Review by mrklarryd

"I WANT A DRAGON...maybe"

Dragon Age 2 Review

Kirkwall and its people

The normal Bioware formula is to have an introductory segment, 4 large hubs with self-contained lore and plot, followed by a final area where everything comes together.

That's gone in Dragon Age 2, replaced by one large city and several coast regions revisited in 4 time periods. Instead of the self-contained lore of the four hubs, we get to see how the politics of the one area evolve over time through a series of many, many vignettes.

This works pretty well. It's fascinating watching low-lifes talk to Hawke as a fellow street thug and immigrant in one chapter, then express jealousy as he or she makes inroads to the channels of power in Kirkwall, to finally becoming a person of such influence that local powers and foreign regents treat him or her as a near equal. It's also fun to watch how for instance, a particular Templar in Act 1 changes his or her views towards his charges in Act 2, then change it again in Act 3, due to personal experience.

Writing

The overarching plot revolves around two paranoid, co-dependent, self-fulfilling prophecies. One group fears the oppression of another group and resorts to slightly more dangerous methods. The second group sees the first group as more dangerous than they otherwise would have and escalates its oppression, which spooks the first group into even more dangerous behavior, continuing the cycle until its culmination. The fears of both would never happen if either of them take a single step back (instead of forward) at any point, but neither are willing. It's a pretty compelling construct and not one often seen in this medium, though the resolution is rushed and contains at least one unnecessary twist that undermines the interesting conceptual setup.

This plot is told through a crapton of independent, short-story sidequests that may continue and overlap in different forms across various acts, each of which is well-written and interesting by itself. The quests, themselves, are usually 'go to this location you've been to 100 other times, kill something, open a chest, go back to the quest-giver', which is not fun, but the writing keeps these quests from sinking.

Characterization among the party is another incredibly strong point, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has played a Bioware game, bringing us to:

Rivalry

Once again, the party's an interesting bunch, but the most interesting thing is the rivalry mechanic and how it forces role-playing. Making a character a Friend or Rival present bonuses, character indifference does not, so Hawke needs to behave the same way around each party member as he or she has before in order to get positive outcomes. The best way to influence party members in DA:O was to tell them what they want to hear. The best way to influence party members in DA2 is to pick a set of characteristics for Hawke and stick to them.

Each party member likes certain types of actions and hates others, but it's not binary. Some are diametrically opposed (Anders and Fenris are opposites), but mostly they have preferences and beliefs that sometimes overlap and sometimes don't. Aveline likes law and order, but hates evil so much that she's fine with vigilantism if the cause is just enough. Isabela doesn't like law and order at all, but hates lies even worse. Balancing this stuff is a welcome addition to gameplay.

Choice and Consequence

Bioware, as a company, has built itself into a powerhouse based mostly on a single concept: choice and consequence.

The Choice component in DA2 is superficial and the Consequence portion is absent.

This didn't become apparent to me until the second playthrough, but the player doesn't have much actual control over outcomes, beyond friendship and rivalry. Usually none. No matter what the player chooses, the short-term result will seem very different, but down the road, future events related to this event are invariably identical, no matter what you choose.

If a character's full rival or full friend, you might get a rare line of dialogue that's a bit different, but their quests and actions never change. If you're mean to an NPC in act 1 and they screw you over in act 3, chances are that had you been nice to them in Act 1, they would still have screwed you over in the exact same way, at the exact same time and merely cited a different reason.

This is a big step down from most choice/consequence games, to say nothing of Dragon Age 2's predecessor, which had very real long-term repercussions for the choices made. Even in KotoR, depending on what the player does or says on Manaan, for instance, they might
1.Be executed
2.Be banned from the planet
3.Be allowed to visit the planet, but be charged and exorbitant docking fee and find that some merchants won't deal with you
4.Get a pat on the back

There's nothing like that in DA2. No matter what you say or do, you'll end up in the same place with the same people, doing the same things in the same way. It's like an Assassins Creed game, which wouldn't be terrible were it not pretending it was something different.

