EA sinks their teeth into Bioware and leaves them a dusty, dry husk. Dragon Age, as a series, is now no more.
It's no wonder then that Dragon Age is considered by most reviewers to be one of the better PC RPGs of the last decade. It had a gripping story, party members you cared about and a well detailed world complete with expertly written lore that made all of the game's semi-tactical combat seem like a side dish next to the full course meal that was the main story. Dragon Age was so riveting that I even bought the two novels David Gaider wrote alongside of it and found myself deeply entrenched in both the game's community as well as its fiction. Dragon age's plot-line flowed masterfully from one scene to the next, weaving the kind of dark fantasy tale that very few games seem to do in today's hobby. While it wasn't quite as gritty as the Witcher or as unique as Planescape Torment, it was still a fine story that kept me interested for almost five consecutive trips and a few jaunts through the expansion as well.
With the first Dragon Age having such an impact on me I had expected the sequel to continue where the first game left off and surprise me even more with its masterful story work and player controlled non-linearity.
Well, expecting and actually receiving are two different things...and Dragon Age 2 is so far removed from the first game that it's almost impossible for me to imagine these two games being related by anything other than title alone.
When looking at Dragon Age 2 from the eyes of both a seasoned RPGer of 25 years and a diehard Dragon Age 1 fan, the game feels like a digitally crafted insult sent spiraling to your midsection like a heavyweight boxer's punch. It's so traitorous in its design and is so vastly inferior and trimmed down in both gameplay and features that it borders on heretical and seems to even revel in the distance between itself and its forebear.
Of all the questions a competent review of Dragon Age 2 should ask, none is more important or integral to the critiquing of this game than the simple "Where to begin"?
The core of any CRPG, especially one crafted by BioWare, is the story. When it comes to keeping you glued to your monitor there is nothing more responsible for your continued attention than the narrative itself. If the story fails to entertain you then the chances are good that regardless of how well the game plays you'll probably grow bored of it long before the ending credits scroll past the screen. The first Dragon Age excelled in this area and was responsible for adding a certain air of maturity and quality to fantasy stories in a genre whose plot-lines had begun to grow stale after a long decade of backwards slippage.
Unfortunately Dragon Age 2 not only falls short of meeting the standards set by the first game, it also fails to reach the relatively low bar set by the industry as a whole.
Dragon Age 2 starts you off playing as a pre-made hero called "Hawke" whose story is being retold by a friend that had previously adventured with him. While many have balked at the idea of playing a pre-made character I didn't really find anything that limiting about it myself and actually liked hearing my character fully voiced for a change. Instead, my gripes were based around the story itself rather than them forcing me to play as what was basically nothing more than a human nobleman.
Flow and pacing is of extreme importance in telling a story, and while Dragon Age's first chapter mastered that brilliantly, the second game misses the mark completely. From the very start you are bounced around from one scenario to the next with large swaths of the interconnecting narrative completely ignored and instead replaced with an awkward cinema where two people discuss the events like a couple of immature kids arguing over who is right. While I understand what BioWare was trying to do, it comes off as extraordinarily rushed. It's especially hard to stomach if you played last year's sleeper hit "Drakensang The River of Time" where they used this *exact* same idea in its story and yet pulled it off expertly. After seeing a small budget European import game do such a wonderful job with the "Hero's Story being recounted by an ornery dwarf" plot device it's downright painful seeing a game with a much larger budget and a much more experienced team utterly fail at doing it themselves.
One of the problems with the constant jump through time as you're playing the game is that nothing really changes. The game will tell you that three years has passed since the last scene you viewed two minutes ago but in reality nothing has really changed. All of your party members look and dress the same, they all act the same and no one grows either physically *or* emotionally. Even the world and its environments remain static and unchanged, with over-turned carts and chests still laying exactly where they were before...only now they have new loot put in them and a higher level of padlock protecting it.
This feeling of cut-and-paste extends into the environments themselves as well. Many of the game's "dungeons" are merely copied in whole or part throughout the world and will be instantly recognizable when you encounter them. It's as if only one "dungeon" was made per texture pattern and then bits of that one dungeon were copied and pasted throughout the game so as to avoid having to do any more work than what was absolutely necessary. It's so bad that of the five "mansions" you must enter in the game four of them are exactly the same right down to the very pixel. The fact that the so-called passage of time you are told about in the intermissions has no visible effect on these locations just makes this seem even more lazy than it should be.
This lack of care extends to the NPCs themselves, many of whom cannot even be clicked on. Unlike nearly every other BioWare game (Especially the first Dragon Age) the majority of the game world's NPCs are voiceless, emotionless, unmoving cardboard cut-outs that have no dialog and exist only to be a part of the scenery...like a tree or a well placed boulder.
I first noticed this when entering the Dailish camp at the base of the mountain where I was blown away by the fact that only two of the 20-some NPCs in the camp were even clickable, let alone had any dialog. One of those was the merchant (whose dialog was rather limited) and the other was the camp's keeper. Though I wish that was just one rare example and not indicative of the entire game I'd be lying if I said so. The sad fact is that the game only lets you converse with important plot-line quest givers and everyone else is considered background scenery. They even go as far as to hand out most of your side quests through impersonal letters sent to your house.
