By John Walker on March 31st, 2011 at 8:05 pm.
You may have noticed the lack of a full Dragon Age II review on RPS. This has nothing to do with slacking. I’ve been playing the game almost every day since my WIT of the first few hours, now on my second play through, just trying to get my head around what it is they got wrong. That’s what I’ve tried to process here. As such, the below contains information that could spoil the story of the game.
It would be madness to say that Dragon Age II is a bad game. Such is the lunatic binary nature of people’s responses to games that its having fallen short of its own predecessor, and indeed its own expectations, seems to create a desire to loudly deride it. The iTunes rating system of 1 or 5 seems to be infesting our realm, and it’s important to recognise disappointment in context. Am I disappointed by Dragon Age II? Very much so. Does that mean it’s terrible? Absolutely not.
What follows is a critique of where I think Dragon Age II went wrong. Read without bearing this in mind it could look like an overtly negative review. It’s not. The game gets much right, with some lovely quests, fun chats, interesting characters, and moving stories. There’s tough subjects covered, including a plot that asks whether you can sympathise with a paedophile, the pursuing of serial killers, and fights with giant bronze statues. As an RPG it succeeds in many ways. This isn’t about that. This is about trying to understand why this time that’s not enough.
What’s taken me so long is in trying to identify how it fell short. I’ve tried various mental exercises, most frequently: If this weren’t a BioWare game, weren’t a sequel to Dragon Age, what would I think of it? Where would it rate in the history of RPGs?
Obviously the original Dragon Age was a divisive game, and my adoration for it is not shared by all. Sitting with colleagues who were also reviewing it, many loud-voiced, arm-waving conversations took place as we passionately disagreed with each other about its merits. But almost all of these discussions (once you’d removed the details relevant to someone’s playing the weaker 360 version) seemed to come down to expectations.
I played the first game in interesting conditions. While I’d seen the terrible marketing campaign, and the laughable E3 2009 demonstration, I had played the game to completion, over 120 hours (including all the openings, multiple endings, etc) in my own time, over a month before the game was released. I was not confronted with conflicting opinions – indeed, no opinions at all but for my own. And I adored it. Because what I wanted from an RPG was an enormous, involving world, vivid characters, a strong, interesting narrative, and most of all, relationship. And I believe Dragon Age offered me that in droves.
Yes, there are some corny bits, some ploddy sections (Deep Roads, etc), and some ghastly lines of dialogue. But over all it was a game imbued with passion, a decade in the creation, in a world with an astonishingly rich history, inhabited by a mix of characters who while certainly stereotypes, often avoided cliché.
I didn’t mention combat. I think the combat in Dragon Age is great, micromanaging the battles with my four characters, employing tactics, freezing the action between every blast to issue orders, negotiating tricky battles on a number of fronts. Excellent stuff. But it wasn’t very important to me. It wasn’t one of my expectations.
Of course it’s impossible to come to Dragon Age II with such a clean slate. Because at the very least, you’re expecting Dragon Age: Origins. And you’re not getting it. Any sequel that’s a regression of the original, however intentionally, is always going to struggle in comparison. There can’t have been any surprises at BioWare that a game one third the length (in fact, not enormously longer than the half-price follow-on for Origins, Awakenings), set in a massively smaller world, was going to met with at least raised eyebrows. You can’t really stick “II” on the end of your game title and expect otherwise.
I think it’s also important to get some perspective on scale here. The average full price cross-platform coming out today has about eight hours of single player content. Dragon Age II has a good 40. (Those who are finishing it in significantly less are missing huge sections of the game in order to be able to do so, which is fine, but it’s also not representative of what the game can offer.) DAO may have had a mad 100 or so, but 40 hours is still a remarkable amount of game. Let’s not lose site of that.
The most interesting thing about Dragon Age II, and indeed its biggest failing, is the setting. But first let’s look at how we get to it.
This time your choice of character is much more defined. You can be a human rogue, mage or warrior, male or female. This is still a significant choice, especially if you pick mage, but of course not nearly so impacting as DAO’s mult-race, multi-class options. There’s only one opening (which differs slightly depending upon whether you’re a mage or not), and it’s not an interesting one. In fact, it seems to be deliberately dull. Told in hindsight by the dwarf, Varric, to his interrogator, you flash back to the start of the “Champion of Kirkwall”’s story.
