I Don't Know Anymore...

After reading a PC Gamer interview with Mark Darrah, executive director for the Dragon Age games, I'm not sure if BioWare as a whole is really as dumb as they seem or if it's PR speak.

On one hand, he comments about what I consider one of the biggest mistakes in the original game: importing a dead warden into Awakening. The best option, I always thought, was to have the player create an Orlesian warden, but import the decisions that the player made previously. However, BioWare instead revived your warden and retconned your decision regarding Morrigan's end of game offer. As the game currently stands, you either have a "zombie warden" or play as an Orlesian with the default Origins choices. While not naming any alternative solution, Darrah admits that this decision was a mistake.

"...the zombie warden was just a stupid decision on our part I’d say. We should have just not let you. We decided, if you want to play awakening we should let you use your warden. Well what if they’re dead? We’ll let you bring them back to life. We should just not have that."

This provides me a small measure of hope that they can recognize what they've done wrong and why it was wrong, so they can avoid such pitfalls in the future. However, that small hope is in danger of dying when I see other comments, notably about Dragon Age 2.

"Dragon Age 2, we decided we want to try something, to try to do very different storytelling, something much more personal, something much more tightly constrained. No chosen one, no clear overarching threat. I don’t think it was a perfect success, but that was intentional.

A lot of the other changes that are perceived, the overall scope of the game or the perception of the combat getting a lot simpler or waves and things like that—not intended, exactly. That was supposed to be more evolutionary. I think we just overreached. We pushed too hard.

Because of Dragon Age 2, Dragon Age: Inquisition is having to be a lot more ambitious, to address those concerns and really try to get back much more to the roots of the franchise. Much more about tactical combat and a higher level of deliberate difficulty. More clear overall story, with the moral choices still in there, but much more in vein of Dragon Age: Origins style storytelling."

Now, some of this is obviously PR talk ("[not] a perfect success"), which is why my hope is not immediately extinguished, since PR talk can cover up truths no one wants to actually say. I'm hoping that buried in there is a real understanding of what went wrong in Dragon Age 2 and they don't actually believe what they just said. My cynicism and optimism are fighting a war right now.

There is nothing wrong with a different way of storytelling. I think that most would not have had any issue with a personal, constrained story without an overarching threat if it had been done well. The problem is that their framed narrative, something they touted from the start, was flimsy. Varric almost never enters the story from that perspective, the time jumps are weak and lazily done, and there WAS an overarching threat. Yes, there was no blight and no archdemon, but Meredith was painted as a paranoid, unreasonable dictator practically from the start and the game beats you over the head with the mage v. templar theme. It was pretty damn clear at some point, you were going to come to blows with her.

The scope of the game wasn't a fault either. You can set a game, even an epic Dragon Age game, in one city and its surrounding area. The problem, again, is that it was not done well. The game felt much smaller due to the overuse of repeated areas. Not only do you visit the same areas over and over, but they all look the same. There are several "different" caves and warehouses in DA2, but they are all the same place with the same layout and assets. Maybe one path is blocked off, but that doesn't count. The sections of Kirkwall were tiny as well. You expect me to believe that all the elves in this "large" city were in that tiny alienage? I think that's a physical impossibility. It wasn't a scope problem, it was a design problem.

The combat in DA2 was not bad because there were waves, but (again) because it was done poorly. You cannot have "tactical" combat when the player doesn't know what to expect from the game engine. The first time you play the game, you require foreknowledge of where enemy waves will spawn. Otherwise, for example, you risk your tank being far away and leaving your squishy characters to die. You need to know how many waves there are or you could end up wasting abilities on the wrong wave or enemy. The wave spawning was also unrealistic. They appeared out of nowhere, most often, and for no particular reason. Some fights worked well and foreshadowed waves, but most did not.

I don't think that the return to a clear Origins-style narrative and difficult combat will fix anything by itself. It all depends on how they do it. I'm hoping, perhaps unreasonably, that they realize this and don't just throw a "BIG BAD OVER THERE ->" sign at the start and think that solves everything.

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Why Dragon Age 2 DLC was Infuriating

I've been somewhat desperate for new RPGs to play and gave into temptation: I bought the DA2 DLCs. I didn't buy the weapon packs or the (suspiciously in the game code already) character, but rather the two separate campaigns (Legacy & Mark of the Assassin). I didn't go into them blind however. I had heard the spoilers and read reviews. I mostly knew what to expect from a story standpoint. What I heard that intrigued me though was that some claimed that the DLCs were better than the original game. This was not the case for Origins or the Mass Effect games, but I didn't see those sorts of claims for their DLC; at least, not in the numbers I saw for DA2. I do find the DA lore interesting and enjoyable to a degree and I knew that Legacy especially was lore-heavy. With all that in mind, I bought and played them both. Spoilers from here on.

I played through the DLC during Act I of the main game, after I had completed all other quests before the deep roads expedition. That way, I had the best possible gear, stats, and equipment for the DLC without moving on to Act II. My Hawke was a sword and board vanguard / reaver / berserker. I took Varric (concealer, CC), Isabela (aggro re-director), and Bethany (healer, elemental damager) through Legacy. I dropped Varric for Tallis in MotA and respecced her to his role, since they were both ranged rogues. In hindsight, should have had an entirely ranged party, but I'll get to that later. I hate Anders and having to take him along, so that's why I did this in Act I; so I could take Bethany instead. Assuming your sibling is alive, you can take them along on the DLCs regardless of where you are in the story, but I felt Act I worked best. Since I started a new character to test out the DLC and a S&B build, I wanted to get it done sooner rather than later, too. I was playing on Hard difficulty.

