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Hi, I'm Tess. I'm thirty and live in London. Dances with Squirrels is a blog for my collected stories and stuff. My books are available on your friendly regional Amazon in paperback and e-book. Comedy fantasy, The Gatekeeper on the Docks is here and The Ghastly London Ghost Stories Omnibus is here. If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, I'm @TessStenson

Friday, 9 May 2014

Hawkewind: A Dragon Age II retrospective.

A mine worker that Hawke and her party rescued warned us not to go that way; there was a huge dragon that way. “Oh, are we going to go that way? I’ve never seen a huge dragon before” chimed in Merrill. I burst out laughing at the question. Merrill’s earnestness was just adorable against the piles of dead miners that littered the area I’d just fought through. Likewise, people had been warning me away from getting Dragon Age II upon its release in 2011 and yet I found it an entirely endearing and enjoyable game, despite its many flaws.

Shockingly, a game named Dragon Age II features some dragons.

After a terrible pre-release marketing campaign, Bioware’s original Dragon Age: Origins turned out to be something of a modern RPG classic that resonated well with players (particularly with its PC release). It was a huge game with what I’m sure the game’s publisher EA relished describing as being epic. It was filled with interesting characters and well written scenarios, all stuffing a familiarly Tolkienesque setting that had enough tweaks and changes to well known fantasy tropes to keep it interesting. There was a lot of scope for players to create their own character and were given six separate origin stories for them to play through as a prologue. Choices the players took in their prologue story could have big effects on how the rest of the story panned out for them. The choices my Dwarven princess character took in her origin story made her return to her home, the underground city of Orzammar, more than a little awkward later on in the game. There was a great deal of detail and attention that went into the game. It took Bioware five years to make, and it really showed. It was bloody huge.

The game centred on the coming of the dreaded Fifth Blight upon the world of Thedas. The Blights come when one of the corrupted Old Gods are awoken by The Darkspawn (the Dragon Age take on Orcs) and they rise to wreck havoc and kill indiscriminately, and do your typical naughty ancient evil like things. Blights are bad then. Only The Grey Wardens are able to stop a Blight, and would you believe it but your character ends up being inducted into The Wardens. Unfortunately, betrayal! Tragedy! Intrigue! You find yourself as one of two surviving Wardens and so must rebuild the order and form an army to take on those damned Darkspawn and their twisted brood. No, Origins didn’t exactly have the most original or thought provoking main storyline. As with most RPGs though, it was in the characters, world building, interactions and side quests that provided most of the meat and substance. You could barely move without coming across details about the world and the people in it. The characters were wonderful and well written and led to some truly memorable moments. Recently reanimated golem Shale and her hatred of pigeons, Alistair and Morrigan’s constant bickering and Oghren’s drunken rambling provided some of my personal favourite bits of dialogue in gaming. Everything came together to make a great RPG game. A sequel was inevitable.

Darkspawn. Boo. Hiss.

The Dragon Age lore was very clear about Blights being very rare events. After all, those scandalous Darkspawn need time to retreat back underground and start searching for another Old God to raise, and I imagine they’d want to sit and think about what they’ve done and reflect on bad decisions in their lives. The country of Ferelden (which was the setting in the world of Thedas for the first game) had suffered civil war, magic spawned abominations, assassinations and uprisings. The elves in the forests had had a spot of werewolf trouble and a war of succession had kicked off in the Dwarven lands. The add-on to Origins, Dragon Age: Awakenings, had dealt with the aftermath of The Blight. Ferelden was thoroughly mined for ideas and setting the sequel there may have been a bit too much. As for plot, another world changing peril of ancient evil and ultimate destruction may be a little unbelievable, even by high fantasy standards. So Bioware decided on a much more limited scope for its story and setting it in a smaller and more intimate place. They also decided to do away with the separate origin stories for players to choose and instead give the player character a single, fully voiced persona and background. Players would influence this character’s personality but the options to create their own character beyond choosing facial features were more limited. Much like how players interacted with the world in Bioware’s other big franchise, Mass Effect. They even brought in Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel during conversations to allow for smoother flowing conversations and clearer indication of the type of response players were choosing.

