I wrote about playing Dragon Age: Origins awhile back, if you're curious. Also, spoilers. Duh.
Upon realizing the download size for Dragon Age 2 from Origin is only a smidge over 5GB, I knew to set my expectations accordingly. Who hasn't heard something bad about this game by now? Dragon Age 2 is probably the go-to example for the beginning of Bioware's slide in quality over the last few years, and I remember all the coverage surrounding it at the time of its release in March 2011 being pretty gnarly.
Still, when a series hooks you, there's always the impulse the see it through to the end, and Dragon Age: Origins definitely hooked me on its dark fantasy world. Besides, it's still Bioware! I wasn't about to just give up now. Dragon Age 2 being a mere five dollars on an Amazon sale or whatever was all the extra push I needed to finally dive into one of the most controversial releases of the last generation and find out what all the fuss was about myself.
I feel like noting beforehand that Origin is... well, sort of lame. As a game client, it functions, but the lack of some features seems baffling. For instance, Origin has no client-wide screenshot function. How the hell does that happen? As a person that enjoys taking a lot of screenshots, particularly for integrating them into any sort of writing, it's mystifying why one of Steam's best features, and presumably one of its simplest, would go missing for this long. Origin also has had the nasty habit of mixing up my account information for no reason, on more than one occasion mixing around my country of residence (Uh, the United States? It's not rocket science) with random others. Maybe these are nitpicks, but it's a strange series of small issues that make me sort of cock my head at Origin and wonder what it's doing from time to time. Thankfully, however, Dragon Age 2 has a game-level screenshot function, as any game should.
So there I was, all settled in and ready for a Bioware RPG experience like any other good Bioware RPG experience. I was disappointed to find out that Dragon Age 2 plateaus pretty early on.
Dragon Age 2 kicks off nicely, and plays better, but it sort of gets stuck in second gear.
For the first few hours I was actually incredibly optimistic about how I was going to come away from Dragon Age 2. The combat feels so much more satisfying to actually play, for one thing. I'm sympathetic to the sort of strategic, placement-focused combat of Origins, but most of those encounters felt pretty unwieldy and I never really felt like I had a good grasp of the action. On top of that, many of the encounters in Origins felt decidedly unfair; enemies would start in positions that completely surrounded you and one wrong move led to you dying almost immediately.
I can't sit here and pretend that Dragon Age 2's combat is anything close to as difficult. I died far less than Origins, barely had to use potions for most of the game, and the need for a dedicated healer was less pronounced. Having no friendly fire means that you barely need to put any thought into area of effect attacks, but honestly, that wasn't really much fun in Origins to begin with. The addition of the "Quick Heal" and "Quick Mana" buttons get rid of the need to have five different kinds of potions on your hotbar, and it's still useful to pause the action on a regular basis, so the need for thinking ahead hasn't been completely squashed. I especially liked the snappy animations that come to really hard stops at the end of each attack. It's a nice style, and makes it feel like attacks have weight and impact.
Let me be clear, though: The way the enemies literally spawn out of nowhere is some hot bullshit. Dragon Age 2 throws way too much waves of trash mobs at you from out of thin air, and there's way too much combat for the game's own good. There were plenty of times where I was simply left exhausted by the amount of trash combat that was at no point challenging, at no point compelling, and just wanted to finish the damn quest. DA2's combat is a mixed bag, for sure, but in the end I feel like it's more good than bad. The UI, in particular, is leaps and bounds ahead of Origins in both aesthetic and function.
Most of the game takes place in Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches, a confederation of free city-states to the North of Ferelden, with your family having fled the Blight. There are a lot of call backs to the first game, which are nice, such as your family's home having been in Lothering, one of the earliest towns to get destroyed by the Blight in Origins, and running into Flemeth in the game's combat prologue, but these callbacks don't all feel like they belong. Anyway, being refugees, and learning your dirtbag uncle sold away everything your family used to own in Kirkwall, Hawke, a sibling, and Aveline, a solider in service to the former King of Ferelden, are forced into indentured servitude for a year as a way to get into the city and make a new home for themselves.
