Dragon Age 2 Review

I promised a long, multi-part Dragon Age 2 review. Eighteen days after the game was released, I managed to finish my review. Dragon Age 2 (henceforth”DA2“) is an astoundingly difficult game to review.

On the one hand, the game fails nearly every metric by which it ought to be judged. It is half-heartedly designed, the music is lackluster, the sound effects unimpressive, the story spasmodic and horribly done, the writing generally embarrassing, the exploration non-existent, the quest design frequently numbing and the combat, when taken as a whole, a chore.

On the other hand, I’ve loved nearly all of the 40+ hours I’ve spent with it.

To put it differently, DA2 is one of the best AAA games I’ve played in the last six months, but it’s also plagued by such numerous and devastating flaws that, if it didn’t work so well on a basic, ludic level I would have been unhappy to have even spent the time installing it. At this point I’ve beaten the game once, and am about three-fifths of the way in on my second playthrough.

Note: This review is based almost solely on the PC version of this game, which I played with the High-Resolution Texture Pack, though I also played a bit on the Xbox 360. My first playthrough was with a Mage champion, my second was with a Warrior. I made no use of any of the pre-order “extras” available during my first playthrough.

Maybe the easiest way to describe DA2 is to say what it is not.

DA2 is not the “spiritual successor” to Dragon Age: Origins.

As Thierry Nguyen of 1up notes in the tagline for his own Dragon Age 2 review, DA2, “feels more like a reboot than a follow-up.” Superficially, as much is immediately evident upon the first couple hours of play; that DA2 is a reboot is evident in the notorious “streamlining,” the fact that the Elves get a pretty serious make over, the Qunari appear to be evolutionarily distinct from the Qunari in Dragon Age: Origins (henceforth “DAO”), and that the entire graphical aesthetic is largely minimalist, dire, dark and pointy, as opposed to DAO’s much more traditional (low) fantasy look. Emphatically, the design aesthetic driving DA2 is to DAO what Runes of Magic is to World of Warcraft.

Judged as part of a discrete nebula of gaming culture, which nebula has as its initial state something like Gary Gygax’s Chainmail and which seems to have most recently advanced, in the AAA video game world, to DAODA2 is a spectacular failure.

DA2 does not have a sweeping, epic storyline; it fails to convey any clear sense of the calculi underpinning the game (granted, the first game wasn’t exactly a number-cruncher’s paradise either; go play Drakensang if you want the more Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition, sort of experience and to see what I’m getting at here); there are few memorable characters (a rare thing for a Bioware game); it’s easy to miss two major characters in a play through (which seems less like one of those “tough choices” we had to make in games like Baldur’s Gate and more like a calculated decision to force replays [or it's predicated on the lazy assumption that the player is playing with a walkthrough in hand]); and what story there is is highly episodic and incredibly disjointed (Kirk Hamilton’s review of Dragon Age 2 in Paste Magazine incorrectly attributes “profound pacing problems” to the story - the attribution is incorrect in that it implies there was any attempt at pacing at all). In fact, the game feels and the story “reads” like three lengthy DLCs slapped together. Worst of all, the writing has an irksome habit of shoe-horning peculiarly modern political concepts and concerns into a low fantasy setting (which I’ll get into a bit more later). If sticking Isabela in the Dragon Age version of a minidress makes designers uncomfortable, then they probably should re-think the outfit and not write fluff conversations betwixt companions evidencing how she “owns her sexuality.”

DA2 is not a tactical or strategy RPG.

DA2 leans a lot more on combat as a means to keep the player interested than does its predecessor. Unlike in DAO and either of the Mass Effects, there are actual “bosses” (DAO had two proper “boss fights,” one of which seemed an afterthought). These new boss fights are welcome additions as they require strategy, clever planning and luck.

Interestingly, the more time I’ve spent in combat, the more obvious it is that some of the fundamentals of combat that were serviceable in the first game have been broken in this reboot. Tanking and threat management is pretty much hopeless. On my second playthrough, I’ve ignored threat-generating abilities for my tank in favor if general damage mitigation and damage dealing and things are progressing much more. Even so, too many fights devolved into an abuse of kiting techniques and a few potions. That’s not tough, desperate combat, it’s sloppy design.

That said, combat is a much more exciting, tactile and crunchy experience this time around. Admittedly, this is a departure from the deliberate, more tactical combat of the first game. Gone as well is the overhead tactical view sported in DAO and included therein as a gesture to the Baldur’s Gate games. I hated having to mash buttons on the 360 iteration of the game to autoattack, but apparently this is a “bug” and is being patched (does Bioware expect anyone to believe this?).

DA2 is not an action RPG.

Despite the fact that combat is a lot more action-y, there are a number of elements that keep DA2 from being a proper action RPG. First and foremost, there is way too much talking and decision making for this to be purely an action RPG, but, more importantly, combat may be paused to better control the flow of battle (this becomes increasingly important about two-thirds in or so).

As you can’t properly customize your companions except for swapping out belts, rings and necklaces and weapons, all but the last of which are functionally invisible on your characters, any and all armor drops are exclusively for your champion (there are also a number of non-visual upgrades you can buy or find that will add “upgrade” slots to your companions armor and will have a specific benefit; look for these as they are a huge help). Loot drops, and especially loot drops of any significance, pop at a miserly pace and the location of “items of interest” (set pieces or quest-associated items) seems entirely pre-determined. Which doesn’t mean you won’t find your inventory cluttered with armor you can’t use (hint: find and buy as many backpacks as you can, whenever you can), it just means that since you can only ever out new armor on your character, the un-equippable armor just sits like a lump in your inventory.

DA2 is not a story- or lore- rich RPG.

