Sunday, October 23, 2011

ME1 - Maternal Confrontation

Merial fights to keep an even head as diplomacy and science complicate her team's quest for Saran and the Conduit.

There are spoilers after the break.  Continue reading at your own risk.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let's Talk About - Dragon Age 2, Part 3

Now that we have talked about the good and the bad, there is one more category left to consider.  Last, but certainly not least, there is one thing that continually makes me cry "why?!" The amount of re-skinning that took place in DA2, makes me wonder if those involved with the game know what the definition of "continuity."

Be warned that Flemeth's section contains a minor DA:O spoiler.

The Perplexing-
Look, I realize that having a sequel allows you to redesign things you were unhappy with in the first game, introduce a new color scheme, or otherwise visually alter your preestalished world.   But please Bioware, re-design and re -skin responsibly!

Flemeth in Dragon Age: Origins
Flemeth in Dragon Age 2

Let's start with Flemeth.  I must say for one, that I love her new look.  Yet, for all its showy "I'm a powerful sorceress" appeal, one can't wonder if her new look is not a bit counter productive.  According to DA:O, she has managed to survive the Templar's efforts to kill her for years because she was not afraid to run, was not afraid to show her strength, and was not afraid to blend in.  Fancy headgear and a long, impractically skin-tight gowns will not help Flemeth remain one step ahead of the Chantry.  Let's also notice for a moment that she has a different skin color, a different hair color, and she looks decades younger in DA2. I am well aware that Flemeth is capable of taking over the bodies of other individuals, as we found out in Morrigan's personal quest in DA:O, but that is not the case here.  When Hawke originally runs across Flemeth in DA2, he/she is seeing the witch after DA:O's trek into the Wilds for darkspawn blood, but before the Grey Warden's opportunity to kill Flemeth for Morrigan's sake (DA:O).  In both DA:O instances, Flemeth looks like the woman at left, but during the inbetween time Bioware somehow expects me to believe that she looks like the image at right.  Morrigan makes it quite clear in the first game that while shape shifters can turn into other animals, they cannot turn into other human beings.  How then does Flemeth manage this feat?  A cleaned up look I could have understood, but this was  a complete redesign ... right down to the witch's new willowy, youthful body.  Atleast the "new" Flemeth knows how to properly apply her make-up.  That is a blessing.

Merrill in Dragon Age: Origins
Merrill in Dragon Age 2

Of all the drastic re-skinning that went on in DA2, this one makes the most sense to me.  DA2 elves were skinny, sprite like individuals while DA:O elves were simply short humans with long ears.  At least DA2's Merrill retained a similar facial tattoo and kind of has the same eye color.  The problem?  Unless you really paid attention during the Dalish origin story in the first game, Merrill is all but unrecognizable this time around.  Her clothing is different, her voice is different, her eye shape is different, her mouth shape is different, and her ears are very different. She retains a green color story and a similar hair cut, but those are hardly identifying factors since everyone and their mother had that same hair style in DA:O.   That of course doesn't even approach the fact that Merrill was a knowledgeable, competent elf in DA:O, and is a seemingly naive, flighty creature in DA2.  The phrase "too stupid to live" comes to mind.  Don't get me wrong, I do not dislike Merrill as a character. In fact, aside from Aveline, she was one of my favorite companions.  I just feel like they should have paid more attention to the small identifying factors that help players draw connections between the two games.

Isabela in Dragon Age: Origins
Isabela in Dragon Age 2

The one re-skinning that blew me away, however, was that of Isabela.  In DA:O, your warden finds this duelest in The Pearl.  She is dressed in traditional rogue's armor, has white skin, and red hair.  Do you know how long it took me to realize that DA2's Isabela was the same individual?  I had no clue they share anything but a name until the internet told me ... while I was trying to figure out why she was not turning up in game.  Somewhere in between her appearance in DA:O, and her appearance in DA2 (which I hazard to not be very far from each other time wise), Isabela dyed her hair brown, started wearing impractical earrings (considering her line of work), got a lip piercing, was reborn with olive skin, and decided that armor was just too passé.  You know what is appropriate duelist attire these days?  A man's shirt, no pants, and thigh-high boots apparently.  If you read my last entry you will note that I never had a chance to play Isabela in DA2, so I can't vouch for her personality in game.  What I do know though, is that the no nonsense NPC (well ... when it comes to fighting anyways) from DA:O would not have been caught dead in the new Isabela's attire.  Ok, so her skin could have been darkened via artificial means, and her hair could have been dyed as part of a disguise ...  But you know what?  I honestly had no clue that these women were supposed to be the same person. What on Earth possessed her character designer to obscure Isabela's origins like that?

Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins

Alistair?? in Dragon Age 2
No words. Just take a look at the handsome individual at top, and then compare him with the individuals underneath. What did they do to my poor, sweet, adorable Alistair?  Alistair 2.0 looks like he was beaten in the face, to death, with a massive frying pan.  When pronounced dead, the design team then resurrected him just so they could go at him with a cast-iron frying pan yet again.  Please tell me I'm not the only one who sees this.

The Verdict-
Going into the game my expectations were very low. They were so low, in fact, that I can't say that any expectations really existed at all. Well, perhaps that is the best way to go into a game since no high expectations can be left unfulfilled and you can't be more indifferent to the title than you already are. All in all DA2 has proved a mixed bag. From a gaming standpoint DA2 exceeded my expectations. (That can't mean too much since the bar was already pretty low, but it has to count for something.) From a fan standpoint the game was a combination of pleasant nostalgia and odd disappointments. It is impossible to say that Dragon Age 2 was a complete and utter failure. It wasn't. There were some bright spots and even a couple strokes of genius that really showed through in this title. It is also, however, nor possible to say that this title was a rousing success. There is simply too much wrong with it to do that. Would I play it again? Most certainly if only to experience the game from a male avatar's perspective. Will I buy it in the future? Not unless it is accompanied by a very very steep discount. Would I recommend it? If you play it as a solo game, and not in the context of DA:O, then you should most certainly try renting the console version or buying the PC version on sale. If you are unable to divorce DA2 from your DA:O experience, however, then forget it. You will only be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Image: Source  
Flemeth Images: Source  
Isabella Images: Source 
Merrill Images: Source  
Alistair Images: Source  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Let's Talk About - Dragon Age 2, Part 2

We've talked about the good, so let's now focus on the bad.  One can pick Dragon Age 2 to pieces until they are blue in the face.  This, in fact, is a feat which has by now been achieved thousands of times over on online forums and in gaming reviews.  As a result, I am choosing to highlight only the most glaring issues I encountered which simply could not be overlooked. Keep in mind that all but one of these were re-occurring problems and not just one time problems that got on my nerves.

Be warned that this will contain mild spoilers.

The Bad -

1) Balancing
The balancing in this game is all over the map. For the record I played a female mage who chiefly used Primal Spells (Stone Fist, Tempest, Chain Lightening) and Elemental Spells (Winter's Grasp, Cone of Cold). She then chose Force Mage as her specialization. For those who have not played a  DA2 mage before, let me make one thing quite clear. Between freezing spells and the Force Mage specialization (specifically Fist of the Maker and Pull of the Abyss) there is pretty much nothing that can stand in your way. I led a party of two mages, one archer, and one swordswoman for most of the game (there was a rare exception when I had no choice but to have three mages and an archer) on regular difficulty, and mowed down everything in my path. There was the occasional battle (generally in the Deep Roads when facing multiple Darkspawn Emissaries at once) that I faced more difficulty [read: they kicked my butt and I had to re-load about 10 times], but these instances were few and far between. Despite the fact that I was tanking my mage (who may I remind you, was ridiculously overpowered), there was a great deal of balance in party. One mage largely used Spirit magicks and Entropy spells, while the other focused on Creation and Arcane magicks. I was careful to balance everything out as best I could so that one character's weaknesses were filled in by another person's strengths, and I really mean that nothing stood in our way (not even a town overrun with Templars and qunari could hold us back). Well nothing, that is, until the second major boss. If you've played the game, then you know who I'm talking about. At the end of the second chapter, my character build, which had previously obliterated everything, was suddenly. completely ineffectual.  My companions were worthless,and only my sole swordswoman stood any chance at all ... and she was only able to make a tiny dent before the boss was re-healed, and the damage-heal-damage-heal-damage-heal scenario repeated itself adinfinitum. If I'd had a poorly balanced party or an ineffectual character build then I would have understood, but that was not the case here. I know very few people with mages (specifically force mages) who managed to kill this boss without an excessive amount of effort on their part, only a couple people with archers who managed to do so, and have since learned that this boss in particular is best fought with a swordsman. That my friends is poor game design. Had I been on a PC, I may have been able to eventually make it work, but the targeting on the PS3 drove me insane.  I truly did not stand a chance. Remember how I mentioned earlier that I had not beaten this game, but had sunk a good thirty or so hours into game play? This is why. I reached the second major boss and then ran into a brick wall ... thirty wasted hours of play. If I had used GameFaqs or the Dragon Age Wiki along the way, this would not have been an issue because I would have known how to build my character for maximum effect.  That, however, is meta gaming, and I should not have to resort to outside sources in order to beat a game (much less a ROLE-playing game) where I'm tying to inhabit a character and let that character's personality dictate the story, dialogue, and choice of weapon/skills. To be honest I have a number of gripes with DA2, but this is my main one.  The other faults this game had were still tolerable, but this one was game breaking. 
2) Combat
I will openly admit that combat might be an issue on the PS3 and not the PC, but I seriously think that is unlikely.  For the most part, DA2 controls were very intuitive, and even for someone without a PS3 at home, the learning curve was far from high.  A few minutes of faffing about during the prologue as all I needed to figure out which button did what. I still prefer PC gaming for these kind of titles, but the console controls were really not all that bad.

