Dragon Age II retrospective

Dragon Age II by Bioware (EA, 2011)
Dragon Age II: Legacy by Bioware (EA, 2011)
Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin by Bioware (EA, 2011)
Dragon Age: Origins by Bioware (EA, 2008)

Today This week marks the release of Dragon Age 2: Mark of the Assassin (likely the final major DLC release for that misbegotten sequel) and the first episode of Dragon Age: Redemption (a Felicia Day vehicle cos-playing as a video game ad). A couple of things stand out on this momentous day of Edmonton based virtual entertainment. First, I am glad to see that internet films have graduated to the production values of early episodes of Hercules the Legendary Journeys. Who says progress is linear? Second, Bioware really is making a play to take over the fantasy imagination of a generation of gamers.

Now, then, is a time as good as any to consider the state of Bioware’s fantasy franchise. Few sequels have driven the internet gaming blogosphere as insane DA2.

Internet opinion on this game varies along a spectrum that goes from “DA2 is the worst Bioware game” to prophecies of the eminent collapse Western RPGs. I am on the record noting that Bioware has been failing to provide quality entertainment for the last 11+ years, yet, at the same time I feel that this seven month old game is not nearly as awful as the average Kotaku commentator would have you believe.

In order to understand the strengths and weaknesses of DA2, we’ve got to dispel a few of the myths that haunt this franchise.

WARNING: The text below drops a lot of TRUTH BOMBS. Also: SPOILERS.

Let’s start at the beginning.

DA:ODragon Age: Origins really isn’t that great of a game: Let’s be clear headed here, folks, and turn down the nostalgia (for a game that is only three years old!). DA:O is sort of a mess. The graphics were a mix bag, at best. Bioware’s a painful attempt at fantasy “realism” was a patent failure with its strange looking faces and giant hands (I mean, ugh, the hands of characters in that game were so awful! It looked like everyone was wearing over-sized gloves.) The story – the most important part any RPG – was all over the place. The game had a compelling human antagonist but he was sidelined more often than not in favor the darkspawn. Oh, the darkspawn; dear, dear, dear, David Gaider: I think you’re one of the best writers in video game industry but combining orcs and zombies into a single archetype isn’t the fantasy mythos revolution of the twenty-first century – sad to say. Such a creative move is actually quite lame. The final boss – the “archdemon” – had no personality and its goal was simply to kill, kill, kill. Dull. The interface was uglier and clunkier (especially on consoles) than that found even in the original Baldur’s Gate. Combat was strategic on the PC, to be sure, but on the console the game could be unplayable at times. Along with that, combat, especially in the visual department, was painfully slow and not in a strategic way – the game played like everyone in the damn thing was weighed down by especially powerful gravity. The inventory system, on the console, is frustrating to the point of near uselessness. All of this led to a less than satisfying experience, especially for a game that was in development for 6+ years.

Despite the wall of text above, DA:O had a lot going for it: As with most modern Bioware games DA:O‘s greatest strength was its supporting cast. Alistar was great in a Joss Whedon sort of way; Morrigan, sweet evil, Morrigan (though I never entirely bought Claudia Black playing a women in her early 20s) was wonderful; sexually aggressive Zevran, I will never forget you; Frenchified Liliana, you really do love shoes.. While orc-zombies are boring, the politics of Ferelden were interesting. Loghain was a compelling – if overshadowed (quite literally) – antagonist. The overall world of Thedas is a pretty great setting for a video game. It is pleasant (and prophetic) that Gaider decided to steal more directly from R.R. Martin over R.R. Tolkien. The partial focus on politics and faction/ethnic/religious conflict was a refreshing change of place from most RPG plots. Most of all, DA:O offered players choices that had legitimate consequences for the story. This was present from the titular origins of your character to the final moments of the game. Bioware took their post-KOTR obsession with “choice” to extreme heights in the first Dragon Age game.

With the problems and successes of the first entry of the franchise fleshed out, let’s talk about its sequel.

Dragon Age 2 takes what’s good about DA:O and makes it better: The supporting cast is, in many ways, even stronger than the one in the original game. I absolutely love Merrill. With Aveline Bioware managed to create compelling and interesting female character is not a love interest. Varric is a great, snarky companion. Anders’ journey is provocatively tragic and important to over all story of Thedas. This is likely to prove one of my more controversial claims but, the story in DA2 was better than in DA:O. While some aspects did not work (see below), the journey of Hawke was much more compelling their our silent Warden from DA:O. While still all over the place, just like its predecessor, DA2’s story felt much more organic than DA:O’s. I bought, for example, the reasons your party stayed together in the sequel much more than in the original. In Dragon Age 2, Bioware really pushes the interesting conflicts of Thedas – between the mages and the templars, between the Chantry & the Qunari – to the foreground and, mostly, backgrounds the zombie orcs.

