Sequelitis

Courtesy BioWare
“No. I’m not taking another step until Justice lets Anders out to play.”

There are some marketing decisions I’ll never understand.

Fast food chains showing a split-second of something from a moderately-trending YouTube clip. Ads and reviewers pretending that adding a third visual dimension to one-dimensional stories or characters is worth the investment. Concealing lack of content with blatant sex appeal or gratuitous trendiness. New Coke.

And the notion that a sequel must – must – be indicated with a number.

I think this is more an issue with video games than other media. The second Dream Park novel wasn’t called Dream Park 2, it’s The Barsoom Project. Batman Begins was followed by The Dark Knight. Yet on PCs and consoles, long is the list of new games followed by lackluster sequels indicated only by larger numbers on the end. Some of them fail for simply not being good games. But others, I think, take more flak than they should simply because somebody in marketing decided that “2” was a better descriptor of the game’s content than any sort of subtitle.

You know where I’m going with this, right? Of course you do.

In the grand tradition of my Dragon Age: Origins experience, I’m ruminating upon a fantasy RPG with depth and complexity before stumbling into an actual review. Unlike Origins, however, which was lauded nearly universally, Dragon Age 2 is approaching levels of hate I didn’t think possible for a BioWare game. If this were Pixar, this latest game would be the studio’s Cars.

I’m not blinded by fanboy wank, though. I can see the flaws. Copy-pasted caverns. An overwhelming number of sidequests with even more generic, interchangeable foes between them. Cumbersome menus likely meant to be easily navigated with thumb sticks. A first act plot motivated more by destitute desperation and blatant greed than anything altruistic, let alone heroic. Anders… Andraste’s knicker-weasels, poor Anders. There’s more, I’m sure, and I’ll cover them all in my review.

But how bad are they, really? So far, in my opinion, none of them break the game. It holds up due to interesting characters with vibrant relationships in the setting of a very personal, gradually-building story. I’m not sure what it’s building to, at this point, but I’m interested in finding out, and I personally like the fact that it’s not necessarily building up to the go-to video game goal of “Kill The Final Boss To Win At Life”. The things Hawke does, even if some of them are just to get him and his mom out of a shithole apartment, feel like they matter outside of XP or monetary gain. Different, in this case, is not necessarily bad. Again, this might change when I cross that finish line.

I think that a lot of the bile being spewed by gamers, like so many Boomers dousing survivors in Left 4 Dead because they’re making loud noises, is due to the title. Dragon Age 2, to most, indicates a continuation of Dragon Age: Origins in terms of story scope (epic, large-scale, overarching quest goal), player projection – an unvoiced character is easier for the player to use as a self-insertion fantasy persona – and nostalgia factor. I mean, come on, if Origins were trying any harder to be a Baldur’s Gate game it’d be called “Baldur’s Gate: Ferelden Edition” or maybe “Baldur’s Gate III” if EA had anything to say about it.

Instead, there’s this guy or girl named Hawke instead of a character the player builds from the ground up. There’s only one city, and it doesn’t matter how well-realized or lively that city itself is if players are expecting multiple unique locations to serve as quest hubs. The relationships and characters remain, but between the voiced player character and things like Anders, there’s plenty to tell the player this is not what they were expecting.

And when unexpected change happens in the world of gamers? Gamers get mad.

Fantasy gamers especially, it seems. Walk into a gaming store and talk about how the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons isn’t that bad. Just be prepared for massive backlash.

Again, I’m not saying some of the negativity isn’t justified. Expect more expansion upon the drawbacks of Dragon Age: The City of Chains (see? Doesn’t that sound cooler than some dumb old number?) in a future post. But, for the record, I don’t care much about the change in scope, perspective or anything like that. I’m all for games trying to do something different than their predecessors. My concern is regarding the story, the gameplay in and of itself, the overall experience and the little things that make the game stand out. It remains to be seen if Dragon Age: The Champion’s Legacy can overcome this odd strain of sequelitis that has people treating it like a leper. It’s possible I can scrape that number off and find a half-decent game waiting for me in the end equation, or perhaps the marketing boys pushed it out the door to cover up how crappy some of the dev team’s decisions turned out to be. Either way, if it weren’t called Dragon Age 2, it might not be taking such a severe beating. At least the Essentials line of Dungeons & Dragons can sit next to Hawke and hand him an icepack.

