Monday, March 21, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Final wrapup

Hours to Complete: 38
Final Character Level: 19
My Final Score: 70 (no change)
Metacritic Score: 83 (no change)

When I decided on a rating of 70 for my last update, I felt Dragon Age 2 had more upside than downside at that point. I had already experienced plenty of the negatives - the recycled levels, the repetitive quests, and all those console-driven design changes I had disagreed with from the start. The only thing left was the game's conclusion, and I really expected it to raise my opinion. After all, I was impressed with how the second act wrapped up.

But no. As it turns out, Dragon Age 2's ending is almost as flawed as its beginning. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that Bioware tried to set up a difficult decision for the player, but in trying to balance both sides of the equation, ended up making the choice meaningless. The setup also required some logical contortions on the part of key NPCs.

That's about as far as I can go without major spoilers, so let's turn our attention to my baseline expectations and see how Dragon Age 2 measured up.

Positives - Baseline expectations
  • Offbeat plot structure
  • City adventure with a more limited scope
  • Simplified inventory management
  • New character advancement system
  • The lore
I had plenty of qualms with the story, but the unusual "framed narrative" structure was not one of them. Yes, the plot - such as it is - is very disjointed. But there's a obvious reason for this, one which seems to be strangely overlooked in discussions of the game: Dragon Age 2 is a biography of Hawke. His or her presence alone is what ties the events together in the eyes of the story's chronicler, Varric. This was a novel idea for an RPG, and perhaps the best part about it was that it allowed the PC to break out of the confining, sometimes contrived, setups often found in Bioware's narrative-driven games.

The only disappointment in this group was the lack of new lore. Having worked on a standalone mod set in Ferelden, I'm well acquainted with setting's limitations and thought it was a safe bet that Bioware would expand beyond the templar/Chantry/mage paradigm that drove much of the plot of Origins. Unfortunately, Dragon Age 2 dwells on those factions excessively and offers very little that's new, aside from a greater focus on the Qunari.

The Qunari - they may not be pretty, but their presence in Dragon Age 2 is one of the game's highlights.

Positives - Surprises
  • UI improvements
  • Combat
I really enjoyed the gameplay of Dragon Age 2, despite my initial concerns about efforts to streamline things for a broader audience. I've talked about some of the minor improvements to the UI, but didn't come close to documenting every little touch that I liked. There were a lot.

However, the biggest surprise of all is how much I enjoyed the fast-paced combat. I wouldn't say it's better than the slower, more tactical combat of Origins, but it's fun and immersive in its own right. The gratifying combat animations, combined with the improved character advancement system, did more to keep me playing Dragon Age 2 than just about anything else.

"Enjoyably chaotic" is how I would describe battles in DA2.

    Negatives - Baseline expectations
    • Dialogue wheel
    • Preset character
    • Console combat
    • Romances
    • Overall reduction in freedom 
    Aside from the combat, my impression of the game's negatives were on the money. The dialogue wheel was as confounding as the demo had led me to believe, though I gradually came to terms with it over the course of the game by reminding myself that Hawke was not me (which wasn't difficult to do given the lack of choice the player is given). At some point the game flagged Hawke as a smartass and I was forced to groan and bear it as he cracked wise throughout the game. Thank God for the esc key.

    Laughably linear dialogue from early on in DA2.
    Despite my vow not to partake in Dragon Age 2 romances, a relationship with Merrill just sort of... happened. It wasn't terribly deep, but what was there was more tastefully done than the romances in Origins. However, this still stays in the negative column due to the awkward way the other romances are offered up. Dancing around spoilers again, I'll just say that Dragon Age 2 falls victim to some of the pitfalls I mentioned in my post on gay romances.

    Negatives - Surprises
    • Recycled content
    • The writing
      If I were writing a proper review, I might title it "Dragon Age 2: Reduced, Reused, and Recycled." The reuse of levels, creatures, and themes is the foremost impression I take away from the game. I think I expressed my thoughts on this thoroughly enough in my last post, so I won't expound any more here.

      Levels are shamelessly reused in DA2 (gotta squeeze this in one more time).
      It's not exactly a surprise because there were warning signs about this in the demo, but the writing was also suspect at times in Dragon Age 2. Comedy is very hit-and-miss, so I don't fault the game for the often-painful party banter. However, I do fault it for the numerous anachronisms. No fantasy game should have characters who say things like "pretty cool" or make references - however oblique - to real-world pop music songs. I hate to be a total hardass here, but as any good editor knows, a few self-indulgent moments like this can have an out-sized negative impact on an otherwise solid piece of writing (and Dragon Age 2's writing is, for the most part, solid).

