Friday, 18 March 2011

Dragon Age 2 review

So Dragon Age 2 came out on the 8th of March, roughly a week and a half ago.  Since then, it's very quickly become an extremely controversial game for a number of reasons, including the massive disparity between professional reviews and gamer reviews given on Metacritic.  While Metacritic is not necessarily the best way to judge a game, it's quite a shocking variance, which will undoubtedly lead some people to wonder just what the hell is going on with this game.  Well, I completed it for the first time yesterday, and have some thoughts on it.

Let me just begin by saying I like Dragon Age 2.  A lot.  I wouldn't necessarily place it into the same league as, say, Mass Effect 2, but it's a very good (perhaps great) game in its own regard.  That said, as with Origins, the sequel has some problems, a few of which are glaring.

So what's the big deal?  No game is perfect, right?  Why have so many people, specifically fans of Dragon Age: Origins, sunk their teeth into this game, refusing to let go?  From what I have seen and experienced, the problems can be summed up into a few major points.

1.  Bioware took some liberties with the sequel, changing some of what made Origins stand out (much discussion on this later).
2.  The game was released with DLC that was neither free nor particularly cheap, leaving some people feeling cheated.
3.  Some corners were clearly cut when it comes to the environments of the game.  I think this is the most legitimate problem, something I admit I take issue with myself, and I'll be discussing it in full later.

Beyond that, sure, everyone has their minor complaints and judgements based on opinion, but I am fairly certain that this triad of concerns is the vast majority of the reason as to why this game has come under so much fire.

But enough of controversy; let's talk about the game itself.  What a crazy idea on a gaming blog!  Initiate generic game review breakdown protocol.


Well, let's get this one out in the open for anyone out there who may be blind (and yet somehow reading this blog post); Dragon Age 2 looks significantly better than Origins.  Graphics were irrefutably a weak point for Origins.  As the game was developed over the course of 7 years, naturally the technology that they built it upon was to become outdated quickly.  Texture work in particular was very out of place for a modern game, and when you compared it to similar Bioware games released around the same time (Mass Effect), there was really no comparison at all.

Character models and certain set pieces look very good, but environments are not all that varied.

In the sequel, this has been somewhat addressed.  Character models largely look great and animate in a convincing manner.  Some of the environments are quite pretty as well.  With that said, it's not perfect.  Far from it in fact.  We're still seeing muddy textures in a lot of places, and a lot of the environments are reused in many places.  This is a major complaint by many, and I can't disagree.  The constant reuse of these environments really starts to grate on you after seeing the same coastline for the 6th or 7th time, or the same mansion or warehouse for the 8th or 9th time.  Sure, those environments are usually altered in some way, but it's an extremely lazy path to take.  Surely it could not have been all that difficult to at least try to hide the fact that so much of the world has been recycled.  It really does hurt the immersion factor of the game when you're constantly being drawn out of the experience thinking "This place...again?".  It also doesn't help that you'll often run into NPCs or areas that have half solid texture work and half very ugly.  Unfortunate.

Overall, at its best, it's a very pretty, convincing and immersive game from a visual perspective, while at its worst, it is lazy and distracting.

Summary:  Good, but not the level of improvement people expected.  Not up to par with Mass Effect.  Reused environments are unapologetically lazy.


Brace yourselves; this is going to be a long one.

Simply put, Dragon Age 2 plays very, very similarly to Dragon Age: Origins.  Chances are, if you liked how Origins play, you'll like how the sequel plays, and even if you didn't like how Origins played (I can admit to this to a degree), you might actually like the changes Bioware has made.  And if you've not played Origins, well, I'll do my best to fill you in.

Origins was labeled by many as one of the very few surviving old-school style RPGs.  It favoured tactical decision making and proper management of abilities and items over twitch reflexes and button mashing.  You were given a choice of one of the three traditional RPG archetypes; Warrior, Rogue or Mage, and from there, you could customize how that character looked, played and acted, all very much in the traditional Bioware format.  Also familiar was that you would chose a small party from a larger group of companion characters, each of which would have certain abilities and personalities that would vary both how the combat and story would play out.  Seems formulaic, but what made Origins so good was that they combined the traditional aspects of a meaty and lengthy RPG (a robust amount of items, abilities, talents and customization options) with the fantastic storytelling of a Bioware game.  It's not like Origins was a complete departure from other RPGs or Bioware games (indeed it felt very familiar in many ways), but somehow the balance worked out extremely well.  Some may argue it was near perfection.

