Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Ten Bad Things About Dragon Age 2

I’m a huge fan of the original Dragon Age and despite the somewhat “meh” review I gave its expansion Awakening, I’ve had Dragon Age 2 on preorder for months and was very excited to get to play it. It took me two weeks to get through – with work and Rift cutting into my free time and all that – but I’m finally at the point where I can give you a review of sorts. As usual, this will be split into two parts. Today I’ll talk about ten things I didn’t like about the game (subjective, incomplete and in no particular order, you have been warned.) The second part will then talk about ten things I really liked.

UPDATE: In the light of recent visitors from the Bioware Forums (welcome!) I’d like to stress again that this is half of a review and only talks about negative aspects of the game. There’s a post about 10 positive ones as well!

As for spoilers, there will be some but I will avoid anything drastic. Personally I don’t think any of the spoilers below will actually spoil your gaming experience, but if you are sensitive about these things it might be better to skip until you have played the game for yourself.

Re-use of maps

A really nice view, the first couple of times around.

This is maybe my biggest issue with the game, so big that I might write another stand-alone post on it. The game uses the same maps over and over and over again in what I believe to be an effort to cut down design costs (or maybe disk space). It does so in two ways, one which fits the lore and is acceptable, and another one which doesn’t isn’t. The whole story of the game takes place in and around the city of Kirkwall over a timeframe of a couple of years and you will visit pretty much every location more than once. I can accept that in such a timeframe, new bad guys have moved into the area and different things will happen there. You can also visit most locations in Kirkwall at nighttime or at daytime and many of them have different functions depending on when you visit. All that is fine.

What is not OK is that maps are often blantanly re-used for different locations. All the caves and smuggler hold-outs share only a few map layouts between them with passages blocked off at the designer’s leisure to constrict player movement. Once you’ve seen the inside of one house in Kirkwall you’ve seen them all, except that for some reason you simply can’t open certain doors. This is a massive break of the fourth wall and quite annoying to the player. Bioware should really know better.

MMO-style questing

This gets better when you dig deeper into the game, but the beginning years feel as if you are simply picking up each and every quest without a lot of personal involvement, then use the fast travel map to jump to the marked locations for each of the quests, kill/click on everything that is there and travel back to collect your reward. Sure, there’ll be a token help the mage / kill the mage decision here and there which can be used to curry favour with your companions but that’s about it. The first act requires you to acquire fifty gold pieces to be able to join an expedition into the deep roads and many of the quests feels as if you are doing just that – odd jobs to collect money. This might even be an accurate situation describing the situation of the player character but it is not what I’m playing Dragon Age for.

Things aren’t all bad though. I’ve already mentioned that the latter acts have better quests and it is surprising how many of the small errands you run have actual impact on the story later on, but it still spoils quite a bit of the fun.

Bugs

Dragon Age 2 is a huge game (though not as huge as the first, it seems) and I know from experience how hard (read: impossible) it is to deliver a bug-free piece of software. Still there are a couple of bugs in the game that any decent QA department should have caught. From time to time certain quests simply got stuck in a state from which they could not be continued which left only the option of reloading an earlier save or skipping that quest altogether. At one point I got stuck in a fight with an enemy that I could not flee from, but the enemy cleverly stayed in invulnerable mode after all its friends had died. (Normally you were supposed to kill waves of adds and then move back to the main boss.)

Then there is a cutscene from a certain storyline being shown way before its time, spoiling the outcome of that story way ahead of time and the almost game-breaking bug of invisible debuffs being stacked on your character when you don’t have certain companions in your party anymore. The one patch that has come out since the game launched didn’t address any of these issues.

Companion AI

The companion NPCs were rather stupid in combat in Dragon Age: Origins and that hasn’t really changed in Dragon Age II. Sure, you have the tactics screen that can be used to make their behavior make at least a little bit of sense but that is neither fun nor very helpful. You can use it to teach your companions not to turn on each and every sustained mode on at the same time, but I have completely failed to make my blood mage companion (a mage that ahs a mode in which she uses health instead of mana to pay for spells) make any sensible decisions. Dragon Age 2 has nicely paced combat, but the need to pause all the time only to pull your stupid companions our of the fire destroys that part of gameplay somewhat.

