Dragon Age 2 Impressions

Yes, friends, another impressions post. Obviously, I have not completed Dragon Age 2. Nowhere near it, actually. While I do plan to, in this case, wait until completion and write an actual, honest to god, “serious merits of this title” review, I also wanted to give you, our faithful reader, something of an idea of how the game stacks up.

We’ve picked an auspicious day to do this, though, what with the shit hitting the fan over the EA Accounts devils banning you from playing games and some secret DRM shenanigans. All this adds up to a lot of awkwardness on Dragon Age 2’s part, and we haven’t even gotten to the game yet.

But we will. Oh we will. In bullet points! With a real review to follow.

-The combat. The combat is, actually, largely improved, with some major caveats. Everything plays a lot more smoothly, it’s more fun to stab people in the face, and everything is more dramatic. But. But. The problems the combat is running into are manifold. The biggest is difficulty. On normal, the game is an absolute joke, easier than easy from Origins. On hard, it is roughly equivalent to easy, and nightmare mode is (supposedly) somewhere between normal and hard in Origins. The trick is, of course, that the game has a number of massive difficulty spikes. Basically, regular encounters are jokes, even on hard (which is what I’m playing on), while some boss encounters are impossibly difficult. For instance, the Ogre fight from the end of the demo absolutely crushed me many times in a row on hard, to the point where I had to lower the difficulty.

-The other problem is plurality. The number of enemies. Dragon Age 2 uses the casual game method of making encounters difficult and fun, which is by throwing eighteen additional 1-2 hit kill monsters into an encounter. If you got tired of Hawke yelling “There’s more of them!” in the demo, well, be warned: every single encounter in the game has a “there’s more of them!” moment. The main problem this creates is that, often, the enemies appear behind your party for no real justified reason, and if you’re using mages, this means the mages draw immediate aggro and die. Having 6 enemies appear behind your party and turn your mages into pincushions isn’t particularly fun. It makes me long for the substantial encounters of Origins, where each enemy had meaning.

-Character development is good, but! This game is all about good, but! moments. Hawke is as customizable and as intricate as any character in Origins: he has many, many level up trees, and the leveling up is better implemented than in Origins, or in most games. His equipment is equally customizable, and while I bemoan the lack of some of the item names (you loot, basically, 10 “amulets” every time you go out. They have no names), Hawke is just as modular as in previous games. Sure, there are no origins, but that’s acceptable to me. The problem is, your companions are extremely non-customizable. Each companion only has access to around five trees, which means they are locked into the roles the designers wanted them in. Want Merrill, the elven mage, to heal? Tough shit: she can’t learn anything remotely healy. Want Varric to punch people on the nose, or even use a different type of bow? It’s never going to happen (which sucks, because I’ve found more overpowered bows than *anything* else). The other problem is DPS. This game, for lack of better comparison, plays like World of Warcraft. Yes, everything looks fantastic here, but the only goal of any character is DPS. Crowd control is fairly worthless when there are few targets and even on hard Hawke (as a rogue) could do more than half their health of damage in 5 seconds. Unlike in origins, where control was everything, here it is less important, a side note, a skill you can invest in but which won’t do a whole lot of good. In fact, the most useful controls are designed to lead to synergy skills, which let you do *more* DPS to controlled enemies.

-The story. You get the sense, the very strong sense, they were trying to channel Baldur’s Gate 2, in that the first quest is basically Baldur’s: collect a shitload of money from doing sidequests. Of course, the world is less good here. Here’s the thing: Ferelden was a sort of meta-fantasy world, generic in its design, but it was fascinating. It had lots of little things tossed into it that made it unique. Kirkwall, on the other hand, is not unique. It is perhaps the most boring, generic fantasy city I’ve ever seen. It’s got visual style, and I give it that, but it is not compelling in the least. Ferelden had a complex network of politics, mages, dwarves, crazy cults, and intrigue. Kirkwall has some fantastic visual style and then the most boring, transparent cityscape imaginable. There’s a “king”, and he’s controlled by the templars, who hate the mages. I’ve summed up the entirety of political intrigue in the first 8 hours of the game for you. There are no rival factions, just a criminal organization who are remarkably inept.