Talent trees are actually more in-depth and interesting than in Origins.

However, some others, myself included, took issue with the slow and awkward nature of the combat system. At times, it felt as if abilities were not responsive, or it would be an absolute pain to maneuver a character, specifically a melee DPS or a tank, out of a bad situation or into the fray to assist their allies.  The animations were also somewhat underwhelming, also lending to that feeling that combat was overly slow paced and difficult to get involved in.  It's a shame really, because while the concept of a more strategic, tactical RPG is a very good one, the way your characters responded in such a slow, trundling manner really made me feel disconnected and irritated with the combat at times, and I know this to be the case with friends and fellow gamers who just couldn't get into Dragon Age: Origins because of it.  I've certainly heard of those who admitted to slogging through the combat of the game just to see the story play out.  Combat should never be a drag, certainly not in a single player RPG.

So, with the sequel, Bioware retained most of the tactical portion of the combat, but then made abilities far more responsive, characters much more mobile, and animations so visceral that it borders on the absurd.  This all comes together to create a much, much more involved combat experience, and while at first it may seem to lean heavily towards becoming an action RPG, and abandoning the tactical portion, this isn't the case.  You can still pause the action to issue orders, you still have to manage your resources and consumable items and you still have to pay attention to the positioning of your group.  The game IS easier, however, and Bioware has admitted as much, stating that normal now is roughly equivalent to casual in Origins.  This is easily fixed by just moving up one difficulty level though, and if you still find, say, Nightmare too easy, well then good for you; you are RPG master extraordinaire.  Or you're just lying on the internet like everyone else, because I'd say the game is fairly challenging on Hard.  Regardless of how you think the difficulty is tuned, the core gameplay itself is relatively unchanged, just made to be more responsive and slick.

Somehow, all this directly translates to being "dumbed down" according to the various colourful people of the internet (also known as Origins fanboys).  Now this directly ties in to the first point I made of the three major issues with Dragon Age 2, and I consider this one to be largely a fallacy.  People these days have this ridiculous tendency to consider any removal of anything as a measure of "dumbing it down", which is absurd beyond measure.  Let me just make this unequivocally clear:  Complexity does not equal quality.  True, you don't want games to be overly simple (most of the time), but having unnecessary fluff does nothing but clog the inner workings of what makes the game good.  I agree with most, if not all, of what Bioware removed from Origins when making Dragon Age 2; almost all of it was crap.  The crafting system in Origins was incredibly basic and required certain characters to specialize into it; it is now a matter of collecting rare materials and patterns, then visiting a vendor.  The old skills system in Origins let you put points into crafting or minor bonuses to combat or resistances.  Honestly I completely forgot this was even missing from DA2 until someone pointed it out; it was that irrelevant in Origins.  Choice and customization is another complaint many have had, as in Origins, you could chose your race and backround, while in DA2, you are restricted to a human refugee named Hawke.  This comes down to a matter of preference, as I suppose the Origins path did give you some interesting options, but personally, I far prefer the more personalized story of Hawke to the voiceless, nameless Gray Warden you played in Origins.  It's very much the Mass Effect take on Dragon Age, in the same way that Commander Shepard is a pre-existing character in the universe, yet you can customize him/her and make decisions along the way, Hawke essentially plays out in the same manner.

In terms of the story and characters...well, it's Bioware folks.  Of course it's extremely good.  While the plot itself is not exactly exceptional, the way the story is told certainly is.  The majority of the game takes place in the city of Kirkwall, which is something of a departure from the adventuring across the world that Origins was.  It actually does work fairly well though, as you really get to know this city and how it works.  This particular character lineup is also one of Bioware's best in my opinion.  Isabella and Varric in particular have rocketed up to contenders for top spots in my list of favourite Bioware/video game characters, alongside the likes of Garrus, Tali, Morrigan, Alistair and HK-47.  Have no fear that anything has been lost in this particular area of the game.

