Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review: Dragon Age II

Without reading any previews, I had this grand vision in my head of what Dragon Age 2 would look like based on my experiences with its prequel. I had imagined another countrywide trek across the faraway land of Ferelden, centuries after my past quest. The darkspawn would be a returning threat, as they are wont to return every number of years, with a new generation of heroes trying to figure out WHY they keep coming back. And all of the decisions I made in Dragon Age 1 would be manifesting themselves, what with the werewolf plague in effect, mages laughing at templars and maybe an army or two of golems lying around. Maybe I shouldn’t have let my imagination run wild with the possibilities. Maybe I shouldn’t have stuck my nose so deep into the game’s codec.

But alas, Dragon Age 2 is not that game. Where Origins felt like a weird anomaly transported from 1998 to introduce players to the joys of invisible dice rolls, Dragon Age 2 is a little more current-generation. You can feel the claw marks on the game where Electronic Arts stuck their talons in Dragon Age 2 with input. For example, the game development’s Herbalism Budget was slashed in favour of the Violence Budget. Enemies have a tendency to explode for no biologically conceivable reason other than for comedy, and I was never not laughing when an enemy combusted from my dagger stab. Combat feels a little more involved and interesting, in part because you now press a button to make your hero attack, followed by him or her ACTUALLY ATTACKING. This shocking departure from the days of watching canned sword-swinging animations need not worry devoted role playing players, as you’ll eventually hit a point where the game starts demanding you to pause the action at every opportunity to administer specific team commands. That was the point I started cursing and set the difficulty to Casual.

Because I am, after all, a casual player of RPGs of all kinds. And I can appreciate the mild casual-izing that EA and/or Bioware opted to make in the name of smoothing out the game. Trap-making? Gone. Herbalism? Of course not, Grey Wardens don’t do drugs. The Skills part of leveling up has been removed to make the game feel less like World of Warcraft. And all of the universe’s pieces of armour and clothes are custom-fitted to only fit your main character and no one else in your party. ‘Ye Olde fans of Dragon Age: Origins have every right to be irate at these omissions, but I was merely content to spend less time navigating menus and more time navigating my sword in someone’s chest.

And fight you will. I personally don’t think players should be particularly up in arms over the game’s simplified nature as they should over some of the real shortcuts. Remember how Origins had you travelling far and wide across large landscapes into a variety of medieval, Tolkienianish settings? Dragon Age 2 is not quite that. No, Dragon Age 2 takes place entirely with the city of Kirkwall, a single city with more enemy mercenaries, gangs, slavers, demons, blood mages and giant spiders than actual civilians. You’ll visit the shopping district, castle, slums, super slums, seaside slums and other medieval ghettos and barrios. The vast majority of the action takes place in the same locales, be it the city streets or in the exact same warehouses, basements, mountainsides and caves. The complete 180 in scope from the first game to this is rather discouraging.

Likewise, you can expect your characters to almost always be soaked in sweet red blood, just like in the first game. There is no shortage of enemies to combat, and no shortage of sidequests to undertake, and no shortage of time to realize that all of those sidequests will ask you to cut down a portion of the Kirkwall population. Some fights are annoying in the sense that they unceremoniously dump waves of previously unseen enemies in your direction. This makes creating strategic…okay, hypothetically, if I were the type of player that paused the game every turn to issue teammate commands, it would really throw off my gameplan to have a second wave of goons appear on the field. The first major chapter of the game is particularly off-putting, in that the game seems to throw 300 sidequests at you, with the goal that the player will raise 50 gold coins. Now if only the game were courteous enough to waypoint the location of the target of that 50 gold coins quest once I had raised the funds instead of leaving me to wander the streets of Notslumstown.

I feel like these are all unfortunate flaws that devoted Origins fans will take offense to, which is tragic since I feel like this is a game that Origins fans should experience anyways. This is still very much a Bioware game with a very Bioware-like plot. You play as Hawke, a custom-created male or female Warrior/Rogue/Mage, whose family leaves Ferelden during the first game’s events. The game does a really great job of portraying your character’s rise to power, from struggling refugee to wealthy noble to being the Man (or Woman) of the town. Meanwhile, your character surrounds his/herself with interesting personalities, from a wise-cracking dwarf to a wise-cracking pirate to characters that aren’t as wise-cracking but still present interesting personalities and sidequests. Just like Mass Effect 2, the most rad of rad segments within Dragon Age 2 are the quests you do to earn the love of your teammates. And like Mass Effect 2, having sex with your teammates is a PG, all-clothes-on affair. Do you really want a video game programmer to render the pixels on your dwarf mage’s nipples?

You may remember how Dragon Age: Origins had your character dealing with complex moral issues involving fantasy characters and dilemmas based on real hot button topics. (The dwarves had a f***ing Indian caste system! The insanity!) Dragon Age 2 doesn’t quite hit on as many potential high school essay topics, but it does a great job focusing on a select few. The whole matter of templars controlling mages is very thoroughly explored, and the writing of the game is sure to inject as much grey area into the debate as possible. You also have to deal with tensions relating to a group of Qunari refugees that hate living in Kirkwall but have no desire to go anywhere.

Naturally, there will be many instances where the player will have to make some kind of moral choice. And like its predecessor, Dragon Age 2 handles this more appropriately than any other game on the market. Since you don’t have to worry about filling a Good or Evil meter to unlock any achievements or special abilities, and since most of these choices aren’t exactly clear-cut, the game gives you the freedom to decide based on your own opinions and feelings. I appreciate that. Especially since your choices will inevitably lead to you making a profound impact on the world.

And there are but a few callbacks to Dragon Age 1 and some of the moral choices you may have settled on. I was at least content knowing that Dragon Age: Awakening gets some acknowledgement and that my time spent on that expansion was not wasted.
My last gripe? Not to spoil things, but the game uses an interrogation of a central character as its narration device. And these interrogation sequences ultimately serve little more than to advertise the next Dragon Age game. Call it a Desmondizing of the game, if you will.

Dragon Age 2 brings to the player a very compelling rags-to-riches-to-messing-up-the-city tale. Getting to witness that tale requires a whole lot of patience and compromise, and accepting that this is not the amazing anomaly of an RPG the first game was. It can be frustrating, it can be a chore. And yet the moment I reached the end credits, I immediately started a new game, just to see how some of my previous decisions would pan out differently. So on that strength, fans of the first game should try it anyways and brace themselves for a very positive, enjoyable disappointment.