The original Dragons Age may have had flaws, but it never lacked ambition. With nine different starting points and totally different storylines based on class and race as well as a complex branching narrative, the excuse could always be made that any shortcomings were the result of how deep and personal the game experience could be for each player. Harking back to classics like Baldur’s Gate, the game was resolutely old school with a traditional feel to the interface and controls and brutal difficulty spikes. The question was, what changes would Bioware make for the sequel?
It seems that with two major releases appearing at the same time, Bioware was using each one to gauge how it would take its RPG games forward in the future. While Dragon Age went back to its roots with a traditional gameplay style, Mass Effect went for a more streamlined, modern cover based shooter/rpg hybird. It’s now hard to know whether to call Mass Effect an RPG at all, but one thing is for certain: Mass Effect was the more successful title with critics and gamers alike.
With that in mind its no surprise to see how much of Mass Effect’s gameplay has bled into Dragon Age 2. With the camera now fixed behind the player instead of above the action its impossible to avoid thinking of Shepherd’s adventures in space. While the console version of the original game used a similar approach, the PC version now uses the same over-the-shoulder approach and its no longer an option to zoom out of the action to get a more tactical view.
Although on the whole this works to the benefit of the game, some elements of frustration remain. For example, its very difficult to open a chest when a character stands in your way as there’s no way to specify what you want to interact with. Perhaps this is a vestige of the games initial mouse and keyboard controls where you could explicitly click on things to use them.
What’s even harder to get your head around is the fact that you need to press a button each time you want to attack. In a game that fundamentally operates by invisible dice rolls and traditional RPG systems, its incongruous to have to repeatedly tap the attack button to swing your sword or hurl fireballs. In the same way as WOW or any other modern MMORPG positioning of your character is important and reading the animation cues of your enemies is vital in dodging their attacks.
Control curiosities aside, the combat in Dragon Age 2 is the undisputed high point of the game. Better balanced than the brutally unfair original (at least on PC), the freedom to experiment a little with spell and weapon combos without being wiped out in seconds is welcome. I chose a mage and found that learning and combining spells with my team mates abilities was by far the most polished aspect of the game and the ability to play without having to constantly pause the game and give orders allowed the whole thing to flow more smoothly. Smaller encounters could be blazed through quickly while the larger bosses required a deal of planning and synchronisation to beat, but never felt unduly unfair. I never bothered with the AI behaviours in the first game finding that I could only scrape through encounters by micro-managing every aspect of every party members behaviour, but in Dragon Age 2 I found myself tweaking the complex tactic-slots system to improve my team mates performance in combat.
The more action based combat is not the only way that Dragon Age has been “Mass-Effect-ified”. The conversation wheel has been brought across too. This may seem like a minor addition, but by breaking away from the numbered responses menu that was in Dragon Age the game feels a little more modern. In truth though, the standard “tell me more” “good response”, “neutral response” and “go fuck yourself” conversation options are depressingly formulaic. Of all the things to crib from Mass Effect, why didn’t they take the interrupt prompts where you could react in real time to the events in cut scenes?
There were certainly a great deal of times I wanted to push people out of window to stop them talking. The dialogue throughout the game is terrible. Nicholas Boulton struggles on gamely as main character Hawke, and it benefits the game to have a protaganist who actually speaks. Almost every single line of dialogue is terribly written and even when they’re not whinging or whining the other characters still grate. The only companion who wasn’t mired in self pity and didn’t have a chip on their shoulder was Merrill voiced by the fantastic Eve Myles. So good is her characterisation that she almost rivalled Mordin as for the title of best “innocent but hilarious outsider character”. Perhaps in truth she stand out more amongst the utterly unsympathetic cast, the worst of which (your brother Carver) is possibly one of the least likeable characters in videogame history.
Its not just what the characters say, but rather the tone of the whole game that’s all over the place. Presumably it makes more sense to American ears, but having each race talk in a regional British accent is very distracting for us Brit’s. From Scottish to Welsh to Lancastrian, there’s almost no region of the UK that doesn’t represent the speech patterns of some obscure sect of Elves or Dwarfs and by the end of the game I was expecting a scouse Troglodyte to tell me to “Calm down, calm down”. That’s when they’re not mixing “Verily I smite thee” with “that decree from the Viscount was bullshit, dawg”.
