Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dragon Age II Review: Get a Grip, Folks!

(This article contains mild Dragon Age II spoilers. Such as: There are dragons!)

Since I raved so enthusiastically in this space about Dragon Age: Origins (and Bioware games in general), I suppose I really should say something about Dragon Age II as well. This one is a bit trickier.

It's impossible to discuss Dragon Age II without a bit of criticism, which makes me sad. A lot of skilled people worked really hard over an overly-short period of time to make this game, and I strongly suspect that most of its problems were out of their control, due to directives from above. As somone who writes games myself, I truly sympathize. The inevitable result has been a game that's caused quite a bit of controversy over its quality.

The best place to see this confusion is over on Metacritic. As of this writing, reviewers have given the game an entirely respectable score of 82 (out of 100). Players, on the other hand, have given Dragon Age II a dismal 4.3 out of 10. That is a huge gap!

But it makes a lot of sense. Reviewers have to review the actual game as it exists, not their fantasies about what it might be. Dragon Age II is a flawed but basically competent and enjoyable action-RPG. 82 out of 100 is a B-, and Dragon Age II is a pretty solid B- of a game.

In fact, suppose it didn't have Dragon Age in the title at all. Suppose it was called, say, "Bioware Presents: A Dude Named Hawke Buys a Big House and Has Wacky Adventures." Suppose further that EA had given Bioware the bit of extra time and budget necessary to fix the game's most notable flaws. (Dungeon layouts reused to an egregious extent. A bizarre combat system where reinforcements pop in from out of nowhere. Extreme bugginess, especially in the late game.) If this was the case, I honestly believe the result would be considered a lesser but worthy member of the Bioware canon, something pleasing to pass the time while waiting for Dragon Age II.

But that's not what happened. Dragon Age II is ... well, it has "Dragon Age" in the name. It's the sequel to one of the best-written, epic, envelope-pushing RPGs pretty much ever. I game I truly loved. (If you haven't played it, why are you wasting your time reading this junk? Go get it! Go!) And there's no suger-coating the basic fact of the thing. If you got Dragon Age II expecting something more like Dragon Age: Origins, you are going to face a period of harsh disappointment.

But I'm going to have to defend Dragon Age II here for a bit. There's a lot of really good stuff here, and some of the design choices are really interesting. Other people have dumped on this game enough. Let's take a moment to look at the nice things.

Great Writing

Nobody puts great writing in games like Bioware. Dragon Age II didn't contain as much of that Dragon Age Magic (tm) as I might have hoped for, but it was a beautifully written game. The characters didn't grab me instantly in the way they did in the previous game, but they really grew on me, especially Varric. When my companions talked to each other, I always stopped whatever I was doing to listen.

Considering how crappy most video game writing is, I really think we shouldn't take Bioware for granted!

Also, this game had the most insane, over the top, out of nowhere plot development I've ever seen in an RPG. (Which part? One word ... Mom.) Dang it, it deserves props for that!

Cool Character Development

I loved the skill trees. The mix of abilities, constant effects, and passive bonuses, combined with being able to decide between getting new abilities and making old ones better, made training very interesting. I retrained my characters several times and found that it was possible to customize my characters for a number of different play styles, which is always good.

The combat did involve a lot of button mashing, but the abilities were varied and dramatic enough that I was rarely bored.

Some Really Good Ideas For Combat

Battles in Dragon Age II are almost always against waves of foes, generally starting easy and getting harder. You need to conserve your powers, using them when they are most needed.

The way the game throws reinforcements into the battlefield deserves some mockery. They are scattered in at random, sometimes literally dropping from the sky before your eyes. If they had entered the fray in a less immersion-breaking way (say, running from deeper in the dungeon), it would have worked better. However, this basic idea of how to structure combat shows a lot of potential, and I hope other games explore it. (Which is my way of saying:  I really should steal that idea.)

The Theme Still Works

His writing is as impenetrable as ever, but Tycho over at Penny Arcade does a great job of breaking down what Dragon Age is really about and how cool it is. These games aren't about fighting Big Fantasy Nasties. Sure, they have fights and monsters, but that is not what they are Capital-A About. They are about politics and power structures and compromises and how actions and decisions can shift history. It's a very cool and ambitious territory to explore, and Bioware has close to a monopoly on it.