What was bad, however was the ability to target in combat. First of all, I'm one of those insane people who loved DA:O's combat style. It was tedious at times, but I loved being able to pause the game, zoom out (which was a feature removed from the PC version of DA2) assign each character individual an action, let it play out, and then do the whole thing over again. Dragon Age 2, however, made this difficult because it really was more of a hack-o, slash-o, maim-a-thon. In DA:O, I sat down, figured out what all my spells did, and then strategically applied them where they would have the most effect. In DA2, however, I relied extremely heavily on area-effect spells ... something I barely used in the first game. In and off itself, this is not a bad thing. The reasoning behind it though, is where the problem lies. I used Area effect spells, because 1) they were stupidly overpowered, and 2) I was never quite certain where my player character [who in this case she went by the name of Onyx Hawke] was targeting. For example, in one instance where I was taking on a host of bloodmages, I begin focused on the main baddie with the intention of taking him out first so that I could focus on his minions afterwards. With Hawke fighting the main guy, I ran the rounds of telling Onyx's companions what to do, and by the time I cycled back to Onyx she was shooting arcane bolts at a group of minions half way across the room. Thinking I had just focused wrong, I fought with her for a while so that I knew she was targeting the main baddie, I went through the process with her companions again, and then came back to her only to find that Onyx was fighting minor enemies surrounding the main baddie, while the chief blood mage was kicking her butt. At other times, when things got hectic, I would point in the general direction of where I wanted Onyx to fight, only to find that after I cycled through the party she was fighting in the correct direction but wasn't attacking the person I thought I had but her in combat with. Often, the only way I could ensure that a character would fight their intended target, and stay focused on that target, was to draw that target into a corner or down a hallway (or in some other way isolate them) so that there were no other distractions. Talk about frustrating. Due to the fact that Onyx was so overpowered, this was generally not a major issue. But, there were a few situations where the only way could win a fight was by lowering the difficulty to "casual" temporarily. It wasn't that these fights were insanely difficult in an of themselves, it's just that was the only way I could beat the encounter when Hawke & Co. refused to stay focused or obey my commands. 
3) Environment
Oh goodness gracious, the environment. Where do I start? Here's the ting. In and of themselves the environments are gorgeous. The caves, especially, showed a lot of detail and I enjoyed exploring all the areas in and around Kirkwall ... the first time around. I know that this is a complaint everyone has, but trust me, it's an issue. If you have visited one cave outside of Kirkwall then you have visited them all. I don't just mean they they just reuse textures (which they do) or that they reuse parts of the layout (which they do). No, the design team literally copied entire environments from region (say near the Dalish camp) and pasted that very same environment in a different location.  With the addition of occasionaly different enemies and maybe new room here or there, you were good to go.   The dungeons were often so devoid of unique indicators that I sometimes had to open my world map in order make sure I hadn't accidentally traveld to the wrong locale.   Half the time, the design team made reused environments "new" by simply unsealing formerly sealed doorways, and then sealing up formerly open doorways. Just a clue folks, that doesn't make it feel like a new environment. That just ends up being really really annoying. If everything else in this game was close to perfection, then I could forgive this. All games have their faults, and even Morrowind (the paragon of RPGs that it is) is guilty of reusing dungeons. The difference here though, is that Morrowind and other open world games are just that - open world. They are so massive that reused locations are expected, within reason. DA2's world, however, was very finite. There was no excuse for the amount of Ctrl+C,Ctrl+V action that took place, and when combined with all the game's other faults it just smacks of laziness. I'm genuinely surprised that the companion dialogue (which was as witty as ever) didn't include a number of random comments like "haven't we seen this place before?" or "I fell like I've been to this place before." I, for one, was certainly saying that outloud, to myself, as the game wore on. 
4) The Missing Person
This is perhaps more of a personal quibble than anything since I have not run across anyone else who had the same problem.  The  issue?  I never found Isabella.  I don't mean that I didn't know where to look for her, after all where else could I look but the Hanged Man or the docks? (fyi - Reading I did after the fact told me she was supposed to be in the Hanged Man.)  No, the problem here is that Isabella simply didn't appear.  After I realized that I had somehow missed my opportunity to collect her as a companion, I pulled up GameFaqs, the Dragon Age Wiki, and just about every other source I could get my hands on.  Every one of these pages mentioned where, when, and how to find Isabella (things I logically did on my own), and no where did I read of her simply refusing to appear in-game at all.  Like I said, this is a personal quibble pertaining to my singular game, but to me it is a major one.  Had Isabella been one of my companions, I'm led to believe that she, in a rather specific manner, would have been my get out of jail free card at the end of Act 2.  Retrospectively, knowing that information would have required a bit of meta-gaming on my part (something I try to avoid), but it certainly would have made it possible for me to continue playing DA2 without having to restart the whole game after hitting a brick wall.  The end of Act 2 a side, it certainly would have been nice to have had a second set of blades to balance out Onyx's glut of ranged fighters.

