Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Role-Playing Grind: Dragon Age 2

This was first published over on on March 17, 2011

First let me start off by saying that this was written while playing the game, and both the positive and negative impressions had time to develop into love & hate relationships. Once something negative popped up, not once did it abide or grew on me, but was continuously reinforced.

I have a distinct feeling DA2 was made for reviewers; a feeling strengthened by the simplifications made all around, the corners cut, the re-use of so much content, the needless plethora of delivery-boy side-quests, and knowing Bioware is putting out two big-name games in a year if you discount the litle MMO game they are also working on. With ‘made for reviewers’ I mean the game has an immediate polish and it’s easy to be vowed by the trailers, the demo, and the solid opening. This I think is were the reviewers failed, but the players soon discovered. It’s when you scratch at the surface or invest serious time into it - what we core gamers and achievement hunters do - that the deep cracks show. I suspect the overall reviews paid a big part in how financially viable Dragon Age 2 was and heavily dependant on review scores.

I’m not sure I even thrust the reviews at all - they seem to have been playing a wildly different game than me, and with probably some 40-50 hours sunk into it including a vacation day off work, I have doubts a reviewer put that much time into the game and managed to have the review out the day it was released. What should really concern Bioware and EA I think, is not the 8’s given by reviewers, but what the players think of it. At the time of this writing, about 2-3 days after release, over 2000 registered members at Metacritic took the time out of gaming to share their thoughts and reactions, and to score DA2. Between the 360, PS3 and PC, the average player score is hovering around 4 out of 10.

Add in the fact that Bioware was on the issue of reviews the day after launch defending everything in the game in interviews to any gaming site that would listen, it is a rather unique situation and tells us the obvious; they know what DA2 is and hope to get away with it without a dent. The player rating still stands when I finish up and post this a week later, but the amount of players who chime in their opinions have doubled. Not even Bioware’s own employees voting for DA2 as a perfect 10/10 game seems to help. Funny stuff:

I’m not one of the detractors however and dive into DA2 with zero prejudice. My intention with these blog posts have always been to write something like a causerie highlighting the good and the bad, first as a die-hard RPG fan that has been around since the early D&D games on the C64, and second from the perspective of an incurable completionist and gamerscore addict. That won’t change, and addicts like us have a different perspective on the matter.

Let me just finish the lengthy intro by saying that I’m really beginning to fear a yearly Dragon Age and Mass Effect akin to EA’s sports games, and I don’t like it one bit.

The Good Stuff

Isabela. What a wonderful game persona. Very well written, animated, and just interesting all around. I freely admit I’m smitten by her charms, the voiceacting, her values and outlook on life, and really wanted to know more as the game progressed. A first in my 25 continuous years of gaming, and an accomplishment I feel deserves the first mention. A heartfelt thank you, and much respect to whoever wrote Isabela. Without her at my side from start to finish I seriously doubt I could keep motivation up to complete DA2. Bring on Isabela’s Story as DLC! I’ll buy it knowing full well it could be utterly broken.

The writing. Is seriously good all through the game. Not the overall story or plot specifically; that is probably the weakest and most mundane Bioware have managed to put out so far. No, the dialogue between characters, the rich background story that is so under-utilized, the personalities for all the characters, pc and non-pc, really shines. This is from where I got most of my entertainment fix, and I cannot help to think that with the below impressions Bioware should really consider switching to adventure games instead.

Do try different combinations of followers when you trek back and forth through Kirkwall on your fetch assignments. Their interaction is seriously good, funny, and really builds their personalities. As I always had Isabela with me obviously, her exchanges with Varric, or with Anders or Merril as innocent bystanders was ‘laugh out loud’ moments more often than not. Do yourself a favour; stop and listen. DA2 will be a better game for it.

The Bad Stuff

Load times. I do get a sense that DA2 is trying to be a speedier, more streamlined experience. Battle is quick and a powerhouse of button mashing, and you move about always running. Hell, even the rattling skeletons could compete in and win a 100 meter dash. Jumping in and out of houses or crossing a section of town is usually done in a few seconds, while every transition you are greeted by a 15-20 seconds loading screen. After a while it becomes so disruptive to play that you dread going in to new places only to find that you have been there several times before, or that they are mostly empty and you have another date with the loading screen. Installing the game have little to no effect on this.

Combat. I understand Bioware wanting to try and repeat Mass Effect 2 which players loved as a whole. What I don’t understand is why everything has to be so quick and void of the need for tactics, skills, equipment and character development - very important ingredients in any good RPGs in my book. It’s a button-mashing contest before you exit the tutorial, a style that carries on to the very end of the story. Or your controller.

Why, oh why, Bioware, didn’t you just consult with Snowblind Studios? They made Dragon Age 2 10 years ago with Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance and scored well enough with both reviewers and players alike.