In Dragon Age II players take on the role of Hawke, eldest sibling of the Hawke family consisting of Mummy Hawke, Leandra, and twins Bethany and Carver. The sequel starts off during the events of the first game, with the Hawkes fleeing their home in Ferelden as the Darkspawn are advancing and blighting the lands. Whereas the first game has The Grey Wardens travelling the world, forming alliances and foiling evil, the second game is more content to stick with a smaller core cast and more low key personal issues. Personal issues like escaping the chaos and seeking refuge in the city-state of Kirkwall (where there are surprisingly few Scottish accents). Along the way, we meet new characters, meet old characters, the Bioware tradition of giving you a prologue companion only for them to die horribly before your eyes continues and the game wastes no time in showing off its many flaws.

The one true Hawke.

One of the big changes to the series that Bioware played up was the overhaul of the art direction. Dragon Age: Origins was many things, but holding a unique or stand out art style was not one of them. It was a bit, in the nicest possible way, bland looking. The DAII team decided to spruce it up and give everything a make-over. The results were brighter and bolded characters with a slightly more cartoonish look. This worked well for some parts of the Dragon Age world, not quite as well for others. The Darkspawn for example went from looking fearsome and horrific to looking more like something from Scooby-Doo. The landscape too saw a bit of a makeover. Ferelden used to be like an unkempt country path with decaying ancient ruins, overgrown ponds littering the detailed environment, interesting vistas and you were free to explore it all. DAII’s country sides are linear brown trenches surrounded by boulders or the occasional wiry bundle of dull vegetation. The overall effect is one of a much less lifelike and far more barren world. Visually it hardly seemed like the same world. Unfortunately this lack of life in the environments extended to the rest of the game too. The world around Kirkwall had very little of interest to see bar some hills and the odd tree. It’s not just the environment that feels a bit lacking either.

Perhaps two of the things I missed most from the original whilst playing the sequel are also two of the pettiest details, but it represents the loss of detail and thought that the original game had in spades. In the original, the feeling that you were part of a powerful and fearsome band of rogues and warriors was helped given weight by the sound design. The simple act of walking around caused a satisfying clinking and thumping of armour and equipment that mingled with the heavy footsteps as you stomped around hitting baddies and monsters. This was not the case in the sequel which just had some rather weak footfall sounds as you ran. As far as complaints go, it’s a petty one but one that is symptomatic of the decreased detail in the world. Throughout the game there is a lot less incidental and background sound to the world. Maybe Ferelden is just a noisier place than Kirkwall? Maybe the creatures of Kirkwall are all mute and the people have a much more limited vocabulary? One man in the palace of The Viscount of Kirkwall spends the whole game complaining about how long he’s been waiting to be seen. Poor chap, I wonder if he’ll ever get seen.

Kirkwall. Its rather brown.

The other petty detail I mourned the loss of in the sequel was the blood spattered journal interface. The interface of the original was wonderfully detailed and stylised, taking the look of a battered and frayed journal that went with my Grey Warden everywhere she went. The sequel went for a blank black background with a plain list of entries in a dull font. It just seemed amateurish in comparison, where’s the detail? Indeed the whole user interface in DAII was simplified and made more controller friendly than in its predecessor (a cardinal sin for PC games fundamentalists who, sure enough, screamed treason and shouted “consolification” at the top of their lungs on the internet after playing DAII). Making it more controller friendly or more accessible isn’t a problem, but to be so reductionist as to rob it of all style just seems mean. Really it’s more a sign of the lack of polish afforded the game to its quick turnaround (about two years worth of development) and a desire to make it a more approachable game with a clearer GUI, just at the cost of its care and detail. Petty concerns aside, I was all about the story and characters and I was sure that they weren’t diluted and rushed too.

Varric and Inquisitor Cassandra getting cosy.

