Sunday, February 24, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Of Doors That Are Not

If I had a bone to pick with Dragon Age 2 (and I certainly have a few of those) then the doors-that-are-not-doors" would be a major issue for me.  This playthrough I told myself that I would place my pet peeves on the back burner and just experience the game for what it is. The faux doors would not annoy me this time.  That conviction only lasted until the end of Act 1 when I chose to complete the Secondary Quest Magestrate's Orders.  

Magestrate's Orders requires Hawke to enter an abandoned ruin (which suspiciously resemble the Deep Roads) in order to retrieve an "escaped criminal".  These ruins largely consist of one primary pathway orbiting a circular chamber with a number of side corridors and chambers. At first glance the ruin's floor plan seems to give players a choice.  You can choose to explore every nook and cranny before heading towards the quest maker, or you can simply focus on the quest and disregard any kind of exploration.  I, being rather anxious to complete this side quest and close out Act 1, was opting for the later. Plus, it was getting late and I was very tired. A quick in-and-out seemed the way to go.  Dragon Age 2, however, disagreed.  

In short, the ruin's map lies.  Despite the central chamber having four entry points, only one of those "entrances" actually functioned.  The others still had doors, but the doors did not work.(see above) They were just for appearances.  Instead of letting players decide which route they wished to take to the quest point, the game arbitrarily forced its own path (and thus forced exploration) instead.  It seemingly offered the promise of choice, but in reality it forced linearity.

This map illustrates the path that Cerian took in her continued efforts to simply get in the ruin, collect the criminal, and get out.  At the start she could either head north into a chamber which was bound to have an encounter (see first image) or she could head east down a corridor which may contain less conflict.  That pass also promised a short cut to the quest point. Opting for the eastern route she promptly ran into non-door #1 and was forced to take the northern route anyways.  Upon entering the chamber, there was a northern door which allowed her to continue on that same pathway, and an eastern door which led straight to the ruin's central chamber. (see first image) The latter was more expedient, but it too was also a sham.  Non-door #2 forced Cerian's crew to continue northward instead, along the outer passage. It wasn't until Hawke reached the top of the ruin, fought through numerous enemies, and triggered an important cut scene, that DA2 presented her with its only entrance to the central chamber (door #3).

Upon entering the circular chamber (one encounter + numerous spawning enemies later) Hawke was presented with two options.  She could proceed immediately through the chamber's eastern door and find the criminal; or she could exit through the southern door, pass through an unnecessary hallway, and then face the alleged convict.  The eastern door (#4) was an obvious choice, but it maddeningly enough was also a false door. That meant that Cerian, once again, was forced to take the most circuitous route to her destination.  Interestingly enough, door #4 led to the path Cerian initially wanted to take upon entering the ruin. Door #1 was sealed though, and and she was left unable to proceed directly to the criminal's location.  She has to explore the entire ruin first.

That was not the end of Hawke's frustration.  After her first meeting with the convict, he ran to the circular chamber Hawke had just left.  One encounter and numerous spawned enemies later, Cerian was yet again left with two options.  She could take the western door which led directly to the circular chamber, or she could take the southern door and backtrack the hallway her crew had just used.  The westward door (#6) was the most direct route, but it (like before) was not an option. Not only did that mean that the only way back to the circular chamber was by needlessly backtracking through a long hallway; but it also meant that this location featured a corridor between two chambers that was utterly useless.  At no time during this side quest was Hawke ever able to utilize the hallway between doors #4 and #6.

It would be easy for me to try an explain these sealed "doors" away.  One could say that Bioware was trying to encourage exploration, but I've never felt that exploration should be forced upon the player.  Once it is made obligatory you can't really call it exploration anymore.  It is simply standard gameplay.  One could also say that the blocked doors prevented gamers from missing the cut scene which gave insight about the criminal's character. Yet, that point is easily countered. A simply adjustment like placing the cut scene in a common location (perhaps just inside the entrance?) would have made it possible for all gamers to trigger it no matter which path they took.  