Dragon Age II doesn't operate on the same scale as the previous game in any way, and yet it covers much the same ground. It focuses on one city instead of a whole nation and a handful of political squabbles instead of one great crisis, but their hearts are in the same place. And, frankly, this design concept deserves a lot more exploration.

In Closing

Dragon Age II is a flawed product that is still more interesting than a more polished mediocrity. Starting it is a very jarring experience for anyone with fresh memories of the first classic, but, if you walk away, take a breath, and resolve to meet it partially on its own terms, it's worth the sixty bucks.

A lot of people hate it, but hey, the Internet exists to help people hate things in a purer, more intense fashion. And, hey, if you hate Dragon Age II, that's your right.

But I think it's important for fans to not price themselves out of the market here. Bioware is still making good role-playing games, a genre that has been painfully neglected in the past. It's fun to indulge in a nice hate-frenzy from time to time, but let's try to keep on talking terms with reality here. They're still one of The Good Ones.

30 comments:

  1. Jeff, I finished the game last week and like you, found it good on the same number of fronts, but amazingly lacking in others. While it's a solid game, at times it felt more like an expanded side story rather than a full-on sequel. I wish Kirkwall was bigger or had more to do in and around it (and had more than one architect, yeesh).

    Varric was indeed the best character in the game (small wonder he's the storyteller chosen at the beginning) and the hilarious "kill 'em all" fantasy he has during a certain chapter had me fooled for about 30 seconds before I realized "Oh, it's Varric, soooo..."

    The "Mom" thing was a bit of a shock, that's for sure. But it was also so random that it knocked the wind out of some of the rest of the game in terms of dramatic moments. It also would have been nice to see more of Bethany's story (in my one playthrough, she gets scooped up into the Circle and vanishes until late in the game), so that's another lost story opportunity (or some DLC I missed). But yes, the writing is truly miles ahead of many other games today and it's worth the $60 on that front.

    As for the reused dungeons (argh) - it's telling when you hear at least three nods to this in the dialog that the game development was rushed a bit too much. Also, I missed the "random" map battles while traveling from DA1. There are a few "random" events in DAII, but not as many grinding opportunities other than whittling down the population of lowlifes on the night maps and finding yet another warehouse or underground hideout note.

    I'm hoping DAIII moves to a more open world style of play and allows for more varied locations. Heck, just make the next game completely open world, allow players to choose any character/class combo from a large roster (old and new characters return!) and play as they wish (within the structure of the game world and the main story running through it), call it Dragon Age Empires and that's that.

    Of course, that's practically a MMO, but I'm hoping BioWare doesn't decide to lay that fate on this franchise...

    ReplyDelete
  2. The problem with sticking a game to a city is that you have to compare against titles like Assassin's Creed. It is uncanny how that series becomes more and more like an RPG with each release. But the cities are empty with static characters. It does not compare favorably. The scope of the original game worked because you went to areas that were not supposed to have large, vibrant populations.

    I will say that I like the combat in DAII much more than the original to me. It feels a lot more tactical. The first game was "freeze everything and mop up with critical hits". THe button mashing is annoying, but that is actually a bug on the console. There was supposed to be an auto attack option, but it appears that the configuration file was left out the golden master.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm surprised you didn't mention the wheel. I for one like a hefty dose of Role-playing in my Role-playing games, and DA2's illiteracy-friendly wheel was a huge turnoff. The amount of actual choice involved seems miniscule. Bioware games have, since KotOR, had the problem of "one path, two slightly different destinations", but the wheel really exacerbates it.

    Then again, I only played DA2's demo. And cringed at the graphics.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Koiu

    There is almost zero difference between the dialog options in DAII and DA:O. You have three "active" options of different tone and three investigative options. The only difference is the tone icons so that you do not have to guess the tone from the text (and get ninja romanced by Zevran). There is no effect at all on role playing.

    DAII has many faults, but the wheel is faux controversy.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yes, the brilliant writing in Dragon Age II...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKbbGX4Wz0Y

    If Bioware wanted to release a "solid B-" fantasy Mass Effect clone about a dude named Hawke who has a house and does cool quests, they should've done that. But they called it Dragon Age II and deserve the flak they're getting.
    They're a big name in RPGs, they should have the appropriate standards.