A lack of tanks

Who needs tanks, this is how you deal with a dragon.

The set of companions you get to bring with you depends somewhat on the class you pick with rogues and warriors getting a different first companion than mages and I missed out on one companion because I decided not to help a lyrium smuggling dwarf with his shady dealings. The combination of these two circumstances lead to me having only one warrior in the party and being pretty much stuck with her as my tank. Even if I had these two NPCs with me though, I wouldn’t have been much better off as both of them specialized in two-hand weaponry.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the one warrior I did get to play with wasn’t so … square. If you thought Alistair’s righteous attitude was annoying in Origins, you clearly haven’t met Aveline yet.

I suppose you could play through the game on the easier difficulty levels without a dedicated tank, but I really, really miss Shale. Hell, I even miss Alistair.

Companion armour

You can no longer choose what armour your companions will equip in Dragon Age 2. You still get to choose weapons, rings, belts, and amulets for them but they will pick which armour parts to wear for themselves. They also don’t wear just any amour, but each companion will only wear armour that has been dedicated to them by the game’s designers. This and the fact that the armour is hidden on an obscure tab in merchant inventories and doesn’t even show up in yours has made me completely ignore companion amour on my playthrough. Sure, I picked some up on the way (which my companions automatically equipped) but I didn’t really notice it.

The dialogue wheel

The dialogue wheel. Astute as ever.

I’ve always loved the dialogue system in Mass Effect, especially the fact that my character had a voice and an attitude instead of never really appearing in the story Dragon Age style. I don’t care much about the fact that the options on the dialogue wheel often only loosely represent what the character will actually say – the wheel is a nice way to soften the bumps of reading all the possible answers in a conversation.

I was therefore excited to see the Mass Effect system coming to Dragon Age 2 as well, but there has been one addition to it that I really dislike. Most conversation options now come with an icon that details what kind of answer you are giving. Choosing the olive branch icon means you are giving a diplomatic answer (which is hardly ever bad), choosing the heart icon means you are flirting. This takes a lot of the fun out of trying to match your answers to the character of whoever you are talking to. Gone are the times of conversations with Morrigan or Sten where you often had to choose rather unconventional answers to succeed.

In general, the importance of conversation seems to have been reduced when compared to Origins and is now more on the level of Awakening. I hated this in Awakening and I still do in Dragon Age 2. Relations with NPCs are what the series is built on in my opinion and it hurts me to see that getting less and less attention. Let me figure out what a romance interest likes and try to win her heart that way instead of making me click the “heart” button whenever it appears.

Itemization

You will find a lot of items during your travels, but only a really small subset of them actually has a point. Not only will you find many very generic items (Which also have very generic names in Dragon Age 2. Be prepared to find many a ring named “Ring”.), you’ll also find many items that you will never be able to use because of the fact that only your main character can actually equip the armour you are finding. There are many boots, hats, gloves, and chest pieces that might as well be directly converted into gold when they drop due to the fact that you will never ever be able to use them.

Additionally, there’s rarely a choice where itemization is concerned due to a star system telling you directly which items to wear and which to discard. Especially weapon choices are very clear-cut, except maybe for the decision of getting a “messy kills” weapon or not. Why not cut all the really crappy items and give us more choices on the ones that are actually useable?

Blood and gore but little skin

Saving your family is bloody business.

Dragon Age is a serious of games for mature players which shows in both the blood and gore seen everywhere as well as the rather casual references to sex. Just as in Origins, the game shows extremely bloody fighting sequences but is very chaste (and frankly quite awkward and boring) on the few intimate scenes.  If anything, Dragon Age 2 is even more chaste, more awkward and more boring on that front than Origins could ever aspire to be. The dry-humping of Origins (helmet on!) even loses the humping part in DA2 and ends up being pretty much just dry.

