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.

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