Dragon Age II Reader Review
Dragon Age II is an average game. Let's get that out of the way first. Normally I wouldn't go out of my way to rag on an average game, but DA2 systematically strips out all the promise, mystery and depth that Dragon Age: Origins went to great lengths to establish. In every way but one this is an inferior title to its predecessor and it's just baffling. Clearly there were budget and timing issues at work but the drop in quality and quantity in this sequel is so brazen and so staggering it leaves me little choice but to chalk up this mess as possibly the biggest disappointment of 2011. And it's only March.
Looking at the large scale of the game, the overarching narrative blows. Is 15 hours enough time to make a fair judgement of something like this? If not, it should be. There is nothing driving the momentum of DA2's plot and characters are shifted up so often that it's hard to establish any real camaraderie. There were many significant plot threads and narrative cliffhangers that Origins and Awakening left us with, and, while I may be wrong, this game has no apparent desire to address them in any meaningful way. Thedas was positioned as an epic world with a rich history and the bulk of its mysteries yet to be discovered. It's probably less charitable than the game deserves to say this, but DA2 essentially pisses all over the mythology that was built up for all those years that DAO was incubating in development.
The much talked-up 'frame narrative' is also a concession on the writers' part. As far in as I am I feel confident in saying it doesn't add anything except the ability for the developer to jump around a timeline recklessly and relieve themselves of a lot of expositional and continuity concerns. It also offers a get-out-of-jail-free card in the sense that any detail in DA2 can be written off as exaggeration or discarded Usual Suspects-style as an en masse fabrication and pave the way for future retcons that might be necessary. Also a talking player character and shift in visual style? Gives me the feeling that this may have been originally intended as a further expansion or spinoff, rather than a full sequel, but more on that later.
On the small scale of things the dialogue and witty banter between teammates that I loved so much in Origins is gone. Well, not gone, but certainly stripped down to a bare minimum. And even then it's never as witty as the lines written for Alistair or Anders. They were gold. Nothing approaches that quality in DA2 and while it's never an overt shortcoming, it does detract something that series veterans are in their rights to expect.
Although it's not all bad. For those decrying DA2's new take on RPG combat, I rather like it. I found the implementation in DA:O mired in its supposed reverence to Baldur's Gate and not nearly fluid enough for the year in which it was released. That said, I would never have wanted them to take out all the tactics and actual thought that went into surviving one of the chaotic brawls in Origins, but that's exactly what happened. Skill trees are stripped bare and outfitting and AI behaviour has been taken down a notch in complexity. Surely between the two approaches there's a happy medium, but DA2 just goes too far.
The worrying thing about DA2 is that it seemed crafted in a such a way that it could cut corners from the beginning, not as a last-minute ditch effort to get the game out on time. Being centred around a single city? Being told through its 'frame narrative'? These are all conscious core design choices made with the apparent intention of getting a sequel to DAO out the door as soon as possible. Promises of 2 years' DLC support for that game be damned! Or could this all be a hint? Could the game now known as Dragon Age II originally been a DLC release for DAO? Although the hackneyed new combat system suggests otherwise, the production's deliberately narrow scope suggests so. Otherwise could it have been some manner of spinoff? The new combat supports this theory and its decidedly console-esque stylings suggest this could have been a console-only affair at one point. Both disc size and the subsequent hi-res download for PC both point in this direction...
But this is all idle speculation. The harsh reality is that we have an RPG that's not bad but is an utter letdown considering what came before it. I just gave up on the appalling Infinite Undiscovery - which was magnitudes worse than DA2 - but it was a new franchise and the dirth of shocking titles Square-Enix likes to publish didn't exactly temper expectations for much more. I wouldn't waste the time condemning that garbage. DA2's difference is that its predecessor setup a game and a world with so much potential that 2 years ago there were few things I was anticipating more than a sequel. Now that sequel is here and it doesn't even maintain the set standard; it falls short. It's unacceptable for a great game's sequel to be anything less than greater, and to be categorically worse is unconscionable.
I've tried not to let this be a knee-jerk reaction to all the changes and really don't want to jump on the Dragon Age 2 hate bandwagon but I have no motivation to pick up the game at this point and press forward. Comparing this to the all night DAO marathons from 2009 it's just sad. I don't know what was happening at Bioware when this was being made but they have a lot of work to do if they hope to kindle any interest for a Dragon Age III.