It’s the time of the Blight, Lothering has fallen, and you and your family are fleeing Ferelden to escape to Kirkwall. You’re already mid-flee, encountering Darkspawn and learning the ropes of the combat. Which is much the same as DAO’s combat, except executed in such a way that there’s less need for tactics. We then get the flashback joke as it’s revealed Varric isn’t telling the truth, and mystifyingly have to repeat the same dull section, this time with complaining companions.
It ends in a fight that, well, I was doing just fine at that’s interrupted by the arrive of the Witch of the Wilds, Flemeth, in the form of a dragon. She asks for a mysterious favour, and then in some unexplained way helps you get to Kirkwall.
As a beginning it makes innumerous mistakes, but the most resounding is the complete sense of disconnect it gives you to your character. Picking him/her up in mid flow (for me it was a her, so for simplicity we’ll stick with that), she’s independent of you in her struggle. Not only is it made clear that the events you’re playing have already happened, but its emphasised upon you that you’re just an observer of an already complete family in the midst of their struggle. Why didn’t we see them in Lothering? Play as our character in our own home, talking to our mother and brother/sister about the threat, and then see it destroy our lives? It’s something DAO understood so well, each of the six openings establishing brief normality before the abnormality broke out. It’s such a critical mistake here, dumping a life on you in the middle of its story.
It certainly isn’t helped by BioWare’s strange determination to make all their starting companions as tedious as possible. While Alistair certainly bucked that trend for DAO (don’t you dare say he didn’t!), here we have people that rival Mass Effect’s Ashley Williams for the personality of a sponge cake. Playing as a mage, I had the delight of keeping my brother, Carver Hawke, alive. What a pleasure he was to have around, vacuously moaning the entire time. And I’m not sure they’ve written a major character as poorly as your mother, who stands around feebly, and flutters in the background for half the game. She’s such a shell of a character, displaying none of the gumption one might expect from a woman who’d defied the nobility of her family to marry an apostate mage.
The sister character, Bethany, is still unpatterned cream wallpaper, but at least not actively draining to be around, as I’m discovering on my second play through. But perhaps worst of all is warrior Aveline, another Ferelden you pick up during the early sequences. Playing a huge role in the overall story, her monotonous voice sounds as though she’s delivering options for an automated telephone answering service, yet somehow less interesting. The insta-death of her husband is one half of the attempt to inject an emotional tone to what’s essentially an enforced tutorial, but her robot tones make it seem ridiculous. “Press 2 to cry now.”
But that’s as nothing compared to the sheer idiocy of the way either Carver or Bethany is killed seconds earlier. People we’ve never met, people the game hasn’t even tried to tell us anything about, let alone care for, get killed in a sequence that’s essentially an enforced failure. It reeks of desperation, of a desire to create a dark tone to the opening, that misses so widely that you’re basically taught that your family is disposable.
So this takes us to our setting: Kirkwall. “The City of Chains”, Kirkwall was once a hub of slavery, and the shadow still haunts it. Divided by money, the rich Hightown looks over the poverty of Lowtown, the Gallows, the Docks, and worst off of all, Darktown. But this is not the starting city, from which you explore the larger reaches of the lands. This, but for a few fixed locations in the nearby hills, is it. It’s a bold move, restricting a lengthy game to such a small area, to something not much bigger than DAO’s Denerim.
The idea is, and I love this idea in concept so much, that you’re not playing as the last hero in the land, saving the universe. You’re just some refugee, trying to survive in a city that has no fondness for Fereldens, working you way up through the ranks from villainy to nobility, seeing the city change shape through time. I wish I could have played that game.
Instead, from the opening moments, you know that your character isn’t just some refugee. She’s going to be “The Champion”, revered and terrifying. You don’t know how or why, but you’ve no choice but to know. So you can never relax into being a citizen – you’re waiting for this constantly teased progression to occur. And you’re waiting for a really long time, with seemingly little purpose.
