Friday, March 18, 2011

DA2 Playthrough: Repetitive, risky, and repetitive

Hours In: 35
Character Level: 17
My Score: 70 (-5)
Metacritic Score: 83 (-1)

Wow, this is taking longer than expected. Maybe it has something to do with my tendency to ride the spacebar through these games. Or the fact that I'm always stopping to take screenies (if only there were a way to economize on images). Anyway, since I'm finally nearing what I assume is the end of Dragon Age 2, I thought I'd check in with my latest thoughts before I experience the game's finale.

Last time around, I listed one thing that could potentially raise my score and one that could lower it. Here's a followup.

Potential to Raise: The story (no spoilers)
Yes, the fact that the plot has finally gotten going has raised my opinion, but only slightly. I admire Bioware's attempt to tell a more personal story in Dragon Age 2, and I especially appreciate the freedom provided by the game's loose structure. That said, the Hawke family storyline could really use more development to help it rise above the game's myriad sidequests. The major events that impact Hawke personally - while carried off fairly impressively - essentially come out of nowhere.

There's a lot more I could say, but not without major spoilers.

This has nothing to do with key events in Hawke's personal story - nor does just about anything else in the game.
Overall, I have too many reservations about the specifics of the Dragon Age 2 story to rate it as a big positive. I do like the intent behind it though. For a game that is supposedly "selling out" and coming from an industry that is notoriously risk-averse, Dragon Age 2 offers up a new and risky kind of narrative. And all this in a sequel. Bioware deserves a little extra credit here.

Potential to Lower: Repetitive gameplay
A bigger negative than I expected. The core game is already thrifty with the level design, taking place as it does in a single city with districts that change - that is, have slightly different versions - based on the passage of time. That part works well, even if Kirkwall isn't quite as detailed or distinctive as it should be. But then to reuse the same levels for a multitude of other areas, pretending they're completely different locations... words fail.

If you're familiar with the toolset, essentially what Bioware did was to take finished levels and make lots of variations of them using placeables to block paths. This isn't fooling anyone, and it has the unfortunate side effect of making the area map unreliable. See, the area map still shows routes that have been made impassable through inactive doors or other obstacles.

It looks like I should be able to follow the passage north, but the door is unclickable.
I get the decision to reuse levels in order to allow for a greater number of quests than would otherwise be possible. But there's a better way. They could have created the variations in the Level Editor and thus made the paths completely invisible, instead of just blocking them off. Adjusting the lighting would have gone a long way toward disguising recycled areas, too. Yes, this would have required more work, but I think it's the bare minimum required to pull this off.

Less talked about, but just as draining on the game experience, is the reuse of creatures. There are some great new creature models for Dragon Age 2 to add to the ones returning from Origins, but those creatures are rare or even one-time encounters. In a game that's trying to stretch its resources to the max, this doesn't make a lot of sense. I'd gladly trade one of the game's set piece encounters for a couple new creature models to replace some of the Shades that seem to be everywhere.

There are a lot more positives and negatives to discuss, but I'll save them for my final wrap-up. Based on Dragon Age 2's relentless repetition and other annoying bits, I've dropped it slightly to a rating of 70. That's right where I started, though the way I've gotten there has been anything but expected. Look for my final thoughts in the next few days.