Ten Good Things About Dragon Age 2
My last post on the topic of Dragon Age 2 was rather negative, not surprisingly so I suppose, given that that is the structure of my review format. Today’s post will be all upsides – 10 to be specific. As always, these come in no particular order and claim neither to be complete nor to be objective. Read this post, read the last one, then make up your own mind on the game. If you have something to add, please feel absolutely free to do so in the comments. But on to the game.
The game’s narrative is interesting in so far as it is told by one of your companions after the fact, meaning that everything you are doing in the game has already happened. This enables some interesting storytelling techniques, such as stretching the story across many years (skipping over the less interesting parts) and a few amusing episodes in which the dwarf telling the story exaggerates and that has direct influence on the game itself.
I also really liked that the story doesn’t really focus on the hero who saves the world so much as on what happened to a family during dark times. Sure, things drift quite a bit towards heroism towards the end of the game, but it was about time that games picked up storytelling techniques long know to pen and paper authors. A story doesn’t need to focus on the leading characters in an event in order to tell an engaging story about it. Now if they could only drop the all-too-obvious plot twists and get some more quality writing and games might actually go somewhere as a storytelling medium.
There’s power in stories. That’s all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine. – Varric
Many have criticized this, but I really like how fast paced the combat in Dragon Age 2 feels while still allowing the player to pause at any time to think about tactical moves. Part of this has simply been achieved through the use of animations and lots and lots of cannon fodder enemies, but combat balance has also shifted quite a bit as well. Gone are the days of a tank tanking all the enemies in a room and a healer healing her until the fight is over and also gone are the days of continuously freezing enemies so they can’t take part in the fight. There are very few heals available and those are on rather long cooldown timers so that pure tank’n’spank gameplay is rather difficult. You’ll want your rogues to pick off smaller enemies quickly to take some strain off your tank and you’ll want to constantly move around the battlefield to be where you are needed most.
I didn’t like all my companions, but I really enjoyed just how well-written and layered their characters were. Dragon Age: Origins had some fine companions available and I believe Dragon Age 2 tops that. Merrill, an apprentice to an elven keeper you briefly met in Origins, for example, was so likeable that I kept her in my party pretty much from the start only so that I didn’t have to miss any possible conversations with her. On the other hand she was also terribly dangerous and naïve (some might call her an idiot [beware, spoilers]) and trying to keep her happy while not giving in to her suicidal ideas made for quite some interesting decisions.
They also decided to return a companion from the original game (well, from the expansion Awakening) but this time they didn’t go with the idiot Oghren but with the much more interesting Anders who made for the most difficult decision I had in the whole game. In general, the writing on the companions is quite good, though there is way too little of it for my tastes.
The Skill trees in Dragon Age 2 are so far away from those in Origins that you’d hardly believe it is the same game. The trees are no longer linear, they contain more skills and they allow you to upgrade a variety of skills to tailor your character to your liking. The new skill trees allow for quite a bit of customization of gameplay without being too complicated or taking a lot of time to understand. Each companion also has one unique tree of skills that are connected to their in-game behavior and set them apart quite nicely. The difference between Oghren and Sten in Origins was negligible while that between Merrill and Anders in Dragon Age 2 is quite huge.
There is some influence of your companions’ attitude towards you on their combat ability which I like, but I’d like it even more if this connection was two-way. Especially Anders and Merrill have moral decisions built into their special skill trees but alas these don’t affect their behavior at all.
Dragon Age 2 is a bloody game in which many unpleasant things happen to people. That makes the little bits of humour sprinkled in along the way all the more interesting. There’s, of course, the discussions between your companions and the snarky remarks you can make during conversations. The latter even influences the tone your character speaks in – a Hawke who always chooses the nice and helpful answer will sound different than one that brings a bit of snark to the table.
Then there are the puns and pop-culture references. Not everybody likes those, but this is my blog and I do. I simply had to laugh out loud when I found a ring named Three Wolf Boon and a belt named Rock Band.
Sometimes there is no correct decision
I loved the decision of Redridge in Origins until I found out that there was a perfect solution that would keep everyone happy. Sure, sometimes there should be such solutions, but more often than not someone will lose out. Dragon Age 2 knows and respects this and gives the player quite a few difficult choices to make that you can’t really wiggle your way out of. If a game like Dragon Age 2 is supposed to feel gritty and realistic, it simply needs tough decisions to be believable. The writes do a good job of putting the player over and over again into situations where you have to choose whether to follow the law (or logic) or to make a humane decision.
The crafting system
Alright, I don’t actually like the crafting system in Dragon Age 2. Effectively it is just a system of unlocking certain items for sale at certain vendors and most of those aren’t really relevant anyway. What I really like is the fact that they dropped the system that origins had (which involved collecting rather lame resources for a few rather lame crafting recipes) and didn’t pick up the awful, awful mining system from Mass Effect 2 nor anything similar. In DA 2, you can find sources of crafting materials around the world which, once discovered, will be available in unlimited supply. Higher level crating recipes will require you to discover a variety of resources before you can actually use them.
These unlocks really just happen while you play the game (and click on everything that’s sparkling anyway). I could pretty much ignore the whole thing and still order the potions and runes I needed when I wanted to. Essentially the crafting system isn’t good, but it’s nicely tucked away which is almost as good as not having it in the game at all. Me likey.
There are a lot of character abilities that are simply fun to use. Rogues vanish and reappear behind their enemies, Warriors charge across the battlefield like a battering ram and mages (well, one mage) pull a multitude of monsters to them only to then disappear and though a firewall at the clump from range. Being used to the lameness that is global-cooldown based MMORPG combat, it is really nice to have all these abilities that seem to influence the battlefield in a huge way.
I think Bioware has really started a big thing with the world of Dragon Age. I’m not usually one that cares much for lore in games or books about it, but I am actually tempted to pick up a Dragon Age book or two now. Does anyone have experience with those / are they any good?
Unlike Bethesda’s Tamriel, Biowares Thedas (the continent of the unnamed world that the Dragon Age games take place on) provides an interesting background for all kinds of stories. The issue of mages will often play a huge role in these (and rightly so as it is refreshingly different from usual fantasy stories) but the Qunari and the oppression of the elves make for interesting topics as well.
There will be a part 3
This might be a bit of an odd point, but I really liked that the epilogue of the game all but promised Dragon Age 3 already. Hopefully we’ll see a new engine by then, but even if not I’m already quite lloking forward to the third installment of the series. I’ll likely pick up any expansions published as well, but I’m very wary about downloadable content. Bioware DLC has been close to useless so far and while I really hope that they’ll step up and give us something that’s actually worth the money it costs, I’ll look very hard at anything they put out before buying it. That said, full games from Bioware have not disappointed me yet and I’m happy that Dragon Age 3 is all but certain to come along (and to incorporate many crucial events from Origins and DA 2 – keep those savegames!)