Tuesday, May 31, 2011

MadCap's Game Reviews - Dragon Age II

Well, Dragon Age II  lies defeated before me. In short, it proves to be what the middle child is in almost every trilogy that is not Star Wars - trying to milk off the greatness of the first without really adding anything whilst setting up for part three. Was it good? ...ehh, sort of. Whilst Dragon Age: Origins was an epic fantasy adventure with an appropriate length and depth with a storyline I could work with and with characters that I found endearing and who I felt a genuine motivation to want to help out, the sequel...err...well, it's a fantasy setting, I can give it that much right off the bat. Still, to the game's credit, it does get better later...err, sort of. But, alas, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Dragon Age II begins with a dwarven rogue by the name of Varric (one of the few NPCs in the game that managed to endear himself to me) being interrogated by a mad French woman in battle armor. No, but it seems that she is a member of an elite organization within the Chantry known as the Seekers. And who, as their namesake dictates, are they seeking? Little old me, it seems, or rather the hero of Kirkwall, also known as Hawke. Unlike in the previous game, where you were able to pick from half a dozen races with various last names and backstories, in II you can only play as a human (male or female) with the surname Hawke (and no, for the record, I did not pick "Ethan" as my character's first name, let me just beat the first smart Alec whose going to ask that to the punch). Well, it seems Hawke was involved in some very, very bad things in the city of Kirkwall and the Seekers need him for some reason that is left unexplained.

Thus, Varric's narrative provides the framework for the story. This is done quite well, serving as breaks between the acts rather than actually getting involved in the plotline too much (not like, say, the Prince's ongoing narration in the Prince of Persia), however when it does, it is usually only during Varric's personal quests and let's just say that the charming dwarf does have a way of "enhancing" the truth at certain points. And so, the story begins during the timeframe of the first game, during the darkspawn attack on the village of Lothering. My spunky warrior Carter Hawke is attempting to navigate a way for his family out of the doomed village and off the cursed brown rock that is Ferelden when suddenly, a dragon arrives and kills the darkspawn. However, it seems that this is not a true dragon, but Captain Janeway in disguise as a sinister, yet rather gorgeous looking witch known as Flemeth (who I remember being much less aesthetically pleasing in the last game). In exchange for taking an amulet of hers to a faraway land, she agrees to see me and my family off safely. And so, hoping in vain for a shot at the lovely Seven of Nine, Carter agrees and thus goes on a boat ride across the sea to the city of Kirkwall.

From there, we get an epic tale of "Gee, how much can we fit into one city?" The entire game takes place, in fact, within the city of Kirkwall and the immediate surrounding area. It's as if Bioware said "You remember that big, sweeping landscape we gave you in Origins? That massive world that was anything but linear and really felt like it was its size? Yeah, forget that, you're a city boy now, not an adventurer!" I feel this was a mistake for two reasons, one because if you have an epic fantasy adventure, having only one setting means we're going to have to watch the villains chew the exact same scenery repeatedly and unless you're playing a rousing game of Dungeons & Dragons, you're going to be stuck with a bunch of linear quests. Regardless, my first point allows for a segue into another major point that bugged me, the villain.

Or rather, villains. You see, the first game, if you recall, had a clearly defined villain - the Archdemon and the Darkspawn. Dragon Age II not only doesn't give the player such an obvious target, but keeps you guessing to an absurd point, almost until the very end. Which, again, would be fine elsewhere but doesn't quite work when stacked up against the original. Kirkwall is a city that proves that literally everyone - even your pals there - can be assholes and most people aren't afraid to fight you out in the middle of the street in broad daylight for no good reason other than you looked at them funny. So literally, anyone could be the villain at most points in the game. The plot seems to be indecisive, like Bioware just decided to forgo writing a plot equally match to the first and just decided to Frankenstein a bunch of D&D modules together and just kept a handful of the characters constant throughout. Which while this could work, I'm just not getting a sense of continuity that should be making me care.

