Video games have the potential to be extraordinary experiences. Over the years many RPGs have made it into that class of games, and BioWare has routinely contributed. Some of the developers’ latest RPGs have nearly outdone them all. Unfortunately, Dragon Age II interrupts BioWare’s streak of extraordinary RPGs. I have written on the subject of setting aside nostalgia and accepting the evolution of RPGs, so you won’t find me waylaying change for the sake of conservative design philosophy. Those who want another Origins can just play it again. There’s plenty of replay value. I will, however, critique an RPG that fails to deliver a compelling and magical experience due to a variety of flaws. Whether viewed as a successor to Baldur’s Gate II and Origins, a BioWare game, or a completely new RPG, Dragon Age II is a mundane experience marred by concessions to accessibility and a lack of imagination and detail.
We can safely say that the Dragon Age franchise has changed forevermore. Many things have been sacrificed for accessibility’s sake, and BioWare has delivered a significantly more streamlined RPG. A voiced protagonist and Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel are some of the more welcome changes. A silent protagonist in a game with full voice acting seems a bit archaic now. Aside from changes to combat discussed below, the amount of “polish” splashed onto the game is almost frightening, as if overcompensating for Origins’ blemishes. Item descriptions have vanished, leaving the player with a very strange and generic “Belt” that somehow raises attack power, alongside other similar items. Speaking with shopkeepers is now optional. Clicking on their wares instantly brings up their inventory. Quests are immediately marked on maps and require little to no thought to complete; some are even assigned by letters, eliminating the need for NPCs. I wouldn’t be surprised if every NPC happens to be out on the town in Dragon Age III whenever the player comes calling. They just leave extended notes with instructions for the party.
DAII is a simplified experience compared to BioWare’s past games, except perhaps Mass Effect 2. Unlike that game, however, DAII suffers from its simplification- all which was done to attract more gamers like the Call of Duty crowd; gamers who wouldn’t touch a fantasy RPG with a 10-foot-pole. Aside from the removal of some of the nerdy stuff we play RPGs for, DAII sports a “cool” new look, with menus and fonts that belong in a crappy graphic novel. The actual content of DAII occasionally dips into stereotypes and corny dialogue, as if attempting to attract a broader audience familiar with Hollywood dreck. It’s awkward and not at all dorky enough. DAII reminds me of the nerd who tries to impress the “cool” kids at school by donning a varsity jacket and making a show of throwing away his D&D campaign journal and d20. Let’s hope someone tells this misguided adolescent that there’s nothing to gain by trying to be someone you’re not.
Surprisingly, the simplification of the franchise is not what hampers the experience the most. The aforementioned changes may be regrettable, but they are little more than a nuisance. Had DAII excelled in every other aspect, they would’ve been ignorable. In fact, despite all the changes fans were afraid of, DAII feels rather old. With unoriginal and even clichéd quests and storylines, DAII lacks compelling content. The first act is full of questlines most of us completed years ago in different games. The second two acts are more focused, however, with better content in general. As usual, character quests are the most intriguing and most reminiscent of BioWare’s amazing skill. The main plot doesn’t offer many unique quests, however, and optional content is also uninspired. Most quests either feel like repeats from Origins (save the mages/help the templars) or rejected ideas from a fantasy RPG from five years ago.
DAII tells the story of Hawke of Kirkwall – his rise from Blight-escapee to noble to Champion of the city – whatever that means. The first act involves raising money for a Deep Roads expedition so Hawke can make enough gold to support his sister and mother. From there, Hawke becomes more involved in politics. He parlays with stubborn Qunari. He mediates the templar/mage debate. And, he eventually becomes Kirkwall’s go-to hero for getting things done. The story occurs over a decade, with the consequences of his decisions apparent at each stage. The story structure strays from BioWare’s recent plot trends, and its unconventional approach may win over those tired of saving worlds.