I'm of two minds when it comes to the DLC: I actually enjoyed them far more than the main game but they also angered me. I'll outline the former later. They angered me because they were, in my opinion, better than the main game and showed that BioWare could put together something far more competent and coherent than what they released as a $60 game. They could have, but they didn't. The game could have been SO much better, if the DLC is any indication. Now I'll go over the specifics to explain what I mean.

Both DLC have really lame intros, I must admit. In Legacy, you are being attacked by the Carta (dwarven mobsters basically), but no one knows why and Varric's Carta contacts have no explanation. The attacks happen before the DLC starts and you arrive at their "base" to find a way to stop them. In MotA, Crow assassins show up to kill Hawke and company when they go to meet with one of Varric's contacts and Tallis just happens to be there. The contact was going to meet you about an invitation to a party. That party is where Tallis wishes to go. The Crows are there because...I don't know. If you can get past these rather ham-fisted introductions to the DLCs, it gets better.

First, both utilize entirely new areas. You don't see these areas in the main game and the DLC doesn't make you revisit the same cave seven times over, for example. Legacy takes place mostly in desert ruins and a deep roads-like tower. MotA has indoor and outdoor areas and a cave that's NEW. I know, right? Obviously, this puts it leagues ahead of the original game in this department. In DA2 proper, you visit 1 cave, 1 house, 1 warehouse, and 1 sewer over and over and over again. The areas look nice as well and it shows some thought went into them.

Second, the story makes sense. Even as awkward as the intros are, the game gives you goals. In Legacy, you want the Carta to stop attacking you and in the course of that, you discover a mystery involving your father. The goal then evolves into unraveling that mystery and escaping the tower. Yes, you get trapped, but rather than a plot convenience, it actually makes sense. The tower is a prison, meant to keep things in and not let them out and you wandered in. They go somewhat lore-heavy and focus a lot on the grey wardens. That will be up to personal taste, but I approved. In MotA, you agree to help Tallis steal a jewel. She of course lies to you and you aren't looking for a jewel. Instead, she is a Qunari and means to kill a Tal-Vashoth (former Qunari) who intends to sell information to the host of your fancy Orlesian party; information that could end up killing innocent people. You have the choice then of helping her or not. The Duke does try to kill you anyway, but it's nice to have our illusion of choice again. MotA will give you a bit more background on the Qunari, but otherwise is more of a "fun" DLC rather than a serious lore dump.

Finally, gameplay. Whoever made these DLCs deserves a medal for the combat. The combat in these adventures hearkens back to Origins. DA2 proper had a lot of waves of weak opponents. Either after you killed all enemies on screen or after a certain time elapsed, more enemies would appear out of thin air and join the fight. Sadly, most of these would have names like "Thug" and their health bar would be shorter than their name. You could sneeze and kill them. Rarely were you given a challenge, like a wave of elite foes. As long as you killed mobs in this order: mages, backstabbers, leaders; you would win. The only times the game got difficult was when they threw bosses at you that had tons of HP and/or armour and potentially summoned normal or elite adds to deal with, but those fights were few and far between.

Combat in Legacy largely involved normal enemies or better. Rarely did I see one of the sneeze kills. I must admit that when I watched the quick look, I thought Vinny was just rusty or bad (sorry Vinny), but it turns out that the encounters were designed to be difficult. There were rarely waves. Enemies would appear when you approached, but like in Origins, not pop into existence right next to you like in DA2. In fact, there were points where enemies spawned in one section, but if you didn't go close to them, they didn't aggro. You could range down archers and the like and then move on to these oblivious ones afterward. Taking them all on at once was challenging. Another thing incorporated into the first section of Legacy was traps. There were various traps spread around the ruins and levers to activate them. If you could position enemies on top of them, the traps could destroy them. In fact, one encounter has 3/4 of the enemies spawn on top of a trap. Pulling the lever once or twice can kill most of them. These traps disappeared once you entered the tower, but it was a nice change.

Legacy also introduced the redesigned genlocks, which look like elcor, in my opinion. Anyway, the tower focused largely on knockdowns. Genlock alphas have a huge shield that your attacks will not penetrate. You must strike from behind, in which case they are quite easy to kill. They can however mow down your group with a charge attack. They also don't stop if they hit you, so if you are not hit out of the way, you can take multiple hits and two hits was enough to kill my squishy sidekicks. Hurlock Alphas were similar in that they focused on knockbacks. They have a hammer that has a column attack or can smack your tank around. Easily avoided if you circle them, but easier said than done, depending on the terrain. These guys were often accompanied by hurlocks and genlocks and sometimes an ogre too. This made party management paramount. You had to avoid the various area attacks and charges and you had to maneuver a tank around all while dealing with the less singularly threatening enemies. This is where ranged was way better than melee. I spent most of the time keeping Isabela away from fights because she liked to wander in front of the enemies, which was a no-no. The final boss fight was more a test of endurance than anything. Not difficult necessarily if you avoid the damage and have a healer or enough potions, but it was an interesting visual spectacle.