No, I honestly only see two reasons for the doors to be like this.  One, it artificially extends gameplay. Block doors in enough locations, force gamers down enough circuitous routes, and the extra time really adds up. Two, the sealed entrances are a by product of the location map copy pasta action the DA2 designers were so fond of. Closing off some entrances on this map, and making them available on others theoretically presents gamers with new areas (and by extension new experiences) when they are forced to play this exact map again hours later.  

No matter how you cut it though, this kind of design is absolutely inexcusable.  Doors should never be used for mere aesthetic purposes.  If it can't be used, replace it with a wall.  Likewise, maps and mini maps are an important part of gameplay, especially for those of us who are seriously directionally challenged.  Repeatedly depicting rooms and corridors on a map, which are 100% inaccessible, causes people like me to become turned around, confused, and altogether frustrated. Getting lost in an open world game like Morrowind is one thing.  That is an expected part of gameplay which, in my opinion, serves to enrich the overall experience.  Getting turned around in locations like this, however, is complete nonsense. Do not provide a location map if it cannot be trusted.  That is bad form. Don't do it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Them Be Fightin' Skills

Up close and personal with a blood mage.  Not the smartest idea ever.
Strategy, particularly battle strategy, has never exactly been a strong suit of mine. Every Civilization game I've ever played, where the space race was not a primary objective, has born testament to that.  Come to think of it, even those with the space race probably stand proof as well.  Games like Civilization, Caesar, and Age of Empires are still playable though because war is not their only focus.  The same is true for cRPGs  All of this, I suppose, is a very long-winded way of saying "I'm bad at fighting."  I'll admit it!  I'll even admit to sometimes playing games on "easy" or "casual" just so all that battle-fighting, hair-rending madness can be sped through on  the way to the "story parts". Did you ever read William Goldman's Princess Bride where he talked about his book being the "good parts version"?  "Easy" is like a cRPG's "good parts" mode. In some titles repeated deaths and difficult combat are an integral part of the full gaming experience.   that is not always the case though, and I refuse to apologize for taking advantage of lower difficulties every once in a while.

One game I can promise you I am not taking advantage of "casual" mode, however, is Dragon Age 2.  Except for a couple of locations with ridiculous difficulty spikes, "normal" is almost a walk in the park.  While the game would clearly be [easily] playable on levels above normal, I honestly do not see a reason to increase the difficulty if what I'm really after is the story.  After all, it would likely only result in more tedious waves of enemies ("You thought you had finished the encounter?  Not bloody likely. Ha ha! Take this!" - DA2) and more ineffectual weapons.  On the other hand, I have every reason to not play "casual" with its utter lack of challenge and tissue paper enemies.  Just for grins, at a very early level, I switched to the lowest difficulty setting.  After triggering combat I left the computer to make a cup of tea.  With the tea left steeping, I returned a few minutes later to find that (without any intervention of my own) the swarm of enemies had been defeated and neither Hawke nor her companions had received injuries in the process.  I'm sure the mode is perfect for someone, and I can see how it would be particularly useful if one was trying to zoom through all of the combat. I can easily sympathize with that since encounters with similar enemy groups do get tedious after a while. It stands to reason though that constant non-challenge would eventually become just as tedious.

Even during fights when minimal strategy is needed, it can be unwise to simply barge in with sword swinging (or in Cerian's case, daggers ... er ... dagging*).  I usually spend the first few hours of any game playing around with different approaches to battle and (when available) different configurations to tactics screens.  The PC also ends up consuming their weight in health potions throughout the process.  Since I have spent a lot of time with Dragon Age: Origins, a number of DA2's skills are quite familiar.  Some of them function slightly different, like Cone of Cold, but for the most part previous knowledge minimizes the learning curve here.  The introduction of spawning enemies (don't worry, we'll talk about that another day), the removal of a proper top-down camera, and the introduction of new abilities though, are enough to shake up old Dragon Age habits.  Surprisingly, coming into this DA2 playthrough with an open mind has been extremely beneficial combat wise.  The conscious suppression of preconceived notions and past experiences has unexpectedly given birth to a desire for new experiences and the rejection of pre-learned methodologies.  This means that I am now using parts of the skill tree that I never touched before.  Two of the most notable additions to my combat repertoire are the very basic miasmic flask and walking bomb.

