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.

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