Now, I don’t want my games to be pornographic and I don’t mind that the female armours are rather more reasonable than those in most fantasy games but if you are going to have sexual encounters in your game then show them in a decent way or don’t show them at all. The original Mass Effect did that rather well, Dragon Age 2 simply doesn’t.

As for all the gore… I find it rather comical but completely unnecessary. And the blood stains on the teeth of characters after a fight just look plain freaky.

Relatively short

It took me 32 hours to complete the game with almost all sub-quests done and quite a bit of running around looking for crafting resources and whatnot. While that isn’t an awful number for a modern game, it is about half of what Origins offered. I liked the game; I really would have liked more of it. Knowing Bioware, downloadable content will hardly be worth the hassle of installing (not even mentioning the price) so all I’m left with is to wait for the inevitable expansion to hit. At least this time I probably won’t make the mistake of playing through the original game so often that I’ll be really bored with the concept once the expansion arrives.

  • Reuse of maps:
    Yes. I started out absolutely enjoying the game, and had a blast through Act 2, already planning my second playthrough of the game. The environments are beautiful, and it’s a great idea to stop and look around while your questing. Look off cliffs, up and around and the sky, statues, etc – there’s a LOT to see! However towards the end of act 2 and the beginning of Act 3, I found myself simply tired of Kirkwall and the limited maps I’d already fully explored (multiple times) and just wanted to end the game. The story was still fantastic, but I just couldn’t stomache the same old environments anymore.

    I much preferred DA:O’s approach, with stages of the game being broken into entirely different environments. Tired of the Dalish? Once you’re finished there, you’re largely finished there. DA2 is like playing the entire game in Denerim.

    MMO-Style Questing:
    It’s been adopted by every MMO and RPG. I felt DA:O had it too, and I hate it. I’m just not seeing the difference between DA2 and DA:O this way. A valid complaint, though, nevertheless.

    Companion AI:
    Not perfect by any means, but a million times better than DA:O was. The tactics system worked very well, but there are no guides as to how to work it. I ran a blood mage(Merrill) very effectively, but it takes some doing to get it set up right. The tactics system is actually one of my favourite parts of the game. The Jump To Tactic commands work very well, letting you set up if/else blocks. The same applied with Anders and he’s Vengeance/Panacea mode switching.

    Tanks:
    I agree that it’s incredibly annoying that the PC (if a warrior) and Avaline are your only sword/shield tank options, you can – even on hard mode – kit up a two-hander warrior as a tank very effectively. You actually require a healer as he will take more damage, but on the other hand threat management is a lot easier.

    Of course, character personality issues become key here. I found Avaline to be less obnoxious than Fenris or Carver. The former was pretty much cartoonishly anime and emo while the later just whined incessantly. I couldn’t stand either in my party.

    Companion Armour + Itemization:
    You know, I have to disagree here. I *preferred* this system. You could upgrade their armour, but they always looked good. I dislike how RPG’s become gear-treadmills most of the time, and result in your character(s) looking absolutely terrible; messy mismatched disasters who do their armor shopping at the thrift-store.

    This saw your companions always looking good and visually differentiated, and offered a great opportunity for the “outfit changes” when very close to you.

    As for other itemization… yeah, 99% of what you find is junk and not worth using. In fact, I found if it was silver, it was junk regardless. Coupled with a lack of needed money in the game, I didn’t even bother looting most gear that dropped.

    The Dialog Wheel:
    I’m not a huge fan of the ME style dialog wheel, wherein the text shown is not what you say. However, I find the symbols are actually a good addition when you’re dealing with this system. In mass effect, you could try to be diplomatic and shove your gun in someone’s face. At least here, you get a better sense behind what your character is going to do based on the icons.

    I’d much prefer the dialog choices actually show what your character is going to say, but that’s just me.

    Blood and Gore:
    DA2 needs a no-gore toggle. There’s gotta be a mod by now that does that; or an ini file tweak to reduce blood splatter decals to instant decay. It’s just silly, how things explode and splatter everywhere, then people stand around and chat with blood all over their face. Seriously, wipe it off at least.

    My thoughts, at any rate.