Tune in Tuesday as I wrap up this three part post.
Image: Source   

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Let's Talk About - Dragon Age 2, Part 1

I want to spend a moment talking about Dragon Age 2.  The love that I hold for Dragon Age: Origins is rather obvious and thus one can understand why the idea of a sequel proved terribly exciting ... until it was released that is.  By this point in time I've heard just about everything people have had to say about the game, and while I had heard a lot of criticism of Bioware from the role-playing community prior to experiencing DA2, I had not actually played the game.  Well ... unless you consider the demo to be actual game play. At this point in time I have not finished DA2, and it is unlikely that it will be finished in the near future.  That said, I have logged a good thirty some odd hours over the course of a week, on a friend's PS3, so it is fair to say that I have had plenty of time to form a well educated opinion about this title.    In this post I hope to lay out my overall impressions of the game.  There were a number of things that were done right, and those really deserve to be highlighted.  A number of other things went terribly wrong, and while I do not wish to dwell on those, some items of business simply cannot be ignored.  Finally, there is one particular decision Bioware made which, for continuity sake, was simply confusing.  It made me wonder if parts of the artistic team were perpetually drunk or otherwise out of it during the design process.  This was originally supposed to be all one post, but it was reaching the length of an epic novel, so therefore it has been cut down into three parts.

Before getting into particulars, however, there are a couple of things that you should know.  

1) I played this on a PS3 instead of the PC (my platform of choice).  I do not own a PS3 nor had I played one prior to this week, but I do own a PS2, and have played it enough to be familiar with basic Playstation controls.  DA2's controls were quite intuitive and they felt like second nature within a matter of minutes.  There are a  couple of complaints I have that might be specific to console versions, so I figured that the platform bears mentioning.

2) I did not play with any help guides, walkthroughs, wikias, or any other aids on hand.  There is no shame in doing so, and I certainly have used them myself with other games, but with this game I did not feel that assistance from a wiki was necessary.

3) Except for one or two instances, DA2 was played on "normal" with the very occasional and very very brief usage of "casual."  I'm more of a story girl than a combat one and as a result it is not unknown for me to play "Easy" or "Casual" so that I can spend more time with the story and less time desperately fighting for my life.  This time though, I wanted to give increase the fighting difficulty since I had done the same in DA:O  and enjoyed the combat tremendously.  DA:O combat and tactics was incredibly satisfying and since a lot of criticism has been lobbied at DA2's combat system I felt that giving it a similar chance to shine was only fair.

Let's start off with the good.  This category is not as robust as I had hoped it would be, but there are a number of things to mention that DA2 does remarkably well.

