Posted on March 24, 2011
Dragon Age II; the Strawberryjamening.
I feel as though I’m in the best possible situation that I could be in to review Dragon Age II. I’m almost finished it so I can give you a summary of how the game plays but I also can’t spoil the ending, even if I wanted to. So for me this is ideal. I like the gameplay, even if it is a bit button mashy when you are waiting for your spells to cool down and that this is a console game that they’ve also released on the PC, rather than the other way ’round as it was with DA:O.
I really liked the original Dragon Age: Origins until I really didn’t. That happened the moment I started replaying it and found that without the story unfolding for the first time, there just wasn’t anything in it for me. The problems with the original Dragon Age: Origins for me were:
1) Drab scenery.
2) Weird looking people, not Oblivion weird, but definitely weird.
3) Story twists that, once revealed, add nothing to the replay of the game.
4) The world is about to end in an orgy of destruction and you’re the only guy who can stop it, buuuuuuut feel free to dick around, make friends, obsess over equipment management, take some classes in herbalism and help everyone you meet find their lost dogs etc.
5) Limited areas to explore.
6) As a voiceless character, the main character just stares at people and shrugs as the rest of this interesting dialogue is being played out.
7) I remember the inventory management being absolutely tortuous and never got the hang of which shoulder buttons to use to flip through it.
8) One of the best allies (Shale) was only available as DLC.
9) Bioware hub hopping.
10) How Bioware makes friends
Here is my take on the extent to which these things were solved:
1) The scenery is much improved. There is still no whimsy in this type of fantasy and the Free Marches do seem to have their fair share of overcast with a chance of rain days. However, the city you spend most of your time in is thematically strong and well defined and impressive, rather than pretty. The scenery doesn’t change much, given how long the story spans, just a few changes that I can think of over time. The scenery gets a thumbs up from me because it doesn’t stray form the sense of realism that I think they are going for with the setting.
2) Much improved. Not only does everyone seem to have functioning eyes now, but the clothing and armour is better realised, rather than the inexplicably metallic looking leather everyone was always wearing in Origins. There is something comical about the way people storm off from conversations, however. Like they asked Yosemite Sam to do their motion capture. The reboot that they have given the elves and qunari is welcome too.
3) Eh, that’s always going to be tough. I suspect that because the story builds up as you act, rather than getting thrown into a story as in Origins, this might be better. We’ll see.
4) One of the criticisms I’ve heard most frequently is that the story doesn’t feel epic because you’re just playing some guy and there isn’t any kind of doom hanging over you. This is stupid. You have cancer and will die. How awesome did your life just get? The game is better for having the story build around you rather than invite you to waste your time after making it clear that there is no time to waste. Without giving too much away, political tensions that existed in Kirkwall are exacerbated by several outside factors that put them on an inevitable collision course. There is no pressure early in the game other than to take care of your family, make new friends but as you ascend politically (although in a kind of undefined most interesting man in Kirkwall type of way) you get dragged in to the middle of it. You really do get the sense of events snowballing, sometimes because of actions you took, sometimes despite of it.
If I was to liken the main protagonist of the DA2 to anyone it’d be Lando Calrissian. Lando gets caught up in some shit. At first he is just looking out for himself, then he gets responsibility with running Bespin, then he gets put in a terrible position, then things get more difficult but eventually he ends up blowing up the Death Star.
If I was to liken the main protagonist of DA:O to anyone it’d be Neo. Turns out he is The One destined for something great, so he gets more powerful to achieve his goal and then achieves his goal. Who would you rather have at a dinner party?
5) Another criticism is that the areas that you explore get reused over and over again. This is totally true and really annoying. I think people forget that they did this in the first DA too, but with worse scenery. Still, a few more places would have been rad.
6) The communication system, which is a lot like the Mass Effect communication system is great. Your responses can be Diplomatic/Smartass/Stern/Charming/Romantic/Investigative/some kind of curt response that wraps up conversations suddenly/starting a fight/making a choice and deferring to a party member. The voice acting is better than DA: O and I have to say I like the characters more too. They seem better fleshed out in terms of their stories and the banter in the background provides a lot of funny lines and character background. Eve Myles is particularly good as the elf companion.
7) It is horseshit that my Blood Dragon Armour that I got as DLC and the shit that Gamestop gave me for pre-ordering is only usuable by Warriors. I played a Mage and really wanted some kind of equivalent. Horseshit. Anyway, other than that, I approve. You can equip your buddies with weapons and magic items but you can’t change their armour. If you get armour that isn’t for your character’s class, you have to sell it. Instead, your buddies have a suit of armour that upgrades through purchasing upgrades or completing their quest lines. In terms of pointless micromanagement, it is definitely a loss; in terms of streamlining, a big win. You can still customize their armour with runes, so it isn’t as though all is lost.
8) I’m perplexed as to why they made Sebastian Vael an optional party member, because I think his part in the plot is really interesting. I thought his character was very well done for a serious and religious character. It is hard to think of a religious character that wouldn’t fall back on just spouting received wisdom or scriptural platitudes, but Sebastian comes across as actually being wise. Which is kind of funny because his arrows appear to turn people into clouds of strawberry jam and you’d think that would unhinge him. In the background chatter he could be very boring since he doesn’t joke about much, but his interactions are kind of interesting because he is giving considered advice to the other party members. As someone aligned with the church, he provides a lot of insight to the final sections of the game and I can’t imagine playing through it without him. Instead of giving him the personality of a caricature-of-a-priest they made him a lot like an actual priest.
9) The classic Bioware set-up is to give you a basic starter area and introduce some friends. The you choose which of four quest hubs to go to where you will get a bunch of quests and meet another friend. Then once all four hubs main story quests are wrapped up, you proceed to another place, quest a bit more and then embark on the final quest.
That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily. But they’ve done it in every game, for crying out loud.
Dragon Age Origins was: Lothering then Circle/Orzammar/Redcliffe/Forest then Denerim.
Mass Effect’s was: Eden Prime then Therum/Noveria/Feros/Virmire then FinalPlotTwistFight.
MA:2 was Freedom’s Progress then Citadel/Omega/Ilium/Tuchanka then on your way to Hilariously Metal Boss Fight.
See? In DA2 you have one quest hub, Kirkwall. Kirkwall is brimming with quests. The underlying plot, Faction A vs Faction B, is a constant throughout each of the three acts, but other Factional conflict quests get resolved in acts one and two until those factions are happy/strawberry jam on the ground and leave only the big two for the finale. It is a different tack to take and I’m glad they have.
10) That whole thing where you try and guess what everyone’s favourite things are and then give those to them is gone, thank christ. Now you get to be friends with people by a) spending time with them, b) completing their quests, c) completing other quests in a way they like and d) not being a dick to them. If a party member really disapproves of you, you’ll become rivals – which grants them a bonus different from the one they’d get if you were buddies. If you are neither rivals nor buddies they may just decide to fuck off at crucial parts of the plot. I much prefer this new system.
In all, I’m perplexed that DA2’s review ratings are hovering around 80% of whatever thumb/star rating system people are using. I mean,Fallout 3 New Vegas scored higher than that and that was a fucking mess of a game. I understand that if you were masochistic enough to think that DA:O was THE WAY RPG GAMES WERE MEANT TO BE you’ll be disappointed, but I approve of the reboot.