MotA had more of the sneeze kills, but not a lot. It also had the most difficult fight for me: the Sky Horror, an optional boss fight. I had to bump the difficulty down, thanks to my less than optimal party (and skills, I'll admit) in order to defeat it. The boss fights here were also largely knockdown based. The wyvern fight was painfully easy if you avoided the charge and painfully, uh, painful if you did not. The final boss was a 3-stage fight that had a fun mechanic. During the fight, a character would be marked and the wyvern would charge. If you ran your character along the edge of the arena, the wyvern would miss and almost fall off the cliff. While it tried to get up, you had several seconds to merciless wail on it without it being able to fight back. If you don't utilize this advantage, the fight can get a little hairy. Areas would also become toxic to stand on temporarily and together with avoiding the charge attacks made ranged characters much more valuable again. Yes, there is a stealth section and it does go a bit longer than I think was necessary, but it was kind of cool for a little bit.

What both DLCs had was puzzles! Oh, puzzles, how I missed you. In the entirety of the main game, there are two puzzles of the same type and they are both in one quest. Origins didn't have many either, but they had some puzzles and some riddles. These were sorely lacking on DA2. I could go on about combat positives and other stuff, but this is getting a little more long-winded than I'd like.

Now, although I praise the combat here, I do feel that the DA2 combat system was not designed to handle Origins-style combat. That's partially where the difficulty comes from. What made some fights in Origins manageable was low cooldowns on heal spells and potions, but DA2 has very long cooldowns in comparison. Origins was also not as cooldown- and stamina/mana-locked as DA2 is, which meant more abilities firing more often, allowing more crowd control and damage and healing. In DA2, you have to manage yourself better or resort to mostly auto-attacks. So while it was nice (very nice, even) to get more Origins in my DA2, so to speak, the combat mechanics of the overall game did get in the way a little bit.

In summary, the DLC was good. Surprisingly good. They did have issues, like the lackluster reasons for starting the quests, a few story beats here and there, and the unfortunate limitations of DA2 combat, but they showed what the game could have been like. The game could have had direction, more difficult combat by default, and more worthwhile lore, rather than suffering from middle game of a trilogy syndrome. Think of the lack of disappointment! The fact that DA2 as a whole is not like this DLC makes revisiting the game even less appealing than it has usually been. Knowing that I have to go back to a directionless plot, repeating caverns and buildings, and ONLY wave-based mook combat when it could have been Legacy/MotA-like is infuriating.

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NWN is dead

With the recent disasters of storytelling from BioWare called Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3, I felt it was time I returned to the older RPGs they did where the stories made sense, even if they were cliche and not terribly imaginative. I have never finished the second expansion to Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark. I got to the drow city once and started running around there, but like I often do, found another shiny game to play and quit playing NWN partway through. I still have the discs and I bought the diamond edition from GOG, so I figured why not go back and finish that. I would get to hang out with my old buddy Deekin, could create my own character (character building in DND is an obsession of mine), and could have a good time overall.

Crash on start up. A bad start of course. That was weird. I was able to play the game before, although I do not believe I have tried since I changed my graphics card. I thought that maybe it was GOG or the diamond edition, so I dug out my discs and installed things from there. I tried it out after each installation was done. My hopes soared when version 1.10 launched without crashing. In hindsight I should have checked the frame rate but I did not. Then I installed Shadows of Undrentide, the first expansion, which updated the game to version 1.30. It would no longer launch without crashing. When I updated to the final version of the game, I ran into the same problems I had with the GOG download version.

I hit google and started combing through threads at GOG and the BW social site reading about all of the problems people are having with NWN. Apparently, it does not play well with newer hardware and/or drivers. Many people have no problem, but many also cannot get it to run or run well. I followed directions for all sorts of potential solutions:

  • Played with graphical settings one by one
  • Played with sound settings one by one
  • Played with the .ini files
  • Starting the game from the .exe instead of the launcher
  • Tried turning on compatibility options (limited since I'm on XP)
  • Tried turning off advanced features of my graphics card
  • Tried updating the drivers
  • Changing the installation directory to the default old game instead of the GOG one

I found two solutions to make the game start up at least. Putting an old OpenGL dll in the folder and/or turning off all hardware acceleration will allow it to start. It was trial and error to get the first to work. Some versions gave me a blue screen of death when I started the game. I got it to work, but sadly I ran into another problem: the game runs at 4 frames per second at most. The main menu was running reasonably fast so I assumed it was something to do with the background animation when I clicked "new game" but that turned out to be wrong. Everything after that point ran that slowly.

This led to a whole new array of trying things. In addition to the above being done all over again, I tried

  • Downgrading drivers to ones people claimed work (disaster)
  • Turning off hardware acceleration did nothing to the frame rate
  • A user-made work around for nvidia, even though I have an amd card
  • Using a "fix" that involved just turning on the toolset and running a module
  • Updating the game to version 1.68 instead of the final 1.69

None of it worked. No matter what I did, I had between 2 and 4 fps. To this point in time I have spent probably 8-10 hours researching and trying things to get this game to work. Sadly, it just doesn't seem possible. From my reading, it's a combination of several factors. My computer hardware is a problem; in particular, my graphics card. The card is newer and runs new drivers that probably are not compliant with whatever OpenGL code NWN is using. It's doing its best to make do, but it's not enough. I also have an older multicore processor, which NWN doesn't like, and, like I said, am still on windows xp. These aren't THE problem, but they could be exacerbating it. If I had a newer cpu and upgraded to windows 7, one of the fixes might work. Then again, they might not. Seems that amd/ati cards have the most problems, but nvidia uses haven't escaped some of the trouble.

