Friday, April 22, 2011

Dragon Age II: Lowering Barriers or Dumbing Down?

Traditional weak points of the classic RPG are ... they're daunting. High barrier to entry. They're hard to get into.
—Mike Laidlaw*, lead designer of the Dragon Age games
(via Destructoid)
Dragon Age 2My experience so far of Dragon Age II is that it leaves the door wide open for anyone who wants to come in. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think it jibes with a game series that sees itself as a “spiritual successor” to Baldur’s Gate.

Dragon Age II simplifies the character creation process in three ways:
  1. You have to be a human being named “Hawke.”
  2. You can choose to be a Warrior, Mage, or Rogue. Nothing else.
  3. Each class functions the same way: you get points to spend on “talents” or spells.
The game’s introduction asks you to pick a gender and class, and then gives you a chance to test drive that character before committing for the rest of the game. As a sufferer of character creation anxiety, I appreciate this innovation.

I have no problem with simplifying character advancement, but I do quibble with an RPG severely limiting the choice of who you play. You’re Hawke or you’re no one.

Mass EffectLaidlaw mentions several classic RPGs that inspired Dragon Age, including Planescape: Torment, which required you to play a specific character. He fails to mention the most obvious antecedent, Bioware’s own Mass Effect, in which you can only play as Commander Shepard.

Shepard’s story is intertwined with the story of humanity proving itself to—and ultimately saving the asses of—powerful alien races. There is only one story and it’s about her (or him). Neither Dragon Age: Origins nor Dragon Age II features a story in which the main character’s background is crucial.

Yes, the travails of Hawke’s family play a big part in the story, but they are not the driving force or even significant to the main thrust of the game. Hawke is; his family is not. He could have been anyone or anything.

Dragon Age II’s spiritual ancestor, Baldur’s Gate, featured a story that made your character critical to the plot but still gave you freedom to be whatever you wanted. Your father was the God of Murder, which is crucial to the story whether you are an elf, gnome, or grue.

These restrictions in Dragon Age II feel more like simplifications designed to free up design and coding time. That is, to save money. A lot about the game smacks of that.

And despite all that, I’m having fun with the game. I would have picked a human warrior anyway.

* * *
*Could Mike Laidlaw of Bioware and Marc Laidlaw of Valve please get together and determine which of you is going to change your name? Seriously, this has gone on long enough.

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