Nowhere near Extreme Makeover and the life of a Garbageman. On the surface it looks like you have plenty of choice to put your own spin on things with a seemingly robust character editor, tons of weapons, armor; basically stuff we expect to play with in an RPG and it’s all good. Bit by bit you realize you’ve been had. None of your companions can wear any of all the armor you find, and a few of them even come with pre-defined weapons you cannot change. As for you own character, after a few levels you will only have use for your class’ armor due to requirements. What this means is that beside some different colored boots, and gloves, your appearance is extremely limited to what few different armors you can find for your class. I didn’t pay this too much mind at first, but on the second play-through I realized how similar my new character was to the old despite another hair color, different class, and somewhat different facial features. Once the crew was recruited and on the road again, I simply couldn’t differentiate the experience much from what I did previously.

A result of the limited use of what you find is that you basically sell maybe 90% of every item you pick up. Opening a locked chest or finding a somewhat hidden pile of rubble is as exciting as finding lint in your bellybutton. Bioware seems to be aware of this, and have conveniently named all items you pick up that cannot possibly be used for anything “Junk”. They even make a mockery of it on several occasions where our hero finds nigh but dirty underwear in the garbage, as well as a sidequest tasking you with collecting dirty trousers.

Any Junk you pick up is automatically moved to a separate list in your inventory that can be sold with a single click. For me, the result of simplifying and removing the whole ‘loot’ portion of an RPG is bordering on the absurd. Picking up shiny things and wonder at their possible use is a rather unique RPG aspect in my opinion, one that is utterly destroyed in Dragon Age 2.

The downright ugly and scary stuff

Recycling. I don’t mind some effective use of styles and interiors, but what Bioware does here is just embarrassing. You have an achievement for visiting as many as 10 caves in the vicinity of Kirkwall, and as much as I like spelunking in the dark, the charm of that is quickly crushed under the heel of a ‘copy/paste’ regime. First cave I visit, fine, something to see and explore. Second cave; also neat. Third cave gives me a sense of deja-vu stepping in, but is soon revealed to be the exact same cave I visited initially. And no, my lackluster sense of direction did not lead me back to the first cave. This was a whole other quest, filled with other inhabitants, and even a barrel and a chest was switched around. Minor disappointment aside, I keep pushing the green button to advance and shortly find myself merrily on my way to the next grand adventure, in a cave. If my blond little Rogue could swear she would probably have uttered “What the hell! Weren’t we just here guys?” Isabela would throw me some snide but funny remark. You might think my navigational skills or lack thereof was at fault again, but sadly no. The jolly band of adventurers stumbled into cave after identical cave until finally something else; a repeat of the second cave. Five out of the six first caves/dungeons I experienced were identical. Not the best first impression. Once this trend settled it was not just limited to caves, but basically all of Kirkwall’s internal and surrounding areas wherever a quest or encounter happened. There is only one mansion, backstreet, dwarven ruin, etc. and they are all reused indefinitely. Talk about environment-friendly recycling!

First day DLC. The Exiled Prince DLC was a special edition offer you paid for initially, but contrary to usual pre-order gifts and offers, it’s a full DLC with achievements. Microsoft have even included it in the base game if you check your games overview on the Box. 1000/1000 GS will not show a complete game whether you bought the DLC or not. The base game is counted as 1130 total GS, Exiled Prince included.

Releasing a game with buyable DLC already on the marketplace is just bad form. Releasing a game with buyable DLC on release, that is broken, were just Pinpoint Strikes to the crotch. None of the DLC achievements will unlock and if you bought and played it, prepare to do it all over again and recover your gametag or other hassles. Seriously Bioware? Scary. Over a week later nothing has been done.

The Achievements

Nothing even semi-challenging here, just frustrating. Most of them are story-related and non-missable, with a few thrown in to force replay. A few collectibles also make an appearance here, and these are the biggest detractors to good achievement design. For the collectibles you have to play through everything, meet everyone, and play with all your puppets. It’s possible to get away with one thorough play-trough, and then mop up the remaining couple achievements in a speed-run, but that requires a lot of planning and that you know exactly what to do and when.

The biggest hurdle is probably Supplier to which Foxfire49 made a tremendeusly useful guide with a ton of effort.

SupplierThe Supplier achievement in Dragon Age II worth 76 pointsFind every variety of crafting resources.

The Rival achievement I have serious trouble doing in any speedy fashion on a second play-through, as I also try for Supplier with a minimum of time spent. I will try and write up a solution for this once I crack it (without using one of many many glitches, this from the broken first-day DLC).

RivalThe Rival achievement in Dragon Age II worth 50 pointsEarn the rivalry of one of your party members.

UPDATE: Finally got around to finishing Rival, and made a detailed guide in the process. Check the Rival achievement.

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