    Derrick

  • Thanks for the detailed comment 🙂 I did not get to experience Carver (dead) or Fenris (missed the quest) so I can’t really say whether Aveline is the lesser evil 😉 This actually meant that I had absolutely no use for all those 2h weapons I picked up.

    As for questing, I think that Origins had fewer really simple quests that only involved travelling to a location and killing what’s there. (That is ignoring all the chantry board and similar quests. I could never be bothered to deal with those really.)

  • The questing issue is the major problem I have with all modern RPG’s. So many of them are not “quests”, they are minor tasks. I think this reliance on granting experience via the completion of a vast number of silly little make-work projects is annoying. I’d far prefer a much smaller list of more epic quests (that are actually quests). Otherwise, your character is little more than some hired mercenary/gardener/whatever.

    Origins had fewer quests overall, if you ignored those chantry board style quests. I think, in scaled by game length, the two games have very comparable numbers of quests – it’s just that DA2’s “non-essential” quests are not bundled off into those handy boxes you could easily ignore.

    If you didn’t have Carver or Fenris, though, that certainly does restrict your tanking options! My buddy is playing through a second playthrough on Nightmare now, playing as a 2-hander tank. It works extremely well – I found Avaline to be largely indestructible, but she did so little damage that if she was left alone she was unable to kill anything and relied on my rogues aggro-transfer abilities and taunting on CD to hold aggro. A 2-hander tank does absurd damage, and rarely needs to taunt at all, and with the right talents still takes little damage. Shields help, but they don’t do a whole lot. He’s finding the 2-hander tank works a lot better, as you need to kill the swarms of adds as quickly as possible to avoid being overwhelmed.

    Which brings me to a point that I think you missed, but deserves mention as a problem with DA2: That *every* fight involves swarms of magically spawning adds. In many cases, they are deserved: extra waves of bandits jumping from rooftops, various boss fights with summoned adds, etc. However, after a point it becomes annoying. Every fight – bar none – has waves of adds. On Hard/Nightmare, success is often determined by knowing where adds will spawn, and what will trigger them, so you can save CC and AOE for the spawns.

    It’s just over the top for random “trash” fights.

  • A very good point there and I’m unsure why they would choose to make the wave mechanic this way. Other Bioware RPGs have had this as well (though not as extreme iirc)and I thought for a while that it might be due to console limitations – but then they could just make enemies harder instead of spawning more. Maybe they just want to allow players to feel all powerful in the carnage and mayhem that ensue when you spawn a ton of rather weak enemies while at the same time not making the game too hard.

    The fights I enjoyed most were those that involved tough boss monsters with interesting abilities (though, of course, even those had adds.)

    Oh and I totally agree with you on the questing part. Fewer more detailed quests are far better, though they do make experience gain somewhat chunky unless you want to allow for grinding. (Or disable any form of respawns.)
    scrusi´s last blog post ..Ten Bad Things About Dragon Age 2

  • After reading the reviews and playing ME2, I just skipped this game altogether. ME2 was a huge disappointment for me and I got a sense then that Bioware wasn’t the quality game company it used to be and that EA had pretty much ruined them. As it turns out, that was pretty dead on. I doubt there will be a DA3 after this release, or it will be very poorly received. Oh well, I’m really looking forward to Skyrim (maybe Witcher 2 and hopefully a Torchlight sequel this year). However, Bethesda is about the only quality RPG game company I trust anymore.

  • I rather liked Dragon Age Origins/Awakenings than the sequel. My main issue is lack of armor choices seen in earlier game seems missing in sequel. To me this is big step back, sounds like they are quick to release the game unlike how much development time spend on the first game. Now that is all said I will go back and play DA1 instead of DA2, maybe it needs to be more polished before I give it another try.

  • The tactics are quite powerful and a huge fun factor on Nightmare play. I know they’re not easy to work with at first, but you can get them to where companions take out dangerous elites AUTOMATICALLY.

    Sadly, I have to agree with all the rest of your complaints.
    JV´s last blog post ..Jamaluddin Bhartiya- Two Ragas