So now I am left with being unable to play NWN in any appreciable form until new drivers come out, at which point I can try again, or I upgrade computer parts in the hope that some combination will at least give me double digit frame rates. In the meantime, I have to look elsewhere for my non-sucky story-based RPGs. Maybe I will go back and install version 1.0 and see if that works. Then I'd at least have the OC, even if it is not terribly interesting. It's a world to explore and stuff to do. I am afraid my hopes will be dashed once again though. The funny thing is that I can run Baldur's Gate, an older infinity engine game, with very few issues and can run NWN2. It's just this one game that seems to be giving me grief.

UPDATE: Version 1.10 of the game works. I get 150-170 fps and it doesn't crash at start up. Updating beyond that causes the problems, so something in the future updates changed how the game works and that is the problem. Only wish I knew what. Of course, this leaves me without a lot of features, such as the expansion packs, but I'll take playing only the OC over not playing it at all.

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Dragon Age 2: Potential Not Actualized

Dragon Age 2 definitely has a feeling of being rushed. There is a lot of potential in many of the design decisions, but they didn't quite follow through. This is of course in addition to the obvious cut corners and lazy design elements. Major spoilers from this point on.

Environmental Designs

This is something that started in Dragon Age: Origins, though mostly in the DLC and it's largely forgivable given where it occurs in the vanilla game. For example, some areas are re-used in DA:O, but these areas are actually cut off chunks of larger areas seen elsewhere in the game and are one-shot deals, such as killing one of the rogue leaders ("D" or "K") in Denerim. Those fights are in sections of larger areas and it's a relatively minor quest that many may not see or do. This habit is seen all over the DLC however. Return to Ostagar has it right in the title, but Darkspawn Chronicles, Witch Hunt, Leliana's Song, and Golems of Amgarrak did this as well. They borrowed areas from Origins and Awakening, depending, to suit their needs. This I find acceptable for DLC, especially when that is the point such as in Return to Ostagar. They wanted to pump out DLC and re-using environments theoretically would free up time either to make the DLC better or release it earlier. Stone Prisoner and Warden's Keep were the only ones with fully unique areas and those were release day DLC (Stone Prisoner being a cut part of the game too), meaning we don't know how long they were actually in development.

This seems to be a trend with BioWare lately and makes me think a shorter development cycle does them no favors. They spent a long time on DA:O and it shows. The game is large, many parts polished, and epic in scope. The seemingly blinding speed in which they developed DA2 also shows. Some of their ideas were great and given another year would have made DA2 an immensely better experience, but instead a lot of these ideas are half-realized at best.

I will say that I like the designs of DA2. Settings look good and are well-designed. The problem comes with the mind-boggling amount of repetition. I can see houses being very similar or identical, as they are constructed and sticking to one plan for many places speeds up building. There is however no reason that all the caves look exactly the same, but with possibly an un-openable door blocking off a section of it. This was definitely done to save time. Whether it was for laziness or to put design manhours elsewhere, who knows. There is no attempt to hide this and the obviousness of it borders on insulting. If just they had the time to work on all the caves and buildings and such like they did with places like Kirkwall or the deep roads, then this game would not feel so repetitive.

Companion Friendship / Rivalry

I love this system. The idea that the people you associate with respect you either way and you can have fights with them and still be "friends" rather than having to simply please them all the time is great. Unfortunately, that is only the way it works with a few characters I've discovered so far. In Mass Effect 2, some of the "renegade" options weren't so much in the original spirit of the renegade and were just plain asshole things to do for no reason. With some characters here, that's what you get again. You aren't simply respectfully disagreeing and trying to convince them of your point of view, which leads to becoming rivals due to differing viewpoints. You're just sometimes really rude. It goes against the idea of friendship / rivalry and slips back into approval / disapproval or worse, like / hate. There is no reason for your teammates to stick with you at the end of the game, assuming 100 rivalry, if you've been a jerk to them the entire game to do so. The idea as I see it has been one of respect regardless of view point. For some reason or another, party member X respects Hawke and would follow him / her to whatever end, but they might not always agree with Hawke or maybe just Hawke's methods. Instead, with some characters, you are mean to them or bully them the whole game and they stick with you for incredibly flimsy reasons. The mutual respect is not there.

A character I think works well in this regard is Merrill. You take her from her tribe regardless. You're the only group of people she knows in Kirkwall and she's far too socially oblivious or inept to grow outside of Hawke's circle. You can be her friend and agree with her, use demons and blood magic, etc. or you can try to talk her out of these things or condemn those practices to earn rivalry. She thinks of you as her friend because what else does she have there? But she sees your disagreements with her as you doubting her, not believing in her, etc. until Act 3 where she can see you were looking out for her all along. This is a great example of how the frienship / rivalry system should have worked for every character. You can also see this with your siblings, but they have the familial ties. You can fight with them, you can agree with them and smooth things over, but either way, you are family and stick together regardless of views.

Fenris on the other hand is a complete and utter asshole if you go rivalry and only mildly better if you're friends with him. I accept that he is a hard character, so to speak. He's definitely a black & white kind of guy and has his reasons. Being his friend does come across as ok to me, but if you are his rival he has nothing but vitriol and bile. In my dictionary, "rival" does not mean "jerk" necessarily, but that is apparently what it means to BioWare here. To be fair, I have not flip-flopped friend/rival-wise on Isabela, Anders, Varric, or Aveline yet through different playthroughs, but that's largely because several of the responses I would need to do so are basically insults, rather than simply having different viewpoints or priorities or being blunt, for example.