      Dragon Age 2 isn't as good as the professional critics would have you believe, nor as bad as disgruntled fans of Origins would contend. Overall, it is a good game, though the word "good" comes out with a little hesitation. I don't feel like I wasted my money on it, but I don't see myself replaying the entire campaign either (by contrast, I started many different games of Origins, and finished several times).

      My menu of characters from DA:O.  Yes, I am a geek.
      What really made it worth it for me were some of the innovative design ideas, such as the world map and the streamlined inventory management. Also, the story - although it's flawed, or perhaps because it's flawed - is something to talk about. It's arguably more interesting than the Origins story, and a far sight better than Bioware's forgettable Neverwinter Nights campaign.

      For those of you who have played the game, I'll post some humorous (and spoiler-heavy) thoughts on the story later this week. After that, I'm looking forward to moving on to other topics, including The Witcher 2.


      1. I'm almost finished with the game and I must say that I have very mixed feelings overall.

        One of the most interesting bits is definitely the story. It is flawed as you say, but it so refreshing to see something like this from Bioware, that is much more on the "ground level". Sadly, I don't think they quite pull it off. But yeah, as you said, the story as it unfolds in Act 2 with the Qunari presence... They had me really hooked there and I really wish they had managed to keep that level throughout the game.

        Sadly enough, my interest has dipped again as the game moved away from that conflict. I don't find it as horrendous as the first part of the game but the game is starting to bore me. So I'm glad I seem to be moving towards the ending.

        On the whole, I think my lasting impression of DA2 will sadly be one of unfulfilled potential. Occasionally there are flashes of brilliance, to the point where I feel it's some of Bioware's best stuff.

        But I dunno... I love the idea of a city adventure, yet I don't think DA2 does it nearly well enough. The day/night cycle has plenty potential but mostly used to push some more combat in the player's face during the night. The combat system is fun but crushed under the encounter design. The writing for Hawke is IMO not sharp enough to warrant the dialogue wheel. The list goes on.

        The framed narrative is interesting but it's also a thing that I think Alpha Protocol did so much better. It's not exactly the same (in AP you're controlling the dialogue in the flash-forwards as well) but I found it to have a lot more tension overall between
        the two talkers. It's not bad in DA2 but it doesn't *do* anything for me, at least not thus far. Perhaps there will be a pay-off during the ending but so far I feel it's mostly just a short recap of what Hawke has done, and occasionally Varric spinning a yarn but it hasn't really served a huge purpose for me personally. It's just there.

        But yeah, DA2 is a really mixed experience for me. I wouldn't call it bad but there are many parts to it that really are bad, if not disastrous in my eyes. There are occasional flashes of brilliance but most of the time it feels like a sort lite treatment of DA... And a few times it dips almost into fanfic level territory.

        Don't regret my purchase either but nevertheless... I think it's rather disappointing overall.

      2. Yeah Starwars, Varric's commentary didn't do much for me either (though I didn't have a big problem with it either - I'm just ambivalent). When I say I liked the framed narrative, it was really the structure - the way it allowed you to skip forward in time and make the story about whatever the PC was doing.

        The game should have ended with the conclusion of the Qunari storyline (preferably with the resources from Act 3 used to bolster the rest of the game). There are some fun parts at the end, and it's certainly interesting to discuss and debate, but eh... not top quality.

        Thanks for the detailed response. Sounds like we're pretty much in agreement.

      3. Oh yeah, sorry. Was mainly talking about the flash-forwards with Varric. I also liked the time jumps, and I think it actually made me connect with the companions a lot more. On the other hand, I really think we needed to see more changes to Kirkwall itself between the time periods so to speak. I know the jumps are only 3 years (I think it was?), but still.

        I just finished the game and, well... I found Act 3 to be a bit medicore and the ending of it didn't really help. And I think that feeling is increased by Act 2 being a lot more interesting overall.

        I also really missed the ending of DA. In DA, I think they did an *excellent* job of crafting both a cutscene that could put a note of finality in the cinematic sense, as well as providing the classic, simple ending slide telling you what happened with the communities. The DA2 ending feels very brief and... yeah, cliffhanger-ish to say the least.

        Been fun to follow your blog posts on this though. Always nice to read something cool-headed instead of either the A) internet raging or B) fanatical fanboyism.

      4. Good point about Kirkwall, though if they were going to dress up some of the reused areas, they should have started with the ones that were supposed to actually be different locations. But yeah, it would have been great to depict different seasons in Kirkwall, maybe have the city dressed up for a big holiday, or just have new structures going up. Huge missed opportunity.