Tag: Dragon Age (page 1 of 2)

Review: Dragon Age II

I may very well be the last person in the world to review this game. There’s already been a Zero Punctuation on the subject, as well as an Extra Punctuation that everybody should read. Just about everybody from top-tier professionals to amateurs with forum logins have gotten in on the act. My wife recently posted a rather balanced review, so it’s far past time I did the same. Anyway, grab yourself a drink, let’s get started.

Courtesy BioWare
Fenris is way ahead of you.

Instead of picking up where Dragon Age: Origins left off, Dragon Age II actually takes us back in time, to the aftermath of the rout at Ostagar. As the tide of the Blight washes over the little town of Lothering, the Hawke family flees from the oncoming darkspawn. Helping their mother escape is Carver, the headstrong warrior; Bethany, the fearful apostate mage; and you. You are not the savior of Ferelden, a Grey Warden or anything else particular special. You are Hawke, and the game would have you believe your path is not determined, as this story is more personal and less sweeping.

While the story does open up more of the world of Thedas, in the form of Kirkwall and some of the surrounding countryside, it also eliminates many of the features that made Dragon Age: Origins such a daunting, time-consuming and ultimately epic experience. The result is a game that is much shorter, but also lacking in many areas that, given more time, could have been fleshed out and made it an overall better experience.

Courtesy BioWare
Get used to the Wounded Coast. Hey, at least it looks nice.

For one thing, just a little more time in development could have yielded some variations on the caverns, warehouses and basements you have to traipse through for various side quests. Changing the entry points and door locations doesn’t make up for using the same map over and over, nor does BioWare get away with it because they hang lampshades on it. It’s pure laziness, and one of the indications that this game was rushed out the door before it was really ready for play.

I’m not just talking about things like bugs, either. The story needs work, as it’s barely there. You have three strung-together acts with increasingly engaging subject matter. While the framing device works, it still feels like one act has almost nothing to do with the others. On a level, they almost feel interchangeable, with the exception of the very end of the game. While I feel the second and third acts had some decent story points, and characters changing over the years is always good to see, the first act felt particularly shallow and disposable, given the plethora of side-quests one has to engage in to get the appropriate amount of money to undertake the main quest to make even more money. I’d like to think, at least on my first playthrough, that there’s more to Hawke than that.

Courtesy BioWare
He does look good in furs, though.

While I’m still not entirely sure why the proportions of the elves had to be changed so dramatically to differentiate them from humans, most of the art direction in Dragon Age II is very well done. In addition to its looks, there’s also a feel of actual life to Kirkwall. Hearing snippets of conversations from others and being greeted on the street lent the setting of the game a bit of weight and immersion that I appreciated. It gave me one more reason to power through side quests, other than being sick of the copy-pasted maps. I wanted to get back to Kirkwall, wander between its high stone buildings and listen to my party members banter.

One of the true saving graces of the game is its characters. They’re well-rounded and rather deep, as is appropriate for a BioWare game, but they all have very different reasons for supporting and travelling with Hawke. Another good thing is the somewhat simplified combat mechanics, coupled with a vastly improved skill tree system. I was very happy to not have to spend any skill points on Coercion, Herbalism or anything else that took away from my ability to melt faces. I played a mage, as I tend to do, and my skill points should go to magical skills, not potion-making. Speaking of mages, let’s get back to the characters and one of the reasons I feel this game is worthwhile.

Courtesy BioWare
Hawke will stab you in the face, then melt it.

As Dragon Age II carries on, you get to know the characters, develop friendships and even engage in romances. One of the things that the writers never forget is that everybody has disparate motivations for doing what they do. And sometimes, those motivations will test their relationship with the player. I encountered such a moment, right at the very end of the game. I won’t say what happened, but the impact of the event was so great that I had to sit back, take my hands from the controls, stare at the character I considered a friend and weigh my options carefully as I would were I in that actual situation. That moment, that sort of immersion in the moment, making a decision that I felt had weight; that is what I want to take away from a game like Dragon Age II. A lot of what got me to that moment sucked, yes, but in the end, I have to say I felt it was worth the journey.

Stuff I Liked: Replacing the Arcane Warrior spec with new staff designs and mechanics was a neat change, and I liked it. Kirkwall’s a very cool fantasy city. There were some great nods to the previous game along with the usual BioWare shout-outs. Smooth combat and a simplified skill tree system. Neat ‘crafting’ mechanics.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The copy-pasted environments. The look of elves kept throwing me off. The feeling that just a little more polish could have made the story more coherent. And why is there no isometric view anymore?
Stuff I Loved: The characters, from the main party to the arishok and Flemeth. Getting pulled into the story when it bothered to be there. Hearing my party members banter.

