Dragon Age 2
By Dwip December 3, 2012, 11:24 am Comments (6) RSS Feed for this post

Continuing in my trend towards belated reviews of Dragon Age games, let’s talk about Dragon Age 2 a bit.

There is, I think it safe to say, no small amount of controversy about this game: Bioware selling out to the EA treadmill? The dumbing down of Dragon Age? I’ve heard it called both these and more besides. And I think both of these are kind of true, as I’ll elaborate on in time.

Before answering any of this, I think I should note that I bought my copy for $8 on Amazon. If I had paid $60, I would likely be saying very different things.

Now then.

Graphics/Audio:

As far as I’m aware, DA2 is using a slightly refined version of the same engine that powered Origins. As I wrote in my original review, DA:O’s graphics were badass for 2006 in 2009, and I think the best one might say for DA2’s graphics is that they’re the best 2007 graphics 2011 has to offer. They seem to have fixed the bumpmapping issues from DA:O, but animation quality varies between “good” and “LOL” depending on what they’re recycling, and clipping problems abound. Compared to how stellar its contemporaries Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 looked, Dragon Age 2 looks downright bargain basement, and no doubt that’s why Dragon Age 3 is getting a new engine – this one is well past sell-by date.

You may also recall how it was actually kind of embarassing to put mages and rogues in your DA:O party because they looked stupid beyond belief. That’s fixed in DA2 by giving them fairly inoffensive and generic robes and armor, which works well enough. Finally I could believe the clothes.

What I’m less happy about is that the city of Kirkwall, where you spend basically the entire game, is terrible. Oh, the models and textures are nice and all, but where Ferelden looked appropriately medieval in DA:O, Kirkwall falls prey to all of the worst fantasy architecture tropes. Massive multi-story buildings? Check. Airy, vaulted ceilings in house and dungeon alike that nobody would ever build? Check. Gigantic adobe walls lined with blood/rust-covered metal spikes? Very unfortunately check.

Too, they seem to have dramatically increased the camera zoom compared to Origins. I can think of several reasons to do so, but when combined with the waaaaaaaaay too tall buildings and the cliffs everywhere, it’s sort of hard not to think they did it to save some money on background art. We’ll come back to this subject.

They also completely changed the interface from DA:O’s trying-to-be-a-book ornateness to what looks for all the world like Skyrim’s interface half a year earlier and adapted to a Bioware game. Lots of translucent blacks and whites, and the skill tree thing is there too, though in much more managable form than Skyrim. I guess this worked at the end of the day, but I really wish they had kept what DA:O had done, because it looked better and more thematic.

And I think that goes for the graphics in general. With the exception of fixing the bugs and ditching the stupid robes, the graphics from DA:O were pretty much fine if you were still going to use the same engine. The improvements here generally aren’t, and I think serve as a fine example of why you should occasionally engage in activities to break the spirits of your art team.

As far as the audio goes, it was basically fine. You’ll recognize some DA:O and DA:O DLC music here and there, and come right down to it I’m not sure how much of the soundtrack is actually new, but DA:O’s soundtrack was actually pretty good, so I’m not going to complain no matter how startled I was by some Leliana’s song music in a combat sequence. After all, it worked for the Ultima series quite well, and I’m pretty sure Bioware has been using some of the same background noises since Baldur’s Gate 1.

Gameplay:

Do you ever feel like the world’s getting…simpler? Like everything from eating to fighting is a lot less complex than it used to be?”

—Bar patron in the Hanged Man

And then we get to this discussion. And…oh boy. Where do I begin.

If you’re a Mass Effect 1 player, you may recall how every single side mission was shooting dudes in the same six or seven rooms over and over and over and over again. Bioware’s been recycling areas since Baldur’s Gate 1, but never have they been quite so…blatant about it.

Here’s the thing. Dragon Age 2 takes place in and around the city of Kirkwall, and over the course of the game, you revisit the same places several times. You spend a lot of time roaming around Hightown and Lowtown and Darktown and the Wounded Coast and Sundermount and all that. And that’s basically fine as a design choice, and I’m not dissing on Bioware for it.