Then there's a jump in the narrative roughly a year forward in time and everyone's out of indentured servitude, presto-magico!
Kirkwall is an alright setting, as far as RPG settings go. The beginnings of the story are simple and straightforward - establish a home and reputation in this new, unfamiliar setting - and Bioware still has this wonderful effect on me where I just want to listen to every bit of every conversation. Other RPGs are doing this pretty well these days, but nothing has quite the je ne sais quoi of a Bioware conversation tree that makes me react with happiness whenever I click on an NPC and it goes into a conversation. The voice acting is pretty solid, the credits revealing a surprisingly large voice cast that should put any Bethesda game to shame. The problem is that Dragon Age 2 is writing a lot of checks it can't cash. In fact, let's just run down the list.
Act 1 is, in a word, boring. The environments do absolutely nothing to make up for this.
The over-arching goal of Act 1 is "collect 50 gold so that you can go on an expedition into the Deep Roads, because you want to get rich." What this means in practice is that you're going to be doing sidequests pretty much entirely for around eight hours or so, perhaps more, depending on how thorough you are. There's some honeymoon period here with going through the various environments for the first time, and being introduced to the internal politics of Kirkwall and its characters, but by and large, very little of this portion of the game is memorable. You're basically just the Kirkwall nanny, helping out random people for no reason and mindlessly trying to collect as much money as possible. There's really no other way to describe what this portion of the game is except as padding.
I'm not really playing around when I say Act 1 is utterly forgettable. I played through this game all within the span of the last week and I've completely forgotten almost anything that happened during it.
The various zones you'll be spending time in don't do much to make up for this repetitive content, either, since Dragon Age 2 has about three or four unique environmental designs. There's "Cave"! Generic craggy coastline! The Deep Roads that you see like three times! The same portions of Darktown over and over again! Dragon Age 2 recycles its zones with such frequency it's sort of pitiful, and the easiest indicator this game did not get the development time that it deserved. Everything seems to happen in these exact same places. How many times do I need to investigate a shady meeting in the Darktown sewers? Why does so much bullshit happen in the same two spots of The Wounded Coast? There's also like one mansion design for all the houses in Kirkwall. There are only so many times you can enter the exact same cave environment, whether it be backwards, forwards, or sideways, before you're sick of it. Bioware should be better than this.
The constant jumping forward in time adds nothing to the story and strains credulity.
On the one hand I guess I understand the desire to create a story that spans years and years, but on the other hand, it takes some real storytelling balls to try and write a years-long epic, and Dragon Age 2 does not pull it off. Throughout the game, time will just randomly jump forward, narrated in the background by Varric and Cassandra, and then continue right where it left off as if almost no time had actually passed. After arriving in Kirkwall, the story moves a year forward in time. At the end of Act 1, the story moves ahead three years in time, and at the end of Act 2, the narrative jumps ahead three more years.
To pull this off, you need to do a convincing job of showing how the people of the city, and the city itself, are really changing and evolving over time. You need to show events moving even without seeing them, to show that the world lives on even without your direct involvement, and each Act needs to be relatively self-contained. If events aren't largely contained within each individual Act, the progression of events becomes nonsensical, progressing super fast in the few days or weeks you're in control of Hawke and then going on ice completely, never moving forward at all, until years ahead in time.
The year between the prologue and Act 1 do this just fine. The jump in time is acceptable here, because nothing really major is actually happening. You need to work your way up the social ladder and secure a safe place for your family, working your ass off. Nothing is really lost in the transition because there's not any major plot threads in the background that inexplicably don't progress until you're back in control. The time jumps between Act 1 and 2, and Act 2 and 3, fail at being convincing for this reason. Numerous plot threads are started in Act 1, such as a murder mystery investigation where numerous women are falling victim to a serial killer, that just abruptly dead-end, only to be picked up against with great urgency in Act 2, as if nothing had happened in between those two points. Several women dying under suspicious circumstances would go completely unnoticed for three years? It would take three years for a single lead to pop up about it?
