Of course, there is a major difference. Mass Effect was a game with simple, obvious flaws: the combat was a little off, there was too much generic exploration, and the story, while good, featured a lot of characters who were not especially memorable. We can pretty much all agree why Mass Effect wasn’t perfect. On the other hand, if you put ten fans of Dragon Age: Origins in the same room, you would have ten completely different sets of complaints. Some people felt the combat was boring, some felt it was confusing, and others felt it was the best in an RPG in ages. Some people loved the story, the generic quest to defeat a horrible evil race, and some people loved the silent protagonist and the complicated dialog system. Others didn’t like those things. Some people liked the scope of the game, others felt the characters were bland and unlikeable.
A lot of the problems with Dragon Age 2 can be traced to the fact that it is a game built to mechanically correct the flaws of its predecessor. As it is, however, I want to go at it in as pure a way as possible, and not compare it to Origins in the slightest. Well, that’s not true. I plan to spend a second or two on it at the end. But it’s very much it’s own beast, and deserves to be tackled as such.
Unfortunately, as such, Dragon Age 2 is a mediocre game that is soulless and forgettable fun.
Of course, now we get to the buts. Combat is amazing, but it’s too easy. It’s not just too easy, it is significantly too easy, and it is poorly balanced. For nearly every encounter, normal is a complete, absolute joke. You will wade through groups of enemies like they are small waves crashing against your party. Hard is more reasonable, but with a caveat: there are a number of fights that are near impossible on hard. There is major difficulty with boss scaling: the first boss, for instance, is an unbeatable monstrosity unless you kite it on hard. Most bosses in the game are ridiculously tough, even on normal; while yes, bosses should be hard, there’s a compatibility issue. If your normal encounters are absurdly easy, then the boss encounters should be a good bit above that. Here, they are miles above it, and it will no doubt frustrate many players. Additionally, should you desire to play on this website’s eponymous difficulty, you’ve got a horror show of a game coming, because suddenly friendly fire is on, and let me tell you, every attack in the damn game is an area one. Fighters hit a massive arc of enemies. Mages basic attack spells are kill everyone on this block. You’re going to die, and it will be frustrating.
The other problem with combat is the waves. There’s little more immersion breaking than seeing 4 archers appear out of nowhere in a corner and start attacking you (the only thing worse is when they are standing there, unhostile, unattackable, waiting for you to kill their friends to become combatants. This has happened far too much for my liking). It’s awkward, and the fact that you don’t know immediately what you’re up against means that your skills are just click and refresh offensive options. Really, the whole game smacks of that: this is playing World of Warcraft, and damage per second is king. The strongest party in my game was myself, a dual wield rogue, another dual wield rogue, an offense-only mage, and a healer. No tank? That’s because tanking is useless. Each party member gets more than enough damage mitigation skills to completely and utterly make the tank of the game useless. In fact, most characters are useless: bows are useless, tanks are useless, and really you’re stuck with a dual wield rogue, a two hander tank, a healer and an offensive mage/another dual wield rogue for the entire game unless you want to be useless.
Let’s talk about the characters, because that’s where we’re going. The characters are of every appealing archtype to appear in a Bioware game. You know them by now: brooding warrior with a past, upstanding force of law, damn the establishment rebel, virginal girl, guy out for a buck, and sexpot. The writers, to their credit, twist each of these a little bit and do a good job at sowing party conflict, but nothing comes of it.
That’s the real lesson of the game’s story: interesting things happen, but nothing comes of them. It’s where the soul gets sucked from the game. There’s a lot of conflict between characters, sure, but nothing ever really comes of it. The story makes a few major time jumps, but nothing really changes. The city, and its people, are the same no matter when. You get some conversations with tense choices, but none of these choices really matter.
One situation to drive that last point home: one quest in the game has you hunting a murderer. You find a man, the accused, who says he didn’t do it. You can spare his life, or you can kill him. Either way, the immediate result is the same. The problem is, either way, the end result is the same, too. When the murders come up again, if you let him live Hawke says, Oh, I bet he’ll be happy to know and that’s the end of it. He does not appear again, in the game. Your choice results in either a fairly long chase scene full of battles or nothing, and either way nothing different happens. There is, literally, no change, at all, in the game.
It’s not like this for just minor choices, too: major choices end up going the same way regardless of what you choose. Hell, regardless of what you choose the other party will usually say the same things. There’s not even a change in their dialog, only in yours. And usually, your dialog, regardless of what it is, just spurs another person to do something incredibly cool and badass.
Do you know what Dragon Age 2’s plot is? Dragon Age 2 is like playing D&D with an inflexible DM who has a cast of beloved characters who he wants to make as cool and badass as possible. You’re constantly walking from one person doing something badass to another, often at the expense of our character. Sure, Hawke is not us, but his dignity is constantly insulted. In one example, I killed wave after wave after wave of relatively powerful enemies, only to be ambushed and almost killed by one mage, whose like I’d killed two of during the previous battle. I was not worse for ware, either: I could have wrecked this mage in the most vicious way possible. We go to a cutscene, where the mage is slaughtered and another, cooler NPC saves us, one of the characters the developers want us to revere as good writing.
