Dragon Age II Reader Review
Let's do one thing first - I in no way dislike Dragon Age 2 as a game. It's been a perfectly acceptible weeks worth of hacky-slashy fun and questing. It's hardly rocked my world, it's not made me have an epiphany and it in no way makes me want to be Hawke in the same way I wanted to be Shepherd from Mass Effect. But it's been okay.
I also put my hands up here - I was in no way much of a fan of Origins. I enjoyed it, but I certainly didn't love it in quite the way a lot of people did. So hearing that Bioware were streamlining it was actually the biggest selling point for me - I like my big epic old-school RPGs, but I never felt Origins was a homage to it. I just felt it was "the great pretender", a game whose mouth was writing checks its ass really couldn't cash in a million years. So, yeah, a slightly more simplified system sounded good...
The game starts you off as Hawke, in my case a male mage, whose tale is being told by Varric - a dwarf who clearly has discovered the magical wonders of waxing. Varric is a smooth-talking rogue - quick with his trusty crossbow Bianca (but no Rickaaaaaay) but even quicker with words. A Chantry Seeker, seeking obviously to get Hawke to undo the chaos he has caused, wants to know the truth of The Champion. Something Varric is very keen to share...
From the opening, it's very obvious Dragon Age 2 tries to marry the tactical leanings of Origins with a more instantly gratifying and visually gory combat system that lends more of a nod and wink to Devil May Cry. It starts as it means to go on - Hawke, what remains of his family and a soldier they meet on the way - trundle down a narrow path fending off the Darkspawn that turn up. At the end, they meet up with Flemeth - who now seems to be channelling Cher - and, after a couple more deaths, are whisked away to Kirkwall - a city that cosmetically has all the layers but they all seem very cut-and-paste.
The visual tedium is somewhat noticable, but if you've played Origins (or Mass Effect), what is more noticable from the off is the repeat offenders that are the voice actors - your mother is almost a clone of the Human Noble mother in Origins, characters sound and behave somewhat similar to their counterparts in other games. It's somewhat like Fable - when people sound and look the same, it's hard to invest any emotional attachment into them. Same goes for the maps, which by and large are all pretty similar, and the caves are all copy-pasted with just a few different enemies in each. After a day or two it was hardly necessary to have a minimap at all - you could find your way around most locales with naught but a budgie and duct tape.
There's still that collectables slant, and much like Origins, the writing in the Codex piles several ladles worth of shame on the scriptwriters. The oft-amusing and yet informative blocks of text remain a highlight, but really - the fact that the codex, the collectable toms, notes and books, remain a highlight really casts poor light across the rest of the game, which doesn't really ever live up to the time put into these cracking little snippets of lore that amuse, delight and intrigue. You kind of get the feeling there's a hell of a lot of "lore" here that they desperately WANT to be using, but are constrained by their storyline to not use.
It's a bit of a shame that the game doesn't really "go" anywhere. By this I mean, Kirkwall is nice and all but it is a limiting city that is chock-full of stereotype, cliché and repetition. NPCs recite the same two or three lines of dialogue over and over again, and even then they don't really feel like they're fleshing the city out - so often it feels empty and boring, which makes the introduction of being told the city is full somewhat amusing and depressing in equal measure.
The game, halfway through, hinges on a trip to the Deep Roads - a place where the Darkspawn hail from, and during a blight are consipicuously empty. These are old Dwarven lands, abandoned when the Blight first showed up and remain deep underground, harbouring lots of nasties and secrets. It is actually one of the more interesting areas - yes, a tunnel is more interesting than the landscapes above ground - but afterwards, you're plopped back into Kirkwall and the game tries to go all clever on you, but you don't really get much else. There is the scope of an epic quest tantalisingly dangled in front of your face but when you snatch that carrot you realise you've just been led around in circles for the last fifteen hours... kind of depressing, really.
Similarly, the new dialogue system (albeit borrowed wholesale from Mass Effect) does add some ease of use into the talky aspect. It's nice to get icons that tell you what style of response you are invoking, but the script swings wildly from comedic to sinister to just plain daft whatever option you choose - and apart from Friendships with your companions, it's not really easy to see any repercussions to being a jackass, a rigteous paragon of holy excellence or a brutish thug - just a few lines of dialogue change here and there but it doesn't seem to have any real impact on the game at large.
On the subject of companions, I must admit a slightly cynical viewpoint on this front. They all feel a bit wooden and two-dimensional, which I suppose you might have figured by now, but it is more difficult to impose any identity on them when they always wear the same smelly clothing. Whilst it can be upgraded, it doesn't really change in looks - no doubt something that DLC can fix. And on the subject of DLC, isn't it WONDERFUL that already there's been a character and a half hours worth of content cut out of the game, ready to be sold back to you for a few quid more? It's nice to see that Bioware are mastering the art of ripping us off...