However, as you will quickly come to discover, every single warehouse is the exact same warehouse. Every single estate is the exact same estate. Every single cave…you get the idea. Every room, every doorway, maybe even every crate. If you’re looking for a reason to charge Bioware with leaping whole hog on the EA cash grab treadmill, well, here it is. What’s funny is, this stuff isn’t even all that hard. Throwing statics at each other isn’t really a particularly complex activity for a team to do, but not even a glimmer of that.

So that’s not really wonderful.

And then we have the combat. You remember how DA:O’s combat was frequent, lengthy, repetetive, boring, and completely broken in every single way? Well, good news and bad news there.

Good news is that combat isn’t brokenly hard anymore. It’s brokenly easy. Remember how mages were kind of a god class in DA:O, and if you specced a mage right, you could probably solo most of the game? Well, that’s still true, and you get either 2 or 3 mages during the early quests, so you’ve got some choice there. And do you remember all those people who bitched and whined about how area of effect powers could do friendly fire? Well, they took that out. No more friendly fire!

However, they also massively simplified the skills from DA:O into several skill trees. This isn’t actually a bad idea per se, but the balancing of the mage trees means that it’s trivially easy to get high concentrations of area of effect powers on mages extremely early while fighters are still dicking about with maybe doing extra damage to one guy at a time.

Hold on to that thought, because here’s the bad news: combat in DA2 is frequent, lengthy, repetetive, and boring. It’s just most of these things in slightly different ways than it was in DA:O.

To start off with, like DA:O, every single room in every single dungeon is pretty much going to end in a fight scene. What’s better, you’re going to fight some dudes at least once during every single quest, I’m pretty sure without exception. What’s even better, somebody decided it would be a good idea to have vicious gangs of thieves attack you at night (yes, there’s a day/night cycle of sorts, accomplished by building an entirely seperate set of nighttime maps in Kirkwall), pretty much in every single square.

And when I say you’re fighting dudes in every single room, I mean you’re fighting entire platoons of dudes. The way fights generally work is that you enter a room, and suddenly between 5-10 badguys appear. You kill all of them. Suddenly, another wave of the exact same guys appears, sometimes inexplicably behind you, sometimes by doing a neat jumping animation off a multi-story building, etc. You kill all of them. Suddenly, another wave of the exa…you get the idea. You can basically count on killing about a platoon of guys every other room or so, and walking anywhere on a city street at night is basically about the 4:30 mark of this:

Fortunately, most of these dudes aren’t really a threat to you and your party, they’re just sort of padding the fights out. Which means that, unlike DA:O’s broken ass fights in every single room, DA2 fights are just boring in every single room.

Now, to get back to that whole mage vs. fighter thing, you basically have a choice. If you went with a one mage party, combats are essentially endless affairs while your fighters struggle to kill guys fast enough while you go and make some food or take a nap or something. It’s ok, they’ll still be there when you get back, fighting guys. Or you can take multiple area of effect specced mages and basically mop the floor with everyone. What’s better is, the tactics slot system from DA:O is vastly improved and actually cool now, so you can pretty much set up your mages to run themselves perfectly without your intervention.

So, seriously. Your checkbook really needs balancing. It’s going to be more thrilling than this fight sequence, so may as well get on with it.

If you ever needed an object lesson in why hordes of mooks are fucking boring, DA2 is your man.

If you ever needed an object lesson in why you shouldn’t give one class high damage area powers with no friendly fire at low levels, DA2 continues to be your man.

If you ever needed an object lesson in every single bad gameplay design decision you can possibly think of, baby, you and DA2 were made for each other.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s talk about loot, because the DA2 team changed how that works fairly radically from DA:O. And, like every other gameplay design decision in this game, you can kind of see where they were going, and you don’t entirely disagree, but you ultimately kind of want to stab yourself in the face with a log anyway.

So, big change. Your companions don’t really get armor anymore, precisely, they get outfits that you can upgrade with runes and powers and such that you find. And while that’s not altogether a bad plan, it does mean that your main guy is going to run into a whole hell of a lot of armor he’s never going to wear. Entire stores are going to become useless to you because hey, not a mage.

