Recently I found some time to finish up Dragon Age 2. The biggest problem many people seem to have with the game is that it is not Dragon Age: Origins, which I feel is unfair since DA:O is simply one of the best RPGs made in forever. It is true that it is not as good, and it has a very different feel from the first title but it stands by itself as a good game even if it’s not one that I went crazy about.
I have played through many actually bad RPGs and so let me just get this out of the way: Dragon Age 2 is not a bad game. If you want to play an outright failure of an RPG power up your PS2 and throw in Suikoden IV. Dragon Age 2 is well made, polished and flawed but not bad. It might not be up your alley, and that’s okay but it’s an important distinction. I thought Knights of the Old Republic was well made but found it kind of boring and prefer the sequel by like a thousand fold but I understand that many people hold the opposite opinion.
I liked Dragon Age: Origins and Awakenings a huge amount for a few reasons I can distill into bullet-points:
- The story and main character’s ultimate mission reminded me of a good Suikoden game (that is all of them except for IV if you’re wondering), and Suikoden is my favorite RPG series in the world ever. There’s a war going on, you’re stuck in the middle of a dire situation and have to get people on your side to fix things. Bad things have happened to you and to everyone around you, the bad guys are not just caricatures of bad guys, etc.
- The talents and skills made available to me allowed me to play the game in the manner in which I found most fun, and the tactics system allowed me to carry this over to my whole party.
- Traveling to a variety of distinct areas—as I have also been playing Dungeon Siege I appreciated not being in generic dungeon style areas for hours on end.
- I really liked the other characters around me—they were fleshed out and flawed and interesting, except of course the Dog who is 100% perfect and wonderful.
- Obviously that is simplifying things quite a bit but that’s what summaries do, right? Something about all these factors just gave the game that little extra oomph for me that made it click completely.
BioWare decided to go for something very different with DA2—and I don’t fault them for that at all. They also had a lot less time to make the game, and it definitely shows.
The premise for Dragon Age 2 is very interesting and ambitious—the game spans 10 years of a character’s life and follows their ascent to Champion of the city of Kirkwall and political troubles that are present the whole time bubble over and come to a head in the final act of the game. Unfortunately it doesn’t really come out feeling as grand and big as it should, and there’s not really much sense of time in the game as a whole.
There are three acts, each of them are about a year of the character’s life with three or so years passing between the acts. This isn’t really the same as actually playing through ten continuous years as a character. Beyond that nothing much changes between the acts. Everyone looks the same, everywhere looks the same, nothing much substantial happens to anyone during the three year breaks. Okay, there is a major change between acts 2 and 3 in terms of the city but it doesn’t really make much of a difference in terms of what you see as you wander around. It just doesn’t feel like any time has passed at all.
The other real flaw in Dragon Age 2’s design is the paucity of environments and places to explore. I get that everything is happening in the immediate area of Kirkwall and I don’t see that as a hurdle, but it is a problem when you go to the same areas over and over and nothing really is changed except sometimes certain doors are passable and other times they are not. Even if you aren’t doing side quests this is very noticeable and takes away from the game. I’m not expecting a cave to change substantially in a few years, but maybe there could have been different caves?? This is the kind of thing I think would have turned out differently had the game development cycle been longer.
I thought the character build options were pretty boring. BioWare ditched the linear combat skills and the underlying skills (lock picking, potion making etc) in favor of combat only trees that look like this:
There are about eight tabs of these available for each character and they focus on specific elements of combat (sort of). Some of them specific to certain characters. Some skills have enhancements you can plunk your available points into, and some have “You must have X number of points in Y category” requirements.
Bioware’s reasoning for getting rid of the linear trees was that people found they had to get X to get Y and never used X. That’s a noble ambition but you are always going to have skills people don’t want to use. I felt that there was a lot less available to me and I honestly didn’t use most of them much. So mission not accomplished there for BioWare, in my view.
My last quibble with Dragon Age 2 is that the characters are pretty forgettable. The amount of broody seriousness is offset somewhat but there is really a lot of grim grim grittiness. They have their reasons, of course, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting. I’m also unsure of why they decided to import a major character from DA:O – Awakenings and then completely ignore all the epilogues and endings available for him in that game.
With all that whining out of the way, I want to emphasize that I really do think that Dragon Age 2 is a well made and good game. If it wasn’t, I would not have played through it all or plan to do so again. But unlike DA:O the flaws are pretty glaring and I can see why a lot of people did not like the game.
Some people specifically really didn’t like the combat system but I think some of that is tied to the skills available to players and not the system itself. I honestly thought the actual combat was pretty similar to DA:O, though I didn’t dig the user interface a whole lot. I was able to set-up my party tactics very precisely and keep everyone alive for the most part.
The follow up to an obviously great game will always leave a lot of people disappointed, and speaking frankly people are going to use a lot of hyperbole when talking about a video game that didn’t live up to their expectations. If Dragon Age 2 were not a sequel I think it would have been received differently by the general population and more like the Witcher which is a solid but not mindblowing game. If you can keep the two games separate in your head and are a fan of RPGs you’ll probably be able to get something positive out of DA2. For all my whining I would say that I had a pretty good time playing through.