Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thirty - Dragon Age II

With the year about 2/3 over, I've finished exactly 30 games, putting me on a pace for 45. That's better than 2010, but still short of my goal of 50. Either way, Game 30 is a doozy: Dragon Age II.

Dragon Age II had some pretty big shoes to fill. Dragon Age: Origins was extremely successful both critically and commercially, and hailed both as a shining example of a classic Western RPG and as a spiritual successor to the fan-favorite Baldur's Gate series. Overall, it was a smashing success for BioWare. Dragon Age II is no Dragon Age: Origins; ultimately, it's an RPG whose faults are more obvious than its strengths.

On paper, it seems pretty cool and it mostly is. The story details ten years of the life of Hawke, a refugee that settled in the city of Kirkwall, built a fortune, became a power player in Kirkwall's deadly politics, and then contributed to the start of a war that eventually spreads through the entire continent. This rags-to-riches story is far from a sprawling epic adventure like Origins, but the promise of major consequences adds weight to the more constrained narrative.

Whether this smaller-scale plot (one city instead of an entire country with many cities and towns) is a good idea or not is 100% subjective, but there is one 100% negative consequence of the story framework that is possibly the game's most oft-heard complaint: recycled environments. You fight mobs in the same 10-12 mansions, sewers, and alleys of Kirkwall for the entire game. When you venture outside Kirkwall, it's another 10-12 paths, caves, and clearings. Those 20-ish environments, which are all brief and used at least three times throughout the game, really aren't interesting enough to justify the recycling. Origins had about as many dungeons (a solid 20-30), but they ranged in size from small to enormous, and were extremely varied in atmosphere and appearance.

The execution of Dragon Age II's setting is a major gripe, but the characters aren't. Or at least I think so - many of DA2's haters love to play the broken record that DA2 has subpar characters and development, but I disagree. The cast is a little weaker than that of Origins (which has one of my favorite RPG casts ever), but the only character I wished wasn't there was Anders (a shame, since he's quite charming in Dragon Age: Awakening). Isabela the pirate captain is gleefully hedonistic, Merrill the elven outcast is 100% adorable, Fenris the runaway slave is a badass that actually wields his angst in a tolerable manner, and Varric the wisecracking dwarf is extremely entertaining.

I liked Dragon Age 2's cast, but I agree that its development is weaker than Origins, for a discernible reason: the Origins cast gives you more individual face time. in Dragon Age 2, your characters develop through plot dialog, companion quests, and romance. In Dragon Age: Origins you have all of that plus the option of addressing any cast member individually and having one-on-one conversations with them completely separate from plot. These additional dialog trees add so much more detail (that fans ate right up) that you get much more attached to the cast. Bioware tried to incorporate more character development into things like quest lines and incidental party banter, which is fine in theory, but ultimately falls short in content.

OK, enough about the characters and setting. There's also gameplay here. Here's where DA2 is clearly superior to Origins. The option to use a top-down camera angle is gone, but combat is faster, more fluid, and just as strategic. You'll need to be able to think on your feet better, because position and strategy are still important, but everything happens so much faster that you need to be able to think on your feet more. The game is ultimately a little easier than Origins, but that's not due to the lack of difficulty of scenarios and more about how powerful Hawke is. Mages are less broke (but still great), and using a bow is less fun than before, but ultimately the combat is a major strong suit to Dragon Age II.

Character customization, an awesome affair in Origins, is more of a mixed bag now. I love the new skill trees - they're more customizable and more robust than the skillsets in Origins, and also more unique now that every character has a personal skill tree (except for Hawke, who has two). Limiting each character (other than Hawke) to one weapon type is annoying, but acceptable - it gives them more individuality in gameplay. What's unforgivable is armor selection. Only Hawke can change his armor around, while your teammates are limited to their starting armor for the whole game. Compared to Origins, which allowed for 100% freedom in armor customization, this is a major knock. When you have an audience that loves over-customizing shit like armor and skills, this moves from a knock to a travesty. This also kills some of the fun out of The Great Loot Hunt, as a good 60% of your loot is only useable by one of your characters, and that drops to 20% since all weapons and armor are designed to be class-specific.

I can't complain too hard about this game, though, because I enjoyed it so much. Yes, it's disappointing in its environments and customization, and the first two-third of the game seem more like sidequests in Kirkwall than a real story with an arc and a payoff, those are major downsides. But the action is compelling, the dialog is stellar, and the last quarter or so of the game is nothing short of a thrill ride that leaves players seriously hungry for a Dragon Age III. I will definitely be revisiting this game another year or two down the road, no mistake.

As much as I hate to say this, Dragon Age II is a game that will really benefit from DLC. BioWare's DLC packages typically deliver exactly what DA2 needs: more environments, new quest lines parallel to the main story, and awesome exclusive loot, skills, and characters. Dragon Age II needs that, and it pains me that I might have to pay extra for things that should have been in there from the get-go. Whatever, that's what Game of the Year Editions are for.

Games Beaten: 2011 Edition

1. Mario vs. Donkey Kong
2. Primal Rage
3. Torchlight Hat Trick
4. Ghost Trick
5. Flower
6. Batman: Arkham Asylum
7. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
8. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
9. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
10. Tales of Eternia
11. Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
12. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
13. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
14. Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
15. Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
16. Dragon Age: Origins
17. Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
18. inFamous Evil Finish
20. inFamous 2 Good Finish
21. Big Bang Mini
22. Final Fight: Double Impact
23. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
24. Cthulhu Saves the World
25. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
26. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
27. Disgaea Infinite
28. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
29. Jeanne d'Arc
30. Dragon Age II


The next game I'll be playing is probably 3D Dot Game Heroes, an action game I got about halfway through before getting sidetracked by Dragon Age 2 and a few other games. However, my next blog entry will be something else, because as I finish this I have another one to start. Be back soon!

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