They also decided to make loot work more or less like Diablo, which is to say the properties are randomized. That’s not such a bad thing, and I did it myself once, but the trouble is that this loot is completely uninspiring. I just can’t get excited about a ring of +3% damage. If you get some of the best equipment in the game, you go all the way up to +5%. You can get stuff with +500 or so fire resistance, which sounds great until you figure out that’s only like 5-10% somehow. The numbers on your equipment make no sense, but that doesn’t really matter because loot doesn’t matter, which means the economy as a whole basically doesn’t matter. As long as you happen across the best possible piece of armor and the best possible weapon for each act, which you’ll usually do near the start of said act, items don’t matter.

Which is sad. It’s almost like they looked at Mass Effect 2 and 3, where your companions similarly have very limited armor customization and where you can upgrade your personal armor via a series of mods, but then they decided it was an RPG and the players would revolt, so we got this completely unsatisfying mash of two worlds. If it had looked like DA:O’s completely acceptable loot system, that would be fine. If it looked like Mass Effect, that would be fine as well. What we actually ended up with is amateur hour.

They also changed the crafting system from DA:O, and made it revolve around finding crafting resources and recipes in the wild. I kind of preferred DA:O’s more robust system, to be honest, but in the end it was all pretty much pointless because I slept through 90% of the combat anyway. Since all loot is pointless, runes are pointless, and since you don’t ever really get hurt, you’ll only really need a few potions here and there.

Put shortly, DA2 is amateur hour game design. I did better work than this in high school, for free. The only thing DA2 has going over DA:O for gameplay is that DA:O combat was frustrating, and DA2 combat is merely boring. Take your pick.

Story:

And then we come to story, which has always been Bioware’s strong suit. And you know? I liked it for the most part. Hopefully you didn’t go in expecting DA:O 2, because yes, the Dragon Age team lifted a page from the Mass Effect team and basically gave you Medieval Shepard. You’re always going to be a human named Hawke, but otherwise you can be any class and look you want. I really liked the origins part of Origins, but I was willing to go with this, and I think it worked well enough, even if it was much less ambitious.

The other big thing here is that the game’s acts are all seperated by several years at a time. I found it an interesting idea, even if it wasn’t quite fully realized – Varric is still going to be hanging out in the tavern six years later, for instance, even after you’ve moved on to bigger and better things. As a whole, the story basically worked for me, and revealed some interesting happenings in the Dragon Age universe (Qunari are in this game. A lot. Maybe you also like templars and mages).

You can import a save from DA:O, and the DA2 team went to what seems like lavish effort to make DA:O callbacks. Remember Isabella, who taught you the duelist specialization at that brothel in Denerim? Totally a party member. Anders, the mage from the freaking expansion? Totally a party member, along with Justice, from the same expansion. Several other DA:O characters made appearances, including several I had completely forgotten. For the most part, DA2 does a pretty good job responding to even minor choices made during the course of DA:O, and I enjoyed the various cameos.

There’s the usual slate of companions here, written in the usual Bioware style. They generally worked for me, and I really liked Anders, Merrill, and Varric, who were my default party. I also liked Aveline, but see above about two fighter parties. There’s less going on with your companions in DA2, which is a shame, but the game introduces new ways of dealing with companion conversations and especially gifts, which worked pretty well, and I think will work better in DA3.

Overall pretty decent stuff. It’s not as epic as DA:O, but it still packs a punch in its own way.

Conclusion

This is a story that deserves to be wedded to a better game. And if you look, you can kind of see that game. Sort of like Dragon Age meets Mass Effect, in a way that could actually be pretty cool, if only they had spent another year or so on it. So in that sense, it really is kind of a dumbing down of the franchise, and it’s either a cash grab by EA or the result of some completely C team design work by Bioware. Maybe both, considering how badly The Old Republic apparently sucked resources out of everything else at the studio in ways we’re still feeling the effects of.