Rush Job

No getting around it, this game was rushed. There are about 6 permanent areas that can involve fighting and about 5 more re-used dungeons, along with maybe another 3 that are seen once. There are likely more than 100 sidequests that involve clearing one or more dungeons. That means each dungeon type, beyond the one-offs will be cleared more than 10 times a piece. To say that's irritating and immersion-breaking is an understatement. Even Nier wasn't this bad with the reused dungeons, and it was a budget game. I just can't really believe that 20 distinctive, identical caverns would exist as mines in Bone Pit, slave tunnels/sewers under Kirkwall, spider holes on a local mountain and Qunari camps next to the ocean, among other things.

Party members cannot equip different armor beyond two 'set' outfits (three for Aveline). This wasn't a design choice. The three women in your party all have different body models, which would have requires making three different women sets for each type of armor, testing them for clipping (etc.). I don't care what the official word is on the reason for not being able to manage party equipment, that's the actual reason.

The weirdest example of this being rushed is in the character creation screen. If you create a custom male Hawke and give him any facial hair, even a small moustache, his entire jawline resets to default so as to avoid potential clipping or floating chin fuzz. This is something I've never seen before in any game that allows you to create a character. There are also bizarre holes in some of the hair sets and odd textures in others.

Voice

The voice acting is great, other than the male protagonist, who is a unintentionally-hilarious, but the female Hawke is much, much better. All of this indicates only that this is a Bioware game. Moving along...

Music

Like the new stuff, but much is just reused from the last game. Moving along...

Graphics

Mixed bag. Character heads and models improved. Art design more distinctive. Lighting effects better. Some changes (Flemeth, Darkspawn) baffling. Some cutscenes flicker. Moving along...

Combat

The biggest pre-release worry about this game was that combat would be 'dumbed down for the console masses.' That didn't happen at all. Near as I can tell, under the hood, DA2 is the same as DAO, with more varied, fewer redundant skills and cross-class combos added in to boot.

This isn't to say it's the same or better. Bioware made several changes to the player's relationship with the same old math that, when combined, make the game play much worse than its predecessor.

This is a review for the Xbox version, so I won't bemoan the lack of an overhead camera. However, it's still much more difficult to identify what you're up against when you initially walk into an enemy room.

Previously, the player could pause, prepare to cast a long-range AoE spell (such as Fireball or Mana Clash) that reached out nearly to the end of draw distance without actually casting the spell. These spells would identify masses of enemies by name and color, so the player would know immediately there were, for instance, 4 normal Reavers, 4 normal archers, 2 normal blood mages, one Qunari elite and one elite unique, then plan accordingly. It doesn't seem there is a spell with that kind of reach in DA2 and the non-color-coded enemy names indicate far less, so it's a guessing game as to whether the 'Tal Vashoth Warriors' you see will charge or throw a spear. The only other thing that differentiates enemies at a distance is the length of the health bar, which tells the player very little, since damage resistance varies wildly and haphazardly. The same length health bar might fall from (for the sake of simplification) 3 DWW abilities or withstand the damage caused by 30 (if you could use that many in a row).

The most the player can know upon walking into a room is that there are X enemies with short health bars that may or may not be ranged attackers, Y enemies with long health bars that may or may not be ranged attackers and that there are an indeterminate number of enemies behind them about which nothing can be known because they are obscured or too far away.

Lack of information makes good planning difficult, no?

The next problem is the button-mashing. Bioware has misunderstood the purpose of button presses in action games and grafted them onto what is, at it's core, a strategy title. As a big fan of action games, to me, this is an incompatible marriage. Action games are about avoiding things by smart use of geometric angles, precision reflexes and moving the character into a circumstance where he or she can take advantage of windows of opportunity. The challenge is to position yourself to get X button presses in a row without having to interrupt the sequence with a dodge or block before something knocks the avatar half-way across the screen. There's, perhaps, one fight like that in this game, and it requires running around in circles like a Benny Hinn extra to complete, because evasion abilities are on cooldown.

