The will likely be spoilers, but should I talk about something super new I'll warn ya. But consider this a pre-emptive warning! You're WARNED!

Friday, March 11, 2011

a few thoughts on DRAGON AGE II

This morning, I faced a terrible dilemma: should I write something about Dragon Age II, or should I wait until I've finished the game? As I've only just completed Act I after a week of playing into the wee hours of the morning, when the house has gone all still and quiet, a full review wouldn't come for a long time yet. But! I feel like I should say something about it, hmm? I've got enough play under my belt to have a decent opinion on it, so why not give some thoughts on it, especially after the way I've gone on and on and on about my ? That's what The Internet and BLOGS are for. I mean, I read one review written after 3-4 hours of gameplay, which...well, that's not really enough time to grasp it, I think, but if you hate a game, you hate a game. And it seems that the knee-jerk reaction from fans, so far, is on the negative side of the scale.

That's because an awful lot has changed since Dragon Age: Origins...big big changes, some for the better, some for the not better. I suppose this is what Morrigan was talking about at the end of Witch Hunt, when she was going on about all the changes that were coming and how people don't like change but they must accept it and adapt. Very slick, BioWare! Very slick.

Let's hold hands and walk through some of this. I will keep this spoiler-free, but I'm going to assume that you played through the, I guess there are actually spoilers for that, but nothing that's not covered in the first 30-45 minutes in the game. Oh, and for what it's worth, on my first playthrough I'm a sessy rogue Lady Hawke.

The visual style in Dragon Age II is vastly different than in its predecessor. I'm not a huge graphics hound, so while I'll admit the environments- particularly "wildlands", for lack of a better word- are a bit dull, I'm perfectly happy with it. A note- dungeon layouts are reused...and reused some more. Areas will be blocked off during one quest, then opened up for another. It's not quite as glaring an issue as it was during Mass Effect, but some players are shouting about it from the top of Mount Internet. I don't find it that distracting, personally.

The biggest changes has to do with character race. Elves, dwarves, and Qunari have all undergone massive design overhaul. Massive. MASSIVE. It's good, if initially a bit shocking to anyone who's played the first game. Characters you met in Origins who pop up in DA II will look vastly different than you remember them. I like that now elves don't just look like slightly shorter humans with slightly pointier ears, and Qunari don't look like slightly taller humans with brows that are slightly more furrowed. They're definitely other races, which ties into the story as a whole. In particular, the new Qunari design is awesome. They're kind of terrifying. Check out Sten, a companion from the first game, and the Arishok from the second. Which is more formidable?

As I noted in my review of the demo, there's a fair amount of button mashing during combat. This may be because I'm a fan of melee; a mage might be tapping the A button significantly less. The action is so fast and furious, I think going back to the battles in Origins would feel like fighting through molasses. The tactics menu feels deeper, which is good; since there's no auto-attack option (at least on consoles; I've read there is auto-attack on PCs), it's tough to dole out commands to party members in the thick of things. I love that, actually. I'm not big into planning and plotting and controlling everyone on the battlefield at all times. I set up one mage to heal me when I need it, and then I go in hacking and get shit done.

Items and inventory comprise one area where Dragon Age II drops the ball, methinks. Most RPG fans dig loot. They dig stats and earning money and items with lore behind 'em and inventory micromanagement. DA II has essentially gotten rid of all of that, and it just plain stinks. While you can change your companions' weapons, you can't change their armors or outfits- there are a few upgrades available for them throughout the game, but their appearances can't be altered. There are woefully few outfits and weapons for Hawke, as well, although judging by the items I have picked up, it's rogues who get the short end of the stick in that regard. Junk inventory- the crap you pick up solely for the purposes of selling- is limited to eight or so varieties ("torn trousers", "opal fragment", etc) and it goes straight to the "junk" tab. It's all very streamlined, but as I said- that micromanagement is something most RPG nuts dig and while it may seem a small thing, it does add to immersion. IT DOES. I don't care if that makes me a nerd. I will cop to the fact that I find the armor to be much more badass-looking than in DA: O.