Even the characters seem bland compared to the first. Hawke's family in particular seems to have not been thought out very well, which is odd to me considering Bioware's track record with this (In Origins, my mute young noble Warden's reaction to the deaths of his parents struck more of a chord with me than any of the tragedies that befell the Hawke family. I was apathetic and apparently so was the fully voiced Hawke), going so far as the companions that Hawke gathers to him along the way (Varric, as mentioned before, being an exception). The "like-dislike" system of the first game has been replaced with a "friendship-rivalry" system that I honestly think works much better, or at least it would if any of the characters had any depth to them whatsoever. I played through the companion side quests and here's what I found out, the mage-hating warrior is a mage-hating warrior, the former Grey Warden apostate who has a vendetta against the Chantry has a vendetta against the Chantry because he's an apostate, and the future Captain of the Kirkwall City guard believes in law and order above all else believes in law and order above all else because...you see where I'm going with this.

And as love interests go, Dragon Age II matches it's predecessor for number, but not depth. While I found Human Noble Warrior enamored with the whiles of that Orlesian temptress Leliana and my Elf Mage giggling with delight over being fawned over by Alistair in the first game, I only got the impression from II that Hawke was a man whore (which did not help that through the course of dialogue he went after the three female companions I had gathered that weren't Hawke's sister) with no interest in the women in the least. This, to me, does not bring to mind "love interest" but the word "porno" (though, let's face it, all anyone follows the romances for is that scene...I know you know what I mean). There's one particular companion, Isabella, that I'm sure was created exactly for this purpose.

Getting into mechanics, the combat has been changed up from the first one and in a way that I actually like. Instead of the first game's "press a button and auto attack nearest target", this time around the player has to keep pressing attack and can only attack the target they are facing. Some might say this is ridiculous but it really adds to the experience of running about the field in the heat of combat, my sword slicing through my enemies as they are driven before me and my mighty warrior rage! And besides. It's a game. You should have to play it, not watch the developers do all the work for you through cut scenes! Outside of combat, the dialogues of Origins have been replaced with (what I've been told) is a Mass Effect-esque menu which allows players to choose between a "nice/diplomatic" response, a "sarcastic/joking/witty" response, or the one that makes Hawke look like a bit of an asshole (those three are the most common, though others do occasionally turn up.) As far as roleplaying goes, it hits the three categories that most people would go for, so I'll let it go.

This does, however, bring me around to moral choice systems. Dragon Age II doesn't have one (though your choices still do hold some weight on the events of the story, and your loving companions will either praise or despise you for your choices, which works well, considering there's really no telling which way is up by the end. When you finally do find out who the villains are, it's pretty obvious who you're supposed to be fighting against, unless you're just a complete monster. Before that point, the world is very gray as far as morality goes. The racism against mages, elves, and dwarves (though to an extent, less so for the third party) is prevalent all around as it was in Origins, leaving few people who don't deserve a nice smack across the face and a stern talking to. But in the end, the forced choice of sides for the final battle and the consequences therein, which leads me to the game's ending. No spoilers, after Varric finishes the tale of Hawke, the entire game is left on a cliffhanger, with the fate of all of Thedas hanging in the balance. Interestingly enough, I would have liked to see this during the game. This is an epic fantasy adventure, not the 20+ hours I spent running around in Kirkwall amassing a great fortune and status only to...well, again, no spoilers.

And so, the middle child of the Dragon Age trilogy (or second part of the saga, whichever you prefer) comes to a conclusion. Was it bad? No. Was it good? Err...sort of. It would be a good game, if a little repetitive and grindy at times (the first act in particular nearly put me to sleep, which is not a good sign for any form of interactive media), on it's own merits. But because it's a sequel, one has to compare it to Origins, and it just doesn't hold a candle to it. I liked it, but only for the bits of nostalgia from the original (a neat features of II allows players to import a save from Origins, allowing some of their choices to be reflected in the game world), and then I realized that that was really all I liked it for. The cameos of the characters from the original, references to the original, and anything that had to do with the over arcing plot of Dragon Age as a whole. Were it not for the consequences of what happens at Kirkwall being so widespread (again, no spoilers!), the entire thing could have been reworked as DLC for Origins and literally no one would have noticed. I might play through it again, but I have even less reason to play through again than I did Origins, considering I can only play as humans.

I still have faith that Bioware can pick itself up and brush itself off from this, though. After all, they've made excellent games in the past (the aforementioned Origins and Mass Effect being praised for their storytelling and innovation to gameplay mechanics), and surely they'll take this criticism to heart when making Dragon Age III.  Right? ...right?

Dragon Age II is now available for Xbox360, Playstation 3, PC, and Mac OS X everywhere games are sold.