I do not understand this game. I do not understand how Bioware, a company known for make solid if somewhat unimaginative RPGs, let it get past the proof-of-concept stage. It’s the first significant deviation from the formulaic approach that has served them well in the past, and as a result it is dull as fuck.
That’s not the concept’s fault, to be fair. The concept is actually pretty good – follow the life of a character, not over a few weeks, but over an entire decade. There’s about a million different things that I can think of to do with this concept. The problem is that all one million of them are far more interesting than what the developers of DA2 have shat onto my hard drive. Even the ones that are Fable. At least Fable was fun.
The failure of the concept is an inevitable result of the truncated development time – this thing was churned out in fifteen months and, contrary to my expectations, it isn’ta ten hour game. But that’s a problem in and of itself. If you’re going to have an arcadey sort of RPG a la Mass Effect you need to limit its length so that the seams don’t start to show and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. By contrast, Dragon Age 2 is nothing but seams.
First off, there’s a substantial amount of content recycled from Origins – textures, music, models; you name it, they’ve nicked it. This gives me the impression that I’m playing an inferior expansion to the original rather than a whole new game. One thing they haven’t done is outright stolen levels, but I think that’s one area where I would have given them a pass because as it stands the game contains a grand total of five. You’ve got your main hub areas for walking around in, but when you go into a dungeon you will be in one of the following environments:
- An abandoned mine.
- Another abandoned mine.
- Some sort of basement/sewer thing made of cardboard. There’s two of these, a big one and a small one.
- A nobleman’s house.
So, for example, I go to clear out a mine full of dragons at the start of the game, and find myself in an abandoned mine map. This makes sense. Then, later on, I use a secret passage to get from Darktown (hnnngh) into the Gallows! Exciting! Except not really, because the “secret passage” is the same abandoned mine map from before except I’m going through it in the other direction. This sort of thing gets old very quickly, and it doesn’t help that the game is packed full of quests that involve nothing but killing hordes of enemies in one of these five maps.
I wish I could say these quests were just the cheap filler surrounding a creamy core of RPG goodness, but since the core also consists of killing hordes of enemies in pursuit of mundane objectives I would be lying. There isn’t a single quest in the game, in fact, that doesn’t involve the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of baddies. Even the one quest I actually enjoyed a lot – the one where I’m supposed to be setting Aveline up with one of her guards she has a crush on – eventually reverted to walking along some cliffs slowly killing enemies.
This is dull. The environment design doesn’t help. Kirkwall, the place where I spent 90% of my time, is a dull mass of grey and brown stone with very little in the way of decoration or interesting architectural features. On the few occasions I went outside Kirkwall it was to some place called the Wounded Coast, which was grey with grey seas and grey clouds, or else to Sundermount, which was grey with grey clouds and grass so dark it was almost black.
So from a visual point of view, this world that Bioware have built is fundamentally boring. What about the characters? This is an area where Origins excelled, in my opinion, and there is a slight ray of hope in that the characters aren’t actually that bad. Varric and Aveline were my favourites since they were fairly independent people who had lives that didn’t revolve around my character and – importantly – didn’t hit on her once. Isabela is total fanbait, of course, but I actually liked what little I saw of Fenris – the character designed as fangirlbait – since by a freak of writing he also appears to be fairly well-rounded when he’s not banging on about his slavery to a Tevinter mage. Rounding out the ensemble are Merrill, an insane Welsh elf I was at least able to tolerate, and finally-
WHAT IT’S FUCKING ANDERS FUCK. FUCK. You can stay in Darktown, boyo. I’ll be damned if I’m ever taking you out of there. In fact I hope the Chantry finds you and lobotomises you.
Right, so anyway the characters aren’t a total disaster. It’s a shame therefore that the plot and dialogue options you’re presented with are. I’m getting extremely frustrated that my options for every encounter consist of “Being nice”, “Being a flippant asshole”, or “Being an asshole”. I like being an asshole in games, but I get absolutely no satisfaction out of it when the asshole response I told my character to give shows no imagination – it’s all of the RAAAR I’LL KILL YOU variety rather than the hilarious putdowns seen in Mass Effect.
And the plot. Oh, the plot. I’ve been waiting for a while for an RPG that doesn’t set you up in opposition to some world-ending threat and instead gives you stakes a little more personal, and at first glance losing everything during the Blight on Ferelden and having to claw your way up from nothing in a strange land would appear to be as personal as it gets. But the thing is, in order to pull that off you need dedicated gameplay mechanics as in Fable, or at the very least a world that changes organically in response to your actions. I need to feel that this is a personal story, rather than my character wandering around randomly doing things for people.
It started with my characters family escaping from the Blight and going to Kirkwall, at which point I was presented with a choice: I could get inside, but somebody would have to bribe the guards for me and I’d have to work off the debt for a year. I could either go to a smuggler, or work for a mercenary company. I’m pretty mercenary, so I took their offer, and was told to walk around the corner and kill somebody. This took about sixty seconds. I returned, and… the game picked things up again a year later with me as a free agent. Working for the mercenary company was apparently just an excuse to advance time, since the only contact I had with them afterwards was a minor sidequest. Even worse, the passage of time had changed nothing except for my character now owning a house in the slums (and Aveline getting a job as a guard).
This is the biggest flaw running through DA2’s concept: the progression of time doesn’t actually do anything. It could just as easily take place over the course of ten weeks, or ten days, and the only way you know it’s a period measured in years is because characters occasionally tell you so. Nobody ages. Nothing changes. The merchant who you go into partnership on a mine with is still standing in the same place hawking his wares ten years after the game has started. Varric and Isabela apparently spend a decade getting drunk in a pub. Fenris doesn’t bother to renovate his stolen mansion because he likes living in a dilapidated ruin or something. The political structure of the city changes over time, but those changes are things you see in cutscenes as part of the main plot so, again, the ten years thing is completely unnecessary.
In the end, then, Dragon Age 2 is a traditional RPG masquerading as something different, and it suffers because of that – most of your quests are of the hugely trivial sidequest type and two-thirds of the way through (at the time of writing) I am still having trouble identifying the main plotline. Was it [blackout]the statue I pulled out of the Deep Roads[/blackout]? That was given a lot of weight at the time (and was also [blackout]responsible for the death of my character’s sister[/blackout]) so I thought it’d have consequences later, but I’ve yet to see them. I thought it might be the Qunari situation, but that got resolved at the end of Act 2. It’s showing signs of being the mage/templar conflict at the moment, but if that’s the case it’s being thrust into the limelight very suddenly, as evidenced by me not really giving a shit about that prior to this point.
There’s a whole lot more that’s wrong with DA2, but this is already 1500 words or something so I’ll stop there. John Walker’s actually written a negative review of a Bioware game (*gasp*) over on RPS which sums up many of these other problems pretty well. At the end of the day, I’m going to have to stand by the consensus opinion that Dragon Age 2 Isn’t Very Good.