The one thing I loved most about combat in Dragon Age: Origins was the use of flasks, especially acid flasks for some reason.  In Dragon Age 2, Cerian only has the formula for tar bombs at the moment and I haven't exactly figured out how effective those are yet in regards to crowd control.  Something that is useful, however, is the Rouge's "sabotage" skill miasmic flask.  Part of the skill tree, instead of an item you must pay for, the miasmic flask's stunning capabilities have proven quite useful in a few circumstances.

1) When, like in the picture above, a group of enemies suddenly spawns (in this case behind you).  The flask makes it easy to temporarily disable one group so that you  can turn your attention to the others.  Companion AI seems to have an issue locking onto targets (and staying  locked onto targets) when surrounded by large numbers of active enemies.  I don't know how many times I have placed someone on a Commander, only to go back a second later and find them fighting a minion while the Commander tried to kill them from behind.  Liberal application of the miasmic flask seems to minimize these occurrences.

2) When I'm dealing with a group of archers on one side and am overwhelmed by a higher level character or swarm of enemies on the other side.  Again, in a way, it helps compensate for companion AI that doesn't do what I tell it to.  I'm all for crown control that helps me keep companions from unwittingly killing themselves.

In the end though, it just feels good to use this skill.  It's like Cerian is looking at a group of enemies and saying "Dude, chill out.  I'll be over there to kill you in a sec. Wait your turn."  I like that feeling.

The one skill I am unexpectedly getting a lot of mileage out of so far though, is the Walking Bomb. A carry over from DA:O, this is a spell that I have honestly never really used until now.  It seems to be best utilized with a mage (usually Anders) selects the "I'm going to die any second now" enemy out of a group, and casts it on them just before the foe is cut down.  All surrounding enemies receive spirit damage upon its death (something I'm suddenly quite fond of), and I call it a day. The usefulness of Bomb at higher levels is yet to be determined, but for the moment it is super effective.  If nothing else, it allows Anders to help with crowd control, before he goes into healer mode with Panacea.

Learning how to fight with Anders is interesting when it comes to balancing healing with his other powers.  In the past, despite his unique character abilities, Anders generally got left at home in favor of Merrill.  Since Cerian is "romancing" Anders this game (a first for me, despite the fact that I actually liked him in DA:O - Awakening) it seemed fitting to replace Merrill with him.  Sure they are both mage, but in my mind they are have very different styles.

tl;dr - I'm not good with strategy.  Story is better than combat.  Boo on spawning enemies. Crowd control woooo!

*Merriam-Webster has informed me that dagging is actually a real word which apparently means "the act of removing dags."  Dag comes from the Middle English dagge, and was first used in the 14th century.  It is an unusual noun which refers to "a hanging end, shred" or "matted or manure-coated wool."  The more you know.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reexamining DA2: FedEx-ing Dead Bodies

Dragon Age 2 has an interesting way of dealing with FedEx quests, and that is not really a bad thing.  These quests, after all,  are the bane of a cRPGer's existence.  Random NPC says "go deliver this", PC delivers item, PC returns to random NPC, and random NPC pays PC money.  What Bioware basically did in Dragon Age 2, was shorten this process by cutting out the first half of the quest line (namely the initial receiving and departing bits).  Doing this eliminated a great deal of unnecessary player backtracking.  In lieu of receiving a "deliver this" conversation from a random NPC, the PC merely finds something during their normal activities, and then delivers that item to its NPC owner in exchange for money. 