The problem is that some of it is half done. You get Merrill-like repsonses in some scenes or quests from other characters, but you got that high rivalry score because you told them to sod off when they brought you their problems or told them they were ugly or something. It's actually the opposite with Fenris. Siding with mages, being merciful, or telling him to put his past behind him leads to rivalry, but then he's a jerk to you. It's apparent this system CAN work, it just didn't always work in DA2.

Combat

The idea behind the combat was speed. BioWare made that clear from the start. They wanted combat to be fast, reactive, and have no delays between actions. Apparently they thought DA:O combat was overly slow and positioning awkward or something. Increased pace I have no problem with in particular, but the implemention missed the mark a bit.

When presented with a large group of enemies, you would want to destroy them as quickly as possible. How do you do that? By using your abilities. However, you are often starved for stamina / mana and cooldowns. If it's not one, it's usually the other. You can burn through all your abilities and take out every enemy on the map relatively easily, but then you run into the next problem: waves. What you see before you in each encounter is rarely all you will be fighting. Often another wave or two (or three or four) will appear afterward or even during the current wave. You are faced with clearing out the first wave quickly only to have auto-attacks at your dispoal for another wave. There are ways around this of course. You can stagger skill use, build beastly auto-attackers, or whatever. The problem however is that if you want the game to be quick and flashy, but limit the ability for it to be so, you are oddly cutting out what you wanted in the first place.

This essentially negates strategy. You can go after enemy mages or archers first and plan out how to deal with that first wave. This becomes moot when another wave materializes behind the healer you were trying to protect, far away from your tank because that is how the first (& only visible) wave was set up. Much of the "strategy" in DA2 comes from trying to survive the reinforcements that the Enterprise beams in when you aren't looking. In DA:O, anything you had to fight was on the screen (though rogues may have been stealthed), and you had to set things up, think about how to approach the fight and execute a plan. You don't need that beyond the first wave in DA2 and they usually die so fast it's nearly meaningless anyway.

The larger problem comes with prolonged boss fights where you might want to use your abilities to bring down the boss faster, but then you're left auto-attacking the boss when you lack the appropriate resource or everything is on cooldown. To me, it seems the combat would have been much more efficient and fun had you been locked by one or the other. Either make cooldowns the most important factor by a long shot or make managing your stamina / mana a bigger concern. Instead, you have to worry about both. Also, I can see why they made it wave-based: if you are cutting through enemies quickly and moving on to the next ones, then it seems like battle is going more quickly. You swing faster, you cast faster, you move faster, you kill faster...but with all the waves battles don't necessarily go all that faster overall. I would have preferred tougher enemies that required more finesse, crowd control, or massive dps mixed with some trash rather than trash wave after trash wave to artifically pad out fighting. That wasn't what they were going for however as it isn't action-packed and fast-paced. There has to be a happy medium somewhere I would hope. At the very least, the waves could have been made believable rather than just materializing out of thin air.

The biggest positive that I can say about the combat is that the new tactics system rocked if you took the time to figure it out and properly set up your companions. It would make a huge difference and you could spend less time micromanaging.

On a side note, not really having anything to do with wasted potential, all the crazy running around and especially rogue gymnastics just didn't seem very Dragon Age-y to me. It seemed more anime or Devil May Cry-like. DA:O was this gritty world where people moved like relatively normal people, though some were obviously more gifted in being shifty, agile, and crazy lucky. DA2 was pushing it for me though. We went from heavy armoured characters being slow and methodical to them being able to rush across the battlefield and cut a swatch through enemies. Not to mention Meredith... Just a bit odd.

Storytelling

BioWare made a big deal out of using the framed narrative technique in DA2, but they didn't quite use it much. There are only a few cutscenes with Varric and Cassandra that remind you that this is a story being told by the former. For the most part this feels more like a continual story about Hawke with a few interruptions to remind you that you are not in that time period. Maybe it shouldn't have factored in that much, as that might not have been their intention. A couple more of the "exaggerated" scenes would have been cool. All you get is the opening and then Varric's dealings with his brother in Act 2. A large part of the problems I have with this game could have been resolved if, for example, Meredith's flying about and bringing statues to life would have been one of these exaggerated stories and it instead turned out she was able to use the sword/idol to possess some templars or something.

What didn't work however was the time passage. If you take a series of videos or images from Act 3, you would not be able to tell the difference between those and any taken in the prologue or Act 1. Even though a good amount of time has passed from the beginning to the end of the game, nobody looks older, no buildings show wear, and so on. The only thing that lets you know that time has passed is characters saying "Hawke, how long's it been, x years?" or "How have the last x years treated you?" or "Remember when we did that thing x years ago?" It's not apparent that time has passed. This leads to the events of the game seemingly happening one right after the other. You KNOW that's not how things went, but it SEEMS like you go straight from the deep roads into a fancy house, lose your mother, kill qunari, and then have to sort out the mages and templars.

Other games that do this sort of time traveling mechanic, have done it much better. Places abandoned are overgrown with vegetation, people look older, kids have grown up, etc. DA2 however is more like Varric trying to tell you one of his tall tales. "No really, 3 years passed. Trust your pal Varric." The interludes between acts were ok and I liked the art style they used, as it was very book-like in that universe and matched the opening of DA:O in style a bit. Just another bit that lacked follow-through and attention to detail.