The game plays out in three distinct acts (after the Hawke party arrives in Kirkwall), all set in a framing device of an inquisitor grilling a crossbow wielding and chest-hair loving Dwarf named Varric. Spread out over a decade, the story’s three acts are rather disconnected from each other as Hawke faces a new challenge in her (or his, if you’re weird) rise to power. The first act is all about the Hawkes establishing themselves in Kirkwall, even though word has reached them that The Blight in Ferelden has been stopped. Varric convinces Hawke to join an expedition into old Dwarven lands where they find a magical idol that sends Varric’s brother mad and has the mystic power to relegate itself to a subplot in the following acts. Act Two starts several years later when trouble with ferocious giants called The Qunari stir up trouble in the city. Hawke defeats them and becomes The Champion of Kirkwall. Act Three sees tensions between the powerful Templar Order and their Mage wards heat up until a boss fight happens and the game ends. This disjointed story telling is one of the biggest complaints fans had with the game as it comes across as an unfinished and loose story, perhaps lacking in focus. Although there is some light foreshadowing of later acts at the start, there isn’t much to link up the acts in any meaningful way and all three acts can be taken as standalone stories well apart from each other. For example, there are Qunari present in the city in Act One but don’t influence the main plot at all and can only be approached in a side mission, otherwise they just stand around looking mean. A line or two of dialogue hints at them becoming a much larger threat that will take up the meat of the game. As Act Two comes to a close, they do finally attack with such ferocity that they fight themselves out of the game and are barely mentioned in Act Three.

The Qunari are one example of the great Dragon Age art redesign working out well. Qunari in the first game had no horns because of technical issues (Bioware couldn't get their horns to work with helmets).

At times DAII feels like a game of very loosely connected side quests. Some side quests seem like they could become plot important but fizzle out never to be picked up on again. Others feel rather truncated and unimportant, only for the game to suddenly tell you otherwise without much warning. It feels messy and rather like the game has a revolving door policy on storylines. However, it makes a certain sense thematically. The game is about Hawke’s world over the course of a decade. Crises come and go; old disputes get forgotten and past adventures become rather unimportant in the face of new dangers. It’s not about how these events really came to be. How the dispute between the Mages and Templars isn’t the focus of the game, it’s how Hawke sees them and helps resolve the immediate danger to her adopted home or to her new friends in the city-state. Hawke’s friends have lives of their own and do their own things between acts, but they come to Hawke when they need her help.

For me, Hawke’s relationship with those around her was the best thing about the game. In Origins I set upon a selection of companions who I would take along everywhere (Alistair, Morrigan and either Shale or Ogrhen), but it’s a testament to the strength of the companions in DAII that I was mixing up the party structure constantly. As the game progresses, your pals will come to you and ask for help in their lives. Just call Hawke “The Fixer”. The companion’s missions are the best missions. Like escaped slave Fenris tracking down his former master, or pirate Isabella’s search for a mystery artefact she stole and then lost or Mage/Spirit possessed madman Ander’s quest to free other Mage’s from the Templars. The way you deal with each character effects how they deal with you back with a friendship/rivalry system. The way Hawke interacts with them leads to some wonderful dialogue and moments, and the way the relationships between your companions’s develops works well to give the impression that they have a life outside of Hawke’s interaction. Again, the game is about Hawke’s world over the years, and how better to demonstrate it by showing how her friendships progress.

Hawke and her besties. Left to right: Hawke, Aveline, Fenris, Varric, little sister Bethany, Isabella, Anders and Merrill. Not shown are little brother Carver, because he went and got himself killed, and Sebastian. The latter of which had abandoned me by this point, so I'm not going to show out of spite.

Despite the Mass Effect style dialogue wheel not allowing the same sort of depth or branching choices as the older dialogue options list, there are enough choices to make in conversation to let Hawke develop her own personality. There are three basic types of response to give; the nice one, the aggressive one and the snarky one. A nice touch is that the more you choose one type of response, the more that personality type will come out in Hawke’s travels. My Hawke ended up being a bit of a sarcastic happy-go-lucky cow but who tries to do the right thing, and that came across in her conversations even when I wasn’t specifically being asked to choose a reply option. Likewise, play as an overly aggressive and unpleasant Hawke, the cut scenes and incidental dialogue will reflect that and everyone will begin to hate you and probably abandon you when the time comes for them to choose their allegiances. I say probably because I tend to get overly invested in these games and have a genuinely hard time playing as an unpleasant person and taking the evil options. This is either because of some personality complex I have and a need to be liked, or the game and its characters is interesting enough to get me to care.