How that particular plot ends is also terrible. The serial killer abducts, and kills, your mother in some bizarre scheme to rebuild his wife with various female body parts. The fact that there's almost no time dedicated to this story before it comes to this point, and then is so quickly forgotten, is strange. The main character's mother dies and it's barely talked about. Fenris - my romantic interest of choice - shows up to offer a sympathetic line or two and then it's back to investigating the Qunari, or whatever.
Kirkwall never really changes much over the course of the near-decade, either, which is especially weird considering all that actually happens to it. In Act 2 the Qunari launch an all-out assault on the city and most of Kirkwall is suddenly up in flames, but nope, jump three years ahead in time and it's like nothing happened. Fable did a better job, in all three main games, of portraying a growing and changing world over the course of their stories than Dragon Age 2.
Some companion interactions work in all of this, and some don't. Aveline becomes attracted to, and subsequently marries a fellow guardsman through the years that pass, and this is believable, and even cute. It makes sense that many of the companions would build lives of their own, and making companions whose lives don't completely revolve around the main character is an interesting experiment for Bioware. The romances for Hawke, however, don't make much sense so stretched out over that long of a timeframe. Fenris and I fuck, and then time jumps forward three years, and he's all "You know, we never talked about that night between us three years ago." Really? A relationship develops so suddenly and then goes into stasis for three years for no good reason? I just don't buy it. In general, the romantic relationship felt incredibly distant.
What's so sad about the time jumps is that they really weren't even necessary to sell the events of the story. The tension between the mages and the Templars, and the ensuing rebellions against Knight-Commander Meredith could've easily been sold over the course or weeks or months. The decision to make it years only reinforces my pre-existing belief that there was originally supposed to be so much more story here than there actually was in the end.
Act 3 is a choice between psychopaths in an unnecessary sea of blood mages. Also Anders.
Dragon Age 2 suffers from a lack of real narrative focus until the final Act. The Qunari plotline comes to a sort of half-assed conclusion before being tossed aside and more or less forgotten. King Alistair (should he be the King in your story, I suppose) appears at a point in the story, just to basically say hello before peacing the fuck out. There are too many sections where Hawke spends most of his time collecting lost knickknacks only to turn them in to a reaction of bemusement. There are more callbacks to Origins than there should be, and they feel more like continuity porn than convincing storytelling.
Act 3, however, is when the game finally decided to singularly focus on the plot of the Templars vs. Mage conflict. At first blush I was relieved by this, because I was actually genuinely interested in seeing how that plot would play out, given that the game devotes so much time to setting up this conflict it was giving me blue balls by the end, but the way its told within the context of the game is so contrived. The need for the game to present you with some sort of "now choose a side!" scenes means the writing needs to effectively write both sides as equally valid or flawed, and the writing fails miserably at this, making Meredith out to be a psychopath, and almost every rebel mage you come across evil for no discernible reasons.
Toward the end of Act 3 I'm sent to investigate a meeting of Templars and mages that are sympathetic to each other, working together to take down Meredith so there can be peace in Kirkwall, but when I get there, one of the mages goes nuts and wanted to kill me out of nowhere. It makes no sense at all! It's just a lame way to try and create tension over who you side with. Why did that have to happen? The idea of sympathetic Templars working with mages to reform the system makes so much sense and is such a believable way for the plot to progress, but then it all goes to hell just for the sake of drama. There's a really interesting story here, but it's hamstrung by the need of the game to try and make both sides out to be flawed so that you have a bevy of choices at the end, and the only way Bioware knows how to make either side flawed is to make them homicidal maniacs. I mean, for the love of cock, why are there so many blood mages in this universe? Even the most prominent mage in the story that is standing up to the Templars, First-Enchanter Orsino, decides to become a demon at the end, because hey, gotta have a big dumb boss fight.