Bottom Line: Dragon Age II was something of a disappointment, as in there were a lot of things that could have been done better. That said, it’s still a decent game with strong characters, smooth combat and enough good story points to balance out the negative, lacking aspects in the rushed design… but only just. I do plan on replaying it, and I’m more than likely going to enjoy those replays, which I guess makes this a game I would recommend. Be prepared, however, not to be entirely blown out of your seat. It isn’t a great game, but neither is it a terrible one.

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.

First Impressions: Dragon Age II

Courtesy BioWare

Finally.

After pushing myself to complete a replay of my original character in Dragon Age: Origins and the Awakening expansion, I fired up the sequel at long last. I know I have a long way to go before I can do a legitimate review and I’m continuing to do my utmost to avoid exposing myself to reviews both positive and negative. So, after a couple hours in the Free Marches and some hardware tweaking assisted by my lovely wife who convinced me to be unafraid of beta GPU patches, here are my first impressions of Dragon Age II.

Courtesy BioWare
Yes, I made my Hawke look like me. I did the same in Origins, and they’re related. They’re both mages from the same family.
…Don’t you judge me.

Characters continue to be BioWare’s strong suit. While I haven’t recruited every available party member yet, those I have encountered show a great range of personalities, motivations and quirkiness. I can’t say I dislike any of them, but I like them all for different reasons. Hawke him/herself also shows a good range of character depending on how we register his/her responses using a dialog wheel instead of the numbered choices of Origins. I’m sure it’s one of those divisive decisions that split the fan-base, but having Hawke speaking in his/her own voice gives the conversations more of a natural flow, and actually helps with the immersion into the story, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Staying with characters, however, the leveling system feels a lot less cumbersome than the previous game. It’s easier to make decisions as to how to tweak individual characters, and it seems that the reduced amount of choices will keep players from being overwhelmed and characters from outstripping their opponents. The lack of things like Mana Clash indicates to me that the developers wanted to present a balanced experience to make the faster-paced combat more interesting and thought-provoking. Again, more on that later.

Now, granted, I’m only a couple hours into the story of the game, but it already feels like a far more intimate affair than Origins. Without an over-arching “save the world” storyline, the importance and priority of tasks falls to the individual player. How important is it, to you, to reclaim your birthright? Would you rather blast X amount of Y opponents in order to earn Z coins to progress the plot? Immersion in the plot and importance of its points has nothing to do with a threat hanging over the characters like a Sword of Damocles. Personally? I’m liking that.

Courtesy BioWare

Kirkwall is a great setting for this sort of story. It feels like a living city. There’s places to explore, some of which you shouldn’t do during nighttime if you’ve any sense whatsoever, lots of people to talk to and history to build upon. The scale of it, with buildings looming over you and figures shuffling to and fro, draws you into the world without overwhelming you. As you begin to make your way through Kirkwall, the concerns of the outside world cease to matter as much as getting yourself out of the roach-infested scummy streets of Lowtown. The tidbits of news coming in, however, are something I appreciate, especially knowing the decisions I made in Origins influence the headlines.

Outside of Kirkwall, I’m not sure what to make of things. I’ve been through one rocky cavern already (the pass in the Sundermount related to Flemeth’s quest) and I get the feeling that’s the copy-pasted bit everybody’s complaining about. We’ll see, I suppose.

Speaking of questing, so far it seems to be a decent continuation of previously-used structures. I haven’t run into a straight-forward collection quest but I won’t be surprised when one shows up. I like the day/night system, requiring Hawke to go to different places at different times, as it contributes to the feeling that this is a living, breathing city part of a legitimate world. However, I’m not sure how I feel about the breaking of questlines into bite-size chunks: go to this area, find this person, blast them & their cronies, move directly on to the next area. It removes some of the impetus for exploration that was abounding in Origins. Yes, I know, this runs counter to my previous complaints of Origin’s length but in this case I think they’ve gone a bit too far in the other direction. Again, this is a first impression, so take it with the appropriate amount of salt.

Courtesy BioWare

The changes to aesthetics are another divisive issue, and for my part the change of elves from normal humans with pointy ears to waspish humanoids with oversized heads and Irish accents hasn’t grown on me yet. I mean, I dig the accents but the aesthetic is throwing me off. That could be part of the point – elves are supposed to be different from humans, after all – but the proportions just feel wrong. I haven’t run into an qunari yet so I can’t comment on that. But I still wonder why hurlocks, menacing creatures with human origins and malicious intent, look like rejects from Power Rangers and scuttle around with horrible posture instead of striding across the field to gleefully shove a wickedly-barbed dark longsword down my throat.