The first third of the game has you looking for money to make an expedition into the dwarven Deep Roads. It’s a strange target to pick, the Roads generally agreed to have been DAO’s point of bloatedness – they’re not the most appealing prospect to return to. And why this particular expedition is of such import is scarcely explained. So you’re completing quests to raise money, and that’s it. That’s your motivation. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but without a better sense of the troubles to come, it just feels aimless. Which is twice as weird when you begin the second act and things are still just as aimless.
The trouble is, each time the game jumps forward three years, any sense of having connected to anything that’s going on is torn from you. Suddenly you’re not who you were before, with the seemingly interesting bits happening while we were off watching an animated cutscene. Oh, I’ve got my own place now? I’m rich now? Then how come I have the same amount of gold as before, the same equipment, and so on? Oh, I’m the Champion now? That little fight was enough? Really?
(The most hilariously daft aspect of these three year comas must be the man queuing up to see the Viscount, who moans every time you walk past him that he’s been waiting all day. “For six years!” I would helpfully tell him as he repeated his only line deep into the game.)
And the city doesn’t change in any interesting way. Sure, the Qunari (the oversees race who seem to be in town to cause some sort of trouble) eventually are gone, so that bit’s closed off, or whatever. But the same people mill in the same places, the same merchants stand at the same stalls, the same buildings stand in the same places. It’s a conceit that the game seems entirely unwilling to deliver on in any imaginative way.
Which brings me to the issue with the overriding themes of the game. DA2 picks up two of the more compelling aspects of the first game to run with here. The conflict between the Templar (the military order of the area’s main human religion, the Chantry) and mages, and the complexity of a mage’s vulnerability to infestation by demons. Both were fascinating details in DAO, carefully left in the background for you to explore at whatever depth you preferred. Here the two heavily linked subjects are brought to the front.
So the Templar want mages to be kept in Circles, essentially mage open-ish prisons where society is protected from the potential danger of their letting demons in from the Fade. The mages, who are born that way, want to be free. And this is made more complicated by Blood Magic, a form of magic that requires deliberately opening yourself up to demonic possession.
This latter part is explored from two angles. You’ve got Anders, the formerly fantastically grumpy character from Awakenings, possessed by an ancient spirit of Justice, and Merrill, a delightfully cute Welsh elf who just happens to dabble in blood magic in order to pursue her fervent passion for the recovery and preservation of elven history.
Unfortunately, as interesting as this all certainly would have been when it was written in the story documents, the game itself cannot sustain them. For instance, playing as a mage, I frequently unleashed magic in front of Templars who would then express astonishment if I mentioned that I was an apostate too. In fact, I unlocked blood magic as an skill just to see how it would affect a story that was primarily about helping or killing blood mages. It, er, didn’t make any difference whatsoever, to the point where it was just ignored. Which makes beyond no sense.
Sometimes the game’s conversations would recognise that I was a mage, and allow me to mention that. Other times mages would be discussed as if they were other people. All made laughable by my standing there in a mage’s outfit, carrying a bloody great magic staff.
But the issue goes deeper than just mechanically. The game doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to manage such a complex and nuanced story in its own narrative. At a certain point I had no idea which blood mage was which, as every single quest blurred into one. I’d deliberately defy orders to kill them/arrest them, and try to set them free (the angle I’d chosen to take for my character), and nearly every time they’d turn into a demon and I’d have to kill them anyway.
Which is, in fact, the model for most of the game. Where BioWare’s wonderful Knights Of The Old Republic offered the illusion of choice, changing the way you behaved in the fixed events, Dragon Age II offers not even an illusion. Do you want to open door A or door B? Both open up into a fight where you kill someone, but door A meant you wanted to. And this, tragically, even applies to the game’s floppy, hapless ending.
I’ve carved out a path through the game – at every junction I’ve chosen to fight for the mages against the Templar, I’ve argued the mages’ cause in every discussion. So why am I being asked whose side I’m on at all?! Let alone why does that make absolutely no difference whatsoever to what I’m actually going to play?
In the end Dragon Age II has nothing to say about slavery, subjugation, or acculturation – themes that shone in Origins. It pretends it does, but it’s all flap and waffle to excuse some more fights. It has nowhere to go, nothing to reach for.
