Saturday, March 12, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Ouch

Hours In: 15.5
Character Level: 10
My Score: 75 (+10)
Metacritic Score: 84 (no change)

Don't worry - my character isn't really getting run through by a staff in that picture. It's just a graphical glitch, the type that happens frequently in Dragon Age 2 due to all the combat acrobatics (I also have one that makes it look like my character is tenderly embracing a giant spider). But while my character may not be getting skewered, it's pretty clear that Dragon Age 2 is.

Just look at the Dragon Age 2 forum, which has transformed from a temple of Bio-worship into a fountain of Bio-hate. Or, if you prefer more objective measures, check out some of these player ratings:
I wasn't expecting my own rating of Dragon Age 2 to be above the average. After all, when I go out to Netflix, I typically see stuff like this:

Average of 1,587,069 ratings: 3.8 stars

Our best guess for Mat: 2.3 stars

(That was for Prince of Persia, by the way.)

I've been dragging down user ratings my whole life. And yet, in the case of Dragon Age 2, I see a lot of positives. It's actually beating my expectations at this point.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm impressed with many of the game's smaller features. And more than that, I admire Bioware's effort to question every fantasy RPG convention. I have no problem with them trying to make RPGs more accessible, and in many cases I think they succeeded in Dragon Age 2 without dumbing down the game. It could be that the game is drawing heavily from other genres and I'm betraying my limited gaming experience here, but it seems to me Dragon Age 2 is packed with great design ideas. This is far more than I expected from a game with a two-year development time.

A common complaint about RPGs is that they're longer than other games simply because they contain a lot of tedious time-fillers like inventory management, backtracking, and rules evaluation. Dragon Age 2 addresses this with some excellent design work that allows you to focus on the content - the fun parts - rather than the chores.

Shopping is less time-consuming in Dragon Age 2 due to the simple interface and limited selection of items.

Of course, when you allow the player to focus so much on content, you better have some good content. And this is where Dragon Age 2 really comes up short. There's simply not enough creature models or unique areas to support the number of quests in this game. If this post were simply about why Dragon Age 2 has elicited such a negative reaction from players, we could stop right here. The reuse of areas, and the shoddy impression it creates, seem to be generating the most outrage.

However, to me, it's equally problematic that Dragon Age 2 doesn't have a larger intellectual space to work with. With all the effort poured into designing and writing sidequests, it's baffling that the Dragon Age team didn't do more to expand the world of Thedas. World-building is the foundation for everything else, and it's also extremely fun if you're a writer who gets to do it. Yet somehow here we are in a new city on a new continent still talking endlessly about the Chantry, templars, and apostates. The Forgotten Realms, this ain't.

While I've talked about my annoyances with some of the game's prose, the quest design and plotting are good overall, and - dare I say - groundbreaking at times. However, there's only so much you can do with limited art resources and a shallow game setting. Too many quests go something like this: A [ templar | apostate | VIP ] is missing, and when you find them you learn they [ ran away | are possessed | were captured by a nefarious organization ]. After a while it all starts to blend together, to the point where you really do need the hand-holding of the quest compass and other "convenience features" to remind you of what you're doing.

Despite all that, I'm still having fun with the game and logging lots of hours on it (for me, anyways). As others have noted, combat is extremely repetitive - with perhaps 90% of the encounters featuring large numbers of enemies who come at you in waves. If I were playing anything but a crowd-controlling mage, I might be pulling my hair out right now. However, tossing enemies around with my Force Mage still hasn't gotten old. Maybe it never will.

The new mage staffs are fun, too.
This isn't a final summary of my thoughts on Dragon Age 2, but my opinion is starting to harden now. I've only just started the Deep Roads portion of the game, so it's possible the main plotline - which hasn't really gotten going yet but seems to be laying the groundwork for something - will raise my opinion. On the other hand, I've heard there aren't many unique areas once you get past this part of the game, so it's also possible that the sheer repetition of it all will wear me down. I'll post again next week with my final thoughts.