Conclusion

These were just a few examples of what I thought were good starts or concepts, but didn't quite become full fledged coherent and enjoyable systems. There was a lot of potential with what they changed and how they changed it. Everything has the start of something that could have been great, but unfortunately never reached that level. It makes me a bit sad to think that given more time, all these holes and wasted potential could have not been here and we'd have had a much higher quality product; that if they knew they had extra time, then corners would not have had to been cut, or at least not as obviously as the repeated dungeons. DA2 is what I expect from a $20-30 game, which is what I paid, but BioWare should be aiming for my $60 instead and making something with the polish a sequel to DA:O deserves.

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Dragon Age 2 : post-game thoughts

I recently bought DA2 off Amazon for $20 (pc digitial version), which is what I felt was a good price. After the demo and some of the criticisms coming out, I didn't feel it was worth the full retail price of $60. Here is what I think of it as a whole after finished it. For reference, I played a female 2H warrior on normal difficulty that opted most often for snarky / witty / sarcastic dialogue choices. I'm not especially fond of in-game romances, but there's an achievement and I figured I should go ahead and pick one to see how it plays out differently than the ones in Dragon Age: Origins. Merrill, through my randomly completed quest order, presented the first flirt options so I went with her. My party most of the game was Varric, Anders, & Merrill. The only DLC/content I have is the black emporium and the various items you get for liking it on Facebook or such. I have bought no extras for this game.

As far as story goes, I really like DA2. After completing it, I did some reading and saw some complaints saying that it's just a big setup for Dragon Age 3. I think that's selling it short. The end of DA2 sees the spark of a major event in the DA universe. If you look at it in scope, yeah, it's not a lot. Most of the story seems inconsequential compared to what you see start (though not directly cause) at the end. If you tack on the quality of Hawke's story itself, then DA2 has a good story and is NOT just an advertisement for DA3. Yeah, you don't get the massive closure you get for killing the Archdemon from DA:O, but that's fine by me.

The characters are fun. There are some to hate & some to like, depending on your views. Most I feel are well written and come into their own personality. I love what they did with the characters' "approval" this time around. In DA:O, you had a strictly approval meter. If your teammates liked you, then they got stat boosts and you got more out of them in conversations. If they didn't, you got nothing but satisfaction from your roleplaying or pissing off the characters you didn't like. Instead, in DA2, characters have a friendship/rivalry meter. Approving of your actions and dialogue choices gives friendship while disapproving provides rivalry. This is still a game of extremes, as you don't want anyone to stay neutral with you, but you can go either way with each character. This rewards being consistent. Always help out people in need and some will always gain friendship points while others gain rivalry points. Consistency is more important than which way you go. And if you pass beyond 50% one way or the other, that character gets a passive bonus. The bonus is different depending on which end of the scale they're on, but they're comparable. When you reach 100% either way, they are locked. They can no longer gain points in either direction, so you're free to do and say whatever. They will still respond as they usually would, but no points are awarded. Either way, they remain loyal to Hawke if you get them high enough on either end (usually). It's pretty easy to max out a few of your companions one way or the other and then you can take them along for everything without bothering to worry about whether they approve. Vast improvement over DA:O.

Inventory was a bit of a pain though. Are you a warrior? Then any mage or rogue armour you get you can simply trash and / or sell. All characters have their own armour, which you upgrade by buying some and finding others through exploring and questing. Most can switch out weapons and all have access to the belt, pendant, and 2 ring slots. You get a lot of junk in this game and it's nice they added a "Junk" category. You can place anything in Junk and there's a convenient "Sell All Junk" button in every shop. I suppose it saves a little bit of time compared to selling things individually, but if something is not classified as Junk by default, you still have to select all other pieces individually and put them in the Junk category. Always, always remember to sell junk or you can run out of backpack space in the middle of a long quest / dungeon.

The place the game really fell apart for me though was the combat. I will start with the good and say that I like the new ability trees. They aren't as different as BioWare made them sound, but they aren't bad. I like how a warrior's "Warrior" abilities are broken up into different trees. You have 2H & weapon and shield as the two equipment setups, but then you have another tree for damage dealing, another for damage reduction, one for crowd control & aggro management, and one more for buffs & stamina regeneration. It allows a bit more customization and is different from DA:O in that tanking is not strictly limited to shields and damage to 2H. Another thing that I liked was the improved tactics system. Default tactics work well enough to get you through most of the time, but if you take the time to actually set up your characters in a smart way, you will breeze through encounters. I got smoked on one boss since I didn't bring a healer, but then I went through and set up tactics for the 3 that I did bring and BAM, so much damage & smart choices that I didn't need a healer. Now that I have a slightly better grasp of combat in general, it might behoove me to bump up the difficulty and see how it plays out now.

The biggest problem with combat is that it still does not work quite right. Most of the time you will spend time either out of stamina / mana, all your abilities on cooldown, or just auto-attacking. BioWare would have been better off with lower cooldowns and being more stamina / mana-locked or the reverse. Instead, especially in the beginning of the game, you have lots of stamina / mana but all your abilities quickly go on cooldown since you have few. Later, you will be out of stamina / mana long before you can get through all your abilities. Increasing willpower doesn't quite fix the problem. The only class I saw that had little issue here was a blood mage with blood magic specific accessories. They were more cooldown-locked. Battles just pass far too quickly to make a system like this work. As my warrior I could charge in, dish out extreme AoE damage, but then spent the rest of the fights (sometimes really long ones) waiting for cooldowns or stamina regeneration, even with skills like Second Wind and Bolster.