This way of dealing with side quests has a lot going for it.  First of all, it allows the game to still include all of those mini transactions that gamers are used to having. You know, the ones that help the PC turn a small profit outside of the main quest and massive, multi-part side quests. Secondly, as I mentioned before, it eliminates a great deal of unnecessary backtracking. Traditionally, FedEx quests send you halfway across the game map twice - once to retrieve/deliver an item and then once to receive payment.  In Dragon Age 2, you only have to march across the map once to receive payment for the item since it is found during your regular travels.

DA2's system isn't perfect though. Initial quest giver are non-existent, so the game requires players to open their Journal if they want to know what it is they have collected and how it is tied to the world around it.  This means that any obvious connection between these quests is from the game itself is buried. With little incentive to read the entries for these deliveries, opening the Journal for a sentence of text was just an extra step that most players likely avoid.  In fact, in previous DA2 playthrough attempts, that was exactly what I did. To be fair, FedEx quests, no matter what game they are in, generally have a throwaway air about them anyways.  Here that "air" is multiplied though, thanks to quest marked NPCs.  It is extremely easy to see a marked item, pick it up, and then stumble through the game until you see the NPC it belongs to (also with a marker above their heads).  The transaction completed, money is exchanged, and the PC washes their hands of the entire quest.  In the end, their actions are completely divorced from any significance the side quest may have had to the item's recipient or even Kirkwall as a whole.

With my determination to give DA2 a fair look still going strong, I decided a while back that actually reading side quest journal entries was an integral part of the experience.  For the most part I've found that quest goals are about as generic as one would expect. Amongst all the family items and lost possessions though there have been  at least two instances so far where Cerian has needed to give someone bodily remains.  Once it was the bones of a Chantry missionary and the other time it was the corpse of a Dalish highwayman (pictured at top).  The concept of giving bodily remains to someone makes enough sense to me for it to fly.  The missionary's bone were venerable relics the Chantry desired, and the corpse was being returned to its people (supposedly for burial). While the nature of these quests was rather solemn though, Hawke's stock dialogue rendered their delivery unintentionally hilarious.  As with every other quest (like lost family items), Hawke hands the bodies to their recipients and says some variation of of the phrase "I believe you lost this somewhere?"  I, as the player, can't help but laugh and reply, "No ... no I really didn't."  The absurdity of this whole situation is simply fantastic. Think about it. Hawke has been traveling from here to kingdom come, engaging in street battles, and romantically flirting ... with a rotting corpse thrown over her shoulder or hanging out of her pack.  Then, after locating the people who will value the remains, Cerian feels the best way to broach the subject of the corpse in her possession is with a, "dude, I think you lost this."

I kind of love it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Reexamining Dragon Age 2: Introduction

Cerian Hawke, rogue extraordinaire
I have a confession to make. I actually purchased Dragon Age 2. (It was on sale for roughly $4.00 over at GameFly a few months back.)  and then, in another fit of madness, I actually purchased both The Exiled Prince and Mark of the Assassin DLC. Exiled Prince was Day One DLC which introduced Sebastian Vale, a new recruitable companion.  Sebastian is so well integrated into gameplay, dialogue, and party banter that I think those calling TEP "cut content" certainly have more than a leg to stand on.  Mark of the Assassin is not integrated into the existing game, but instead acts as an additional chapter to the story.  Tallis, this DLC's recruitable, is restricted only to MotA gameplay.

Since my first play through was both incomplete, and on a PS3, my purchase of DA2 seemed like the perfect opportunity to give this game a second chance.  After a few hours in game, my opinions are mixed. Right after purchasing DA2, I sunk a good 20-30 hours into it as a warrior.  Frustration finally got the best of me, and Hawke barely made it to the second chapter boss.  Last weekend, on a whim, I started all over.  Playing this time as a rogue, the experience has still been frustrating at times, but after 15 hours I am still not losing my hair like last time.  In the following weeks (while I continue putting off discussing Jade Empire until I have a better feel for its world) I will be readdressing both the good and bad of Dragon Age 2 in real time

Why I'm doing this:
First of all, I have yet to actually finish the game.  The first time I played I got stuck at the second chapter boss.  The second time I gave up after frustration with mechanics overwhelmed my desire to complete the title.  This time I would like to actually beat the game.  Having experienced the title as both a mage and warrior, playing as a rogue gives me a chance to re-experience the game through new eyes. 