Story is where BioWare shines, but I'll admit- it's only at the end of Act I that Dragon Age II really starts to come together for me and even now, it feels...well, I can't quite get a grasp on it. The formula they've used for most every one of their games in the past- big, overarching plot; 4-6 large hub worlds; sidequests- has been eschewed in favor of...I'm not sure what. Once you arrive in Kirkwall, you remain in Kirkwall save a few expeditions to the coast and whatnot. Fast-traveling from place to place, it seems like a game made up exclusively of sidequests. Your journal keeps missions categorized (main plot, secondary, companion, etc), but it doesn't feel cohesive. A bigger picture is hinted at through the framing narrative with Varric and Cassandra as he tells Hawke's story, but I don't feel mired in it as Hawke herself. So far, while well written, it's just not completely gripping. It's getting better, and it seems that even small events will be intertwined as things play out- and I'm certainly not saying I don't dig it, or that I'm not invested. It's just a bit more scattered and superficial than I've come to expect from BioWare.

Hmm. My sessy Lady Hawke has picked up a lot of people on the road, but we don't feel exactly like a band of Merrye Travelers like my Warden's gang in Origins. The conversation wheel doesn't bother me in the least, but companion interactions are far shorter than they were in the first game. Maybe some players don't want to talk to NPCs for ten minutes at a stretch, listening to their stories and conversing; I do! It's one of the things I like best about BioWare games. In DA II, there's no central camp where everyone hangs out. Everyone is scattered across the city; if you want to talk to Isabela, you have to go to the pub. If you want to talk to Merrill, you go to her house. So far, most interactions- whether with companions or with random NPCs- feel limited to "Hawke asks three questions, the end". They're not conversations like you find in Mass Effect 2 or Origins (even with your silent protagonist), and as a result my sessy Lady Hawke feels a bit flat. I can't gauge her personality yet, even this far in.

All that said, most of the companions are decent enough, though they pale when compared to the charmers of Origins.

The person I'm most happy with so far is Flemeth. Holy fucking shit. I don't know if I've seen the last of her in this game or not- I hope not- but I love what they've done with her. Her appearance sheds light on plenty that happens in Origins, and you finally get a sense of how damn powerful she really is, if not completely what she really is. Again, I don't know if I've seen the last of her in Dragon Age II, but if so, I hope she becomes a major player and force in the franchise. And her aesthetic redesign is made of 100% pure awesome.

I dig this game. A lot, though I'm still trying to get my bearings, so to speak. It's very different than its predecessor and I'm not as completely enamoured with it as I was with Origins or either Mass Effect or KotOR, but I'm still loving the hell out of it, just in new ways. I guess I really took Morrigan's words and warnings in Witch Hunt to heart!


fugori said...

I'm still feeling the game out a few hours at a time, but with regard to Flemeth, the thing I really dislike about this new incarnation is that it's so damn ostentatious.

The old Flemeth was a mystery, and every tiny bit of information that was revealed seemed paired with two more gigantic question marks. You could never quite pin her down, and the strong suggestion of vast power made her incomparably fascinating, even if you managed to, well... you know.

To begin with, the new Flemeth loses much of the aesthetic age. This makes her a much more obviously magical and powerful being. Whereas the first game only hinted at Flemeth's shapeshifting forms, leading up to a pretty dramatic reveal (assuming you didn't spoil it with strategy guides and gamefaqs), the new game leads in with the fire and brimstone and then follows up with the woman. She seems less important in this game as a character than she does as a way to attract an OMG! DRAGON! response. Also - her hair. The art department for this game has a big thing for demon horns, we get it, but this is all so showy, not at all like the wry old crone from Origins. Finally, her outfit... the spiky demon armor... what purpose could it possibly serve? Flemeth has no real need for such banal physical protection. It can't possibly be comfortable. The whole package just screams of "badassifying" a character that really was characterized by the unknown, by rumor and stories. In this incarnation, Flemeth is old hat... an accepted part of the world, just another player with some frequent flier miles... in the old game she was the boogeyman (or was she?).

But I'm rambling (whoops! sorry!), so let me catch my breath and wrap it up. I still love Flemeth, even with the McBayification that comes with the new action-packed Dragon Age, but I long for a Thedas with more mysteries, more whispers and legends, and fewer cameras behind the curtains, spoiling the fun.