The battles are often boring as well. They are busy & hectic, but boring. The game just keeps throwing more and more enemies at you. In late game, the base ones can be taken out with a few auto-attacks, so it constantly feels like the game is handing you fodder like they did at the end of DA:O with the darkspawn. Have a mage opponent? Dump any and all dps & knockback / knockdowns on them and they will go down very quickly. Ignore all his buddies until you're done and then they are nothing to kill. Let them wander freely and they can tear your party apart very quickly. Not a whole lot of strategy there. Most often, strategy came out for me in how I managed my heals in really long fights, like with a High Dragon or with tons of enemies that keep coming and coming.

And of course they recycled tons of environments. Not much needs to be said on that as it's been been a dead, beaten horse for a long time now.

So overall I liked it. Not more than DA:O, but more than some other rpgs. I'm glad I bought it at $20. I probably would feel a bit unhappy if I had paid full retail release price for it given the above. Good story, good characters, some great improvements, but given the amount of exploration and battling you have to do, they should have spent more time figuring that out more...and made some different damn caves.

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DA2 Demo - First impressions

I downloaded the Dragon Age II demo and played it to its fairly quick conclusion.  I played as a sarcastic female warrior using 2H weapons and then played as a goody goody male dw rogue.  The former, I played without ever pausing or switching between characters.  The latter I played the exact opposite: I switched around a lot and paused frequently to issue commands.  Note that inventory and character appearance were locked.  I looked, but was unable to interact with anything so I couldn't gleam anything.
 
Quick things: Graphics are good, but I still hate the hurlock redesign.  I hope some modder is already planning on a reskin.  Voice acting sounds good enough.  I had no technical problems.  Load times popped up quite a bit but I expect that sort of thing from a demo.
 
The personality stuff works as advertised.  After a few quips Hawke stuck to the usual answers I was giving.  They were minor differences.  "I was trying to talk him down" versus "Stab first and ask questions later?" after Isabela started a fight in the last bit of the demo, for example.  The dialogue wheel with the intentions in the center circle work well.  The only question I have is what do all those mean?  A laughing mask is sarcastic / comical and an angel means goody goody, but what the hell does a diamond mean?  Still, only one or two left to the imagination will sort themselves out eventually.
 
One change I noted that I do not like is the inability to center AoE spells on a target.  Instead, you target the area and if the target(s) is / are no longer there, then tough luck.  On the flip side, this also works in your favor, as you can now dodge moves by not being in the line of fire.  I recall many times in Origins where if I had been in the way when something was cast / initiated, but  moved out of the way, then you would still get hit.  Glad to see that's corrected, but I would very much like to set my mage to center a fireball on an ogre, rather than just make my best guess as to where it's going to be.  Maybe I was missing something but I absolutely could not get it to lock on to a target, only an area.
 
One of BioWare's talking points is that there is no longer a single linear progression to character abilities.  First of all, this was not entirely true in Origins, as you could mix and match and only had to go through some skills to get to the good ones.  The system is essentially unchanged in Dragon Age II and only looks different.  Yeah, they made it a web instead of 3-4 linear paths.  However, when you look at it, each skill requires a certain level and sometimes a prerequisite number of skills learned in that skill group.  So even though you may have a "path" unlocked, you are still level-locked.  If you stick to a single group of skills, then you would be even more linear than Origins.  All of the customization would come from picking up the different ability groups and specializations so you could mix and match what you do at what levels.  But then again, how is that different from Origins?  Oh right, you can "upgrade" a skill.  Again, some skills had upgrades in Origins.  The next skill in line after Shield Defense removed the SD attack penalty, for example.  Secondly, these also have level restrictions.  So even though you know a skill, it may be a couple levels before you can upgrade it and then you're not so much choosing an upgrade over a new skill as you may be locked into that decision due to level restrictions.  I'm not saying this is a bad system, but with what they showed in the demo, it's not nearly as different from Origins or as robust as they have thus far claimed.
 
As for battle, mages can now attack with their staff.  Good, although spells are obviously better.  The rogue was a lot more fragile than its Origins counterpart and didn't move like the warrior.  The warrior could withstand far more punishment than the rogue, which is a nice way to differentiate the two classes.  Single-clicking a target made you auto-attack and there was of course the hot bar that you could launch special moves from.  You do NOT have to keep clicking to attack.  However, I found that after some moves that knocked down / away foes, you'd stop auto-attacking and would have to re-click the target.  That step is a tad annoying when you are trying to finish off an opponent.  Maybe I knocked them down in order to save myself from a little damage and was not necessarily aiming for crowd control.
 
The battles were a lot faster-paced and not necessarily tactical.  The only battle I had issue with was the ogre during my very first attempt in a no-pause run through.  And that was mostly due to me not paying attention to adds and getting wiped by the ogre.  I ended up kiting it around with Hawke's sister (mage) and whenever it stopped, launching a fireball at (hopefully) its location.  When I knew what I was doing my second time around, pausing was largely unnecessary as my tank's tactics were good, as were my mage's.  So I remain so far unconvinced that there are battles that MUST be played tactically or that it's any easier.  That is a disappointment.
 
