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Posted by Mento

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 City

So 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.


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 Sword

One 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.
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Posted by ArbitraryWater

I dunno, whereas Dragon Age Origins was definitley a throwback to BG 2 in regards to structure and mechanics, DA2 is a bit of a different beast. The Mass Effect influence is obviously part of it, as are some of the more evident streamlining decisions (The only section where I will willfully say "dumbed down" is in your companion's armor. Is it really so hard for joe consumer to figure out how to outfit everyone else? The dev excuse about party member personalities falls flat as well. Indeed, the problems that Dragon Age 2 has have nothing to do with the actual combat mechanics or the conversation wheel).

The comparison to BG 2 is still valid though, especially with the scenario of act 1 being straight out of BG 2 (although, perhaps not as classily executed) and the focus on tactical combat. While Dragon Age doesn't actually get challenging unless you're playing on hard, I can remember BG 2 being a serious challenge for my 14-15 year old self (which makes me want to seriously replay it now, since I finished the first game in august and I've messed with some of the other Infinity Engine games). Mages are hella annoying in both, but Dragon Age follows the much more MMOish combat structure of Tank-DPS-Support. Is it better than the muddle of weird rules and quirks that is 2nd Edition AD&D? Maybe? I'm not all the way in the camp of people who hate 4th edition because it turned D&D into World of Warcraft, but I'm certainly leaning in that direction.

I see Baldur's Gate as the middle road between the purely hack-n'-slash affair of Icewind Dale (which reminds me I have to get back to IW2 at some point) and the "Pretty much a string of dialog trees with some bad combat in-between" found in Planescape's desperately-trying-not-to-be-a-standard-RPG RPG. It's this happy medium that has helped it earn its place as the best of the games running on that technology. I'll certainly vouch for it, and now that I ruined KotOR for myself (and am re-ruining KotOR2 for myself) I'd call it Bioware's best game. Dragon Age 2 is not the spawn of satan, and it's far better than Jade Empire (which somehow has a 92 on metacritic despite being a Bioware-ass Bioware game and absolutley terrible combat), but it's still their weakest game in a while for reasons that have already been discussed ad nauseum. So I'll stop now.

Posted by Mento
@ArbitraryWater:  I could've mentioned that BG2 expanded on BG1, whereas DA 2 kind of reversed the process, becoming much smaller and more limited in scope. It's interesting how the evolution of both from the first games in their respective series kind of reflect what those games were about, and perhaps the times they were made in: BG fans wanted game mechanics that went bigger and deeper, DA fans (at least according to EA) wanted the opposite.

There's definitely a lot of streamlining, in every aspect of the game. After playing FFXIII, I think it's become a burgeoning philosophy in RPG development: The genre's evidently become too niche for the major studios like EA or Square-Enix to be happy with, considering how much a 50+ hour, lush CGI-filled escapade costs to make, so like any major company they've been downsizing everything deemed non-essential to maximize efficiency. It's kind of a cynical attitude, to reduce games to mere business product, but there's no other legitimate explanation for all this recent experimentation with brevity. The MMO Tank-DPS-Support is prevalent in both those games too, suggesting that the real focus is on MMOs and anything that isn't online (and won't constantly be making money) should be developed and sold as quickly as possible, preferably with sequels on the way.

As far as the other BioWare games go, I'd agree with your assessment on all the ones I've played. I mostly used Baldur's Gate 2 for the aforementioned Abracadabratraz plot similarity, rather than comparing the troubled DA2 to BioWare's zenith for a deliberately biased smackdown. It'd still be neat if someone was still making stuff as complicated but fun as Baldur's Gate 2. I guess the Eastern European bloc is on it.
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Posted by ArbitraryWater
@Mento: I feel like this discussion always ends with people like us getting really angry about where the genre has gone in the last 10 years and then we all rise up and murder business executives in their beds. It's basically that Dave Snider blog about why he doesn't like Mass Effect 2 on a grander scale. Still, being young and knowing fully well that the golden era of CRPGs was before I was interested in them, I have plenty of old games yet to play. At least, I think I do. I have some pretty obscure shit on my computer because I've already gone through the stuff that everyone reveres. Lionheart? Yeah. I'll finish it, but only because I'm to understand that its short and I need a new game to ravage in celebration of the 1 year anniversary of me getting really annoyed about how Arcanum fails to deliver on many of its ambitions.  But first, KotOR 2. Surprise surprise! The added content still doesn't make the story any less lame, even if I can understand it now!
Posted by Example1013

I liked the France joke. Sorry, I meant Orlais. My history teacher always made fun of the French.

Posted by Sammo21

I just think this is some sort of test to if it does anything for their ratings, though obviously the rush development cycle had something to do with many design choices I'm sure.  I would be much farther into DA2 right now...but I am trying to play on PS3 and I keep getting load issues and game lock ups to even make much progress (still in first chapter or whatever...trying to get to deep roads).

Posted by Hugh_Jazz

I think the last point calls up the single most saddening trend in games(not RPGs specifically, but more or less); the fact that you don't have that freedom to engage with any character in any way. I remember in Morrowind when you(if you felt so inclined) killed that first Blades agent in Balmora, a prompt came up informing the player that the main storyline was now unable to be finished. The game continued, though.

I guess the Fallout games were always the best about allowing player freedom and recognizing the consequences of that(people actually noting that you had slaughtered everyone in Junktown was a nice touch; yes, I'm a bad mutha).

I understand the departure from all that, though. It was certainly a strange design-choice to make all this content and allow the player to completely prohibit themselves from ever seeing it. I feel like it makes decisions matter less, when you know you can't ever royally screw yourself over in games anymore.

Posted by Mento
@example1013:  Was your history teacher Groundskeeper Willie? The thing I like about Orlais is how precariously close it seems to its equivalent of the French Revolution. The devious Orlesian nobility just seem completely unbearable. Considering what the last scene of DA2 is leading to, the fact that Bodahn and Sandal are off there next and the huge amount of backstory we've been given about the region, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Orlais (or it's capital city Val Royeaux in particular) is the setting for the next game. The hints are there. It would mean so many bad French accents though.

@sammo21: The trend is definitely for shorter development cycles and less involved gameplay, if the high sales for smaller XBLA/PSN/Steam games are any indication. But DA2 was also definitely undercooked. The first Act took me a long time too, because they give you so many opportunities to raise that money. Actually, I should've brought that up in the Baldur's Gate 2 comparison, since the first act of that was all about raising cash for a massive bribe. It's a pretty cool way of getting the player to explore everywhere and pick up as many quests as possible, so I can see why they recycled it.

@Hugh_Jazz: I know what you mean. I found it difficult to put into words why I missed that feeling of "good job breaking it, player". I guess it's mostly the freedom to ruin one's carefully planned adventure (something that is very much a holdover from table-top D&D), but also that mischievous sense of rebellion: I love whenever you can exploit glitches (as long as it doesn't make the game way too easy) or do something the game didn't mean for you to do.
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Posted by Example1013
@Mento: To be fair, a French accent isn't that hard, as long as you practice pronouncing things. They just use different parts of the mouth to formulate certain consonants and such, and so it takes effort to learn how to use those.

I really should probably get around to playing DAII sometime.