In Dragon Age 2, the effect in normal battles is that when I should be switching over to my archer to put pinning shot on a single enemy the tanks have lost hostility toward, my attention is elsewhere because I'm hammering a button at a certain enemy to make sure my melee splash damage hits the guys next to him and the AI I've set wants the guy I'm controlling to attack someone else (which would be the right course of action in circumstances other than this one). It's distracting, and no more convenient than if Starcraft required a mouse click every single time the player wanted his grunts to fire a round.

But the biggest problem with combat is that enemy reinforcements fall out of the sky or spawn out of thin air at inopportune locations with blank hostility during every battle. The player will send out a tank and an off-tank to grab threat at the beginning of battle (one tank can't seem to hold threat for whole mobs), leaving a healer and an archer, for instance, in the doorway they just came from. When a couple of the initial wave fall, the player might notice that his archer's health is dropping, pause the game and find the squishies surrounded by enemies that weren't there a moment ago. The player didn't miss anybody; these new guys literally fell out of the sky.

I'm sure the developers wanted to make it so the player has to react to changing circumstances, but this mechanic is more like griefing than anything else. If it was the occasional anti-mage rogue that did this, that would be one thing. But it's not just mages that flank the party. The party will walk down a one-way hallway, the mages will stay in the door blocking it and still get flanked, meaning Hawke supposedly walked right past 10 axe-wielding nutjobs in heavy plate without noticing them. This 'feature' wrecks smart positioning completely. The methods for avoiding death from these respawns are counter-intuitive and idiotic (grab threat with two tanks, wait five seconds and send your ranged attackers to kissing range of the first wave of melee attackers, since that's the only place enemies never spawn). Because of this, the player is better off trying to figure out what the developer was thinking, instead of what the enemies are going to do.

This creates a disorganized, illogical battlefield where ranged attackers are standing a foot away from enemy melee attackers who are ignoring them,and firing arrows and spells at a faraway group of enemy melee attackers who are charging them.

The final problem with combat wouldn't be a problem if not for all the other problems, and it's the speed. Not only are attacks sped up, but so are status effect durations. Since it's difficult to keep track of what's going due to lack of and/or changing information, and since the button presses are distracting, it takes a minute to notice that an certain enemy has a status effect that can be combo-ed. By the time the player notices the status effect is present, it might be too late to take advantage of. This can be handled through AI scripts, but I've always used those to macromanage battle, not complete it for me.

tl:dr Combat's a mess because the player doesn't have enough information to make intelligent choices and the information the player does have is outdated quickly.

Conclusion

So what we have here is a Choice and Consequence game with strong Narrative, but no Consequence and superficial Choice. The skill trees offer even more potential strategies than it's versatile predecessor, none of which can be used properly because the player doesn't have enough information about what's going on. It has this great concept in 'Rivalry' that nothing, ultimately, is done with.

There are some really good ideas in Dragon Age 2, and if this were a franchise launch title I might think it had promise, but the simple fact of the matter is it's the second game in a sequence and it broke a bunch of things that weren't a problem in the first place. I'll generally tend to overlook big flaws if they're avoidable or unimportant (Nier's farming, Alpha Protocol's cover shooting, Halo 2's plot) but Dragon Age 2's combat flaws are ever-present and inescapable. With a second playthrough, the superficiality of choices becomes evident immediately. The only incentive to play a second time is to hear how renegade manHawke's unintentionally-hilarious dialogue “Whaaht waas thiss jubb yuu menntionnedh....OOOOOHHHLD MAAAHHN!!!1” differs from, say, snarky FemHawke's snark.

All things considered, DA2 floats between good and mediocre.

7/10


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/21/11

Game Release: Dragon Age II (US, 03/08/11)


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