The main quest lacks the essential elements of storytelling: tension, focused conflict, and drama. Individual conflicts abound, but nothing unites the three acts of Hawke’s story, and strands of the story are dropped without notice. Nor does anything propel Hawke through the story. The player lacks motivation for Hawke’s actions, and his rise to fame and fortune seems trivial and easy. Even though a decade passes over the course of the game, I never felt the poignant passing of years. It always felt like just yesterday that I had run away from the Blight. Even the framed narrative doesn’t tap into the potential of the unreliable narrator, with exactly two rather brilliant exceptions that painfully remind us of the BioWare wit and passion for storytelling that DAII squanders.
This all makes Hawke seem like an empty vessel – a vehicle for another story: the story of Kirkwall. Unfortunately, Kirkwall fails as both a setting and a character. Kirkwall is a terrible fantasy city. Aside from a paragraph of interesting backstory, Kirkwall is not a world onto itself. It has none of the personality of Midgar and none of the vitality of Ezio’s Roma. Kirkwall lacks the conceptual genius of Rapture and Sigil. Nor does it have the urban atmosphere of fantasy literature’s great cities, like Leiber’s Lankhmar or Kushner’s nameless city. Kirkwall is a dull, lifeless husk reminiscent of the backdrop for a high school play.
Most of the Dragon Age franchise’s individuality in fantasydom comes from its rich lore and deeply rooted history. DAII retreads most of the lore uncovered in Origins without covering much new ground, however. In the first act, the game reintroduces every concept to players, which is admirable, but the second and third acts do little to explore new aspects of Thedas. A refresher course is brilliant and necessary, but so is something more. The Free Marches is evidently the most boring region in Thedas, and Kirkwall one of its least exciting cities. Mercifully, the game explores the Qunari, but new extensions of Dragon Age’s lore are largely unexploited as a result of BioWare’s shortcutting. Instead of going to Par Vollen, Hawke goes to a Dalish elf camp. Instead of exploring more of the Wounded Coast, he explores the Deep Roads. And instead of visiting a nug-filled nug nest, he visits yet another set of mysterious ruins full of demons.
Not shockingly, DAII’s cast of characters is the best aspect of its story, although it never surpasses those of BioWare’s past games. Despite rather clichéd and weak introductions, every character (save Bethany) is worth putting in the party for a few quests at least. As usual, character quests are among the best in the game, and they continue throughout each act. The banter and dialogue isn’t BioWare’s best, but still eclipses that found in the average RPG. Above average voice actors deliver lines well, but BioWare relies too heavily on humor and silliness, most of which is crass and misguided. Jokes about taints and fistings replace BioWare’s usual genuine wit. Speaking with your party is made more difficult as well, since the game lacks a “camp” or “homebase” area. Instead, each character must be visited separately, which leads to less interaction in general. Overall, the characters take time to develop, but when they do, they display unique and challenging personalities, if not particularly memorable ones.
DAII features what is probably the least likable cast in BioWare’s history, no matter how well characterized. Almost every player will find at least one character to dislike, from the oddly irritating Isabela to the insufferable prick Fenris. Unfortunately, BioWare removed the depth of party relations found in Origins. As if made safe for newcomers, no one can leave your party or turn against you, no matter how much this stretches believability. I would’ve loved to cut Fenris into bits after he disagreed with me for the fiftieth time. Unbecomingly crass dialogue doesn’t help make them any more likable either. Props must be given to BioWare for Aveline, however, who is undoubtedly one of their strongest female characters to date. They also make a slightly more convincing homosexual with Anders, whose previous gay lover actually appears in the game.
Thus, DAII offers one of BioWare’s least engaging storylines. The cast of characters partially redeems the plot, but I doubt many players will remember either in years to come. Lacking cohesiveness and a dynamic setting, DAII’s story feels empty and dull. The unconventional approach is admirable, but without genuine drama and unique conflicts, the story fails to engage. I never cared about the characters or the decisions my Champion made, which is antithetical to BioWare’s storytelling philosophy. Considering Origins made me feel the worst I have ever felt for committing a terrible act in an RPG, this comes as a severe disappointment. Compared to typical video game plots, DAII still offers something highbrow, with some interesting themes and difficult choices, but the disparate elements fail to make a proper whole. In the end, the Champion must make a difficult decision regarding a rather obvious and familiar conflict. There are only two choices, however, with no middle ground and no completely evil option. The game ends on a low point, making the experience feel all the more ordinary.
