Thursday, June 12, 2014

Game Review: Dragon Age 2

With the imminent arrival of Dragon Age: Inquisition and the fact that Laura has been playing it, I finally went back and played Dragon Age 2 again. I had played it a bit when it first came out, but for a number of reasons I don't recall I guess I just kinda put it aside and never returned.

Which is odd, because I generally like Bioware games. Or I did. I'm not sure how I feel about them anymore.


During the events of Dragon Age: Origins, a family from the small town of Lothering flees the coming Blight--a terrible event in which vicious, undead-ish creatures called Darkspawn emerge from the depths of the earth to wage war with the surface. With their homeland of Ferelden apparently lost to the Darkspawn, the family flees toward the coast where they seek passage to the mother's homeland, a city called Kirkwall.

While Ferelden is eventually saved by the hero from the previous game, you and your family make due in this city where your mother's family has lost its standing, the mages are severely oppressed by the templars, and a group of mysterious Qunari have taken residence.


The first time I played through the game, I think I trailed off after the end of Act I. For whatever reason, I was very tired of the game at that point.

This time wasn't much different. My obsessive nature requires that I explore everything and open every clickable item in order to gather junk, most of which I sell for pennies. As a result, I explore each map carefully so that I never have to bother exploring them again.

However, in each new act suddenly all the barrels, boxes, and other things are once again willed with junk, so I end up re-exploring every map. It's tedious. Self-inflicted, too, but money's not easy to come by in the game--there's a finite amount out there, so you can't just grind and upgrade to the best equipment all the time, you'll never have that much money.

There's two points there, one good and one bad. Let's start with the good:

I actually love the fact that money is scarce in the game. Saving and spending money becomes a tactical decision, and I think that's brilliant. (Battles likewise are limited--you can't infinitely grind for levels.) Very few RPGs are willing to do that, it seems, but Bioware games usually do. I'm sure some people dislike that quality, but I think scarcity makes for an interesting mechanic.

The bad thing, though, is that exploring the same areas again and again is really one of the most disappointing things about the game. In fact, I'd say it's the game's primary fault: they really, really skimped on the level design. Every time you enter a cave you pretty much already know how to navigate it, since every cave has the same basic layout, slightly edited to suit the purpose of the event. Same for every temple, every mansion, every hovel, and undercity tunnel.

The original Mass Effect did something similar, but it felt different: everything you did in the main plot of Mass Effect has unique maps, and it opened the door to striking visual effects. The reused maps were all in side missions, usually found randomly during an exploration of deep space, and usually only after exploring the huge maps of any of the massive, unique planets scattered throughout the galaxy.

Dragon Age 2 has little in the way of striking visuals except, sometimes, in the transition of one chapter to the next. Within a chapter, though, everything feels pretty tedious, especially by the time you hit the second act. There are a number of quests you have to complete within a chapter to finish that chapter, but often those quests feel no different from any of the side-quests, right down to the reused maps.

Also, the actual design of many of those maps are weird. Hovels feel way too open to be hovels. Countless candles are left burning all over the place, even in the poorest houses. I'm pretty sure one house was actually being lit by a pile of burning rubbish piled against a wall. Is nobody worried about all these open flames everywhere?

(Actually, I probably wouldn't have noticed it so much if Laura hadn't pointed it out. Afterward, though, it was impossible to miss.)

One more irritating thing about the game was its tendency to use waves and waves of enemies, popping out of thin air in the middle of any given battle. Seriously, if you get in a battle with a mob on the streets, you can pretty much count on at least two waves of reinforcements. Having to deal with long battles against unimportant enemies added to the tedium of the game.

That said, the game has some good qualities. The best part is the characters: most of your party members are interesting and fun to have around in one way or another. I didn't like any of my romantic options when I played through originally with a female character: Anders is pushy and too intense, Fenris is ten kinds of broody, and Isabela isn't my kind of match. As a male, though, Merril was available, and she's pretty adorable. She has problems like anyone else, but I could see a relationship working given her personality. Too bad Varric wasn't an option, but he kind of carried the story in a different way.

Speaking of which, the story itself was told in a pretty cool sort of way: having Varric relate the story to an inquisitor (which by the way, hint hint, is gonna be your job in the next game) was pretty cool. My favorite parts were when the game reminded you of that conceit randomly during a quest, which unfortunately wasn't terribly often. In fact, the game often goes so long without showing Varric's inquisition, it's kind of a surprise when it reminds you of it.

The first act is okay--fairly predictable, but fun at times, story-wise. Interestingly, I think act two becomes the most interesting chapter by the end, mostly because I find the Qunari fascinating. Act three takes a fascinating, rough turn near the end, but otherwise it's pretty much what you expected to happen from the beginning.

So, to recap:

The good: fun characters, cool storytelling method (though underused in the game), good use of scarcity, and a cool story.

The bad: lazy level design, tedious battles

Unfortunately, you're likely to spend a lot more time fighting tedious battles in the lazily designed levels than you are to be spending quality time with the characters and experiencing the story proper, so it's kind of a hard sell for me. I'm glad I finished it, and I'm hopeful for the next one. I don't expect I'll be playing through it again, though.

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