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.
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