Combat basically functions as it did in Origins: click on an enemy, and the character attacks it until one or the other dies or until given other commands. Players can pause to issue orders, control all characters in the party, and watch the cooldown timers when using abilities. Sustained modes and passive abilities flesh out the three classes. Combat contains complexities like flanking, which makes combat difficult to master. Skills have been retooled to deliver more vigor, and combat has a more action-oriented feel. Characters leap into combat, cast spells more quickly, and generally kick more ass in less time.
When everything works, combat is probably even more fun than it was in Origins. Playing various characters of each class gave me the impression that neither fighter, rogue, nor wizard got the shaft in terms of power or entertainment value. Character progression is balanced and exciting – one of the only rather flawless elements in DAII – and each class presents various ways to specialize. Rogues, for instance, come in the ranged attack, dual-wielding, or stealth varieties. One or two key skills characterize early levels, while later levels bring deeper mechanics into the mix as well as more options, resulting in many ways to approach a difficult battle. Despite simplifications elsewhere, BioWare smartly left combat as deep as the oldest thaig.
Unfortunately, combat doesn’t work all the time. During those few battles in which everything functioned as it should, I had immense fun, but they were too inconsistently delivered. I fear the PC version of DAII is the worst. The removal of the celebrated tactical camera makes targeting and movement difficult and imprecise. Area of effect spells are maddening to place, even with the action paused. The new action style yearns for a click-once-to-attack scheme. Or rather, it yearns to be played on a console. The result is something betwixt and between action and tactical. Mostly, this feels awkward. Again, BioWare needs to let Dragon Age be itself.
Other problems crop up during combat as well, including balance and difficulty issues. I rarely complain about difficulty imbalances, but DAII forces my hand. Aside from a few early battles, the Normal difficulty requires little planning and few pauses. The Hard difficulty, however, became impossible at times with the choices I had made. Many battles have no comfortable difficulty. Whether this is a result of my ability choices or party members or the awkward battle system, I have no idea. The difficulty is often cheap as well, which adds to the insult. Chains of knockdowns occur in which characters trying to recover from an initial knockdown are pushed down again in the process of standing. My mouse endured several beatings.
In keeping with the developers’ newfound philosophy of cutting corners, almost every battle plays out in the same way with the same enemies in the same environments. Building the game was as simple as copy and paste. Most battles follow a pattern of increasingly strong waves of enemies with similar tactics. The most common battle involves humanoids with ranged, melee, and wizard or rogue types. Other enemies include spiders and demons, neither of which has undergone a design change like the darkspawn have.
The amazing dungeons of fantasy BioWare RPGs are finished as well. Dungeons now come in a few types such as Cave, Warehouse, and Mansion, as if they’re cheap mass-produced models. DAII’s physical area is diminutive. Each area of the same type uses the same map with different sections blocked off arbitrarily in a shameless display of artistic negligence and laziness. Kirkwall’s few sectors manage to look different from each other, but they never change over the decade that passes in game. And one key cutscene in the final act shows three identical mages standing in a row. Shameless.
The new graphical style may not serve the environments well, but character design fares better than it did in Origins. The playable characters in particular boast fine designs, even if graphical fidelity varies. Garments and armor bear hideously low-res textures. Architecture looks much better, though, as do facial expressions and animations in general. Some of the monsters have undergone redesigns, and the new Qunari look appropriately intimidating. DAII is not a stable game on the PC, however. A patch may clear up the performance issues that currently plague players, but as of today, even an extremely powerful machine can’t run the game on full graphical detail without considerable lag.
I can only surmise that Dragon Age II was a rush job. Just over a year is not enough time to develop an RPG worthy to bear the Dragon Age name, not to mention the BioWare one. A sense of shallowness and sloppiness pervades DAII, and this is a dangerous path for any video game developer to tread, particularly one that has set expectations so high. Whereas Origins was rough, but loveable, its sequel is polished, but unlikeable. BioWare RPGs usually have the power to make the player care about decisions and characters, and in that way they are extraordinary experiences. Dragon Age II, however, made me care little for anything, except perhaps getting to the credits so I could throw off the depression of its disappointment.