Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dragon Age 2 review

    Dragon Age week continues with our review of the most controversial entry into the series. Dragon Age 2 had a two-year development cycle, a far different plotline than the original, re-used environments, and a storyline where ones choices didn't effect the final outcome. It also had a darker tone, stronger characterization, and a an intricately woven plot with plenty of twists.

    As a result, there's a lot of people who think Dragon Age 2 was a low point in the series while other people think of it as the franchise's best. I think they're both right and the game is wildly uneven. Some of Dragon Age 2 is really-really good, amongst the best fantasy RPG writing in video games. Some... is not.

    The premise is you are Hawke, a Ferelden peasant who is traveling with his family to escape the Blight of Dragon Age: Origins. They are refugees and trying to make it to the city of Kirkwall, which is in the Free Marches. The opening cinematic makes it clear that Hawke, somehow, becomes involved in something which shakes the very foundations of Thedas and turns them into a super-important person.

    Which is where the story goes astray.

    Because it doesn't.

Character creation is perhaps TOO simplified.
    For the most part.

    The big difference between Origins and Dragon Age 2 is Hawke's story is fundamentally a personal one. If the developers had advertised this from the very beginning, I think they would have had a lot more luck with the fanbase who were expecting, "more of the same with better graphics." Dragon Age 2 is more like a fantasy Detective story. Whereas Origin is like defeating Sauron and saving Middle Earth, this is more "investigate the magical serial killer."

    Both have their place. In fact, I appreciate the fact the developers tried to show the setting from a different angle. Others, however, looking for a specific itch to scratch are going to be disappointed. In fact, I wish they'd gone further with Hawke as a Noir protagonist and played up the role of him (or her) as the "goes into the mean streets a man who is not mean."

    As a fan of Noir, I liked the missions involving Hawke looking for evidence against corrupt guardsman and dealing with racist citizenry. I just think it was dissonant when you have to single-handedly stop a foreign invasion.

    The character of Hawke is far better defined than the nebulous Grey Warden of Origins. Whereas you could be an elf, dwarf, or human of varying social classes, you are a human peasant with noble as well as mage blood in Dragon Age 2. You get to meet Hawke's family and learn a decent amount about where he's from, how he was raised, and what he aspires to be. Instead of deciding these things yourself, you decide Hawke's reactions to the world around him.

Combat is fast and furious but there's sometimes too many enemies to be quite believable outside of a war.
    These come in "Aggressive", "Diplomatic", and "Funny" dialogue options. Some gamers may dislike this while others will appreciate it. Both the male and female voice acting for Hawke was enjoyably to me, albeit I preferred male Hawke.

    Irreligious gamers may dislike being forced to play Hawke as someone who maintains some form of religious faith. Hawke makes frequent references to Andraste, the Maker, and other elements of Dragon Age's Christianity equivalent. The game seems to prefer Funny Hawke and he's the most entertaining of the three base personalities but I generally did a balance of all three response options.

    As with Origins and Awakening, the heart of Dragon Age 2 is in your relationship to the main character's Companions. On my end, I think this game has the best companions out of the entire franchise with characters Anders, Aveline, Fenris, Isabella, Varric, and Merrill being among my favorite. I even liked DLC character Sebastian, even if he was somewhat bland by comparison. Sadly, Anders bears little resemblance to his Awakening counterpart and I wished he'd maintained some of his trademark humor.

    A new mechanic is introduced for dealing with Companions called "Rivalry." This is where actions a character disapproves of don't make them hate you. It assumes the characters are, fundamentally, friends but can have bitter disagreements over certain subjects.

    Unfortunately, the approval mechanic from the previous game (called "Friendship" here) operates opposite of Rivalry so if you do actions a character approves of as well as ones they disapprove of, they feel more or less neutral towards you. The writing for this is, sadly, uneven as I was never quite sure if my rivalry with Fenris was fire-forged brotherhood or deep hatred. Though, to be fair, maybe Fenris wasn't sure either.

Aveline is probably my favorite character in the game. It's rare you get a non-sexualized female warrior who is, in every way, awesome.
    The romances from Origin make a return and my reaction to them is, well, bleah. I can't say I much cared for Hawke and Merrill's relationship while I never quite bought Isabella was anything more than Hawke's close friend who slept with him on occasion.

    Fenris and Anders were more interesting romances, with magic-hating Fenris dating a Mage Hawke being the most intriguing combination to me. Those interested in gay issues may note all four romantic interests are bisexual, which some may approve of while others might find too convenient.

    Dragon Age 2 has a three act structure with a prologue. Unlike Origins, which takes place over an indefinite period of time but certainly no more than a year, Dragon Age 2 has significant time-skips between events.

    As such, it's not so much a single coherent narrative but more like a chronicle of Hawke's life in Kirkwall. Some of these time-skips are rather jarring with a few leaving questions as to why specific events happened. One particular event, involving Bethany and the Circle, broke my suspension of disbelief as "my" Hawke would never have allowed it to happen.

    Of Dragon Age 2's plotlines, I enjoyed the Second Act dealing with the Qunari the most. I enjoyed the Qunari's description in the first game and liked learning more about them. The Templar and Mage conflict was greatly expanded in this game but, unfortunately, gets treated a little heavy-handed. Rather than making a conflict between two justified groups, all the game seems to show is Kirkwall's Mages and Templars are both scum. I wanted to burn the entire city down by the end and, sadly, there was no option for that.

Kirkwall is a beautiful city and the sort of place I'd love to have a bunch of adventures in. It is, however, a wretched hive of scum and Templars. Villainy too.
    Combat is more enjoyable in Dragon Age 2, being faster and flashier than in Origins. The equipment system is also simplified, to the point I didn't know you could enhance Companion's armor until well into the Second Act. There's a multitude of reused environments you will be sick of by the end of the game.

    Swarms of enemies also attack, which swiftly wear down your enjoyment and I think the game would have been much improved by reducing the number of enemies by half while making them twice as tough. Finally, there's a flaw in the writing where several times the game boxes Hawke in or causes his actions to seem somewhat meaningless. The game "railroads" you, to borrow a term from my old D&D days and this is irritating.

    Despite this, I think Dragon Age 2 is worth the purchase. I suggest, to pad out the game, you make sure to purchase all of the DLC for it and modulate one's expectations. It's still a great game but it seems fairly obvious the game would be much improved if it had another year in the development cycle.


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  1. Varric is the best of course he is just basically all the dwarf cliches flipped upside down. He is clean shaven, a smooth talker, hates being underground, fights at range, is more of a rouge then warrior. The only similarity is that both are usually have a thing for shiny things. Just Varric would rather get his from dealings (shady or otherwise) then to mine it out of the ground.

    Also, the whole point is that both the Mages and Templers had descended into fanaticism and Anders blew up the only person that could reasonably de-escalate the situation.

    1. Varric is three kinds of awesome. So is Bethany and Aveline. I also think Fenris is one of the best creations they've got. Sadly, everyone else had a tendency to rub me the wrong way. I also couldn't figure out why Sebastian had a Scottish accent when Fereldan was Scotland/England.