    Sure, I understand the professional solidarity, but fans just don't sugercoat their disappointment about Bioware ruining a promising RPG franchise by releasing a rushed sequel.

    A sequel that basically took a dump on all the achievements of the first game and went: "Sod this! I'm gonna be all different and cool, like that other game by Bioware! Fans will eat that shit up!"

    It was a mistake, they f'd up. Fans will give them a chance to fix it with DA3 though, I'm sure they will.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Personally, I loved DA2! But Jeff, I was curious if you have any personal experience with this. As a man who has created plenty of sequels himself, do you ever get the same kind of criticism?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank God Vogel doesn't have enough money to make the kind of games he wants to make.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "It's fun to indulge in a nice hate-frenzy from time to time, but let's try to keep on talking terms with reality here."

    Frankly, this kind of condescension is annoying, and it represents a total misunderstanding of the people who were extremely disappointed by DA2. They aren't all blithering idiots.

    And while you certainly should ignore raving morons when creating and selling a game, you *definitely shouldn't* ignore sane people who adored your first game and loathed your second.

    You can go "lol internet rage" all you want, but do try to remember you're talking about actual humans.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Vanilla NPC's and companions. Laughable quests involving companions from DA. A lack of humor from NPC's and companions except for Varric. A lack of adventure, exploration and freedom. No real ability to develop empathy for the main character or companions. I liked the combat. I like to interact with traders and other NPC's. I like to shape, choose clothing and armor for my companions. I would've liked to be able to make my own potions. Lastly I've noticed with most of Bioware's games over the last couple years the player has been drag around by the nose. I want to feel as if I have choice and a degree of freedom. I want to be the shaper of my character's fate and not the complete puppet of programer.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think this is spot on (solid B- game that seems worse only by comparison to DA:O), except I'm less forgiving of the bugginess. It's obviously a different scale of code from Spiderweb's games, but it's also a different scale of project management and testing, and it's pretty disappointing that they went live with some of their more blatant bugs.

    Bioware also tends to be very slow to fix bugs, IMO, even bugs that seem likely to be pretty straightforward (effed up damage calculations, etc.). They might engender a little more goodwill with more frequent small patches, maybe offered on a pull basis, with larger combined patches disseminated on a push basis less frequently.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. My opinion of the Dragon Age line couldn't differ more from yers JV. I couldn't stand DA:O. The writing was strong enough. Seen better and much worse. The roleplaying was more than adequate but the gameplay was an unbalanced KOTOR and KOTOR was a dumbed down Baldur's Gate so compared to BG it was unbalanced and dumbed down. When I say dumbed down I'm not talking about the difficulty as Laidlaw suggest.

    DA 2 offers none of the needed improvements. Instead it removes friendly fire, crafting, and auto attack on consoles. Still have the level scaling and the filler combat. Still have waves of enemies that all fight the same. So its still boring. No matter how good the story is the game is 80% combat and the combat sucks.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "They are about politics and power structures and compromises and how actions and decisions can shift history."

    I agree with most of what you said in your entry, except for the part with decisions and how they shift history. Because let's face it, they really don't do that anymore. It was never as transparent as in DA2. See Anders: Whatever you do, he *spoiler* the chantry. It doesn't matter if the player decides to help him or not. So where is the decision? There is none. It's just a fixed event in the story, that will always happen. And that's true for many parts in the story, that appear as if they were decisions the player could make. People who replay the game to see different outcomes, are in for a nasty surprise. You mentioned the mom - can you change anything? No, nothing matters. The best previous investigation has no effect. Killing the mage right away or later has no effect. No matter what decisions the player thinks he can make, it ends with the same outcome. Shifting history this is not.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Ah yes, if only this game had been called something else (and had its major problems fixed!) it could have been truly appreciated by the plebs on metacritic. When will those silly sods ever learn to just shut up and listen to those developer-funded, "professional" game reviewers that only have our best interest at heart.

    Ha! Don't try to make a fool of us. How about, instead of posting some limp-wristed defense of BioWare you work on those meager writing skills?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Yes, Jeff uncritically laps up everything BioWare serves him. That's why he called DA2 "flawed but basically competent". The sort of naked fanboy review that gives us all a bad name.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Sean, Benjy, ...I liked the game. Please don't hate me.