The story was on fast-forward, obviously, but what I saw was on par with the BioWare usual, for good or bad.  I hope that the full game will explain things more and make better transitions, but we'll see.  So is it good?  I suppose you could say that.  It is only a tiny fraction of what the whole game probably is.  Is it the next biggest and best thing out there and will wow everyone like Origins did? Uh, no.  Not if you're looking for more rpg and less fast-paced combat with rpg elements.  If you're the type who doesn't particularly care for complexity in your rpg and would love something bordering on action rpg territory, then you'll probably like DA2.

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Why I am holding off on Dragon Age II

I love Dragon Age: Origins. I have literally put hundreds of hours into it and probably more than I should admit.  However, I have been burned in past from buying on heritage or name alone and have taken a skeptical view on sequels & new IPs.  Despite my enjoyment and continuing desire to play DA:O, I still turn this discerning eye on DA2.
 
My first reason comes in the form of a cautionary tale from the Mass Effect series.  BioWare has taken a more action-oriented approach to DA2; exemplified by their phrase "when you press a button, something awesome happens."  The former action-leaning philosophy is the one they took when going from ME1 to ME2.  The ME series went from shooter / rpg to shooter with light leveling mechanics that don't matter.  BioWare then went on to write a nonsensical main plot.  They set the Illusive Man up as someone personally involved in all his projects, something EDI mentions, but all the gruesome ME1 Cerberus actions were done by "rogue groups" within Cerberus.  So which is it?  Is he incredibly organized and involved or is he dumb enough to let half his organization go rogue?  Then there is the circular logic that makes you work for Cerberus: you work for Cerberus because the Alliance & Council reject you, but they reject you because you work for Cerberus.  The final boss is a developmentally challenged Terminator torso.  Will BioWare give the DA2 story this same treatment?  After all, if all their attention is on redesign and making battles more action-oriented, then who's manning the story?
 
Granted, BioWare games offer little real choice.  No matter what, you are going to go to the same places, do the same things, and end up in the same final encounter(s), but there are little things you can do in those places and ways to go about those same things that make the game your own.  In ME1, you had moral choices that didn't necessarily live on the Save Puppies - Eat Babies black & white scale.  You could save or destroy the Rachni and had good reasons to do either one.  You could kill or knock out the colonists on Feros and again there was reason behind it.  You could choose to save the Council or concentrate on Sovereign.  
 
In ME2, you get 2 choices throughout the entire game.  You can rewrite or destroy the "heretic" geth.  Although that one has no consequences or fallout (yet), it was at least in the spirit of the previous game.  The other is whether to destroy the collector's base at the end of the game.  This however is not a matter of choice, but whether you are good or evil.  The smart thing to do, in order to stop the reapers, is to keep the base.  If you destroy it, all the people kidnapped and killed to make the Terminator will have died in vain, but if you save it and use its tech to save the galaxy, then at least something good came out of what caused their deaths.  Yeah yeah, destroying the base "avenged" them, but your mission isn't vengeance, it's to stop the reapers.  Instead, you are called a villain and stupid if you keep the base.  If you destroy it, you are the conquering hero who stuck it to the man, the Illusive Man, after working for him the entire game.  Will choices also go from choosing the dwarf king and whether to save or kill the mages disappear in favor of no choices?  They say no, but they pulled this once already.
 
Now why is this comparison apt?  They are advertising more action, for one, which they did when going from ME1 to ME2.  They are adopting the conversation wheel.  They are narrowing down the character field to just one: Hawke.  Instead of getting the choice of dwarf, elf, or human, that choice is made for us.  Not that that's bad, but it is like Mass Effect.  ME is Shepard's story.  DA2 is Hawke's story.  That's far more specific than the pupil's story in Jade Empire, the warden's story in DA:O, the recruit's story in Neverwinter Nights, or what I've played of Baldur's Gate so far.  In principle at least in both series, they appear to be going more toward "X with RPG mechanics" instead of "X / RPG" or just "RPG" and this is why I make the comparison.

I don't normally harp on combat mechanics unless they get in the way.  I do miss the time when I didn't quite know what I was doing in DA:O and got my ass handed to me. The joy of discovering the best tactics, party, and skills.  I just got too good.  Now I see gameplay footage of DA2 and see Hawke jumping around the whole screen like it's all staged choreography.  If you can play it as an action RPG then sorry, but saying you can "play it tactically" is disingenuous.  You can , sure, but there is no need.  That means that there is not necessarily (and likely) the level of tactical involvement you're advertising.  If I can play it fast and loose, then pulling back and going the pause and play approach is just the slow way, not the tactical way.  There may very well be a few battles where playing the fast way will get my group killed, but a few moments of having to think doesn't make up for an entire game of hack'n'slash when you call it an RPG.
 
The art redesign is the one part of the game that I find no overall fault in.  My only nitpick is the wussification of the darkspawn.  The new hurlock images are white dudes with no lips and not the scary monsters of DA:O.  Keep in mind that darkspawn are not people.  They are not people who became darkspawn.  They are monsters and looked like such in DA:O.  Now they look more human, which is not the way to go.  I have no problem with the art style itself or the redesign of some DA:O NPCs or the race redesign, but the hurlocks really really bug me.
 
Call me greedy, but I want good, tactical gameplay, story of a caliber BioWare has proven itself capable of in the past, and less of the crap of that went into ME2's story in the next installment of the Dragon Age franchise.  So far I have yet to see anything that shows me that this is the case.  Yeah, it may be a fun game that I could enjoy playing, but is it a good western RPG follow up to DA:O?  That remains to be seen.

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