Review: Dragon Age 2
"Do you ever feel like the world's getting...simpler? Like everything from eating to fighting is a lot less complex than it used to be," a lunatic confides to me in a run-down tavern. The line elicits immediate resentment in me. Why? Because a Bioware writer had inserted a fourth wall-breaking background character into their game, Dragon Age 2, in an effort to be tongue-in-cheek but instead, it neatly encapsulates the developer's apparent disdain for their loyal following. It would be like Johnny Depp, mid-scene, breaking character to stare straight into the camera and say "How many Tim Burton movies can you watch before you realize that they're all pretty much the same, eh?" It's at once both jarring, insulting, and sadly true. Bioware did make everything simpler, both on themselves and on the player. The result is not "streamlined" or "leaner and meaner," it's just uninspired, corners-cut crap.
I'll assume everyone reading this is aware of the Dragon Age series so I won't linger on the greater context. Where Dragon Age 2 differs from its predecessor in terms of tone is that it is a much more personal story. You follow the life and career of Hawke and his (or her, but for simplicity's sake...) family as you try to reestablish yourself in the destitute city of Kirkwall after the Blight from the first game destroyed your home.
Before the rant begins, let's talk about the positive. The dialogue and characters are, mostly, quite good. Thankfully, the writing team is the one department that didn't phone it in. From a cute, timid little Irish-y elf girl to the rake of all dwarvish rakes, each character is distinct and infused with a great deal of pathos. The best part about them is that they each have strong beliefs that are constantly weighed against the plights and controversies of Kirkwall's citizens. For instance, the whole issue of mages and how they should be treated is a major theme throughout and each character has pretty strong views on the matter and will certainly give you an earful if you disagree with them. The voice acting is also universally outstanding, continuing the Bioware tradition of deep characterization.
The story itself is more of a mixed bag. I never once got the feeling that there was any overarching theme or narrative at play. It seemed as though I was simply witnessing a series of scenes that shared the same characters but had very little connective tissue. Aside from just telling the story of one man's life, I don't know that there was really much of a point. It was as if Bioware assumed that they had made the world of Thedas, and more specifically, the city of Kirkwall, so enthralling that players would just want to be "some dude", content to simply exist in that universe. There may come a day when that's true, but I don't think they've earned that yet. Instead of a four-season-long epic serialized Battlestar Galatica, we got a whole bunch of procedural Law and Order episodes.
Now brace yourselves, that was the rollercoaster inching up the incline and over the hump; now we experience the plummet. First up, we have the combat...oh the combat. As games become more "adult" they are also seemingly, and conversely, becoming more focused on appealing to the spastic ADD demographic. What was once a deliberate, albeit challenging, tactical RPG in Dragon Age: Origins has become a mess of flashing lights and one hit kills. If this was a solo-hero action RPG, I could at least understand, if not enjoy, the new lightning-quick approach. But at its heart, this is still a tactical game only now, you have to pause every three seconds just to accurately control Hawke. In order to control your whole party, as many tactics fan prefer, you would need the reflexes and timing of a super computer to pause often enough to manipulate all four party members completely. Dragon Age 2 takes the worst aspects of action and RPG and crams them together in such a way that the only practical method to enjoy it is to give up caring. The game apparently wants to play itself, so who am I to argue? At least I can stare vacantly at all the pretty particle effects, assuming they don't induce a seizure.
Area design is another woefully lacking aspect of Dragon Age 2. There are, maybe, three or four pre-rendered environments per setting. You will run into the same house, the same cave, the same outdoor cliffs, time after time. I can understand this, to a small degree, for things such as small side quests and the like. But what immediately comes to mind are two prominently named villas (Fenris's Mansion and The Blooming Rose) that use the exact same layout. The only difference is the placement of chairs, a bar, and other small incidentals. And that exact same mansion was used for countless other indoor missions, such that I got confused at one point as to which mansion I was battling in at the time. Bioware feebly attempts to mask the identical layout by making some doors non-interactive (which bars you from seeing the same rooms, again and again), but upon entering a new area, one need only look at the map to realize, "Well, I guess I'm storming The Blooming Rose again." All RPGs are guilty of reusing assets, but none are so brazenly flippant about how little they care if the player notices. To add insult to injury (which, by the way, should have been the subtitle of the game), you are also tasked with exploring and looting the same city locations multiple times throughout the game (once per act). This game gives the term "backtracking" a whole new meaning.
Items and equipment are also a major letdown. Your companions cannot wear anything aside from their upgradable starter outfits, so looted armor is entirely relegated to Hawke. Here, Bioware shows that it just doesn't understand the reasons that people enjoy CRPGs. Playing dress-up with badass-looking armor is a huge fun factor in the gameplay. I can't imagine how many hours I spent in Origins swapping armor back and forth to make my team look cool while remaining functional. The other negative of this approach is that even if you are happy with the look of your companions as-is, you will still stumble across mountains of armor pieces that you can literally never see unless you play through again as a different class because of stat restrictions. Such a bewildering waste. Could the new Bioware mentality really be, "You know what players love? A total lack of customization and choices!"? How else can you begin to explain it? I have literally spent hours trying to wrap my head around these design decisions (the time when I should have been engrossed in the gameplay) and come up empty.
The worst thing I can say about Dragon Age 2 is that it doesn't feel like a Bioware game. It's as if DA2 snuck up on an unsuspecting DA: Origins, slit its throat, clumsily peeled the skin off, and then ran around wearing a "Dragon Age" suit and screamed, "Look at me! I'm from Bioware! Remember Baldur's Gate 2? Parts of me are sort of like that!" This is not simply a matter of a game with noble intentions, poorly executed like most Obsidian Entertainment games. No, this was a competent, fully-funded, AAA developer basically giving its loyal audience the middle finger, or at best, a disinterested shrug. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I might speculate that Bioware was running a social experiment: "How mediocre can we make a game and how much can we charge for it before people start to realize they've been duped?" But that would be attributing intention to something that is most likely indifferent incompetence. Bioware has turned into Charlie Sheen, mockingly yelling at their audience, "I've already got your money!"