The plight of the elves, either City or Dalish, is trivialised to a couple of asides, and the dwarven caste system that surely provided Origins’ most controversial elements is completely absent, maybe alluded to in one or two lines. We’re just left with the mages, and it’s offered to us in such a silly way that it doesn’t allow us to think anything interesting. Every blood mage turns into a demon, and yet no one seems to notice. Fighting for them begins to make blurry sense, and yet fighting against aligns you with psychopaths who wish to see horrific acts of mental abuse and eugenics.
In the end, what it came down to for me was my realising that I didn’t care what other characters thought of me. In most of BioWare’s RPGs, my relationship with the companions I care about is paramount. And not even including the romance. Oh, let’s look at that quickly.
Female Hawke is not a very nice person to start with. The decision to voice the player character, and to give them Mass Effect 2’s ambiguous dialogue wheels, was I think a very bad one. I was left with someone who just seemed unnecessarily rude to people, despite my desperately picking the nicest options. But when it came to flirting, Hawke was not exactly subtle.
The conversation options with a heart symbol really would have been better represented by someone shaking a vertical fist over a horizontal arm, shouting, “WUUURRGGGHH!” Hawke’s predatory attempts to convince people to fuck her are so far from any notion of “romance” that they’re only laughable. Which is all the more awkward when you’re saying them to someone who’s being tender in response. Poor Anders. It’s bad enough that they emasculated him to become such a weedy drip, but I wonder if he felt he had any choice about shacking up with Hawke once she set her sights on him.
Such extremes meant I stopped caring. Who cares if Aveline is offended by me? Why should I be bothered if Varric doesn’t like a decision I made? In fact, can we all just shut up so I can ding the next quest?
It’s certainly not helped that every character has so few barks. They have about fifteen million lines of great dialogue written for each of them, but only three things to say in a fight? It’s hard not to start to hate them for that alone. It would have been so little effort to provide some variety in the thing players would encounter the most frequently.
And sadly, by the end, I stopped caring altogether. I switched the combat down to “casual” because I was so bored of having the same fight sixty-three times an hour. Without the need for tactics, and with the mindlessly stupid decision to have repeated waves of enemies, once I’d unlocked enough abilities to spam through combat it became an incredibly frequent irritant. And boss fights didn’t ask for any skill whatsoever – they were just long, boring sequences where the only challenge was to see if I culd time my party’s heals such that they stayed alive long enough to watch the baddy finally keel over.
The game then betrayed me in two extraordinary ways. Firstly the biggest plot point in the game – one that changed everything that I’d been working for – happened in a cutscene, caused by one of my companions, and would have happened no matter what actions I’d taken before. It was such a strikingly bad decision, yet again making me feel irrelevant to the action. Sure, it’s great that an NPC can heavily impact the world. But surely I should get to be involved on some level?
And then the fudged ending forcing me to go down the same path whichever major choices I’d made, left me feeling cold. That it ends on a mother-sodding cliffhanger felt par for the course of the frenzy of middle fingers being stuck up at me, and when it didn’t bother to tell me what happened next to any of my companions, I realised I didn’t care.
So yes – I have a lot of negative things to say about the game. Things that meant that at the end, despite its genuinely being a solid RPG in many respects (I could talk about the improved crafting, entertainingly daft side stories, companion quests (although what the bloody hell was Merrill’s actually about?), refined skill system, amazing background conversations, excellent voice acting, interesting Qunari plot, and much more), I ended up not really liking it as a whole.
I think saying “II” was probably this game’s biggest mistake. When it feels more like a sister product to Awakenings than a full, unique game, surely it would have more sense to market it that way, even at full price? It’s not a sequel to the epic Dragon Age: Origins, in any meaningful sense. When I think about the breathtaking scale, the depth of history, the religious conflicts, the horrendous racism and classism, and moving, emotional narrative, it seems daft to have considered this the second incarnation of that. It’s a game set in a single city, with nowhere else to go, exploring six years of a group of people’s lives. It’s confined, which is fine, but it’s not the epic RPG we were reasonably expecting.
Another mental exercise I’ve done is to wonder what I’d have thought had this been sold to me as another Dragon Age sub-game, a different perspective on the same world. And while I’d have had the same issues with the same significant mistakes, I don’t think I’d feel quite as thrown by it.
Can we agree to call a mulligan on this one? Let’s retitle it, “Dragon Age: Kirkwall”, and BioWare can take a lot more time making the real Dragon Age II.