Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Heir That Lost The Kingdom

The original Dragon Age: Origins was a true masterpiece that marked gaming history forever. It was an epic cRPG that not only absorbed you into a world of scheming nobles, romantic witches and invading darkspawn but it was also an exercise in morality choices and balancing the clashing personalities of your companions. Following in its success, everyone and their grandmother is waiting to play the sequel (for some reason, the grandmother usually opts for a handsome rogue character). However, the question is this: does the sequel prove worthy of the original?
Well, like an embellished Varric's tale, Dragon Age II seems to be a mix of good-news and bad-news.

In most cRPGs, leveling up involves adding points to strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, charisma, what have you - which, in turn, have an effect on health points, dialogue options, defending ability, damage dealt and so on. By reading the manual you know what affects what, however, in most games, you cannot readily see those effects as you level up. Not so with  Dragon Age II. Every point added to an attribute will increase the derived statistics on the same screen.Seasoned RPGers may not need it but younger players will find this quite helpful.

Your hero, Hawk, lives during the times of the last blight, fleeing Lothering as it is burned to the ground. Your decade-long story is narrated by Varric Tethras, a companion of yours. How the story will twist and turn is supposed to be dependent on your actions and choices. The story will absorb you the first time around and it may even impress you with its bifurcation points. Sadly, though, it makes little difference in the end. It feels like you are told a story in which you are allowed to finish a number of phrases. 

In a nutshell: you are never actually playing the promo CGI video but the graphics are beautiful.
The armor and clothes could use some more work in depth and texturing but the environments, the warrior moves and the spells look spectacular (keep in mind that said moves and spells will also start to look familiar after a while, especially since they look much more impressive than the actual damage they inflict - and have to be repeated again and again in every battle).
What I truly missed though was the isometric tactics perspective! The camera does zoom in and out and it pans around but it is no longer possible to get a bird's eye view of the battlefield and plan your attacks accordingly. And this was not the only thing I found missing.

In Dragon Age: Origins I favored a dual-wielding warrior, building up both strength and dexterity, equipping him with both Maric's blade and Starfag and giving him all the cool moves of double-yielding. Well, although Dragon Age II is hardly short in cool moves, it offers less specialization options in order to make warriors and rogues visibly distinct on the battlefield - hence a warrior in DA2 cannot dual-wield.
Do you find being human in a fantasy game trivial and prefer to play the role of an elf or a dwarf? Sorry, Flemeth did not see that in your cards: EA decreed you can only play a human in DA2 (and I am laying the blame on EA simply because something tells me it was a cost-cutting decision).
Personal preferences aside, the number of abilities and skills has also decreased - and some, like coercion, I outright missed.

What I also missed was real dialogue options. If, like me, you found DA:O laconic, you will sure find Dragon Age II almost, well,...illiterate. Sure, your hero now has a voice but did the dialogue options have to consist of such short summary-phrases that give you only the gist of what is to be said? And why did those options have to be presented on a (Mass Effect!?) dialogue wheel with...visual hints on the attitude of the responses available? More often than not, you end up saying a completely different thing than what you intended...
Give some credit to your customers BioWare: we can read!

This is the first thing that hits you actually. Playing, and enjoying, a fantasy cRPG requires immersion - and the graphical interface plays an essential role in this. It was not by mistake that Baldur's Gate had menus designed as if chiseled in stone, whereas Icewind Dale's were as if carved out of dark wood. The interface sets the mood of the game. Now, can someone please explain to me what are ...SciFi (again, read Mass Effect) menus doing in a medieval fantasy game?
Not only does one expect to find himself in a spaceship whenever the skills-tree or inventory menu is closed, but the in-game information is now displayed in smaller portraits with horizontal bars for health-&-stamina/mana. The portraits have moved from the upper to the lower left side of the screen; however, if opening up the screen for gameplay was the aim, well, they now seem to take up more space than before. Not to mention that they are harder to see.

Watch a gameplay video of Dungeon Siege III and Diablo III and try to answer this: can you really tell a difference in the gameplay? Sure, their stories and graphical styles are bound to be somewhat different but action games, hack&slashers and RPGs seem to have merged into a single hybrid-genre of quick cinematic moves, looting, bartering, re-equipping and leveling. And Dragon Age II did not escape this.
Whereas Dragon Age: Origins had lots and lots of character, its sequel appears to have clearly favored style. I am sure it tested better on the teenage (console-seasoned) target groups - but I am also sure that said target groups did not include any RPG purists.

EA dropped the ball with the recently released and over-DRMed Dragon Age: Origins (Ultimate edition) so, hopefully, they learned a valuable lesson. Going the draconian way of UBIOSFT & 2K GAMES only manages to shoot your own sales on the foot. Surprisingly, Dragon Age II, although not perfect, sports a reasonable DRM scheme.
The game requires initial activation and it will re-authenticate every time it is run and it has access to internet connection - but it will not require to do so in order to run. In other words, once activated at installation you can block its internet access and it will run fine. Moreover, it contains neither disc-checks nor any form of SecuROM - at least not according to the official EA/BioWare announcements. Let's only hope this customer-friendl(ier) trend holds when the DLCs start rolling out...

Dragon Age II is a good-looking game that relies more on its stylish hacking&slashing than any uniqueness of character and on the appeal of giving the impression of forging a personal story rather than following a deeper preset one. Because of how much I had enjoyed the series overall, I was very eager to like this game. However, as I progressed I realized that I could not honestly recommend it to anyone.Without any hesitation, I would choose the original game over the sequel. 

Nevertheless, Dragon Age II is still a game fans of the series would want to experience at least once. It is just that, after the last blade has been swung and the last spell cast, there is very little that stays with you.

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