Moreso on companions is the idea of "Friendship". This basically means whoring yourself out to each support character one at a time - and when I say "whoring", I literally mean it in the most OED of terms - it's a little creepy how if you want to be everyones friend they all seem to want to sample a bit of Hawkes +10 Staff of Penetration. Each character is predictable, and if you really want to be bestest buddies or enemies with someone it's very easy to get around - Aveline the guard? Just don't do anything morally or ethically dodgy in her presence (which is quite a challenge but not seriously so). I'm all for these systems, but it's just more meaningless choice and to be fair, I wouldn't say any of the options anyway. "Oh are you afraid the Chantry will come and get you?" Yeah, I just killed an ambush of fifty thugs with a massive area of effect lightning storm. They can come and get me at their leisure, I have aaaaaaaall day...
And yet, that's overlooking the issue that characters seem to all have the same talent trees from which to pool from. Now, I am not averse to this system as I quite liked the Final Fantasy 12 system, but even there you had a limited number of options and very quickly specialised. The talent trees in DA2 are a mish-mash, some feel like they have identity and others - others feel far too similar. I also found myself very quickly with lots of mages - a theme the game wants to revolve around, but never quite manages it. And even there, all mages have the same schools to pick from - I don't MIND this, but I think it could have been more streamlined and less obvious. Like if each mage had a sort of "thing"... Merril is Nature and Blood magic. Why not revolve her spells around that? I'm not entirely sure why she'd be interested in anything else...
Then there are the side-quests, the majority of which feel like afterthoughts. But I must mention one in particular - now, I'm all for pushing the boundries of taste and decency in videogames, but I have my limits - and being sent to find a peadophile and be given the option to set him free is crossing the line Bioware. Actually, it's way off the line, it's beyond the tundra regions, past the forest and teabagging a totally different line a hundred miles off. My tolerance for things cannot extend that far, and that quest more than anything soured my opinion of the game very quickly. It feels like something they put in to generate or court controversy, but it is in such a tedious and dull framework that it just looks like desperation, clutching at something, ANYTHING to try and drum up some column inches but really, surprisingly, we just don't care. It's disgusting and someone at Bioware needs a kick to the groin for that decision.
The question I ask myself at the end of it all is - what is Dragon Age? I say this with care, but still it's a world that has an identity crisis. It's sort of a bit Lord of the Rings, and a bit Dungeons and Dragons. It's a game that feels caught between the two, or rather, a game that wants to marry the two or, at least, profess to be its illegitimate lovechild.
The problem is, it misses the point on both counts. Lord of the Rings is an epic storyline full of emotion and human complication. Of power, corruption, friendship and duty - as well as love, death and all in between. It's all about the story and the characters. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, is a world all about the options. It's a world of stats, tweaking and customising as much as you can to fit into a world that may be cliché and boring, but is filled with enemies for you to fight and see if your spectacular little setup will make you a monolithic power house or give you the mystical strength of a paper cup. Dragon Age 2 doesn't capitalise on either front, although it seems like it is trying to, and therefore looks like a pale imitator in comparison.
And that is the problem with Dragon Age 2. It isn't that it is rushed. It's not that it is buggy. It's not that it's easy. It's that it is BORING. It's a game that struggles with its own identity and that is quite likely to alienate far more people than it has won over. It's a hacky-slashy crawl in limited identikit surroundings that has bucketloads of promise, but never seems to deliver on it. The characters, the world, the story - nothing seems to really add up, it tries to go somewhere with it and then decides it wants to go somewhere else. Everything feels circumstantial and chance-driven, there's no freedom, no choice and no real heart. Even technically, the PC version is without modtools - so the userbase can fix some of the more simple issues, but cannot generate any content of their own - something Bioware of all companies is usually very happy to have out at the start as standard. It runs fine, but even tuned up on my rig it doesn't ever look stunning, or beautiful, or real. It's a bit wooden - and at times, I'd swear I'd done it already, in other games, years ago.
The conclusion to the game is again a choice, much the same as the original, but it IS satisfying as well as dropping just the faintest hint of fanservice, but like most of the plot - nothing that you can't see hurtling towards you about halfway through the game. It's just a tad predictable - but hey, if you're aping your predecessor so hard, that's perhaps not surprising.
I don't hate DA2. In many ways, I wish I could hate it - it's the sort of game which I really don't like sitting on the fence over, but I can admit amidst the bad, the boring and the bloody batshit there is something to like. It's got a sense of humour, and drama, it's suitably gratifying in that more immediate sense and it's certainly taken a week of my life up and I'm not demanding it back or anything, so yeah. It's not something I hate. But it's just one of those games that is difficult to love - it's tired, cliché, predictable, obvious, plain and moreover, feigns depth and sophistication when it is in truth shallow and simple.
But more than anything else, for me there is one thing that eats me up and makes it impossible for me to love DA2. It's that inescapable realisation at the end of it all that Dragon Age 2 is that it is and likely always will be that most un-Bioware of all things...
A half-arsed job.