Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dragon Age II Review: Big Shoes to Fill

Article first published as "PC Game Review: Dragon Age II" on Blogcritics.

Dragon Age 2*SPOILERS*

Dragon Age II fell short of my expectations.

That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad game, but rather one that feels rushed and oversimplified, as if BioWare’s chief concern were getting the game to market as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Those aren’t words I thought I’d ever write about that company.

It didn’t help matters that BioWare has been touting the series as the “spiritual successor” to Baldur’s Gate II. Dragon Age II does not reach that lofty goal. It doesn’t even live up to the standards of Dragon Age: Origins.

Story

Before I delve too deeply into the game’s flaws, I want to talk about what it gets right. Namely, what BioWare always gets right: the writing.

You play as Hawke, the talented scion of a wealthy family that was forced to flee its hometown of Lothering due to the events of Dragon Age: Origins.

Doomed one way or another
Early in my game, Hawke's sister Bethany, the party's main support mage (think “cleric”), just up and died from Darkspawn poisoning. No saving throw, no life-saving quests, no divine intervention. Requiescat in pace.

I had made the decision to put her in the party for that particular expedition, even though her mother made a big show of pleading with her not to go. And that had led to her death. I was thunderstruck and a little pissed off.

I later read that she would have been taken from the party one way or another at that point in the game, but still...the message that my decisions would have serious consequences had been sent.

Dragon Age II not only presents an engaging, sophisticated fantasy world, but also populates it with characters that have realistic motivations and reactions.

As Hawke moved up the social ranks in the city of Kirkwall, tensions grew between the Mages and their sworn enemies, the Templars. It became clear that war was inevitable, and each side wanted Hawke to take its part. They both had such compelling reasons to distrust the other that I had a difficult time choosing.

Who could resist that mug?
The inconvenient presence of the Qunari added a third front to the city's growing tension. A literal boatload of this intimidating warrior race had been shipwrecked near the city and taken up residence in the docks, refusing to leave and luring Kirkwall citizens from both sides of the conflict into the Qun, their harsh religion/code of honor.

When the game revealed their true purpose, they came across as simultaneously horrible and virtuous. That's a neat trick to pull off.

In addition, the game includes effective little story beats that don’t affect the main plot:
  • Hawke's fellow warrior Aveline has a bumbling flirtation with one of her underlings in the city guard that was both embarrassing and charming.
  • Varric, the game's narrator as well as Hawke's wise-ass friend, has an emotional struggle not to take revenge on his brother when he discovers his degraded state. His facade cracks convincingly, but only for for a moment.
  • Origins players will be pleased to see the return of Sandal, the "special" dwarf enchanter. He has more to say this time around, and his innocence is touching. They play him for laughs sometimes, but without really mocking him.
Setting

Much has been made of the fact that you spend the bulk of the game in Kirkwall. True, BioWare has created a rich world for the Dragon Age games, but not every epic fantasy has to be a Lord of the Rings-style travelogue. I see nothing wrong with setting the story in a major city, especially if all the major events involve that city’s politics.

I did have a problem with the repetition of maps in that setting, though. No matter where I sent Hawke, he always seemed to end up fighting in the same dirty alleyway.

The countryside outside the city offered much of the same. You go through the same seaside map, the same cave map, the same mountainside map over and over, with some passages inexplicably blocked off. Even your trip into The Fade (the source of magic and demonic spirits) is just a blurry version of a regular castle interior.

I would say it’s bad game design, but I suspect it’s more insidious than that. It feels like an attempt to save time and money and get the game out the door very fast. In fact, many elements of the game smack of economizing.

Gameplay

The character creation system is simplified, which is not in itself a bad thing, but you are given far fewer options than in the previous game. You must be a human being, and you can choose to be a rogue, mage, or warrior. That’s it.

We’ve come a long way from Baldur’s Gate.

The character class abilities have become so carefully balanced that it’s hard to feel the advantages or disadvantages of playing one over the other. Each class gets the same number of ability slots, but it feels like you simply get different colored pegs to put in them. This alone makes me less likely to replay it.

The pegs come in a variety of pretty colors, though.

Combat has been simplified as well. It’s frenetic to the point that you can essentially play Dragon Age II as an action game (I recommend playing on a console if you choose this path). Or you can pause as often as you like to survey the battlefield. On balance, this is an improvement.

The fighting lacks a tactical element, however. You can issue commands to individual party members, but only one at a time. I miss the days of Knights of the Old Republic, when you could create a stack of commands for every party member and then sit back and watch your strategy unfold.

Bioware put some effort into streamlining the more tedious elements of computer RPGs. In some cases, they fell short.

The weird inventory tactic of simply labeling certain items “junk” might save you the trouble of figuring out which items are worth keeping, but why go through the charade at all? Why not just replace them with gold?

The map system was a nice improvement, though, especially the night vs. day modes. Nice to not have to stand around for twelve hours twiddling your thumbs to take that night mission.

Summary

Pros: Strong story and characters, decent combat system

Cons: Repeated environments, oversimplification of characters and advancement.

Recommendation: It’s worth playing, but I don’t say that with much enthusiasm. It has a good story and fun elements, but you won’t fail to notice its many flaws.

Final Note: After some trial and error, I settled on the PC version of this game, after some trial and error. I find it much simpler to manage abilities and spells on the PC, plus there's a small graphics bump.

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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