BitSnark

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Dragon Age 2 Review (360)

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There is an inn that you can visit in Dragon Age 2, called The Hangman’s Pub. In this seedy little establishment is an NPC called the ‘Talkative Man’ who, as you might reasonably infer, potters about the place talking about all sorts of stuff. The common thread throughout all of his inane witterings however, is that everything in the world seems simpler, reduced and diminished. The scary thing is, the guy is absolutely right and if Bioware had spent more time adding meaningful features to Dragon Age 2 instead of taking them away and creating smarmy, pseudo-ironic fourth wall breaking dialogue, this game wouldn’t be the trainwreck of a sequel that it currently is.

I mean really, with Dragon Age 2 it’s like Bioware have cut out just about everything that was done well last time and turned in a game that is in almost every significant way, completely inferior to the mostly excellent Dragon Age: Origins. It’s the very definition of a cut-down, watered-down and low-budget sequel.

Nowhere is this more keenly and immediately felt than right at the start of the game, where you must define your character. Gone are the multiple race selections and unique origin stories and in their place is a single-human protagonist named Hawke, with whom you can choose a gender and then one of three classes; warrior, rogue and mage. There is a trade-off in effect here with the culling of origin stories and racial choice, but that’s something that I’ll get onto in a bit.

The plot in Dragon Age 2 is also much reduced in scope when compared to the sweeping ‘call to arms’ epic that formed the narrative backbone and primary story arc of the original Dragon Age. The narrative here is much more introspective and less dramatic than the events witnessed in Origins, with the player having to deal with the machinations of the overzealous Chantry in conflict against the chaotic Circle of Mages.

In preferring to deal with weighty socio-cultural issues like religion, tolerance and corruption – you find that your enemies are almost always regular folk and the series primary antagonists, the Darkspawn, largely take a back seat here (although saying that, you do get to tangle with those ugly bastards a few times).

Another aspect of the game which suffers from this troubling case of sequel diminishment is the combat. Combat is a lot less tactical, favouring a button-mashing hack and slash approach in which the ‘A’ button, becomes some sort of crazy spam attack which you can do over and over until the foe drops dead. Sure, you have your assignable abilities and whatnot, but more often than not it comes down to you furiously hammering away on that poor face button in an attempt to whittle your opponent’s health bar down to nil.

It’s not exactly terribly riveting stuff and to that end, many encounters rarely require any kind of tactics other than being aware when to use your healing potions. It’s sorely disappointing and certainly yet another facet of the game that fares poorly when compared to its predecessor.

With the renewed focus being so doggedly on Hawke, it quickly becomes apparent that your other party members have been given short thrift. One particularly galling example of this is that they are no longer able to have their own unique equipment – a feature of just about every RPG since the year dot. You can probably imagine how frustrating it is to pick up a nice, shiny bit of loot for your party member rogue only to see – “Restriction – Garrett Hawke’, time and time and time again. This is yet another design decision that beggars belief; why would you take these sorts of fundamental things away from the player? It’s not like that the equipment system was terribly convoluted or difficult to use in the first place.

Another aspect of the game that has been overzealously streamlined is the chinwagging. There are no persuasion/intimidation modifiers to conversations now – meaning that everybody will have the same conversational choices regardless of how they’ve developed their character. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that with the conversation system itself, we’re being led by the hand a little too much, since each conversation option has a symbol attached to it, representing the type of reply. A good reply comes with a halo, an aggressive reply comes with a fist, a flirtatious one comes with a heart and so on and so forth.

It’s all quite terribly condescending and makes me feel like I should be dining on a diet of crayons to increase my IQ.

The scope of the game just feels that much smaller compared to its predecessor too. Gone is the ability to travel the countryside, going from town to town and camping in-between as instead your adventures are largely confined to the dreary city of Kirkwall, with just a small clutch of errands taking you outside the city limits.

Kirkwall itself is split up into a number of districts and locations. Naturally, you have the better off areas where all the toffs hang out, ‘Hightown’, in this case and of course the less-well off areas like the imaginatively named ‘Lowtown’ and ‘Darktown’, where all manner of scum and villainy are ready to separate you from your mortal shell.

In an effort to provide some sort of diversity to the locales that you visit within Kirkwall, you have the option of visiting these places at either day or night and doing so allows you to complete missions unavailable at the other time of day. Ultimately, it comes across a half-hearted attempt to pad out the fact that there really isn’t that much to do in Kirkwall and does little to hide the fact that you’re traipsing in the same locales again and again.

Further compounding the claustrophobically small nature of the gameworld is the fact that the few caves and external locations you do enter are just recycled maps. You will literally see the same locations over and over and over again, which in case you haven’t realised, is horribly tedious and does little to reinforce the notion that you and your party are engaged in high-fantasy adventure in a sprawling and vividly detailed fantasy world.

Indeed, if Dragon Age: Origins was a sprawling, Tolkien-esque saga, then by comparison, Dragon Age 2 feels like a BBC produced fantasy show with half-price sets, a studio audience and Colin Firth.

The questing in Dragon Age 2 is dreadfully uneven and mostly unsatisfying state of affairs. The main storyline quests are at least moderately compelling and weave competent narrative threads, whereas the side-quests tend to be from the 2002 MMORPG School of Questing, where you find an item and have to return it to its owner with no real sort of explanation or reasoning why you’re doing it other than a marginal monetary reward. In short, the side-quests are a total joke and would only be worth bothering with if you had a compulsive disorder which forced you to clear your quest log out.

Still, for all of the missteps that DA2 makes, certainly the one thing it does right and arguably better than its predecessor is how the main protagonist is handled. No longer afflicted with semi-paralysis and a personality equal to that of Keanu Reeves, the primary protagonist Hawke, is both generously animated and blessed with his/her own voice. With the lack of voice acting such a key deal breaker in the believability of the player character in the original, the presence of a VA for the main character in DA2 is much appreciated, due in no small part because the voice actors themselves acquit themselves ably in the role.

Essentially then, Bioware have traded in the myriad of character creation choice seen in Origins, for a more defined and personable hero who functions and fills his/her role in much the same fashion as the ‘Shepard’ character does in the Mass Effect trilogy of games. Arguably, your mileage will likely vary as to whether that trade-off is appealing to you, but it does make me ask the question; why can’t we have the best of both worlds? Surely even reducing the racial choice down to three and still keeping the voice acting and unique animations wouldn’t be too much ask. Right?

In conclusion then, Dragon Age 2 should be a cautionary tale to all on how a sequel can completely fuck up and destroy just about everything that made it’s predecessor so endearing to start with. The game is horribly diminished and simplified in so many ways compared to its predecessor that it seems like the developers have pissed any profits made from the original against the wall and made this on their lunch breaks in-between their Mass Effect 3 crunch meetings.

For a franchise with so many more tales to tell us and places to take us, the Dragon Age franchise deserves better than this.

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Written by bitsnark

May 1, 2012 at 4:20 pm

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