DA2Dragon Age 2 massively improves on many of terrible things about DA:O: While the new art style is far from perfect (I will never forget Hawke’s strange proportioned bare chest), it is an infinite improvement over the previous art design. Elves actually look different than humans! The new Qunari design is powerful, distinctive, and interesting. The interface, both menus and in combat, is improved to a degree of which human language can not express. Combat is faster and flashier. No more ponderous walking from enemy to enemy in DA2. Bioware continues its strong commitment to diversity in role-playing options by opening each love interest to same-sex romance. (This proved controversial among some commentators since they saw such a move as “lazy” or “insulting” since it denied players specific character reasons for a same-sex romance and provided a homogenized experience. There is some truth to these claims, however, I feel this is a lose/lose debate for Bioware. The hard-core slashers are still upset that they were denied their Alistar romance in DA:O.)

Dragon Age 2 introduced some compelling new features that were lacking in Dragon Age: Origins: I am mostly talking about the dialogue wheel. While far from perfect, the dialogue system is a large advance over the one in DA:O and the Mass Effect series. Gone is the dichotomous paragon/renegade system, what DA2 has is much more textured and allows for something

All that said, Dragon Age 2 had some serious issues.

Dragon Age 2 is rushed: There is really no other way about it, DA2 is extremely rushed. This game has so many rough edges I was afraid a couple of times that I would poke my eye out. While DA:O has more than a few moments where it lacks polish (especially for a game that was in development from c. 2003 to 2008) it is nothing like DA2, which had only 18 months (or so) of development time. I tend to be impressed that Bioware was able to throw together a game as good as DA2 in such a short period of time but the extremely rushed nature of this game can not be argued away.

Dragon Age 2 has too much content: This many seem counter-intuitive but DA2 has too much content for it’s own good. This is tied in with the game’s rushed nature. It is clear that David Gaider and his writers created way too many plot hooks and story content and there simply wasn’t enough resources with in the game to support it. This is what leads to the central complain that people have with DA2: the constant reuse of the same visual settings (the same cave, the same building, etc. etc.). Half-complete content and content that should have been cut has always been a problem with Bioware games but it is especially prevalent in DA2. Bioware would have been better off just cutting most of this chafe in the end.

Dragon Age 2‘s “framed narrative” does not entirely work: While I found Hawke’s story compelling (as above) Bioware’s way of telling it didn’t always work. Varric is a fun character but the increasingly over the course of the narrative the whole “framed” thing becomes increasingly forced and let’s not even rehash the strange and incomplete “ending.” Perhaps this whole “framed narrative” thing was an experiment worth having but, in the end, it was a failure.

Dragon Age 2 makes some things that were awful in Dragon Age: Origins even worse: I am mostly talking about the inventory system here which was nigh unusable in DA2. Worst part of the game, hands down. Especially considering how improved the overall interface was.

And now a couple of brief (joke) words on the DA2 DLC.

Mark of the Assassin and Legacy show that David Gaider’s staff of writers are, whatever you want to say about them, still very good scenario writers: Both of these pieces of downloadable content are excellent and should be examples for other game developers to follow. Each of these were meaty experiences that expanded both the scope of DA2 and the world of Thedas.  This is especially true of Mark of the Assassin, which is a great balance between combat, puzzles, role-playing, and even non-traditional game play (the stealth moments). Whatever the weaknesses of DA2 these DLCs should show even the haters (ha) that the core competences of the Dragon Age team remain strong. This should pour a lot of cold water on the those unleashing a jermaid about eminent collapse of the western RPG. Although I was disturbed out by the offensive transsexual joke in MotA.

It is great to see Felicia Day pushing herself a bit: It is good to see Day playing a character that is about 50 or 75 percent out of her comfort zone. In fact when her dialogue fell back on Day’s strengths (quirky awkwardness) the character of Tallis failed to work. When Gaider and crew pushed Day out side of that comfort zone, as a voice actress, she really got to shine. I am neither one of the kind-of-oddly-slavish male gamer fans of Day nor am I part of her growing number of haters. I think Day is a talented and driven actress but she too often plays the same character over and over again (she her recent turn on Eureka, which I want to return to soon). I was glad to see her doing something somewhat different with her turn as Tallis. I hope Bioware brings her back.

All ramblings above are meant to make (or suggest) one straight forward argument: Dragon Age 2 is not the worst game ever. It may not even be the worst Bioware RPG (that dubious honor goes, perhaps, to Jade Empire but it is arguable). DA2 does not mark the coming DOOM of American/Canadian RPGs. DA2, in the end, is a mediocre (if rushed) sequel to a mediocre original game. It makes some improvements on the original, it makes some things worse. The sky is not falling, things are not falling apart.

If you like Bioware games I’d recommend both DA:O and DA2. It is worth renting or picking up used (or the inevitable gold/game of the year edition). In fact, I plan on replaying the full game of DA2 over the winter break. I’m mildly interested in what direction they will take Dragon Age 3.

So, internets: let’s talk about this game in a reasonable way. The successes and failures of this game are not really a crystal orb into what is going to happen with The Old Republic or Mass Effect 3. There is no need to scream about DA2 in the comments of every post on any Bioware game.

After all of the virtual ink spilled over this game, let’s move on. I mean, Diablo III is using real money in the auction house!!!!!!

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3 Comments on “Dragon Age II retrospective”

  1. […] debate the relative worth of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II (my defense of DA2 can be found here). Also discussed is the value of Bioware’s (in)famous dialogue wheel from Mass Effect and sex in […]

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  3. […] posts about Bioware: Baldur’s Gate series, Dragon Age series, Mass Effect […]


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