What’s supposed to drive you through the game is the compelling, human drama of the story. It seems in this respect once again the developers were more focused on the UK than anything on American television; in particular they seemed to have based the whole thing on the tv series “Eastenders“. For anyone unfamiliar with the soap, its a depressing look at life in a grim area of London where family-based melodrama is common and laughter is a long forgotten memory.
In the same way Dragon Age 2 tasks you with struggling to survive in a large (though it feels very small) city as a refuge with a crooked uncle, whining brother and soppy mother who harangue you at every step and complain about their plight like mournful teenage goths. While Dragon Age: Origins scope was massive with the fate of the world at stake, Dragon Age 2 feels like a smaller part of a larger game that has been padded out. Like a single world in what should be a much larger game, you always feel like the storyline is about to become more grand and epic and the world will open up for exploration but it never does. All you do is plod from one phenomenally dull fetch quest to the next while everyone complains that you’re not improving things for the family. While games may struggle to justify why their heroes kill so many enemies, surely few reasons could be as prosaic as “so we can get money to buy a really nice house”.
Another feature it has in common with Eastenders is its complete lack of humour. Rarely does the game try for any levity and this results in a great deal of unintentionally hilarious scenes which are supposed to be serious. One moment in particular (where an evil beauty tries to hypnostise you to kill yourself) had me rolling on the floor with laughter, so ridiculous was the lead characters facial expressions and monolgoue as he struggled to overcome her mind control.
There’s no self awareness either. While WOW may be full of clever quests which gently mock the conventions of modern RPG’s, there’s nothing similar in Dragon Age. For example, in WOW there’s a very clever quest where you become the quest giver and a series of character which are parodies of typical WOW players come to you to be given instructions. When you tell the noob player to go North and he says “I got it” then runs South there’s genuine self awareness and subtle humour at play. In Dragon Age 2 though, you will be told to recover the Tome of Ankatahr, clear the tunnels of dragonlings and deliver a letter then deliver a dragon tooth then deliver a sword then deliver a spell book then…..and so on.
Tied in with this dry mission content is incredibly dull codex entries. Full of high school-level sword and sorcery fiction these are unbelievably dull. I honestly pity the person who had to write them, but then having to read them (even just for review) is almost as bad. Everything that was right with Mass Effects codex entries is wrong here. The attempt to build a mythology is so desperate you can smell it.
The final major criticism I can level at the game is its shameless reuse of assets throughout. Whole sections are reused over and over again. Whether its whole dungeons that are simply mirrored or areas with same layout but with different locked doors, the impression of a game spread thin is tangible in these sections. Its an incredibly long game so you’re left to wonder why there are so many quests that offer no new characters to meet, enemies to fight or environments to explore.
The environments never look great, but the visual effects in combat are impressive. The art style is still overwhelming brown and the developers still have a need to comically coat the characters in blood after every encounter, but the spells and effects on display look good and combat can become a frenetic spectacle of over the top pyrotechnics. The characters themselves look much better than the original game too with better facial animations and more detail in every aspect of their appearance. Its easier to become immersed in the occasional high points of the story when the characters speak and interact convincingly.
If that story was more involving Dragon Age 2 would be a big success. The dialogue and characterisation is weak, but the basic gameplay has been refined and polished to a level where its great fun every time you face a new encounter. If the storyline had framed these encounters in suitably epic fiction then it would be easy to get carried away and overlook some of the games flaws. As it is, Dragon Age 2 feels uneven. For all the time you spend fiddling with tactics and fine tuning your battle strategies, there’s many more moments of ploughing through dialogue trees that seem to branch into infinity. For every moment of awesome explosive fire storm spells there’s a mission to deliver a letter. For every massive Demon Lord you slay there’s ten thousand words of fan fiction about the Chantry, the Apostate Mages and the political and social hierarchy of Ferelden.
No matter how much you love Bioware RPG’s (and I really do) theres no way you can rate this up there with Mass Effect, KOTOR or even Jade Empire. Dragon Age 2 has many wonderful moments, but like its predecessor they’re spread thin and the game is painfully padded out. While Origin’s had depth, Dragon Age 2’s simpler story and structure mean it has no such excuse. If the series is to survive then significant changes need to be made. If they’re not, the next Dragon Age won’t be buffered by the store of good will critics seem to reserve for Bioware releases.
6 disappointingly delivered letters 10