There are plenty of nice little touches in the characters, if not elsewhere in the game. Past actions (from Origins as well as earlier in DAII) will be remembered and referenced throughout. Isabella, for example, was in the first game briefly (and is an example too of where the redesigning of the art style benefitted the game) will talk about meeting your Origins character, if they did meet for you. She’ll even remember talking to Alistair from Origins if he was around when you met Isabella in the first game. Another returning character, Anders, will fondly reminisce about his old cat, Ser Pounce-A-Lot; if your Grey Warden did give him a pet cat (if you didn’t, you’re probably a monster). Background characters will talk about the rumours they hear from Ferelden and the actions that your player from Origins took. Piss off Aveline at any point? Oh she’ll remember and remind you about it years later. Show some kindness to Merrill when she’s abandoned by her Elven kin? Well she’ll remember and stick up for you when times get tough, whilst Sebastian may remember how you scorned his religion and swear a vendetta on you and storm off in a huff. The conversations between the cast were often a thing of joy. From the mistrust between magic hating Fenris and Anders to the way Varric looks out for Merrill, the game was always packing in more character development for each of them wherever it could. Sometimes touching and sometimes funny (especially if Isabella was involved), it worked nicely. Other details like Fenris’ hunched back helped sell the former slave history. Varric’s compulsive liar personality was ably shown by the very first prologue scene being exposed by his interrogator as a complete fabrication, complete with bizarre little touches like Bethany’s boobs being bigger in that fabricated story. It’s the detail in the cast interaction and development that made the game’s meat, and part of why it was so enjoyable. It’s a crying shame that that attention to detail was so absent elsewhere.

There ain't no party like a Fenris party.

One of the biggest and most common complaint that people had about DAII is the over use of assets in the game. Playing Dragon Age II, you get very familiar with the same handful of locations in Kirkwall and a couple of spots outside the city. You visit the same places over and over and it gets pretty tiring after a while. The scope of the game may be smaller than Origins, but it really doesn’t help itself my making you visit the same cave dozens of times for different reasons over the course of the game. Reusing assets isn’t exactly a new thing in gaming. No one really complained about the same handful of scientist models turning up again and again in Half-Life; developers can’t be expected to have unique models and assets for every little detail. Making time saving prefabs and generic models is a necessary part of game design; even a lay person like me can see that. The problem is that DAII does it so much that it becomes a detrimental to the integrity of the world Bioware are building. I can accept that a game set in one place over several years may see some retreading of areas, but the areas are largely static and unchanging and the variety of settings so limited that it makes the world seem so small and lifeless. Which is strange given how most of the areas are rather big by volume, just so poorly detailed that they come across as hollow sets rather than the environments around a bustling port city. Many of the levels are so lacking in detail that they become almost sterile. When I first installed the game upon its release, I remember being surprised by the game’s download size. It was only a little more than half the size of the first game. That doesn’t usually happen. Installation sizes go up with time, not down. Bioware apparently reworked their file compression technology to make it more efficient but it’s still a big difference in size. I told myself it was silly to judge a game by the size of its installation (because it is very silly) but quickly saw why it was so much smaller. It’s because there’s just so much less in DAII than in Origins.

Hope you like this cave. You see it a lot.

When not talking to people, what happens in these lifeless surroundings is mostly running around beating stuff up, because video games. The first game gave players a lot of room for tactics and strategy during combat. It gave lots of scope for stealth options, laying traps and ambushes, giving you multiple tactics to use in a fight and plenty of different abilities to learn and find new uses for. Not so much in DAII. It still has the basics of the combat from Origins, but not nearly the same freedom to play with. Combat was generally a lot quicker and the fights suddenly spawned upon you, so Hawke and company have no time to prepare a trap or a plan and the fight is over before any real tactics can emerge. Every instance of combat seemed to go exactly the same way: You get to an area, baddies appear, stab them until they fall over, another wave of baddies appear, stab them until they fall over, final wave of baddies appear, stab them until they fall over and then move on to the next seemingly empty space. Oh look, baddies have spawned out of nowhere. Stabby stab stab time. Combat became entirely too predictable and formulaic. It’s not bad as such, just uninspired and basic. Many of the combat abilities are fun to use, but the game desperately wants to make every move any character makes look flashy and bombastic. Even the most mundane manoeuvre elicits an over-the-top animation or exaggerated flourish. Bioware rather infamously stated that “every time you press a button, something awesome happens". The gaming world collectively cringed at the promise and fans of Dragon Age hoped that this wasn’t the herald of style over substance in the second full instalment in the series. Unfortunately, it seems that it was.