As a side note, Kate Mulgrew continues her INCREDIBLE voice work. As good as I think the writing is behind Flemeth's character, in both games, I don't think it would be the same without her.

CashBailey said...

I've heard that the graphics on the console version are greatly improved over the first game. Which is good because I saw a lot of reviews of DA:O that said the 360 version had bland, muddy textures and a terrible frame rate.

Stacie Ponder said...

@Cash - many people complained about DA:O graphics, but they were fine to me, if not as outlandishly lush and gorgeous as those in, say, Oblivion. Maybe I have low standards, or maybe it's my SDTV, dunno. Admittedly, the trees in Origins were HORRIBLE! :D

@fugori - Greta response! One thing we can COMPLETELY agree on is Kate Mulgrew owning this. She's amazing.

You're right, they've taken some of the mystery out of Flemeth- I liked the sort of doddering old woman from DA:O, and her banter with Morrigan. In 2, I feel we're seeing a bit of the legend of her come alive- the same that Morrigan hinted at after her personal quest in DA: O and Witch Hunt. I like that the Dalish know of her and, in a sense, revere her. And I love that she looks like Morrigan.

I think it's Aveline's casual "Oh yeah, that's the Witch of the Wilds" that's off; sure, Flemeth helped my gang out, but she's a whispered legend and they should be far more terrified of her. I know I found her incredibly creepy.

I can't help but think that they're setting Flemeth up for something big down the line...either in this game (I just started Act II) or in another sequel. They're building to too much epicness (WTF with the end of Witch Hunt?) and all that simply to have her remain on the periphery.

UntrainedMonkey said...

Was it just me reading too much into things or was there a little dig at the first game's graphics in someone's dialogue where they described Ferelden as (and I'm paraphrasing here) "dull and covered in dirt"?

Stacie Ponder said...

I think you're right. There are a lot of those sprinkled throughout the game- funny jabs at itself and comments/complaints players had about Origins.

gord said...

I'm currently very torn between picking up this game versus picking up the Origins expansion, Awakening. Especially since I hear they're roughly the same length, and one is half the price of the other. I suppose my decision will really come down to what I feel like on the day of purchase. Half of me thinks I'll just get DA2, and if it's not as good, I always have Awakening to fall back on later.

I really dug the demo, and the new additions (mainly combat) but I agree with your complaints about the new bits. What I really am looking forward to however is trying out a Mage with the new faster, stream lined combat. Having never played as a mage in Origins due to the micromanaging it seemed it would take to be of proper use to my team in combat, I'm hoping the streamlined character building and faster combat will yield positive results.

How do you find the Mage plays/fairs Stacie?

Stacie Ponder said...

The mage is SO much more fun than it was in DA:O. Way faster. I still haven't done a full playthrough that way, but man...the animations are incredible. I love that the staff is also a melee weapon, too.

I'm with you on the micromanagement, and it seems that the AI in DA2 is much better- squadmates really stick to the tactics you give them (and they're given a healthy chunk to begin with). You can end up with 3 mages in your party if you're a rogue or warrior, so I just go with them (also, because the characters are great!). My tank actually acts like a tank this time. Combat, I think, is a huge improvement from the first game.

I might do a follow-up post about it since I finished this weekend. Once you get past the "Hey, this isn't DA:O!" of it and get used to the changes, it's effing great. The story ended up completely blowing me away, and I dare say it's deeper and more mature and satisfying than DA:O. I ended up loving it.

Awakenings is a lot of fun, and you meet people who are in DA:2, so if you're a DA completionist nerd like me, you might want to play through that first. It's basically DA:O lite.

As far as length, my first play in Awakenings took about 22 hours, and DA2 took about 55. I don't know how people are finishing it so quickly, unless they're not doing all the sidequests, etc.

gord said...

Ah now I'm even more torn with that glowing review!

Well thanks for the super in-depth response Stacie, now I'm even more excited to try out the mage right away. Though on the other hand, as a fellow completionist nerd, I do want to have had the full DA:O experience before tackling the new game. If anything, I'm more convinced now that it's not a matter of either/or, but where do I start.

I now have my own RPG-like quest ahead of me as I try to decide which path to take first...

Stacie Ponder said...