A word on combat: I appreciate the ability to pause the combat to issue orders as I did in Origins, but the removal of the isometric top-down view bugs me. I like the fact that it’s more active and fast-paced, with enhanced cries and interaction during a fight, but I can see why the removal of certain aspects pisses people off. Overall, though, I like it so far.

One of the things that really annoys me, though, is equipment. Half of the things I pick up are Hawke-only, meaning a good two-thirds of the things available for sale are useless to me. I don’t mind being able to save my coin, but it makes me feel like the development of my fellows’ equipment is dependent more on doing quests instead of making intelligent pre-combat investment decisions. Again, this is a first impression rather than a review, so that might change in the hours and days to come, but for now I’m scratching my head every time I get another item drop.

More to come, rest assured. Overall I’m really enjoying Dragon Age II, for the moment. We’ll see how long it lasts.

Return to Thedas

Courtesy BioWare
Son? You’re never going to be king unless you sack up.

Due to the fickle nature of aging hard drives, I’m playing Dragon Age: Origins again, in an attempt to reconstruct the history lost before firing up Dragon Age II. I know I can choose from one of the pre-determined backgrounds BioWare included in their new fantasy role-playing game, but one of the things I’ve always liked about BioWare’s games is the ways in which the things we as players do matter to future titles. That, and their well-written, well-rounded characters.

In an age where graphical hardware is pushed to its limits and gaming action is kept as repetable and generic as possible to maximize repeat success and profit, it’s heartening to see games that take their subjects and characters seriously, as a nuanced narrative rather than a brainless distraction. Games like Dragon Age also free characters from rails, allowing the player to modify the storylines of those around them as well as their own with means outside of violence.

I’m not saying that a game like Call of Duty can’t have well-written, well-rounded characters. It’s just been my experience that allowing the player a measure of freedom in their interaction with the characters around them creates more opportunities for those characters to develop. Character growth can be difficult to depict in video games, outside of numerical stat increases, and when it’s done well it can be inspiring for those looking to grow characters in more traditional means of telling stories.

Most works with which we toil as storytellers have a cast of characters in support of the protagonist. Assuming these characters have at least a passing resemblance to human beings, they should be affected by the events that take place in the story. They should be shocked, shaken, disturbed and disgusted by things. They should celebrate with each other when goals are achieved, and mourn when loved ones are lost. I think it’s vitally important that these things, mentioned even in passing, will help make the story in question more palpable for the audience, drawing them in deeper and delivering a more fulfilling experience.

I griped previously about the length of Dragon Age: Origins and yet here I am playing it again, end to end, with nary a complaint. It’s partially because I’m something of a completionist with this stuff, and partially because I feel I know the characters well and want to spend time with them. Even so, I’ve learned more about them this time around, and I’m curious how some of their interactions play out amongst each other. By letting the characters have breathing room, and including a variety of reactions and suggestions instead of leaving them entirely blank, BioWare deepens what could have been a somewhat generic MMO-styled RPG into a truly memorable storytelling experience.

I hear Dragon Age II is different in some regards. As long as the characters are good, I’ll be willing to forgive some stylistic changes.

Game Review: Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening

Courtesy BioWare
This review contains spoilers. Fairly be ye warned.

This is a review that’s admittedly been a very long time coming. My experience with Dragon Age: Origins, from my initial enthusiasm to my gripes about bugs and length, is pretty well documented. I picked up the expansion, Awakening in lieu of playing through the base game again. Having finally made the time to finish it, long after my wife played, beat and reviewed it herself, I was surprised with how much the expansion had in common with the original game, for better and for worse.

Having saved Ferelden from the Blight, the Grey Wardens now under your command are given the arl of Amaranthine, a land in the northern reaches of the kingdom that formerly belonged to one of your biggest and most irritating enemies. It is your charge to both protect the people of the land and rebuild Vigil’s Keep and the order of Grey Wardens it now houses. This is easier said and done for a variety of reasons. The nobles of Amaranthine are wary of you, the Keep is in shoddy shape and the darkspawn, who usually all but disappear following a Blight, continue to assault the countryside and, despite the loss of the archdemon, appear shockingly organized. It’s down to you to lead the charge against them, and try not to lose your new land in the process.

Stuff I Didn’t Like

Courtesy BioWare
I wore this face of Sigrun’s a lot.

Okay, I know that a patch came out back in July for some of this stuff, but damn are some of the initial bugs in Awakening annoying. Approval ratings on companions were messed up pretty badly, some quests were impossible to complete and others you couldn’t pick up at all. Some of the character posing was a bit off as well. Nothing catapults you out of the gameplay experience like your character wearing a dumb expression or standing in a ridiculous pose while something of great dramatic import is happening.