The game doesn't even try to hide that it spawns in enemies by making them jump out of thin air.

Yet I still love the game. It is a very messy game at times, one that is frustratingly limited and missing the depth that made the first game so compelling. It really feels like a game that was rushed out of development and was always only ever going to be a hold-over game until the next big instalment comes in the shape of Dragon Age: Inquisition later this year. It’s a game that some fans say never really happened and was just a series of lies told by the unreliable narrator, Varric. However, it’s still a game that my Steam profile says I’ve sunk well over 200 hours into over the years with a several separate play-throughs. I still love the setting and the characters. Despite being weaker than its big brother in its gameplay, it’s an enjoyable romp and compelling enough for me to want to see it through to the end. The game suffers from the fragmented nature of the story but taken as a collection of isolated encounters, it works well and has some interesting ideas.

Perhaps the game’s greatest sin is that it shows its working too readily. Too many reused assets, too predictable in its mechanics and too eager to move you along from storyline to storyline without fleshing any out as well as Origins managed. None of these are truly game breaking issues though. Annoying and flawed yes, but underneath it all there is a still a fine role playing game with a lot to offer players. Bioware, to their credit, did listen to the criticism and tried their best to offer more substantial gameplay and detailed settings in the two big downloadable adventures they offered for the game. Legacy and Mark of the Assassin gave players two completely separate adventures to play with all new assets, monsters, characters for Hawke to meet and stories. They were a big improvement but being just DLC packs for the game, they were limited in how much they could really do to change the core game’s issues. Maybe this, and the less than stellar sales, contributed to the cancelling of a planned expansion called The Exalted March? Either way, Bioware have some lessons to learn from their failed experiment that they can hopefully use to improve Inquisition. I am very much looking forward to that future game.

The biggest reason why I love the second game so much is that it makes me laugh an awful lot. Maybe that isn’t reason enough for most, but even with my recent play of the game I still found it bringing a smile to my face more than most games in recent years. Maybe that’s enough after all? It’s hard to argue that Dragon Age II wasn’t a miscalculation on Bioware’s part, but not the embarrassing calamity that it is often portrayed to have been. They tried to do something different to the original with a more limited time to do it in, it didn’t all work out as well as I imagine they’d have liked it to. Despite its flaws, it was still a game with a lot going for it and I’m glad it exists in my game library.



2 comments:

  1. On my third playthrough now of DA2, and I agree with pretty much everything you said. This is, objectively, Bioware's worst RPG. But their worst is still a high bar, and despite the amount of laziness present in the game in regards to re-used assets, and few at that, the characters in this game are, to me, much better than DA:O. Also, in regards to combat, I always tell myself that the reason the game is so homogoneous, and the reason enemies constantly teleport in waves, is because we are not really playing DA2, we are playing Varric's story version of the game, with his embellishments, warts, and all. Another thing working against DA2 is that the, in my opinion, much better Witcher 2 came out only a few months later. Still, this is a great game, flaws and all, that really doesn't deserve the hate it receives. I'm glad someone else out there agrees.

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  2. I'm glad other people agree too, it seems that the DA2 haters are much more vocal than the people who did like it, or at least are indifferent. I really like the Varric's-story theory, I usually think of the game in those terms too. Incidentally, I like the Indoctrination theory for Mass Effect 3 too, but that's a totally different can of worms.

    I've not actually played The Witcher 2 myself, but my boyfriend was playing it on his computer for much of the time I was doing my DA2 play through. I can certainly see why the two games end up being compared and contrasted against each other.

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