I know, Hazizi said I’ll be reviewing Crysis 2, Fight Night: Champion and AFL Live. Before I do, I need to make room for them by flushing some RPG backlog out of the Cave of Assessment first. Consider it a critical Hard Rubbish Day
For this review I will focus on what’s changed from the first game. A lot of tweaking has been done. If I were a Bioware PR person I would describe the overall effect of the changes as “streamlining”. I’m not, though, so how would I describe them? Hmmm, let me get back to you on that after looking at the main ingredients of Dragon Age 2: setting, story and character.
Living for the city
Dragon Age 2 is set in the same world as Origins, but in just one city and its windy-pathed surrounds: Kirkwall. While you read the next few paragraphs, please listen to this great Sinatra song, which sums up my attitude to the ‘Wall after 60+ hours.
Kirkwall has a rich zone, slums, ghetto, docks and other bits. Bioware’s cities are always so well ordered and everyone sticks to their socio-economic areas … haven’t they heard of gentrification? Where are the wealthy hipster douches who want to live in a slum but still get a good coffee?
You will be moving back and forth between these areas a lot. If that weren’t enough, Bioware shamelessly recycles dungeons. There are about 4 different types of dungeon and each time you go to an ostensibly new cave/mine/warehouse/estate, the map is identical to the last cave/mine/warehouse/estate. Not just similar — identical. It’s a rookie mistake from a studio that’s heralded by many as the standard-bearer for polished RPGs.
Bioware has form for using recycled, samey environments. It copped criticism for doing it in Dragon Age: Origins and in the Mass Effect series. Instead of rectifying the issue in Dragon Age 2, Bioware has doubled down. Imagine if you got your mum an Andre Rieu DVD for her birthday and later she tactfully tells you that she’s just not that into Rieu, so for Christmas you get her 2 Andre Rieu DVDs and a ticket to his next concert. You would be a minor arsehole for doing that; by analogy, so is Bioware.
It’s important for RPGs to provide a feeling of progress — a sense that the hours you sink into the mofo are leading up to something. One way to do this is by opening up new areas late in the game, or changing up existing areas. Dragon Age 2 doesn’t do this and it suffers for it — after trekking up and down the same ol’Kirkwall streets, I eventually got sick of the place. This is not good when the story is based upon you becoming the Champion of Kirkwall… by the time I earned that title, I hated the joint and wanted to leave. Hit it again, Frank.
What did the recycled environments and linear maps remind me of? Here’s a copyright-free pictorial representation:
Follow the yellow brick road!
You is what you is: character and combat
Now let’s look at the player character. As opposed to Origins, where you could choose your character’s race and backstory, in Dragon Age: 2 you are a human called Hawke. You can choose your gender and whether you want to be a mage, warrior or rogue. I played a female rogue and decided to get my twang on with an archery specialisation.
Hawke comes with full voice acting. I dug this. I relate to my character more when she speaks, especially when she’s on screen during conversations. Chalk that up as a big plus that sucked me into the story.
The other big improvement is the combat. It seems the attack animations are faster. It’s been tweaked so there’s more real-time fighting. For ranged attacks, it is easier to change targets in real-time. Also, when you use an area effect ability that needs aiming, the game doesn’t pause until you trigger it, rather than the old system of having to pause, bring up the ability, aim it, then unpause. This makes only a few seconds’ difference each time, but as you’ll be doing it repeatedly each battle, the aggregate time savings are huge. Companions’ tactics are improved so there’s less need to micromanage them and you can just set and forget. They also added a tactic for mages to revive me when I’m dead, huzzah!
The game is combat heavy. Combat is what corporate management wankers who think they’re too cool to play RPGs, without realising that the new performance-review structure (that they gave interminable Powerpoint sessions on that were compulsory to attend) is based on RPG mechanics, would call your “core activity”. All your stats and levelling up are geared towards improving your combat prowess and you spend most of your time fighting. So it’s good that the system works and the combat is a nice balance between action and strategy — it dragged me through the game despite my other misgivings. Speaking of which …
A common tale: story and dialogue (Spoiler-free!)
I was initially excited about the story. The opening scene establishes that one of your companions, the dwarf Varric, is telling your tale after the fact and you don’t know what’s become of your character. Also you learn early on that the story will focus on Kirkwall and that’s it. This was also a positive — it makes a nice change from the usual plot of “Hero Saves Entire World (After Taking Sweet-Ass Time To Complete Trivial Side Quests)”.
As I moved through the main plot, the game abandoned its more interesting storytelling elements and fell back into convention. The flashback device was only used as an excuse to fast forward time at the end of each Act. The unreliable narrator device surfaced in the tutorial and in an amusing 5-minute cameo, but this only emphasised how good the idea was, and that it was a waste to use it so sparingly. The writers could have had more fun with it, eg by having you play through different versions of a part of the story, or as different characters in the same scene, but they squandered the opportunity.
You get a dialogue wheel that is borrowed from Mass Effect, where you choose the tone of your response. This gives you an expectation that your choices will affect the story. At first, I weighed my dialogue choices carefully. Somewhere through the second Act, it dawned on me that regardless of what I said, certain main characters were going to act in a certain way in order to hit the story’s Designated Plot Points. This gets worse as you plow through the second and third Acts and especially at the end, which involves the same battles no matter what choices you make.
Ultimately, the dialogue choices in Dragon Age 2 felt less like the true improv of Whose Line is it Anyway and more like the semi-improv of Thank God You’re Here. After the first season of Thank God You’re Here, the guest actors realised that the regulars were instructed to follow a script which contained the Designated Set-Up Lines for each scenario, rather than to respond meaningfully to the guest’s lines. As a result, cheeky guests would give wacky answers to their set up lines to try and derail the regulars, who would stoically ignore what the guest was actually saying and stick to the script, thusly:
Dialogue full of non-sequiturs makes for funny sketch TV, but it’s anathema to Dragon Age’s story, because the story relies on Hawke’s relationships with her companions and the various factions in the game. When no one else in the game seems to care what Hawke says, why should I?
I think the story was ultimately worse than Origins, which at least had alternate endings depending on your decisions.
So…. if I had to find a visual representation of this dialogue system I guess I’d come up with something like this:
No matter what I say, certain shit is going down
I recently bagged Two Worlds 2 for having tired quest design. Dragon Age 2 hardly breaks the mould either. Go here, kill that, talk to him, fight her. Often an extra thing is thrown in, whereby — gasp — the person who gave you the quest was actually a villain all along and you have to fight them too! Oops, sorry to have spoiled such a mind-bending twist for you.
So, that word I was looking for in my intro? It was “funnelling”. Dragon Age: 2 starts wide, appearing full of possibilities but it soon narrows until you realise that you’re actually being railroaded into a linear dungeon crawl. Sure, you can choose who you romance and some trivial side quests but it’s like saying LittleBigPlanet has meaningful choice because you can choose your Sackthing’s clothes.
They say that good RPGs will teach you a little about yourself along the way. This one did, albeit unwittingly. I know now that well-polished combat isn’t enough to make a great RPG — flexibility is key. I want choice and consequence and a truly branching story. It’s why I’ve played Oblivion and all the Fallouts at least twice each and I never pick up a Dragon Age or Mass Effect game again after finishing them.