Another entry in this ongoing waste of everyone's time (I mean, "blog series") where I compare games of old and new for significant differences in game design trends and its evolution. This week's plus one swords of scrutiny are Bioware's Dragon Age II and, uh, Bioware's Baldur's Gate II. Like those Final Fantasies I did a while back, using two similar games made by the same developer is a handy way of avoiding the "yo, this game totally ripped off this other game" undercurrent that sometimes pervades these comparisons. It's completely okay if a game series rips off itself. Borrows. Pfft, semantics.
Oh right, the comparisons. Here we go (protip: there may be mild SPOILERS):
Blight Knights, Big CitySo the first big similarity between these two games is that they, for the most part, take place in and around a huge city full of a diverse assortment of people and things. As well as meeting regular fantasy RPG trope archetypes, like the usual thieves and mercenaries, you'll also contend with the city's elite as your reputation grows and you become a figure of importance to the city. In Baldur's Gate 2, this city is Athkatla, the imposingly large capital city of the nation of Amn. Dragon Age 2, of course, has Kirkwall: A port city fond of giant bronze statues of bald people and racism.
But the similarities run deeper than just a persistent metropolitan setting: In both cities there is a major schism between those who use magic and those who are distrustful of such power, who prefer to lock their mages up on a prison island under heavy guard. Sort of like an Abracadabratraz. DA2 and the first Act of BG2 more or less have you infiltrating this island fortress of a prison to take down a clearly mad antagonist. This is also pretty much the plot of Batman: Arkham Asylum too, so maybe it's a story arc more common than it first appears.
PANTALOONS!This is more about the types of in-jokes that tend to surface in BioWare games. The most prevalent, and overt, are the references to the fabled golden pantaloons of the original Baldur's Gate, which could later be used to construct a powerful armor towards the end of the final game of the series (provided you kept them by importing your character each time). Other in-jokes in the original series include stealing weapons from Drizzt when his back is turned (and him demanding them back in the next cameo) and the continuing misadventures of Minsc's miniature space hamster. Dragon Age 2 keeps up this tradition of neat legacy gags, such as Alistair complaining about "the old ball and chain" if you happened to play as a Human female noble who married everyone's favorite smartass in the first game. And, of course, the pantaloons get their due once again as part of a smaller side-quest.
"Know this, interloper! You trespass on the domain of twin demon lords Kataarl'Cee and Kataarl'Vee!"The biggest complaint leveled at Dragon Age 2 was how amazingly similar everywhere looked. Almost as if every area in the game came from the same basic five or six templates, slightly edited to suit the situation. The "mansion" template was used for a haunted house, a brothel, an empty house that the moody elf sits and drinks wine in while mumbling about "blasted mages", an immaculate house used by cheese-eating surrender-monkey Orlesian nobles and a notorious gang's hideout. In each case the map was edited to make certain rooms inaccessible (though still visible on the unchanging mini-map graphic). It smacked of sheer laziness, which might've been due to time constraints rather than the developers doing idle-ass antics like sitting around watching old episodes of the D&D cartoon, or throwing darts at a photo of Bobby Kotick (I have to believe more of that goes on at Activision itself though) or reading some nobody's blog on Giant Bomb. Possibly. Baldur's Gate 2 isn't totally immune to criticism in this regard either. The philosophy seems to be "once you've been in one giant-ass deluxe mansion, you've seen them all", which makes me think I should've tried harder to be a game designer. Up to their knees in manses, those guys.
Our monsters are different.In an effort to deviate from the vaguely Tolkien/D&D worlds they were inspired by, the Dragon Age setting (or "TheDAs" for short) changes things up a little for the various non-human hostiles you come across. Demons are now treated as some sort of non-sentient manifestations of sin, with wrath, gluttony, sloth, lust and pride aptly represented by fire blobs, black blobs, purple blobs, purple floaty ladies and a giant purple Chimera from Resistance: Fall of Man. Purple means evil, which makes sense considering the sun's light is depicted as a force of good, and everyone knows the archnemesis of Sunny D is Purple Stuff. Solid theology there. The Darkspawn are your usual orcs and ogres, sort of sidelined after the last game's blight and wheeled out in the tutorial to be made fun of by exploding messily when your level 1 guy hits them with his stick. Finally, the game also has perfectly normal dragons, giant spiders and undead (which are now demon-possessed husks). Like it does with a great many other things, it feels like the Dragon Age universe is streamlined to only include the five basic monster food groups: Demons, Orc-kind, undead, dragons and giant spiders. They're pretty much the only important D&D monsters, right? Fuck an Otyugh. Beholders? Get the hell out of here.
"You Must Gather Your Party Before Venturing Forth!"Hours of fun. Everyone remembers that message being sternly delivered to your stupid, stupid face whenever you tried to move from one major area to another with a party that wasn't standing inches away from each other. Dragon Age 2 doesn't have that problem, largely because you couldn't split the party or do anything like the detailed strategies afforded by the Infinity Engine. But at least it made subtle fun of that dumb "gather your party" message, right? Yeah, that's progress.
"You Have Been Waylaid By Enemies And Must Defend Yourself!"In case that last blurb seemed a bit too critical of DA2 (like the rest of the article so far, really), this is an instance where DA2 took something annoying from Baldur's Gate 2 and made it more interesting: Every "random encounter" your party suffers while moving between destinations is actually linked to one quest or another, and thus none of them are truly random. It's a neat way of getting a player all annoyed that they've brought that feature back before they realize what's going on and follow the quest thread that it started.
On A&E Biography tonight: Your SwordOne of the things I'm glad persists between these series are how every major piece of equipment seems to have a backstory. These aren't just swords of asskickery; they often have detailed accounts of where they've been and whose asses they've historically kicked. In BG2 you needed to have all powerful magical equipment identified by an expert, or some random bard, before you knew what it did, with the biography apparently thrown in as a bargain. In DA2 everyone instantly knows that this was the shield that protected some templar hundreds of years ago in some city thousands of miles away as soon as they pick it up, though given the whole game is a story told from Varric's point of view he probably researched it since then. It'd be amusing if it turned out none of the others had any idea what the stuff they found actually was. "So that's why Hawke used the priceless dagger that assassinated the eleventh Antivan King to scrape Mabari dookie off his boots for seven years. Because I thought it was funny and didn't tell him."
What's with all the red circles guys? ...Guys?The biggest, and unfortunately common, "Oh shit!" moments in BG2 is when everyone in the room suddenly goes all red ring on you. This doesn't mean that they've ceased to function days after their warranties wear out, but rather that they've all turned hostile because you dared to steal from a bedpan or something. Most NPCs simply run away from your well-armed party, to be immediately replaced with two or twenty pissed-off guards, which generally leads to a player cussing and then resetting to before they fucked up. DA2 won't do this, again because the system is less sophisticated (or more sophisticated? Offers less freedom, let's say) but you can get all the once-friendly Dalish annoyed at you if you kill their leader. Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first visited the Dalish that that sort of thing is frowned upon...
Eight is probably enough. Or so I've heard from television. So I'm wrapping this up for now. I'm sure you've all been told from many other sources too how dumbed-down Dragon Age 2 feels compared to its predecessors, but I've always thought you need both games like Dragon Age 2 to tell its branching, interactive stories to people not so great at complicated video games in general, and games like Baldur's Gate 2 for those diehard strategy geniuses who want to earn their happy wizard ending (NB: Order a happy wizard ending at a massage parlor to see something fucked up. Or so I've read.) There's room for both, so I'm kind of hoping the latter hasn't gone for good.