    The re-hashed dungeons were distracting, but it had (in my OPINION) some very engaging writing! Doesn't mean I was happy I shelled out $60 for it. Felt more like a $40 dollar value. But all in all, I liked it a lot!

    And I just have to add this. Till, hate-frenzy is human nature, or so history (and most middle schools :) would seem to indicate. I don't think it's dehumanizing to acknowledge this. (just my two-cents)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I have to say, the main reason I dislike the game is its distribution. Lying about the DRM and posting fake reviews don't win you any fans. Banning people complaining about the game doesn't help, either. Yeah, they rectified it, but first pointing out the EULA and saying we can ban you at will is inexcusable. Outright denying it afterwards? Detestable. "Have you sold your souls to the EA devil?" I think we can deduce that for ourselves.

    That aside, the game wasn't that bad. The storyline was reasonable, albeit rushed, but was sub-par in comparison to Bioware's usual job. Holes riddled the plot somewhat, but again, passable for a game. The wheel was a good concept, but meagre in practice. The thing I like about seeing the options is, well, knowing what I'll say. I don't want to be a clown, yet I don't want to be solemn. I don't want to be nasty, but I want to intimidate people I dislike. Unfortunately, a low level of inconsistency marred it. More than once I appeared insensitive rather than jocular, or cold rather than tactful. Had the wheel displayed the actual dialogue, however, it would be a welcome simplification. The gameplay did not sit well, as the new, flawed elements were distinct from the polished carry-overs. The new graphics direction, I felt, was a step backwards, although I am willing to admit this is basically personal preference.
    The cookie-cutter technique is common, although irritating when you KNOW it was to conserve time, and, by extension, money.

    Apart from these not-so-minor flaws, the experience was enjoyable. I suppose, then, your opinion depends on your perspective. An outlying consensus, however, is that is doesn't match the quality of Origins

    Tangentially, a note to AAA developers- is it that difficult to design different GUIs for console and PC? It just seems like all GUIs are too unwieldy for one platform of another.

    ReplyDelete
  18. "this basic idea of how to structure combat shows a lot of potential, and I hope other games explore it. (Which is my way of saying: I really should steal that idea.)"

    So...Dragon Age II really DOES liquify one's brain.

    ReplyDelete
  19. My biggest complaint was absolutely the dungeon repetition. I can tolerate some amount of this, because I understand the budget/resource constraints that lead to this sort of compromise, but there was just WAY too much of it for a big studio game in that price range.

    Other than that, yeah, I think that if DA:O had never existed, this game would have received much more praise than it did. Unfortunately, DA:O was an almost impossible act to follow. They may have been better off shelfing the franchise for a while. Blizzard was really smart about this with Starcraft and Diablo 2.

    I'm curious how much (if any) DA:O is going to influence Elder Scrolls, with the release of Skyrim slowly creeping up on us. Are we going to see more romance, ethical conundrums and Faustian bargains in the wandering wilds of Tamriel?

    ReplyDelete
  20. I was totally shocked when I fired up dragon age II and couldnt believe my eyes...I hated the interface...some of the graphices looked worse than DA:O imo..(I have the PC version btw). The skills system and combat was all changed..and I really didnt think I would finish it..But.. I persisted, and I ended up liking it for what it was, and actually did enjoy it in the end. Although I have to say I do like the Xbox360 version a lot better, simply because of the interface, the PC version really makes it look more like KOTOR rather than DA II. In short, a good game, but nothing like the first game and I like it for what it is, but I have to admit I did expect better and more from Bioware..
    DA:III is supposedly already in the making, so maybe II was just a kind of stepping stone from I to III... I think they have opened up a lot of good opertunities for the third installment and I look forward to seeing what it's like.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I don't believe Bioware deserves any sort of defending at all. They've made their choice, "actionatize" everything. So be it.

    Everything that I hate (fine, "dislike) about this idiotic sequel has been said. From the "wheel", to the lack of player direction, to the graphics, to the combat and lack of real "AR-PEE-GEE" elements.

