- Dragon Age 2
- CLR [rating:4]
Release Date: March 8th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: BioWare Corp.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Fantasy Moral Dilemma RPG
ESRB: M for Mature
I left my heart (and free time) in Kirkwall, that City by the Bay.
Do you like fantasy? As in the elves and dwarves and sword and sorcery ilk? No? Well then here’s my shortest review ever: Dragon Age 2 is not for you. The end.
If however, you’re like myself and you spent plenty a weekend around a table with friends rolling dice and trying to stab kobolds in the back with your half-elf rogue, or even if you just thought the action scenes of The Lord of the Rings were pretty cool, then read on.
Over the last couple of years the Canadians of BioWare, an odd name for a game company until you learn it was founded by practicing physicians who were making medical software, have been on fire. Probably mostly known for their space opera epic Mass Effect amongst the general public, fantasy RPG purists have been fans for years; their first hits were a series of games set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. Then in late 2009, they decided to embark again into the territory of mana and scale mail armor, with the helpfully titled Dragon Age: Origins.
Though it was another success, DA:O was also a bit of a schism-maker amongst fans. PC players loved the return to form, but it had a fairly lackluster art style and rather odd combat on consoles. While it was a grand game and told many epic tales (and kept doing so well after its release with a bevy of add-ons and expansions) it was also perhaps a bit too archaic to really hit the same wide appeal that Mass Effect had.
I’m not sure if their subtitle machine is broken or not, but the simply named Dragon Age 2 is upon us now, or was earlier this month (hey RPGs take time to get through!). It’s a new take on a few conventions to the format BioWare is known for, and trying rather hard to appeal to a much larger audience. While it isn’t for the folks I scared off at the start, whether or not changes to formula work out for the rest of us, well that’s the story unfolding now isn’t it?
Speaking of stories, Dragon Age 2 begins and (eventually) ends with one as its framing device. Told by a clean-shaven dwarf named Varric to a medieval agent of the Chantry, an in-universe substitute for the Catholic Church, it chronicles the life of the Champion of the city of Kirkwall, otherwise known by their surname Hawke. In true Western RPG format, Hawke can be either male or female, and one of three distinct classes: Warrior, Rogue or Mage. These choices are simply the first few you’ll make; you have about a billion more to go.
Varric’s tale continues on into three distinct acts, each playing out similarly to a full season of a television show, along with a solid prologue for good measure. You’ll follow Hawke as he (or “she”, but I went with “he” at first so I’ll stick with that pronoun thank you) escapes his war torn homeland to an overcrowded Kirkwall, spends a year in indentured servitude, gains a fortune, resolves a major city wide threat, and finally weighs in on core political and religious issues that divide the tumultuous city in the heart of the “Free Marches.” It’s a yarn with plenty of twists, turns, and reveals to occur over the forty to sixty hours (made even longer by some draining load times) you invest into it . . . on your first time through.
Having a sometimes unreliable narrator is a device common enough in books and film, if rarely applied to games. A fact that DR2 forces one to question as it solves many problems of immersion, such as the passage of time, elegantly. Over the course of the game you cover roughly a decade of Hawke’s life, with Varric only telling the notable bits and leaving out all of the boring day-to-day stuff. This device also justifies why you can do things out of chronological order, since it’s easy to imagine the narrator “forgetting” about one event that informs another and going back to add another quick anecdote. Frankly, though this is by no means revolutionary (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did it last generation) it might actually be the best method I’ve encountered in delivering an RPG’s storyline, ever.
Most fantasy RPGs are either inspired by epic sagas and legends of the likes of The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey or their derivatives, so they usually involve a vast amount of travel. The heroes go from destroyed village A in Kingdom 1, and usually culminate their travels at the setting’s “location of ultimate doom” in Kingdom 27 with plenty of nature hiking along the way. But here, the story is far more homespun: Hawke escapes to his new home in Kirkwall with the last remnants of his family. These relatives, especially your aging mother, don’t want to go adventuring but would rather settle down and lead a less trying life. As a result of basic endearing decency, Hawke doesn’t leave Kirkwall too much other than to explore a few notable areas not far outside the city limits.