Ultimately, Dragon Age 2 comes down to making a choice: are you one of those people who values story over gameplay mechanics? Do you dig the Dragon Age world? If so, you can probably handle the boring gameplay for all the neat story bits. On the other hand, if you like innovative, challenging gameplay, if story is secondary for you, run away as fast as you can.

6.5/10 aliens. Worth the $7 I paid for it, but I wouldn’t pay $60.


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Comments on Dragon Age 2
avatar Comment by Conner #1
December 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Before answering any of this, I think I should note that I bought my copy for $8 on Amazon. If I had paid $60, I would likely be saying very different things.

Ultimately, Dragon Age 2 comes down to making a choice: are you one of those people who values story over gameplay mechanics? Do you dig the Dragon Age world? If so, you can probably handle the boring gameplay for all the neat story bits. On the other hand, if you like innovative, challenging gameplay, if story is secondary for you, run away as fast as you can.

6.5/10 aliens. Worth the $7 I paid for it, but I wouldn’t pay $60.

So, you’re saying that for the $15 you paid for the two copies, it was worth it, but for $120 for the same two it wouldn’t have been? :P

So, for those of us likely to buy one copy, at most, would $10 still have been worth it?

What about for those of us who are interested in story, but find that gameplay needs to matter enough to be able to actually reach the whole story.. is it worth even the $7 you paid for it with that in mind?

Also, while I’m at it, I gathered from the above that you really enjoyed the story and found the audio/graphics acceptable/tolerable, and the fights to be boring and the mechanics/improvements to be poorly executed at best.. so what merited 6.5/10 aliens? Was the story really so good as to make up for the failings that well?

avatar Comment by Dwip #2
December 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm

MATH IS HARD DON’T JUDGE ME

:P

The aliens rating scale tends to be fairly generous, frankly, and I don’t generally downrate a game massively unless there are crippling bugs or the whole thing is truly unplayable in some way.

Dragon Age 2 gameplay isn’t unplayable per se, but it’s not particularly exciting and quickly becomes a slog. If you were willing to put up with several million hours of sometimes frustrating Dragon Age: Origins combat to experience that story, you’ll basically be fine with Dragon Age 2, especially for less than the price of a movie ticket. If that prospect fills you with unutterable loathing, maybe not so much.

avatar Comment by Samson #3
December 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Funny. All of what you went to great lengths to talk about here were exactly the kinds of impressions the demo left me with back when that was all there was to judge. I’d say I did right by using my gaming budget of the time on Witcher 2 instead. Everything you ripped on it for is what soured me in the demo, and what most people elsewhere have vilified them over.

Which leads me to a thing not entirely unrelated. Mages in general in all of Bioware’s games are grossly overpowered. Right down to the ones in their D&D stuff. Having been playing the Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition over the last few days, this realization was beaten into me repeatedly.

Battle with lots of warrior types? Challenging, but generally not a big problem. Throw in even a single mage to all that? Suddenly dying left and right despite having a mage of my own. Battle containing more than one mage? Either reload over and over or give up and enable the cheat console. Ctrl+Y is your friend.

So with that in mind, being one of the huge sources of rage quitting (yeah, I very nearly rage quit BGEE over this), I can see why Bioware chose to simplify things. One does not make money by needlessly punishing the player with unwinnable battles that are unwinnable solely because you didn’t think of whatever ultra-specific tactic could have gotten you out of it in one piece. Also, even with the cheat codes, I still ended up with people dying.

It was all forgiven though when I dropped Sarevok because of a ridiculously lucky wild surge from the new wild mage NPC. Magic Missle became a Hold Person spell and my fighters beat him to death without a scratch. It didn’t matter anymore that she got caught in her own surge and was held for the remainder of the fight.

avatar Comment by Dwip #4
December 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Yeah, BG:EE is totally next on my list. Pretty sure I’m going to do the same tweet+post thing I did for NWN2 with it, too.

avatar Comment by Zilander #5
December 3, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was something else entirely. I recommended anyone not play this ever unless you’re a masochist.

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April 19, 2015 at 7:05 am

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