Another major problem I have with Awakening is a minor one I had with Mass Effect 2. There are fewer opportunities to chat with and get to know your party members. While Anders is Alistaire 2.0 (less shy, magely, every bit as snarky) and Velanna is Morrigan 1.1 (defrosting ice queen but now with pointy ears!), the additions of Nathaniel and Sigrun are quite welcome and I would have liked to talk with them more. And why are there so few opportunities to commiserate with our old friend Oghren over some brews? It’s like walking up to Garrus to ask him how he feels about Tali being back and all he says is something about calibrating the guns on the Normandy, only worse because we get even less dialog with the new characters in Awakening.

Don’t even get me started on how often this game crashed in the middle of a boss fight. I don’t know if it’s this computer or the unpatched game, but it’s like Crash Man got bored working for Dr. Wily and decided to start screwing with Amaranthine instead.

Finally, the game is frustratingly rigid in its handling of its ending. You are given the choice between saving the city of Amaranthine or staying to defend Vigil’s Keep. If you’re like me and got every upgrade for the Keep you could, and left it to save the city hoping to ride back to the Keep in your very own Big Damn Heroes moment, you’re in for a massive disappointment. Also, choose your ending party well, because you’re stuck with them for the rest of the game. Finally, the choice between destroying both the Architect and the Mother and listening to the Architect’s persuasive argument as to why he can and should help you shouldn’t be so black and white. Either you listen to him and give him a chance to free the darkspawn or he’s a monster and you kill him. Where’s the option to enlist his help but then chain him up in the Keep’s dungeon under guard while he does his work to ensure he keeps his word? All in all, Awakening feels a lot less open-ended than its core game.

Stuff I Liked

Courtesy BioWare
“Let me live and work to free the darkspawn, and there will be cake.”

On the subject of the Architect, I will admit he’s probably my favorite kind of villain. He’s intelligent, well-spoken, propelled by complex motivations and willing to do just about anything to accomplish his goals that doesn’t compromise them, even allying with the heroes if necessary. Being that my character was an intellectual mage despite wearing plate and swinging a magical sword (Arcane Warriors rock), I listened to what he had to say and saw things from his point of view. Again, it would have been nice to not be tied down to only the two options in this part of the ending, but I appreciate the distinction existed at all. It would have been easy to make him less dimensional and water the motivations of the heroes down to “kill everyone” right from the off.

The new spells, specializations and equipment in the expansion are all pretty well-done. I liked that I could spend skill points to get some increases to hit points and stamina/mana instead of putting more points in tracking or something equally useless. It was difficult for me not to notice that mages were still rather over-powered in comparison to the other classes, and realizing that the final boss fight was a rehash of one from Origins, once I had the positioning down it was a matter of waiting for the big area of effect spells to recharge after casting them one on top of the other. Still, it added to the epic feeling of the game, even if it was felt a bit “more of the same.”

Stuff I Loved

Courtesy BioWare
Yeah. “Fucking epic” indeed.

The Queen of the Blackmarsh, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air. Or lightning. Not only was her introduction pretty damn epic, the fight itself felt like it belonged in an instance in World of Warcraft. It required changing tactics mid-fight, coordinating party position and being fully aware of what was going on. Provided you didn’t get killed by Crash Man, the process of trial and error was that equal part of frustrating and exhilarating that I’d missed for most of Dragon Age.

What dialog we do get from the new characters is pretty well-written. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the things I love about most of BioWare’s work is the character interactions they build into their games, and Awakening is no exception. In addition to this, the actual story of Awakening is well-told for being somewhat unnecessary in the wake of the core game. It conveys a lot of that medieval fantasy feel and continues the BioWare tradition of hard decisions that need to be made. While there’s surprisingly less coherence between this expansion and Dragon Age: Origins than there is between the two Mass Effect games, it’s still more time spent in a well-realized and familiar setting. In addition to decent writing and memorable characters, BioWare seems very good at world-building. And this one didn’t require the applied phlebotinum of Element Zero, unless you count lyrium.

Bottom Line: The biggest thing that kept me from finishing this expansion sooner than I did were the problems I had with its bugs, crashes, companions, structure and superfluousness. Unlike Mass Effect 2, which recaptures and deepens the experience of being in that particular world, Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening: Revenge of the Colon is an expansion in every sense of the world. Everything from the core game is extended, from the stuff you liked (companions, classes, epic scope) to the stuff you hated (bugs, length, stupid story points). If you’re a fan of the core game and are curious to see what the characters are like with a few extra levels or what came after the fall of the archdemon, pick this up. Otherwise, I think you’re better suited waiting for Dragon Age 2.

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