This narrow scope is odd for the genre, and has its pros and cons. The main advantage, aside from ensuring the setting has a higher fidelity with excellent architecture and visual styling, is that it instills a sense of continuity to everything you do and everyone you encounter. Random minor characters from early quests turn out to be important later on and it feels natural, as they’ve had lives in the intervening years too. On the other hand, partially because it is a rather long game, the environments start to feel woefully redundant. Matters aren’t helped much since several locations that are supposed to be unique end up being the same few maps with sections cut off. If this occurred once or twice it wouldn’t be a big deal, but by the end it feels like the entire level design team might have been lost in the Andes a year before the game was finished.
You will do two main things during your time in Kirkwall: kill people or talk to them, essentially going one level beyond most games. Traditional lists of dialogue options are removed in favor of a Mass Effect wheel that actually improves upon the concept since handy emoticons give you a much firmer grasp of intent as you go through as much dialogue as twenty novels, ten McLaughlin group debates and a reading of Hamlet. That’s just for Hawke, who can pursue each and every conversation path via a minimum of three types of response: Polite, humorous or direct! Needless to say, if you think the worst part of any game to be when the folks on screen are saying things, this is not your game.
Having a thousand writers creating just one script might have been bad if characterization wasn’t the game’s strongest feature, but it is. Throughout your years you’ll find vagabonds and crusaders to follow Hawke and they’re an exceptionally charming bunch, especially the rogues. I found it all too easy to laugh at Varric’s jokes, fall for the pirate captain Isabella as she made suggestive comments, or feel pity for Fenris the elven runaway slave. These characters are given further depth when they develop into friends or rivals based on their reactions to your decisions using a “morality” system more natural than the godlike karma systems seen in other games. Here, making a selfish decision doesn’t mean you’re “evil” it just means your nobler friends think you’re a jerk.
These companions, along with healer Anders, banished elf Merrill and guardswoman Aveline, are pitch perfect both in writing and performance (protip: travel with a pair that hates each other, hilarity ensues), even if at times the excellent delivery is completely defeated by rather static poses considering the situations they’re in. In fact the entire opening is a bit frustrating, with characters nonchalantly standing and talking while their nation burns around them and they’re still in mortal peril, solely because they’re in “dialogue mode”. Other areas aren’t as bad about this thankfully.
Oh, and because the folks at BioWare don’t want you to write your own sexualized fan fiction about it, they allow you to develop romantic relationships with your party members. Oddly though, all of the four “available” characters have no sexual preference, which is a checkmark for diversity but can also lead to some confusion if you aren’t aware of this fact. I once accidentally slept with a same-sex teammate when I selected a flirty option thinking it a funny response to a question. Oh well! Here’s hoping what happens in Anders’ clinic, stays in Anders’ clinic.
Now it’s not all jokes and hanky-panky, there’s also a plot! The best fantasy provides a look at concepts that affect us in our modern day lives, and DR2 uses its fiction to take a look at a couple of prevalent issues such as illegal immigration and religious fundamentalism through a race of horned behemoths, and the freedom versus security debate via a novel interpretation of magic. Neither these major scenarios nor many other smaller occurrences come with easy answers. At some point you will be faced with a choice that you don’t want to make and doesn’t fit with the black-and-white worldview so commonly associated with fantasy. The “M” rating on the box could easily stand for “Morally ambiguous turmoil you will go through while playing” more than the “Maturity” that topless demons and dismemberments most games provide.
Not that dismemberments don’t occur, in fact, they occur quite often as combat is a huge part of Dragon Age 2. Another area where the game breaks with conventions of the genre, rather than having a top-down tactical view, or option menus that drive cinematic battles, the camera is always close at hand to deliver an up close and personal look at the action and it’s far more direct in its implementation. If you’re playing a warrior you will be pressing a button every time you swing your broadsword in a fashion more akin to Phantasy Star Online than Neverwinter Nights.