The Good-
1) Including Dragon Age: Origins
The many many letters that Hawke receives throughout the course of the game often include references to DA:O events.  Some NPCs also make mention of  DA:O happenings and characters.  While these connections may be lost of people who did not play the first game, their inclusion reminds the player that DA2 does not exist in isolation.  Wisely, DA2 didn't simply place a Las Vegas style neon sign near something and go "Look guys!  This was in our last game!  We're so witty!"  Instead obscure references to DA;O events were quite often worked into the numerous letters and notices that Hawke finds waiting for her in her desk at home.  At other times, references to DA:O events (whose timeline parallels DA2's very briefly) are worked into NPC conversations.  Even the most obvious methods of referencing the first game really aren't that obvious.  At one point during the first chapter, Hawke walks past an elf who is haranguing a male human.  The human being in question used to be a werewolf.  I had always wondered how the former werewolves from Brecilian Forest had fared, and this gave me a glimpse into their fates.  The best thing about all the DA:O references is that if you had not played the first game (something which was in no way a requirement), then most of the allusions would have flown right past you.  They did not disrupt game play and they did not stick out as peculiar or otherwise unusual.  I especially appreciated the fact that the Bioware relied on the gamers to recognize connections between the two games for themselves, instead of the developer drawing connections.
2) Story
I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed DA2's story. Having been dubious, since the game's debut, about how one could successfully tell the story of Hawke over time without it all feeling contrived or trite, it was nice to find that Hawke developed quite nicely as the game wore on.  While there is only so much depth that a character can have when any game spans as many years as DA2, NPC based exposition and the town's reactions to Hawke's ever rising social status helped reinforce the tale Bioware was telling.  When bracketed by the Chantry Seeker's "interview," the Hawke felt very much like a famous tale come to life.  Character dialogue, of course, was both engaging and often amusing.  This is Bioware after all.  While high fantasy tropes were indeed abundant, and sometimes I found myself groaning at pedestrian shifts in story, one really has to figure that those come with the territory.  If you can't live with a reasonable amount of "by the book" story elements within a fantasy setting, then you are honestly playing the wrong game from the get go.  I will also openly admit that DA2's focus on the mage vs. Templar dichotomy was truly a stoke of genius.  Playing as a mage, with a former Templar on one arm and an over zealous apostate on the other, I found that Hawke really had a number of hard decisions to make.  I was frustrating at times because Bioware occasionally assumed that you would take a certain action, so no matter what branch of the dialogue tree my character followed, the result would have been the same (I reloaded and tested it to find out).  Those frustrating areas were few and far between though.  I do not know how the story would have felt had Hawke been a fighter or a rogue, but that is one of those things I would like to find out.
3) Companions
Not a great deal needs to be said here since we all know that Bioware excels at fashioning companions who are both witty and effective story elements.  Many of the characters I had not been looking forward to, especially Anders, ingratiated themselves to me by the end of my time in-game.  More surprising, however, was my reaction to Aveline Vallen.  Having seen her character in the demo pre-release, I was quickly put off by both her appearance and her mannerisms.  At no time could I have imagined that she would become my favorite companion.  Since I played as an apostate, and Aveline was a former Templar, the emotional dynamic and personal trust that she and my Hawke shared was quite moving.  It was as if the two shared a sort of sisterhood despite their differences in opinion and background.  From a game play standpoint, it was also nice to see that when Hawke dragged Aveline (as a member of the city guard) into situations of questionable legality, Aveline would make comments about the wisdom of her tagging along.  Other NPCs also seemed to be aware of who Aveline was, and that added a certain element of realism into the picture.  All in all I really have little bad to say about the companions themselves.  They were strongly characterized, well voiced, and added a great deal to game play.  At times, like when Hawke refused to take her brother into the Deep Roads, their actions even shocked me.  It's nice to see Bioware stick to what they know.
5) Magical Visual Effects
I absolutely loved playing an apostate in DA2.  The magick effects were massive, flashy, and really made you feel like the spells were doing something.  I had always had a feeling that DA:O's visual effects, in relation to magic, were not all they could be.  DA2 rectified any failings in that area, and honestly quite outdid itself with very in your face visuals.  Area effect spells actually felt like area effect spells.  Onyx Hawke, my mage, genuinely felt like the power-filled character I wanted her to be, instead of the human-happening-to-channel-magic that my ill fated DA:O mage had seemed.   It was disappointing to see that Dragon Age 2 felt the urge to make everything about the world flashy (what is the infamous phrase? "Press a button and something awesome happens"?), but Bioware really hit it on the head with this aspect of game play.  I can see where more subtle magics would be useful from a role-play standpoint, but my goodness, it was nice to actually feel my my mage was doing something for once.  Magical characters were, of course, even more stupidly overpowered in DA2 than they were in the first game, but that is another story for another day.

In the second part of this posting I will talk about "The Bad" in Dragon Age 2.  Be warned, there is a lot of it.  for every positive element they created, it seems like the designers were intent on making their mistakes even bigger and badder so that they would not get lost in the fray.  the third section, which will come at the end of this week, will feature a number of head scratchers.  They weren't good, they weren't bad, but they made me sit back and say "huh ..."

Tune in Friday to read part two of this three part post.

Image: Source