    Really? You expect me to play as a human willingly? Elves are awesome. Dwarves are awesome. Humans are boring. I should know, I'm a human in real life.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Very useful info. Hope to see more posts soon!
    Hotels in Paris

    ReplyDelete
  23. I think the overall point here is for people to be able to judge on more than one level;
    1)A sequel to Dragon Age: Origins
    2)A game in its self
    3)A game leading up to another game.
    I understand people were upset about no longer being able to create their own character. Yet you have to be able to make Hawke your own.In origins the truth,as I see it, as you had the ability to make your own character, but it effected very little of the overall game.I played as an elf, a mage, and as a Cousland.For most of the game it had no effect on how I was perceived outside of the Origin. At least with Hawke you play a human,and if you’re a mage there are reactions to it.Someone tell me a legitimate difference the origins made except you're aware of other story elements?
    While some people found the characters dull I found listening to their interactions enjoyable.Aveline and Isabella a posses a strange kind of affection for each other that was different than the friendship between Oghren and Anders in Awakening.That said,the characters are a bit stagnant. I just felt like with the way the game is written and designed there should be an ability to somewhat alter the course of characters. I was constantly hoping I could change characters actions but found the game very linear in that sense. On one hand I do understand that some opinions are set in stone,but it felt useless to say certain things.

    Honestly the gameplay felt exactly the same in terms of combat.Except playing a rogue felt and looked more like how a rogue should be. The game plays absolutely NOTHING like Mass Effect or other series, and the comparison (outside of the dialogue wheel) thoroughly makes me suspect that half of the people complaining have never actually played ME1/2. I have played both thoroughly and they are not similar in combat. I can say that the levling tree is far more functional than Mass Effect leveling systems. The Tree layout encourages one to focus abilities. You see where your powers are progressing to, upgrade abilities, and the specializations are immediately open to you so from the start. The wheel based dialogue is a more organized system because you see which options end or continue a conversation. In the Baldur's Gate series there were times where you could only pick 1 or 2 questions out of 5 REALLY good ones. With the wheel you can go back and pick questions without re-readying all the options(like in Origins).There is also the fact that you can avoid selecting a choice that is very vague or seems neutral,but is the exact opposite choice you want to make. The symbols make it easy to understand roughly how the dialogue will be perceived. In other Bioware games it is really easy to see a dialogue option one way and have a NPC perceive it another. There is the fact that just because older Bioware games have had more dialogue choices does not mean that the responses to those choices were different from others.Having 15 options of what to say and only 6 responses to those options is really kind of a waste.
    It seems to me that in the end the developers chose to use the "time skips" of the game to deal with the lack of build up in terms of story.It is a lot easier to say that "four years have passed and tension has been increasing" than to actually show cases of it.
    Then there is the fact that the number of graphical/technical bugs in the game is just pathetic. Having to reset Isabella in order to upgrade her armor?Undead that get frozen while rising from the ground?Quests that cannot end, start, or if completed give XP?A few glitches are completely understandable but the sheer number of glitches is ridiculous. On this level the game, as a game, is full of fail. I find it inexcusable.
    The game is such a disappointment because it was honestly below the quality of most Bioware games.When you set a high standard for yourself and then for no reason other than hubris or greed(on the cooperate side) produce a mediocre product you must expect criticism.

    ReplyDelete
  24. http://truthdreamsscreams.blogspot.com/2011/07/my-response-to-da2-blog-and-comments.html

    I made a more detailed view of my comment in my blog due to the character limit. If anyone is curious.

    ReplyDelete
  25. The original chi flat iron was released as a professional salon straightener. After gaining popularity on the market the cheap chi flat iron was later released for personal consumer use. If you are a professional stylist or someone who loves straightening their chi hair straightener before leaving for work the Chi original ceramic flat iron is one styling tool you cannot live without. Unlike other wholesale chi flat iron before its day the Chi model was developed with moist ceramic heat technology that does not burn or damage the wholesale chi hair straighteners.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Awesome information I like to read this type of post. Buy Abilify at discount rates and safe too.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Tiffany is about the world's most renowned designers of first-rate offerings.Dissimilar to other vogue companies,tiffany necklaces deal firmly in products for instance jewelry,designer watches,glass wares,lamps,bags,plus more.
    tiffany jewellery
    tiffany silvers
    tiffany uk
    tiffany jewellery uk
    tiffany jewellery sale
    tiffany rings
    tiffany co rings
    tiffany engagement rings
    tiffany bracelets
    tiffany co bracelets
    tiffany necklaces
    tiffany charms
    replica tiffany jewellery
    replica tiffany
    tiffany co
    tiffany and co

    ReplyDelete