Varric is a pretty cool guy and he doesn't afraid of anything.

To sum up gameplay then:  I think it's largely better.  I won't disagree that it's easier, or that the game is shorter and has less content (all true), but the combat is more fun, the talents are more interesting and balanced, the characters and story are just as good as you'd expect from a Bioware game, and despite the bitching and moaning of the vocal minority (some of which decided they hated the game before they even saw actual gameplay), very little is lost in the translation from Origins to Dragon Age 2 in terms of meaningful depth.

Summary:  Very fun and immersive, excellent story and characters, improved combat; sacrifices little complexity despite clamoring suggesting otherwise.


Well, much like the argument for the story and characters, this can quickly be summed up with a single statement:  It's Bioware, folks.  The soundtrack, while not as memorable as Origins, is still very moody and fitting.  Sound effects are mostly standard fare, but combat sound effects are fittingly brutal and visceral.  The voice acting is extremely good, as is the writing for it.  Banter between characters while wandering around Kirkwall ranges from amusing to fascinating to downright hilarious.  The dialogue between characters is probably the most convincing work Bioware has done yet, which is saying a lot, considering their history.

Honestly, there's not much more to say than that.  I suppose my only negative point would be that the music didn't quite stand up to Origins, but that's fairly minor indeed.

Summary:  Exceptional voice acting, great score.


Dragon Age 2 is not as long as Origins, and has less content.  It's just a fact.  That said, it's still a fairly lengthy game, especially by today's standards, if you give it a thorough playthrough.  People have said they've beaten it in roughly 20 hours, however for me, it took about 37 hours my first time through, playing on normal.  I didn't do absolutely every optional quest, but most.  But as far as I'm concerned, nearly 40 hours for one playthrough, with plenty of reason to go back for a second, is still very good value.  As far as DLC goes, so far there's nothing too significant out, and nothing that I know of that's been announced for the near future.  But looking at Mass Effect 2 and some of the amazing DLC that was produced for it later on, I would expect some similar level of quality content coming for Dragon Age 2 in the future.  Origins also got a fairly hefty expansion in the form of Awakening, so I would not entirely be surprised to see something similar for the sequel not too far down the line.

As to whether or not potential future DLC actually counts towards the lasting appeal of a game, I suppose it doesn't technically, but it is nice to know a developer will continue to develop for their games after release, even if it will cost you more.

Summary:  Not as much here as Origins, but more than most modern games.  DLC and/or expansions are almost a guarantee.


So is Dragon Age 2 worth your time and money?  Well if you were asking that question to me, my answer would be absolutely.  I've got over 40 hours of enjoyment out of it so far, and am still not remotely bored of it going into my second playthrough.  But going off the assumption that other people might have varying tastes from me (absurd a thought as this is), there are factors to take into consideration.  Are you a fan of Bioware games?  If you are, you probably didn't need to read this review to decide to buy the game; it's a no-brainer and rightly so.  More specifically, do you place Dragon Age: Origins on an impossibly high pedestal, as so many have done?  If yes, you might want to pass on DA2 from all that I've read.  Those that are deluded enough to think that Origins was a perfect game are likely to not take changes to the formula (even minor ones) very well.  

What did you say about me selling out to EA?!

But, do you consider yourself a sane, rational person?  Then chances are you will enjoy Dragon Age 2, especially if you enjoy grand stories with interesting characters.  Like other Bioware games, this plays out as if you're reading a great novel or watching a great movie...only you are a participant in that story.  Not just a participant, in fact, but the driving force.  And that's something very few games do well.

Summary:  Not exactly better or worse than Origins; it's both familiar and different at once.  Glaring problems are overshadowed by excellent storytelling and improved gameplay mechanics.  Dragon Age 2 is not to Dragon Age: Origins what Mass Effect 2 was to Mass Effect, but rather it is a game that is as enjoyable as its predecessor.

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