You never get the feeling Hawke is the champion of Kirkwall. Hawke is the middleman of Kirkwall, forced forever to side with increasingly unlikeable NPCs, to help them get their ways, rather than getting your way. All too often you’re put in a situation with two NPCs, and given three options: pick one of the two, or make a joke which shows which one of them has the better sense of humor and makes you pick again.
Or you can pick an option on the left side. Here’s the nasty truth about Dragon Age 2: if there is a symbol on the left side that isn’t a weird, three pronged spiral arrow, it is the correct choice. Like, not just a correct choice: it is the choice you pick, because it’s the one that makes good things happen. If you pick any of the ones on the right hand side, it will end in tragedy. Basically, they’ve ported the Mass Effect conversation system to this game, but instead of making certain responses dependent on you being a badass or a negotiator, it instead makes them obvious and available for everyone. How egalitarian and pointless.
All this adds up to a game with no soul. You’re never invested in any great conflict, and when you complete a time period, it jumps forward and that thread is almost forgotten. There isn’t even a story here. You’re a guy. You have some adventures. They’re not especially exciting. Then three years pass in which you do absolutely nothing of note, despite being perhaps the biggest badass in history; you do nothing because none of the major NPCs in the game, the developer’s PCs, do anything. When they start doing things, you pick the game back up.
To put it bluntly, this is medieval Gears of War with conversation choices that don’t really matter. Sure, your party members might like or dislike you, but this only serves to unlock a couple skills and, in fact, is pretty much pointless.
We haven’t even gotten to the technical problems yet. Really, the big one is reused enviornments. Every cave is the same modular cave, carved up by the placement of impassable barriers. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but it definitely makes every area just more like an area in a video game. And that’s the game’s problem: it is painfully, obviously a video game. It is Diablo II, or World of Warcraft: a big game that doesn’t really have a significant narrative arc, but which provides fun combat and the thrill of consecutive quests. The most exciting moments in the game are when you go to an area and turn in three quests at once.
This is where Bioware has fallen to. Turning in quests and getting money (that is really, inanely useless) is the biggest thrill Dragon Age 2 offers. It is cheap, and it is meaningless. It is big, brainless fun.
And I’m usually not one to be upset about that, except it wastes the results of a pretty brainy, intelligent game in the process. When I talk about being upset with Dragon Age 2 as a sequel to Origins, I am not upset that they changed the mechanics, or even made Hawke voiced. That is ancillary. What is important is that I played an eighty hour opus in Origins, one of the best games I’ve ever played, and its sequel is a big dumb game that keeps saying, I can’t believe this is happening to mages when the Hero of Ferelden was a mage. It keeps bringing up the fact that I did something spectacular in eighty hours of game, and now I’m here, killing literally hundreds of enemies an hour without anyone questioning the Ferelden killing machine on these foreign streets, making a fucking sovereign (which sovereign? That’s a very good question. Apparently, sovereigns are a universal currency, which means there must be some sort of universal banking apparatus. I never thought of this until now, but now I am horrified) for killing a hundred dudes. Each of whom has a family. In my time playing Dragon Age 2 I have killed the entire population of Kirkwall over a small amount of coin. My problems are small and stupid. They are treated as big, epic happenings by the frame narrative, but they are small and stupid and full of holes, and they make me long for how I felt when I returned to the Circle during Witch Hunt, a conquering, majestic hero looking for clues to solve the one problem in his life.
In the end, we get the impression that they took one thing from Dragon Age: Origins: that branching plots are hard. They struggle to make use of your choices, and they don’t let you make any choices. Let me put it plainly: there is precious little, here, that offers you the ability to make meaningful choice, and it takes until the last thirty seconds of the game to see why: it is because you are playing a prologue. Your actions are only important because they set up a cooler status quo for a future game, and they don’t want to allow you the ability to so fundamentally alter the world. It’s why Dragon Age 2 takes place somewhere besides Ferelden: it would be far too much work to work with the choices you made in Origins and Awakenings. Instead, they decided the go somewhere else, give you no ability to make any choices of any particular worth, and went from there.
Really, the only major choice you make is in the ending, and either way its effect on the obligatory Dragon Age 3 can be handled in tacked on flavor text. Everything else is filler. Everything else, everyone else can easily be forgotten.
I’m going to put this review bluntly. Origins was Baldur’s Gate. Not Baldur’s Gate 2, its infinitely superior sequel, but the big quest oriented, traditional, generic explorathon that was the original Baldur’s Gate. A fantastic game, in its own right.
Dragon Age 2 tries, really hard, to be Baldur’s Gate 2, replicating it on a very physical level (magic as a central theme, the first quest being to collect a lot of gold, awful invaders from far away, alien cultures, et cetera), but in the end, it is Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate’s brainless Diablo II wannabe cousin. It is heartless, it is soulless, and while it is fun, it is a pale mockery of its predecessor’s promises.