That it turns out Knight-Commander Meredith is being possessed by an artifact from the Deep Roads all along is even more of a bummer, because I really enjoyed that character upon introduction. In addition to being voiced by a kick-ass voice actress - the voice of Merlwyb Bloefhiswyn from FFXIV - her cause isn't entirely wrong. Many of the mages you investigate are (somewhat pointlessly) evil, and the Circle serves a good purpose. Then she just goes insane and tries to kill everyone. And then there's Anders...
Anders is written like a creator's pet.
I can't think of any other way to describe it. Throughout Dragon Age 2, Anders expressed a deep hatred of the Templars and a desire to set all Mages free, even going so far as running an underground railroad to help mages escape the clutch of the circle. This is fine so far. Over the course of the game, though, he becomes increasingly hostile and in-your-face over this issue, to the point of being sort of unhinged. This all comes to a head in the final hour of the game when he puts on his terrorist cap, and bombs the Chantry to hell and back, sparking an all-out war.
My frustration with Anders is honestly sort of similar to my teeth-gnashing hatred of Bella Swan from Twilight. Anders' actions are always portrayed as if they are just, and his attitude is rarely smacked down by anyone else. He is routinely portrayed sympathetically even when he is clearly a hypocrite, endangering countless innocent lives to get what he wants. Throughout the game he lectures other mages you meet on how they should know better than to consort with demons, when Anders is an abomination himself. He approaches the world from a deeply privileged position, benefiting from all the knowledge and know-how of the institutions he seeks to dismantle, refusing to understand how solving problems aren't so simple as just erasing the Templars from existence.
What sent me over the edge with Anders is a bit of banter he has with Aveline when you're navigating the ruined streets of Kirkwall. Aveline asks Anders if he will turn himself in for what he's done when the fighting has come to an end. Anders responds dismissively by saying "Oh, I know your commitment to oppression, Aveline." Motherfucker, you just blew up a church for the lulz! Where the fuck do you get off being sarcastic about it, like you've done nothing wrong? My understanding is that Anders was a much better character in Dragon Age: Awakening, which makes me regret not playing through it. Apparently he was written by someone completely different. Go figure.
A largely well constructed shell that needed about 18 more months in the oven.
It is difficult for me to imagine that this is the game that Bioware truly envisioned. A game whose main story content is threadbare, with so little unique assets, and so short a time in development. I don't wish to deify Bioware as a developer here or anything, because they've certainly made tons of mistakes, but I know that they are better than this, and surely they knew it too. The amount of call-backs to the previous game all feel like an attempt to distract you from noticing how thin the main story content of Dragon Age 2 really is.
Even some of the things I enjoyed the most about the game's narrative content, the romance with Fenris being one of them, is really just a revisiting of the first game. An elf, a troubled past as a slave, trained from youth to think like a soldier, dogged by his former slave-masters. It's all awfully similar, down to a line from Fenris about how he grew up around men and women who were "free with their affections." It's a retread of Zevran top to bottom, even written by the same person. Kirkwall never really changes, Hawke's family never feels as important to him as it postures as being, and trudging through the same old zones over and over is tiresome.
Dragon Age 2 is not a complete failure. The combat is more engaging, the UI superior in both fashion and function, and the choice to make Hawke a more defined character, with a more directed backstory and a voice of his own, was an excellent move. Yet I can't shake the feeling, given the ending cutscene, like I just played a prologue to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Like Halo 2 telling me to be continued, that I need to wait for the next game to finish the fight. Hearing from @yummylee on twitter that the "Templars vs. Mages" is largely dropped a third of the way into Inquisition only reinforces my feeling like more story meat was meant to be in this game, but didn't make it due to a rushed production schedule, and was hastily wrapped up in the next.
I don't necessarily regret my time with Dragon Age 2. I want to play Inquisition to see how these stories progress, so it must have been successful on some level, but I am incredibly disappointed. I end on my time with Dragon Age 2 more upset that my only avenue for playing Inquisition at the moment is a last-gen console, but I suspect I only feel that way because Dragon Age 2 seemed so incomplete.
|If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 2½ / 5||Total Playtime: Around 26 hours.|