6 Comments

  1. If this unexpected change in scope were done well a lot of people wouldn’t give a shit about the argument against it. I think you overestimate how many fanboys hated it on principle; they’re vocal but they’re not exactly a majority.

    However, it wasn’t done well, so all the people bitching about the title turned out to be completely justified in wanting nothing to do with this game. Which is a shame, there are some good ideas buried under the copypasta and lack of plot.

  2. Anders. Ye gods don’t get me started on Anders. It’s easy to go both the character development and the character assassination route with him. But, since you haven’t finished yet, I’ll spare you this rant-slash-gush.

    The thing is, I wasn’t expecting DA2 to be a direct continuation of Origins. Anyone that’s even got an occasional eye on video game news knew since the get-go that it wouldn’t be a direct sequel. The people griping about such (and the people crying that the Virmire Survivor didn’t show up in the new ME2 dlc) have nothing to blame but their unfounded expectations.

    My main complaint is that there was so much potential, narratively speaking, in 2 that the game didn’t really live up to. Instead of three cohesive acts it felt like three episodes that built to an inevitable conclusion that could have (and perhaps would have) happened without Hawke. Not to mention all of the loose ends – we never see Flemeth again, Morrigan doesn’t even blip on the radar, and not a word is really mentioned about the talking darkspawn from Awakening – that are abandoned.

    The entire product felt rushed (18 months is an astonishingly short production time for Bioware! Especially for a game on an epic scale). I kind of look on it as the “soggy middle” that often befalls trilogies. I’m still hopeful that DA3 will wrap things up in a neat, epic passage and be the third act I know Bioware is capable of giving.

  3. @Kate-

    Actually, some of the stuff you mentioned came up in my playthrough. Flemeth did mention Morrigan at least once (“If you knew my daughter…”) and the Architect is pointed out by name in some Grey Wardens correspondence I intercepted. Granted, it’s all periphery, but it does add to the scope of the world.

  4. Still, it’s periphery. (I dunno, I killed the Architect like a good little hero. No darkspawn are spared my blade!) Right now they seem like gaping plot holes. Not enough to dissuade me from playing, but I really hope they go back and connect all the dots in the last installment.

  5. Unfounded expectations aside, I do think a lot of people were expecting more of the style to carry over.

    And to be fair, the second act of DA:O (gathering your armies) was highly modularized as well, and to me felt like five (counting the extra plot quest to go get the ashes) separate mini-games than one cohesive whole.

    I enjoyed the mystery in the second game (what is going to happen later that will make me into a champion?), and personal-level appeal.

    As for the loose ends… that didn’t bother me. I would have loved to have seen more done with Flemeth and such, but with there clearly being a DA3 planned (whether it gets green-lit or not), this felt more like a second origin story than a sequel. Clearly the Warden and the Champion will be key in DA3. We set up the Warden, now we have to set up the Champion. All the loose end-tying comes after that setup.

    The game certainly has problems, but I think they are less troublesome than some make out.

  6. Honestly, I had zero problems with the storyline of Dragon Age 2. I was irritated with the number in the title, and the copy/paste dungeons, but they slammed this thing out in about a year! How much quality can HONESTLY be expected in that time frame? I mean, they announced it when they dropped Awakenings. It was rushed. Problems come along with that, naturally.

    Other issues I had were more glitch related, like disappearing meshes and textures after the game had been running for 5+ straight hours. Flickering graphics during cut scenes. That sort of thing. The changes they made to the gameplay, like combat and menu crap, was blatantly done up for the console crowd (and being that I played on a console, I didn’t have much of an issue with this). I can see how that would be annoying for PC gamers though, seeing how Origins was essentially designed for the PC.

    For obvious reasons, I was pissed over the Anders/Justice mess, but I’ll get over it. Basically, the ending was satisfying for me, I want to know where they’re going next. I was GLAD it wasn’t a direct continuation from Origins, and I would be just as glad to get a new perspective in a new game. I don’t want Dragon Age to become Mass Effect, with one main character that the whole universe seems to circle around. I like the scope of world, and I love that the show you that shit is going down all over the place, and you simply CANNOT be in all of those places at once. So really, all in all, I want more. Just not immediately. If they push a third game out next year, I’m going to be irritated. I’d be happier with another couple of books, maybe an update on the tabletop RP they released and then seemed to forget about. Maybe some well thought out DLC for this installment.

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