By Mark Wallace on July 20th, 2011 at 3:30 pm.
When Dragon Age II: Legacy comes out on July 26, it will mark the first real chance that developers Bioware have had to respond to the criticism you lot (you know who you are) sent their way after DA2’s initial release. It was a particular problem for the many fans of DA: Origins, who largely felt that the second instalment just didn’t produce the kind of fantasy experience they felt appropriate for a sequel. Maybe you checked the “unchallenging mobs” box before you sent in your DA2 feedback form. Or maybe it was the “samey combat encounters” box. Or maybe “tired dialogue choices”, or “boo! on rails”. In any case, a lot of you checked a lot of boxes. (And the Dragon Age Facebook game probably didn’t help.)
But anyway, good news: Dragon Age Senior Producer Fernando Melo has read all those response cards, and he’s here to tell you — or anyway, he was at EA recently to tell me — that he feels your pain.
“We really had to go back to the storyboard after the launch of Dragon Age II, to take in the feedback and figure out, how do make our content better?” Melo says. He warns that the scope of what the studio can achieve in a single DLC installment is limited, but “hopefully, people see this not as everything we’re doing [to respond to feedback], but rather as a first step toward addressing some of their points.”
Is he nervous about the upcoming release? “That’s a good question,” Melo says — though apparently not good enough for a direct answer. “If somebody comes in and they’re expecting that this single DLC is going to solve everything — whatever everything is for them — then clearly this is not going to meet their expectations. If it’s somebody that enjoys DA2, they will absolutely love it. If it’s somebody that enjoys the lore and story of Dragon Age, I think they’ll absolutely love it. If somebody was kind of on the fence with DA2 and they’re still willing to come in with an open mind and give it a chance, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised with what they find here. Hopefully.”
“For sure there are certain people who probably wanted Origins 2 with Dragon Age 2; we did not go in that direction,” Melo adds. “This DLC is not going to solve that for them.”
One of the main points Legacy is designed to address: “People wanted to feel they had more tactically challenging combat, where they had to draw on their abilities a lot more and use their parties more effectively,” Melo says. To that end, the darkspawn and other creatues that populate Legacy won’t just materialize in front of the party or “pop out of walls”, but are set up to give the player more taxing combat situations, including ambushes. As the player, “You’re walking into their space, they [the creatures] know it intimately,” Melo says. “You’re the one who is at a loss. They have the advantage.”
Among the creatures who will no longer be popping out of walls are not just new darkspawn but also tougher versions of creatures first met in Origins. “There’s also lots of other traditional Deep Roads creatures that we’ve brought back, including Deep Stalkers, Brontos, and a couple of other surprises as well,” Melo says. At EA, Melo’s team gave a live demo of Hawke and his mates coming across a Genlock alpha sporting a new piece of kit (an enormous shield it had apparently been awarded after 200 hours playing the Facebook game) and using its environment to better (or at least more varied) effect than the slightly singleminded mobs of DA2.
Melo puts the playable content of what he calls the “route one” main quest at about two-and-a-half to three hours. But take note, you “boo! on rails” people: “The really nice thing with this content,” Melo says, “is that there’s a lot of additional side quests and exploration areas, and a couple of easter eggs as well. This is one of the things we wanted to address from previous feedback.” All told, Legacy is maybe five hours of content, Melo says, depending on how puzzley you are and whether you backtrack at all. “Our hope is that people get snagged into the story and they want to find out more about Hawke’s father and some of the other elements.” Melo says. “What we’ve seen is that most of our fans do enjoy exploring the areas and finding the nooks and crannies, and there’s a lot more of that in here.”
While Melo doesn’t necessarily think size matters, both he and the EA reps I spoke to were at pains to describe Legacy as “the biggest DLC we’ve done since the retail expansion pack for Origins,” and “the first major story-based DLC” for DA2. Story-wise, Legacy reveals much more of Hawke’s past — particularly his issues with dear old dad Malcolm — and why he’s such a central figure in Dragon Age at all. It’s in his blood, you see.
At the center of Legacy’s “route one” quest is an ancient and powerful darkspawn that is so badly in need of a bath that the Grey Wardens have kept it under wraps for millennia. “Hawke sort of stumbles his way into the middle of this, and you discover that his blood is an important element in what’s going on,” Melo tells me. Of course, blood magic has been a significant element of previous DA releases, but with Legacy, blood magic, blood ties, and blood sausage (presumably) will be used to tie together much of the story of the darkspawn, the Grey Wardens, and the Blights.
“Route one” takes the player deep into the heart of a Grey Warden prison, where players will not only encounter Genlocks with Facebook accounts, but will find a new weapon-customization system as well, in which mini-bosses guard gates that are opened by the player’s weapon of choice. Each gate is controlled by a set of seals, each of which will apply a different bonus (higher damage, higher crit chance, etc.) to Hawke’s dagger, bow, spud gun, or what-have-you. DA’s combat system was apparently built with some foresight: customizations are not limited to the Legacy expansion but will stay with your weapon back in the main game or in future content as well, Melo says.
When I ask Melo how make-or-break this release is to the Dragon Age franchise, he replies, “It’s not really a make-or-break thing. It’s our privilege to be able to serve additional content to the fans. So long as they want it, we will make more content for them. But clearly, if people do not like this and the numbers show that and the feedback we get shows that, then we either will take a new tack and a different approach on the next piece of content, or we’ll see what that means. But Dragon Age II has been successful. We’ve attracted a lot of new fans and even old fans who said, ‘You know, I struggled with Origins or I wasn’t able to complete it, and I found DA2 much more palatable’. At the end of the day, right now that is our audience. There are a lot of people who enjoyed DA2 and they’re looking for more content, and that is the primary audience for this. But I’m hoping that we can also win back a lot of people that were perhaps expecting something else with DA2 and are willing to give it a chance. I think they’ll see a lot of improvement in here already, and hopefully we can continue to show them that we’re on the right course and we are listening to them and making those changes.”
“For players who enjoy the lore of Dragon Age, they’re going to have a very rich treat here, not just in terms of the main arc of the quest, but a lot of other side content regarding Malcolm Hawke, as well as being able to tap into some of the other things that we had revealed so far through Origins and some of the other DLCs,” Melo adds. “It reveals a lot more of some of the central pillars of what Dragon Age is all about.”
Reveal your central pillar when Dragon Age II: Legacy comes out on
July 10 July 26. But not before. And not here. Please.