Dragon Age: Origins was an original experimental game by BioWare. It took a lot of elements from their older titles, most notably the Baldur’s Gate titles, set up a rich and deep fantasy world, and most importantly, made us feel like our actions had an actual effect on the story. A fact that was made even better by the fact that choices never were black and white in terms of morality. It might not have been for everyone, but I got a massive kick out of it, which is why I was eager to play the second instalment of the series.
The first thing you’ll notice about Dragon Age 2 is the new style of the game. It starts out with the new character models, continues with the controls, extends to the conversational style, and ends with the entire story put together. Whatever happened to Dragon Age, it’s sure that we’re not in Ferelden any more.
From the moment that you create your character, heck, it extends to the scenes before that as you’ll be forced to play with the cannon look for Hawke before crafting your own version, you’ll notice a massive shift in tone in the game. Not just in the story, which I’ll go into further later on, but just the way the characters look and act just feels different. Thinking back to how the first Dragon Age felt, it seems out of place. It feels somewhat colorful and cartoony. What makes this feel strange and out of place is the fact that this is supposedly BioWare’s darkest game yet. A statement I kept stumbling over as I played the game. Yes, there’s traces of darkness everywhere, and the game’s story is brutal and hard at points, but the representation and delivery of it are so extreme it just feels like you’re playing a cartoon. It’s as if we’re seeing a darker and edgier Dragon Age as through the eyes of a 12-year-old. It really didn’t do it for me.
Where the first Dragon Age gave us full control over our character and his or her actions, the second one makes you feel as if none of your input is really all that important. The story is already laid out in front of you. In fact, the story is told by one of your party members, as he’s talking to some mysterious figure in a darkened room. Everything is set in stone already. You have your choices, and when they reflect on you negatively, the game goes in extremes. I’m going to avoid spoilers, but pretty much every bad decision was met with the game punishing me for thinking outside of 2D clichés, which it never dared moved outside of. After the first half or so of the game, it just gets tiring. It doesn’t help that a lot of these dramatic elements don’t have effect on the story as a whole at all. They’re all loose plot threads dangling around a series of reused maps.
It’s so bad in fact, that most of the game, I really couldn’t tell which parts of the game were sidequests and which were the main quests. There’s no consistency in events. Certain events supposedly span weeks and others days, despite the ones spanning days can be finished at the same rate as the ones spanning weeks because of how they’re playd out. The main quest’s scenes just seem irrelevant most of the time.In fact, most of it probably was, I couldn’t remember most of it shortly after beating the game.
Dragon Age 2 was at it’s best when it focussed on the party members, and almost completely dismantled itself at the points that obviously were part of the main quest.
Mass Effect’s wheel of conversation makes an appearance in Dragon Age 2. Dragon Age 2 also manages to show us why it doesn’t work in every game it’s implemented into. Whereas Mass Effect makes us feel like we’re in control, Dragon Age 2 just makes it seem like there is none. There are less conversational options compared to the first game. Not only that, Hawke often speaks automatically without you being given a choice, and as a result, you barely feel in control of your character.
My favorite thing from the first Dragon Age, the campsite, has been scrapped completely. They took the fantastic conversations with the team members along with it. You can still visit your team members at their own hangout locations, but instead of having an actual conversation with them, it feels like you’re watching a series of optional cut scenes. It doesn’t help when you have to wait for the availability of the conversations to trigger, and that you can play through them all in a row while the game pretends time has passed in between. It feels unnatural and broken. Which is a shame, BioWare’s writing staff could have shined during these scenes.
The main shining point of Dragon Age 2 is the new battle system. Instead of the slow-paced and much more strategical (until you break it with overpowered mages) system of the first game, we’ve got a battle system that’s kind of like your average hack and slash title. It’s not too bad at what it does, and it makes fights a lot faster and frantic, but it’s not great either. I feel they had a good idea with it, but just couldn’t tap it to its full potential. It really doesn’t help that most fights take place in the same four or five maps, and that the game loves spawning back-up mooks for even the most simple of encounters. The fights aren’t too hard, the game just tries to turn it into a battle of endurance.
Yes, Dragon Age 2 reuses maps liberally, throwing in doors that won’t open as the only real difference between areas. It feels unfinished, and from what I’ve gathered, that is really the problem. The game actually was released unfinished. That still doesn’t seem like a good excuse to me though. How hard would it be to adjust the maps for the area accordingly? Areas that have been blocked off in the game will still look open in the map on the menu and HUD. That’s just lazy game design if anything.
My biggest problem with the game is the main quest. And it’s very hard for me to properly criticise it when I can barely remember any of it. The game works in short story arcs, each of them has about the length and scope of an introduction to a full-length game, slapped together to make a whole game. It just doesn’t work out, at all. What makes it even more painful is that your choices make no impact on the story at all. In the end, the story will always move towards the same conclusion. In fact, Dragon Age 2 made its story so absolute and unmoving that they went ahead and forced some retroactive continuation on your decisions from the first title. You know, the ones that were supposed to carry over? Well, they’re not important enough.
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not these problems are all part of the game’s full story, seeing as you’re not experiencing it directly: Varric is telling all this. It takes the Dragon Age 2 less than half an hour before it discredits most of the truth behind his story telling, and even plays it for laughs later on in the game. Repeatedly. It would also explain why this game is so ridiculously over the top to the point of it just not being funny anymore. I honestly hope that this is the case. Because of it isn’t, I don’t want to see another Dragon Age title. Which is a shame, since they seemed to have made an effort into making the game flow better. It’s just not flowing towards anything anymore.