Combat Duality in Dragon Age II
I’ll be the first to admit that I was not a fan of Dragon Age: Origins. The combat was too reminiscent of World of Warcraft and while I enjoyed the WoW system, I was felt it was necessary to play WoW on a PC, simply because the amount of options required a mouse and keyboard. I played DA:O on my Xbox 360 and I felt I was constantly struggling with the controller and interface as I wanted more skills available to me in a swifter fashion.
Dragon Age II doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of not being to access all my abilities at once but, that is the result of the physically limiting gamepad. Bioware’s choice to take away auto-attacking does a successful job of masking that limitation. Forcing the player to constantly have to button-mash in order to perform basic attack makes you feel consistently involved, that you are making an active choice. Creating a basic kinetic response of hitting a button and seeing a basic attack appear makes you forget that you are pressing “A” or “X” but rather, that you are drilling your dagger into a Darkspawn’s throat. And since you are forced to manually attack, there is less opportunity to use skills, thus there is less need to have all of the abilities attached the “hotkey” face buttons.
Yes, sometimes restricting a player’s options can be beneficial to the overall gameplay experience. In the case of the console version of Dragon Age II, the player has a litany of options and battle strategies made available to him, and there needed to be a way to make those choices seamlessly, so much so that you forget that you are holding a controller in your hand. That being said, I understand the thoughts of many that button-mashing gets stale after hours of gameplay. An Action-RPG from Bioware should play more like Baldur’s Gate 2 and less like God of War.
Dragon Age II can be played more like a traditional RPG and less like a straight-forward action game too. At any time during combat, you can pause and direct your teammates (and yourself) to perform certain actions. Want to have your mage paralyze the front lines and have your warrior rush through and take out the archers? You can do that. I’d note however that you can pause and command your characters three times quicker in the PC version; it will most definitely feel clunky on a gamepad.
Now, I don’t want to start a holy war and say this is why Dragon Age II is better on PC, or why it can be more fluid on consoles. I’ve played both versions, and each side has their perks. As just mentioned, commanding units from above is superior on the PC. Being able to click on my character icon and open up their skill chart and then hover over the area of attack is quick and easy. However, being able to move around, backstab, roll away and change my locked-on target all in one second is simpler on a controller, mostly because a joystick is more intuitive for movement versus WASD or click-to-move.
It seems as though Bioware did not just want to create a PC game and then port it over to consoles, which is what Dragon Age: Origins felt like. Dragon Age II has a sense of duality when it comes to controls, which is generally unnatural and usually considered poor design. A player should expect to learn one system, and slowly master it so that by the end of the game they can face tougher challenges. Dragon Age II, on the other hand, has two systems that sort of complement each other but there is never a point in time where you are forced to play one style over another. In this manner, the player can decide how he or she wants to play, more action focused or more strategy focused.
I’m still on the fence as to whether this is a successful design. It seems that if you want to play Dragon Age II with more of an action-mindset, you should get the console version. Strategy-oriented folks should go with the PC version. This is not a blanket rule either for all video games. Strategy games do work on consoles—see Valkyria Chronicles—and Action games do work on the PC—see Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. With Dragon Age II however, I question whether they should have had two systems of combat in one game, or have the PC and console versions have separate gameplay controls, each that would specifically be designed for the hardware you are using.
I understand why they didn’t go with that route however. Designing separate controls for different platforms costs more development time and money. And even if the two systems are both equally enjoyable, consumers would still find some way to complain that their product is inferior to another version. It’s a Pandora ’s Box that I’m sure Bioware doesn’t want to open. On the other hand, Bioware is known for pushing the envelope in terms of design and Dragon Age II seemed like an opportunity to try something ambitious.
I’m aware that I’m nitpicking at a formula that worked. However, that does not mean, as gamers, we should not examine it and find ways to make it better. Personally, I enjoyed both styles of play but, whenever I chose one battle method, I stuck with it for the duration for the battle. I was not switching between commanding from above to single-player action style, which may have been what Bioware was hoping for. The duality was overwhelming and even though was presented with a vast array of options, I chose to simplify my style. I’m still unsure if this is because I am a “simplistic” gamer, or if Dragon Age II tried to do too much.
Either way, regardless of my schizophrenic experience with combat, I highly suggest you at least try the demo for Dragon Age II. You’ll be glad you did.