You aren’t just limited to controlling Hawke though, as you can pause the action at any point and either issue commands or take control of party members. Here the game’s “tactics” function comes into play; in between fights you create conditions for the AI to follow for compatriots not under your direct control. The varied options perform admirably, though there’s little detailed information of what each does and the only way to truly figure it out will be through experimentation. It’s actually quite satisfying to create perfect attack patterns this way, if a little like programming your alarm clock – for battle!
Fans of traditional turn-based combat will balk at this change, thinking it much simpler and easier than what they’re used to. They’d be absolutely right on the game’s “Normal” difficulty setting, for with exception for a couple of boss battles, you can button mash your way through fights relying on the AI to pick up the slack. Turn the game over to the “hard” difficulty though, and be prepared for a massive jump that requires enough strategic thinking and tactical positioning to make most armchair generals squeal with delight. At this level you’ll have to use every aspect of the combat system to its fullest, mixing class abilities on the fly and react to new developments mid-fight immediately. For the masochists among us, there’s an even nastier mode that turns friendly fire on. It’s especially dangerous when you consider that most magical attacks consist of giant fiery explosions of doom!
Using a single city as pretty much the only location is unique for an RPG, but after the new game smell wears off it begins to reek rather swiftly. The plot mentions key events such as an influx of refugees or a long-in-the-coming civil war, but there are no visual cues in the city itself. A few NPCs converse and walk aimlessly around areas, but you can’t interact with them directly unless they’re part of a quest or a salesman. Minor encounters are limited to a highly unimaginative and increasingly boring series of night attacks by bands of thugs.
Though your primary party is filled with vibrant personality, the city itself is a shallow shadow, never changing or interacting with you in any meaningful way.
This lifelessness exacerbates the already mentioned fact that you’ll be wandering the same locales over and over. In other free-roam, non RPG games, this is countered by complex systems of AI and event scripting that ensure you are never bored, such as in Red Dead Redemption, where if you weren’t watching a bandit run from the law you were being propositioned or having your horse stolen at regular intervals (in between cougar attacks). None of this is at play in Kirkwall, and it often seems like a well built MMO faction hub without any other players in it to add life.
Then there’s the story, which has the problem of going too strong too soon and being unable to follow itself. The second act has the most interesting and fascinating arc, and it builds up to a grand crescendo, but it concerns a plot that has little to do with the rest of the game. If you realize this, and you’ll have time to think about it while you slay dragons on side quests in order to justify the title, the main plot actually becomes something of a disappointment by contrast to the excellent middle portion.
A couple of very dramatic events break the story out of these doldrums right at the end, but it never quite recaptures the magic and then it just sort of ends after a long but not terribly challenging final encounter, with almost no dénouement. While a common problem in many other game genres, lavish endings detailing how all of your choices affected the world and its characters are a hallmark of RPGs, so of course DA2 keeps true to form and does just the opposite. You get a quick, lame offering that’s unfulfilling after seventy hours, and as when Marty McFly received an eighty year old telegram in the rain, almost entirely sequel bait.
Considering this adventure has drained as much time out of my life as it has, and has obvious glaring faults, from the repeated environments, the phoned in resolution, and the few bugs I’m not mentioning (oops!) I’m surprised to say that I find myself compelled to keep coming back to it. Part of it is the allure of trying scenarios over again, as a different Hawke who makes different decisions, and seeing how the story changes. It might also be that I haven’t played an RPG in a while, so this scratches that particular itch very well, or maybe it’s because the characters are just damn charming. It’s actually hard to pinpoint just why the game remains compelling despite its flaws. It might be because of them.
I live in Los Angeles. It’s a superficial city that lacks memory, is filled with redundant urban and suburban sprawl, and where immigration is an issue that tends to drive our residents apart and almost (it seems at times) to war. So if nothing else, I understand Kirkwall’s issues. I also understand that sometimes it’s “flaws” such as these that are really what can give something its true definition and character. That’s really what Dragon Age 2’s problems are: character flaws. Thank the maker it also has enough actual character to make up for it.
Not to mention a few elves.