-In terms of interactions, yes, there is no “paragon” or “renegade” tracks, but honestly most situations have some choice on the left side that is the “correct” choice. If you reach a moodless choice, where the choices aren’t labeled with little symbols, if one has a mood, that is nearly always the “right” choice and will produce the best example. There are no complex conversations, no fascinating dialog options, and more often than not Hawke says stuff I don’t think he should say. It’s like Bioware took the interaction system of Mass Effect, made no effort to understand how it works, and pasted it into their game.

-In terms of actual plot, there isn’t one, yet. I mean, yes, it could become a fantastic yarn, but after eight hours, you expect some kernels of plot to emerge. They haven’t, and yet I know exactly where the story is going, because it seems to be much more cut and dry than even Origins or Mass Effect was.

-There is one redeeming feature, though: the characters. Namely, I like them. They give me some hope for the plot to escape its horrible, molasses moving uphill in January pacing, because when you have characters this generally exciting, you *have* to do something with them. Right? Right? No, seriously, they’re pretty fantastic, and the voice acting is excellent with the exception of Hawke, who sounds like glue drying on a rail (male or female, unfortunately) and Fenris, who suffers from the problem that his voice actor is the immediate recognizable as the best character, Balthier (Gideon Emery) from FFXII. And that’s only awkward because he uses the same voice, and Fenris is a much different character. But I’ve yet to associate Eve Myles’ Merrill with British Sci-Fi train wreck Torchwood, and hell she, and most of the other actors, do fantastic jobs.

So, let’s sum up here. Production values good, gameplay and story less good. If we made a chart positioning all games between “sellout” and “pure artistic credibility”, Dragon Age 2 would be very, very far up the former. I’m enjoying it, primarily because I love the world they’ve created, but it’s like reading the tenth novel in a major fantasy series: you enjoy it because you loved the previous games, but…it’s not there, any more. In fact, if I had to make a direct comparison, this is Oblivion to Origin’s Morrowind. It’s going to win them some new fans, but it’s going to alienate a lot of the old.

4 Comments

  1. David

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks the difficulty is out of whack.

    As far as the characters go, I have to disagree. They’re pretty much falling flat for me right now, partly because the substantial comic relief I enjoyed so much in Origins (Morrighan-Alistair in particular) is not there.

  2. Trodamus

    Thoughtful insight, though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it.

    Dragon Age: Origins was marred by poor implementation of notable areas; functionally, traveling from the Mage Tower, Redcliffe and Denerim is the same as traveling between the different areas of Kirkwall. They’re all sparsely populated, but in Origins most of it did some off, aesthetically, as generic fantasy; I can accept that there’s not much to interact with in the Docks in Kirkwall, but it still looks a bit nicer.

    What I’m trying to say is that the sequel is better realized in some respects, and possibly benefits from lacking Bioware’s trademark four-areas-each-with-diametrically-opposed-politics thing. And the aesthetics really tie it together with a few NPC comments (the viscount’s keep gets the comment, “when they designed this, I don’t think the intent was to entertain guests.” It’s not. It was meant to be a fort, and the spikes and courtyard entrance make an attack infeasible, so it makes sense).

    As for the story, I think it is meant to be a much more personal story; now, obviously this will have to pan out later into something worthy of the framework of Varrick’s tale of “The Champion,” but I’m very intrigued that you’re just making your own way in your new home.

  3. Coyle

    It’s like Bioware took the interaction system of Mass Effect, made no effort to understand how it works, and pasted it into their game.

    Just thought I should point out – Bioware also made Mass Effect…

  4. Ruben

    How to upgrade without the enemies upgrading… in other words, I want to upgrade to my fullist and the enemies must still stay on level 1. My reason for that is because I already finished the game so much its boring to fight and wait until they die.