Kris  Ligman at PopMatters.com makes the case that, in Dragon Age 2, Bioware, “does two very important things we rarely ever see out of an AAA title: minimalism and an open appeal to middle class liberalism.” As far as this game being an appeal to middle class liberalism, I’d say that Ligman is right that the appeal is there, but I’d add that it was generally poorly brought off. I found the Mages = gay people equation to be one of the least effective, most overdrawn and ham-fisted parts of the whole game. It’s also not a very good analogy for us to make. After all, as we are reminded several times in the game, Mages pose an actual, serious danger not just to the life but to the very soul of your average Fereldener/Free Marcher/etc (?). I doubt middle class liberals would be comfortable analogizing that to gay people. Even worse, Mages seem incapable of resisting temptation, a slur that has been labeled against an imaginarily licentious gay society for quite some time now. Frankly, Bioware seems to have a difficult time handling both the Mage issue and the matter of religion (it’s hard to find a more cynical take on religion in modern video games).

As writing goes, what we get is alternatively shambolic and purple. For example, there is the following howler from the codex (which refers to a sword, “Fadeshear”):

The core of this blade is old. As old as the first smiths who sought a way to battle the nightmares from the land beyond. It has fought the demonic hosts in countless battles. Sometimes it has been held high in triumphant victory. Other times, it has lain broken besides its dying owner. But after every defeat it has always been reclaimed, reforged, and made stronger. Fadeshear has passed through many hands before yours. Now it is your turn to make the demons of the Fade pay for crossing the Veil into the waking world.

The codex entry for a subsection of the city called, (I kid you not) “Darktown,” reads, “The foul miasma known as chokedamp clogs and swells in every corner of the Darktown.” I’m not sure how a miasma “clogs… in every corner,” unless it’s Dutch. Even worse, “choke damp,” is an actual thing which made me even more confused: choke damp would be an issue in close, contained areas, but there is still quite a bit of ventilation in Darktown – about half the map is open to the air (and if choke damp is really a problem, then why does Anders -the healer of the game, and a Grey Warden no less- not lift the beds in his clinic off the ground?). Furthermore, certain sorts of choke damp are highly combustible, which makes some of the light sources and casting fire spells in the Darktown map seem like they should be a potentially suicidal affair. In short, DA2‘s writing generally sacrifices sense for a fumbled attempt at atmosphere.

All of which is a shame because when we encounter one of the more serious moments of the game (and these are frequent), they are handled rather maturely and with, as Ligman notes, quite a bit of pathos. While some may count the lack of an epic story as a mark against DA2, I found the story threads that focused on the champion’s family and matters of race to be awfully compelling. Maybe the best way to summarize the writing, lore-crafting and story is that on the one hand, Bioware has managed to create two fantasy races that feel substantial and well-formed but, generally speaking, don’t hold up under much scrutiny; the Qunari, especially, are not much developed beyond “caucasian pre-warp drive Klingons.”

DA2 is not any sort of game that allows or encourages exploration.

Outside of combat, DA2 plays largely like its predecessor. You wander about, clicking on things, and talking to quest givers. Quest descriptions, however, no longer even bother sending you in a specific direction and instead just point your way there via useful arrows on the map and minimap. This is the sort of streamlining the feels cheap and lazy. Neither DA2 nor DAO are designed to encourage exploration of the world at large as both games parcel up most of the world map into discrete subsections between which you navigate using a quick-travel mechanic. Unlike DAO, however, DA2‘s actual subsection maps are also linear and occasionally claustrophobic. As Ligman notes, the designers approached DA2 with minimalism in mind. A lot of the “extras” and clutter common to RPGs has either been pared away completely or it has been carefully compartmentalized and streamlined. There is no having to click around randomly to try and find something in the environment, no having to collect thousands of a certain plant to get enough for a potion – even better, no having to sit through a saving through to see if you failed [how?!?!?] to collect the plant or ore, “junk drops” are labeled as such and show up under their own tab in the inventory screen; vendors have a “sell all junk” button, etc.

There are, however, not that many maps on hand. In DAO, we slogged through a bunch of different maps, some lazy and tired, others interesting or challenging. About two-third into my playthrough I recall having to force myself on to the next maps. The opposite is true in DA2. There are a handful of maps, a few not in the city of kirkwall, but just a few. In an extra ballsy move, Bioware adds a third map which is just the usual topology of kirkwall, but at night.

I may be the first person to say this, but the repetition didn’t bother me as it probably should have. As any RPG fan of a certain age can attest, at this point, when it comes to “CRPGs” we are a bit like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: doomed to banal repetition of a handful of great stories, told by giants. When it comes to things like questing, map design and exploration, Bioware seems to have taken the above truism and followed it to a particularly cynical conclusion. Despite the fact that I can “handle” the repetition, I do look forward to seeing some new locations in upcoming DLC.

In Short…

DA2 is a glorious hash. If the game were half the price it is, I would recommend it to any and all. As it is, I can’t really tell who would be well-served by paying full price for it (other than Bioware and EA), though I certainly enjoyed my time. At its best, DA2 turns a lot of the old truths of RPGs and Tolkiensian fantasy on their ears, not least of which being Bioware’s really fantastic decision to replace a more epic storyline with the Hawke family’s saga/tragedy (I am beginning to think that we should be looking at the story, what there is of it, as an episodic tragedy). This more personal, inward story experience is something which we table top RPGers see quite a lot, actually, but it’s rare in any CPRG, let alone AAA titles. Even better, Bioware chucks a lot of the older, more tired mechanics of the RPG genre out the window. A lot of the time, though, the game is a confused jumble, which, given how much has been streamlined, is a testament to how sloppily this game was designed. Frankly, it’s worth playing insofar as it is an important entry in what seems to be becoming the most prominent RPG franchise of this current generation. Outside of that… who knows if you’ll enjoy it.