Second of all, time doesn't heal all wounds but it can certainly help mend them.  The first time I played DA2, it was out of morbid curiosity.  Passionately in love with Dragon Age: Origins, I had read the overwhelming negative fan reactions to DA2 and thus expected little from the title.  Even with low expectations I found the game terribly underwhelming and was rather shocked by a number of the design decisions.  It all pretty much ended in resentment.  The second time I played, it was with a host of balancing mods and that too ended in resentment.  More than anything I was disappointed in the fact that even mods could not fix what I perceived to be broken beyond repair.  This time however, I have entered into the title knowing what I face. Instead of trying to mod the game's "brokenness" away, I am being open minded about the experience.  I accept the fact that Dragon Age 2 is not what we all hoped it would all be pre-release, and I am making a genuine effort to experience it for what it is, instead of insisting it be something it isn't. I can't promise my thoughts will be terribly Earth shattering, but putting them here is a conscious effort to reinforce the non-gut-reaction approach to this playthrough.

What this series will be:
The goal of this blog series is to record my current impressions of the game in real time. The last time I took a look at Dragon Age 2 it was well after the fact, and the formatting (condensing my whole experience into a couple posts) was not conducive to really addressing the way I felt about the game. This time the posts will address oddities, the good, and the bad as I encounter them.  There is no predetermined number of posts, nor is there a predetermined text limit. 

How I am playing:
I will not be roleplaying here, but I will be roleplaying in game.  While some meta gaming is necessary to overcome game mechanics I am already aware of, I am making a conscious choice to eliminate meta gaming in the story.  I have caught myself about to make some meta plot decisions, but caught them before they actually happened. Hawke replies in conversations as she, the character, would reply. as such, she is a mix between peace keeping, kind, sarcastic, and hard nosed   She does not knowingly curry friendship or rivalry with anyone. through dialogue since that would require me, as the player, to know when and where companions will give a plus or minus to disposition. While a few mods are installed, mainly one that re-skinned Merrill's robe and changed Aveline's appearance, they are pretty much aesthetically based.  I have resisted the temptation to utilize balancing or lock bash mods.

Who Hawke is:
Cerian Hawke is a rogue who feels a little detached emotionally from her family members.  Always at odds to her brother, she felt Carter's loss when they were fleeing Lothering, but has since mourned and moved on.  While she understands her mother's and sister's grief, she secretly wishes they would move on as well.

Cerian feels affection for her sister, but resents the fact that she has spent her whole life covering for Bethany.  It's not that  Hawke has any love for the Templars, and she can certainly understand why her family fears the Circle, but Cerian feel like her own potential has been stiffed in the process of keeping her sister safe.  After all, should she demonstrate her true potential as a soldier, Hawke might draw undesired attention to her family ... and thus may potentially expose Bethany as an apostate.  With the move to Kirkwall, Hawke's mother has withdrawn into herself.  Learning about her lost inheritance and losing Carter was just too much to deal with.  This has left Cerian to take up the reigns as family matriarch, and she is relishing in the roll.  With everyone in the family looking to her for safety and financial security, Hawke finally has a chance to use martial skills, which she developed while in the service of King Cailin, to their full extent in defense of her family and her new home. This renders the burden of her sister's safety less stifling. It should be noted that after resenting Bethany's apostate status all her life, Hawke has rather ironically begun to fall romantically in love with an apostate.  Cerian finds this trick of fate to be rather (darkly) humorous.