...and don't even get me started about the "Shops" in town being nothing more than a one-line of dialog NPC standing in front of a small box you click on to see their inventory. It's so ridiculously low-fi that if I didn't know any better I would have assumed I was playing a somewhat elaborate Neverwinter Nights 2 module rather than a full-fledged BioWare game.
While nearly every aspect of the game absolutely reeks of this rushed feeling and overall sensation of laziness, nowhere is it more apparent than the combat itself. Though the first game wasn't exactly known for having the most balanced or entertaining combat it was still considerably better than many of its contemporaries and managed to moderately please even a cranky oldschool RPGer such as myself. That being said, the very last thing I expected from a Dragon Age sequel was diablo-esque action RPG combat punctuated by anime-inspired attack animations.
As much as it pains me to admit this, Dragon Age 2's combat is abysmally bad. Were I playing a Dungeon Siege sequel or 3D Diablo clone I'd find this combat a little more engaging, but that would only be due to lowered expectations. Dragon Age was a game built upon a foundation of tactical combat and party member micro-management, neither of which exists in this sequel in any form whatsoever.
Combat itself has now de-evolved into a real-time affair where the pause button serves no real purpose whatsoever and the vast majority of the game's fights can be finished with just a few right clicks and some liberal applications of hot-keyed moves. Fighting in Dragon Age is in fact so simplistic and fast that it has become an exact carbon copy of Diablo 2.
Which is fine if you're Blizzard and working on Diablo's sequel...but not if you're BioWare trying to make this generation's answer to the Baldur's Gate series.
Combat goes by so fast and attacks are made so quickly that most Dragon Age veterans will probably think they installed the wrong disk. The game's pause button can slow things down, but since attacks never miss and do such outrageous DPS there isn't really a need to. Matter of fact, they put an all-inclusive "Drink Potion Now" button in the lower right hand of the screen to speed combat up even more than it already was, resulting in some very effortless and joyless combat that also ends up being described by one more adjective: Thoughtless.
Not helping with the combat system's image is the disgusting habit of the game to literally spawn enemies right on top of you. While it sounds like I'm complaining because it makes the game harder (which it doesn't), it's actually because it feels so fake and out-of-place in a modern CRPG. The enemies will sometimes literally appear right on top of you without any smoke screen or magical effect whatsoever. The game will just instantly spawn them in wave after wave without any entrance or cinematic. You simply stand in the middle of a room and fight them as they blink into existence from the ether. It's so silly to watch that it makes the game feel like something out of the MS-DOS era. Only without the fun.
Throw in the absolutely comical explosions of enemy bodies when you kill them (They split into a dozen or so polygonal chunks the same way enemies did in Quake 1 and 2) and you really have to question whether or not BioWare's art department was sober when they went to work.
The dumbing down of combat doesn't end there with its action RPG roots and Diablo-esque look and feel. No, it goes much deeper than you might want to believe.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of playing a rogue in the first Dragon Age was how you wanted to handle dual weapons. Should you go for all-out speed over damage by using two knives? Should you go for all out brute force over speed by wielding two longswords? Or would you find balance between the two by instead grabbing one sword and one knife? It might not seem like a big choice, but for rogue fans like myself it was a fun little dynamic that made playing a rogue almost as interesting as being a mage. The speed differences, attack rates and the way your weapon choices affected both damage and the quickness of skill use played a small but noticeable part in every battle.
Like many things though, it was removed in order to dumb down the combat in the sequel and you are forced to use dual knives only. What's even more perplexing is that warriors cannot use short swords or daggers because they are exclusive to the rogue class. Which I suppose is "okay" since the combat is so arcade-like and simplistic that it wouldn't make much difference if you had secondary weapon choices or not.
Speaking of choices, another odd way the game has purposefully limited your choices in equipping characters is making it so only your main character can use armor.
That's right, only Hawke can use armor, so that means that roughly 90% of your defensive items will go totally un-used since only one person in the entire game can take off their armor and use something else. Imagine the frustration I felt when I had about 80 pieces of beautifully crafted unique looking armor and the user interface plainly stated that only Hawke could equip them. For the first hour or so I thought maybe it was a fluke and I'd eventually find new armor made for my companions...after a few more hours I began to realize that wasn't the case. Sadly you must find armor upgrades for your NPCs during their companion quests...and to be honest these upgrades aren't as impressive as you'd think.
It also doesn't help that the game seems to always give you one powerful weapon or armor type per "chapter" which renders every other piece of equipment you find worthless due to its lower statistics. It's basically like a JRPG where the game gives you a new weapon in every town that you just blindly use without question while gleefully ignoring every other similar piece of equipment you find.
With the lack of equipment options, lack of customization and simplistic combat Dragon Age 2 actually plays more like a Japanese RPG than it does a western RPG. Especially when you factor in the lack of any real choices or non-linearity present in the game.