I'd say it's probably worth playing Awakenings first, then, if it's not an either/or situation. One of your companions from that game ends up being a companion in DA2, and there are lots of other tie-ins as well. Plus, it's pretty damn cheap, and by the time you play through that and get to DA2, they'll have patched all the bugs- there are a couple that are a bit irritating. :D

gord said...

Hmm good points all around. Especially the part about the bugs. Thanks Stacie!

fugori said...

Speaking from the point of view of a person that's played exclusively as a mage since I picked up the game, there are a few issues with that path:

First, the story integration is inconsistent. Kirkwall is swarming with templars by all accounts, and you do come into conflict with them, but you also run all over the city laying waste to thieves and thugs with your full magical arsenal, and there are no consequences. There are several times when you get into armed conflicts with bad guys right next to templars, resolve it using magic, and no one says a word. It takes you out of the world for a moment, just long enough to matter. It also doesn't help that you run around in what amounts to a "Hey look at me! I can do magic!" sign, with your robes and magic staff.

If that complaint was largely one of consistency of setting or aesthetics, my next complaint is with mage combat. Gone are the Dragon Age: Origins magic combos, in favor of cross-class combos. This makes magic less compelling, as you can no longer produce entirely new effects by combining existing ones, such as laying down grease and then setting it ablaze with a fireball. Now you are entirely dependent on your party to create combos, and they are pretty underwhelming. Maybe I'm missing something and they're just secret or ill-defined, but it seems like effects that were previously accomplished with combos are now accomplished with power upgrades and cross-class combos instead.

Finally, I really miss the tactical view. This may have been a PC-only thing (I played Origins on the PC), but it was a MUST for a mage character, especially in large and complex battles on higher difficulty levels. Combat is so zoomed-in, so right-in-the-action in this game that I long for the ability to take a bird's-eye view for a moment to appraise the situation. It's not just wistful remembrance of the last game, either, it's a tactical disadvantage in a game where waves of enemies appear, literally from nowhere, to flank you. A mage can die in a few strikes in this game, quite easily.

I don't mind the waves of enemies, though, or even their mystical ability to appear from thin air. I find it exciting and it adds another level to my planning for combat. Hanging out in the rear, casting spells, is no longer a viable option. I have to stay mobile, constantly looking for a new position, and I have to do things like set threat-transfer tactics up with rogue and warrior skills to keep enemies off of my magi. Coming from a lover of the chess-like combat of DA:O, I love the exhilaration this offers to the mage class. Maybe it would be more frustrating to a warrior who is attempting to tank, only to find his vulnerable allies have been flanked by yet another wave, I dunno.

fugori said...

BTW, will you do a spoilers-welcome post at some point? I'd love to have the opportunity to talk about some plot elements without ruining it for everyone else. ;)

Sean Belcher said...

I just started Act II, after the Deep Roads,! When I finish I'll pop over to the more spoiler-y final review thread. I'll just say here how glad I am that I'm not the only one who finds this story more compelling and richer than DA:O (which you know I loved). A lot of reviews early on lamented how weak the DAII story was. I think it just has a very different approach to story-telling than DA:0 or Mass Effect, which had clear, straight-forward goals established from the beginning. This one is more like a grand story unfolding as you play and you don't know what you're "supposed to be doing" at first. It's unique and not for everyone, but I love it so far - even if it feels odd mixed in with the more arcade-style combat sometimes.

Stacie Ponder said...

Exactly my feeelings. By the time you get to the end of Act II, you'll be reeling. Shit gets dramatic! High drama in the deep roads, too, depending on who you take with you...

Sean Belcher said...

My team consisted of Varic, Bethany, Anders (I think?) and of course my war dog, Stan Lee. Yeah...shit got *real*.

Stacie Ponder said...

OMG, I love that your dog is named Stan Lee!! :D That's awesome.

Shit gets realer if you don't bring Anders with you! :(

Sean Belcher said...

Hmm. Then I must have had someone else (maybe Merrill?) because...well, shit got pretty damn real, let's just leave it at that...

Yeah, I had to give Stan equal time since my pooch in DA:O was Jack Kirby. My wife wanted to know why I didn't go with Steve Ditko and I told her "Because Steve Ditko is obviously a cat's name. Duh.":)