races more unique and distinct visually (as opposed to just intellectually) is huge, because it pushes them towards a more traditional fantasy paradigm.

So why the differing coverage? There’s two answers. The first is platform, and the second is age.

PC gamers are, by and large, a more hardcore lot than console gamers. Simple fact. There is less of a barrier to entry for console gamers than there is to building your own PC, and there’s a greater prevalence of ideas. I consider myself, first and foremost, a PC gamer, and I remember the wind being sucked out of the game’s sails when I read RPS’ first preview of the title. In general, us PC gamers are afraid of titles being dumbed down, to the point where we will defend awkward, untenable systems like the one in the Elder Scrolls games as classic and reject change that would make the game, you know, actually logical.

The other factor is age. PC Gamers are older than console gamers, and older gamers remember the good old days. Of course, the good old days weren’t even that good, and a lot of old gamers didn’t even like Dragon Age, but that is immaterial. What offends them is change. Moving from an inaccessible, beautifully complex and strategic system to something even as less complex as Dragon Age was a difficult step; moving to something that, on the surface, looks like an action game is an extremely difficult step.

In many ways, Dragon Age 2 seems like the last line of defense for the stalwart PC gamer, who loves complex skill trees and tactical combat, the gamer reared on Ultima and, later, Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. It’s not even the last bastion of Ultima fans; they were probably similarly disappointed by Baldur’s Gate, and they weren’t able to be vocal. Now is the last days of having anything like Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and Planescape: Torment in mainstream games, and their disappearance is a bitter pill for some to swallow.

On the other hand, maybe Dragon Age 2 is just that good. Here’s the thing: accessibility and complexity are not two different things. They never have been. Planescape and Baldur’s Gate 2 were more accessible than Baldur’s Gate 1 (where any enemy could smush you like a grape in the beginning), and accessibility is an all around good thing: when you know what you’re doing in a game, it is almost inarguably more fun. Dragon Age 2 represents a cessation of the old school of PC games in the mainstream, and while that is something to mourn, those games are still going strong with indie titles like Avernum, Age of Decadence, and Dead State, and maybe a game like Dragon Age 2 will increase public interest in those relics of better times.

And be a potentially fantastic game in its own right. That’s something to smile about, anyway, since none of us have played the damn thing. Frankly, I’m as skeptical as Rock Paper Shotgun that the game will come out okay, but I’m willing to give it a little faith, because Bioware have never released a bad game, and they haven’t released a mediocre one in some time.


  1. David

    I thought you were swearing off pre-release coverage? Or was that just trailers?

    I’m reaching the point – at least for DA2 – that I’m cutting myself off, but I’ll read the links to educate myself about your argument.

    Personally, from the stuff I have seen, the biggest selling point of DA2 – by far – is that the rogue is worth playing. I believe even RPS sang the high praises of the new game’s version of that class.

    • Tom

      Coverage of pre-release coverage!

      I’m not watching most trailers (I watched the “Our combat is like the old game!” one because…I was worried), but it’s mostly been listening to people talk about it, and…really, it’s amazing how polarizing this game *no one has played for more than an hour* is.

  2. David

    Well, I just got the latest GI, which apparently has a preview about the first 5 hours. Debating whether to read it or not.

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