I recently finished my fourth playthrough of Dragon Age II
(I previously wrote about my time collecting the game’s trophies
), but only on my second of Dragon Age: Origins
. Why is that? According to public opinion among gamers (and the games’ Metacritic scores
), Dragon Age II
is an inferior product. So why do I feel more compelled to play out Hawke’s story again and again despite having the “better” game sitting on my shelf?
Maybe I just like bad games. I don’t know. All I know is that Dragon Age II
is not the disaster people claim it is. There are things wrong with it—big, big things. But what some people claim are its biggest weaknesses are what draw me to it time and time again.
Hawke’s got a voice and personality. Maybe I like things dumbed down, console style, but I had fewer “oh that’s the tone they went with” moments with Dragon Age II
’s dialogue wheel. I felt more connected with the character just like how I grew attached to Shepard. In DAO
I feel like I made a video game character, but I never really roleplayed. There was a disconnect there.
But with DA2
I felt like it was my Hawke siding with the mages in one playthrough or my other Hawke condemning Anders in another. Hawke just has more personality than the Warden. DA2
took a risk by taking away some of the freedom when it comes to character creation—only be a human—no origin stories, but in my mind it creates a deeper, more fleshed out character.
The side characters are brilliant. They were good in the first game, but I think they hit their stride in the sequel. I miss Alistair as much as the next gamer, but I think that the banter between all the side characters more than makes up for his absence. I think Varric is a great character, and Merrill is a delight—she walks that fine line between naïve and downright ruthless when it comes to her magical abilities.
Even though the development team used the game’s single setting to cut corners and reuse assets and maps (side bar: that’s a huge glaring flaw), I think the game’s Kirkwall setting is stronger than the cross-country tour of Ferelden you get in the first game. Kirkwall has personality beyond the standard: elf camp, drawf city, and human medieval city of the first game. Sure it’s pretty damn empty for being “crammed full of refugees,” but the history behind Kirkwall and the Free Marches felt much more detailed than the individual towns and locations in Ferelden.
Kirkwall is a city built on blood, fire, and chains. It’s a former slave city, it’s been sacked multiple times, undergone a few revolutions, and finally it experiences the upheaval of the mages vs Templars fight in DA2
. It’s a city that has battle scars and a dark past. That’s more than I can tell you about Lothering or Denerim. Um, Denerim is the capital and has a king and some nobles in it. That’s about it. Kirkwall feels less like a sightseeing tour through quasi-medieval fantasyland. Personally, I’d love to go back for a little bit during the upcoming DA3
and see how my choices affected the city.
By limiting the game to Kirkwall and the surrounding area, DA2
feels tighter than DAO
. The choice of a single setting mirrors the choice to narrow the focus and scope of the story. Again this is to the game’s benefit, but more on that later.
Make no mistake, Dragon Age II
is smaller and narrower than its predecessor, but at the same time it’s the biggest game in the franchise (of two games). In Origins
you played as the Warden, a pivotal figure with magical Grey Warden powers and destined to stop the Fifth Blight. Because the game is a western RPG with all its tropes of increasing player power, for the most part, you had no doubt that you’d be successful. Oh sure you could lose and maybe get a “bad ending” or certain well-loved characters might die, but your ultimate victory was undoubtedly going to be canon. I mean, otherwise the franchise is over. Everybody’s been killed by the Darkspawn. This means DAO
has high stakes, but ultimately the conclusion is fairly neat.
throws all of that away—in a good way! Even though the story only affects the city of Kirkwall directly, the multiple endings have ramifications for the rest of the world of Thedas. In Dragon Age: Origins
you save the world. In Dragon Age II
you break the world. You just choose which side you support.
While some claim this shows a lack of player control—and they’re right—it also creates a fuller experience. Yes you
control the fate of the world in Origins
, but it also limits the other characters, the queens, kings, members of the Chantry, etc. They don’t get to make decisions that matter. The unique way the plot is structured in DA2
—with all of the choices and variables leading to a pair of conclusions that both deal with a civil war between mages and Templars—emphasizes that this is a bigger world beyond the player character.
Despite your best efforts to stop it (or encourage it!) the war between mages and Templars is going to happen, and it’s going to get worst. Whether you like it or not, your Hawke broke Thedas. That feeling—when you realize what you’ve done, the culmination of all your choices throughout the game—is so much more satisfying than simply saving the world. I’ve been there. I’ve done that.
So BioWare, I hope you’re listening. Learn from DA2
’s mistakes. No more reusing assets, okay? But don’t throw it all away. Learn from DA2
’s successes too. More choices with relationships. More personality for all the characters. Do these things and make me feel like I’m affecting a living, breathing, damaged world and you’ll be golden. At the very least, stay the hell away from a tri-colored ending cinematic