Though the first game seemed to enjoy giving players a lot of chances to change the story, the sequel doesn't feel as if it cares about the non-linearity of its older sibling. While there are plenty of opportunities for affecting the outcomes of a quest, those choices rarely do anything significant. At best they will only affect who is alive and still giving you quests in the "time warp jump" to the next chapter. The influence you have on the world around you is scripted and written into the story, which pretty much prevents you from deviating much from the developer's assigned path. Merely deciding who lives and who dies isn't what non-linearity is about and it disappoints me that BioWare now fails to see that.
What hurts the most though is the ending, which is split into two halves ("Good" or "Bad") and both of them are not only extremely similar but also very weak and anti-climactic.
Of course there are a few bright sides amongst this heap of negativity towards the game that should be mentioned.
First of all, the graphics are greatly improved over the first game. While they admitted that the texture work was poor in Draogn Age 1 (The wooden cart behind Sandal was abysmally ugly and most wood surfaces looked horrible) they remedied this by releasing a directX11 compatible texture pack on their forums just before launch day. After installing it I have to say that the game looks beautiful and the details in both the world and the models themselves are much improved over the previous game.
Also, it was nice to see the voice work was still important to BioWare since they once again knocked the ball out of the park in terms of voice acting. Whether its Merill's Tali-esque whinyness, Varric's roguish attitude or a certain lady pirate's lustful whispering the cast does a great job of conveying emotion to what is unfortunately a poorly written mess of a plot.
Now you could blame this whole mess on EA, since they did this same thing to the once great RPG designer Origin Systems in the late 1990s...but that would be assuming that BioWare no longer held power in the industry, which is not true. Instead, I think this is the fault of both parties, since Mass Effect 2 suffered from the same dumbing down and its extreme success convinced the "powers that be" that a more simplistic and low-brow approach to RPG design meant more money in the bank. When you factor in the quick release of this sequel (A year and a half) and the fact that they were able to get away with recycling so much you almost have to hand it to EA and BioWare for doing so little and yet getting so much out of it.
That is, until you realize that their launch day DLC for Dragon Age 2 was nothing more than cut-out content held hostage in exchange for a credit card number.
As if the fiasco they faced with the 4th wall breakage (Remember the NPC in your camp asking for real world money?) in the first game wasn't enough, BioWare and EA did it again with Dragon Age 2 by removing a party member and making him a launch day DLC pack. Don't believe me that he was merely cut content and not actual post-development content meant to be optional?
Try finding a party member that can equip bows. You'll notice that while you find scores of bows you have no one that can equip them. Not even your two rogues. Though it looks like Crossbow-using Varric would know how to handle a bow he can't actually use one. No one can. Do you wonder why?
It's because the only recruitable character who can equip a bow is the one you get from buying the "Exiled Prince" DLC pack.
Just like they did with Shale and his unique weapon "Crystals" in the first game. I suppose if it worked once, they figured they'd try it again.
When you look at Dragon Age 2 as a stand-alone game and do not put it into either the Dragon Age series or even compare it to other contemporary CRPGs it is, at best, an average action RPG with a forgettable story and a few semi-interesting boss fights. While that alone isn't too bad it's being incredibly forgiving to a game that comes from such a talented oldschool CRPG developer and belongs to a series that is meant to exemplify the attributes those oldschool games contained.
To put it bluntly, Dragon Age 2 is an absolute disaster of epic proportions that I found myself being forced to play and on several occasions simply didn't have the desire to boot it up. It's a slightly average action RPG that wouldn't even be worth mentioning if it wasn't for the fact that it says "Dragon Age" on the box. Were it named something else and had another company's name on the box it would have been passed over and sitting in the bargain bin by now, universally panned and looked down upon by reviewer and gamer alike.
That however is not the case. Instead, it is presented as a hardcore CRPG made by an oldschool developer and pitched as a continuation of a game that was for all intents and purposes a true hardcore computer RPG.
I never thought I'd catch myself saying this, but any potential buyers who loved the first game would be better served by simply watching longplays of this game on youtube rather than buying it and going through it themselves. If you absolutely must know what happens in the sequel you would be doing yourself a favor by letting someone else trudge through the tedium and emptiness that is this game rather than needlessly punishing yourself. Only if you can find the game heavily discounted and you are unfathomably bored and in need of an action RPG should you even dare attempt to bring Dragon Age 2 up to the register. It is the absolute antithesis of what a CRPG should be and is best avoided at all costs.
You would be better off buying "Drakensang 2: The River of Time" on Steam for $19.99 and seeing what Dragon Age 2 *should* have been. Not only is last year's River of Time a much deeper and more complex game than Dragon Age 2 but it also has a very similar plot...which kind of makes me wonder.
BioWare has a lot to learn from this game, and after being burnt by this sequel I'm not going to be fooled into buying the third. Bioware, once a company I loyally supported is now a company I intend to avoid.
Unfortunately I believe I have outgrown Bioware and their idea of a CRPG is no longer in line with what I and many other old-timers see as being a CRPG. The button mashing combat, the small copy-and-pasted dungeons, the paper thin plot, the uninteresting NPCs, the lack of true non-linearity...it just combines to make a game that at its very best is about on par with your average Neverwinter Nights fan-made module.
It saddens me to say this but Bioware is no longer the company they once were...and neither is Dragon Age the game it once was.