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LONG BLOG

The Curious Case of Dragon Age II

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Dragon Age Inquisition is coming out on November 18th. In preparation for this release, Bioware is trying to court fans of both Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) and Dragon Age II (DA2). This is not an easy task for them because there are many fans of DA:O who dislike (understatement) DA2 while there are also many fans of DA2 who thought it was an improvement on DA:O.

Bioware has its work cut out for itself because DA:O fans think that DA2 is a dumbing down of DA:O and that DA:I will follow suit. On the other hand, the DA2 crowd is not hopeful about DA:I because it feels that reverting to DA:O style will be a step down from DA2. Bioware, of course, claims that it will take the best from both, but we will only really know when the game is released.

In the meantime, I thought it might be worth looking into the strengths and weaknesses of DA2. DA2 has an odd place when it comes to audience reception. There are those who hate it, vocally, persistently. In any article that DA2 is mentioned, these folks will comment to make sure that no one forgets how bad it really was.

And then there are those who love it, ardently, unfailingly. These folks will write long articles about DA2 (lampshade hanging) and discuss its quality in detail so no one forgets how great it really was.

Because we are getting closer to the release of DA:I, I know passions are starting to run high again. However, I hope we have sufficient distance from the release of DA2 to re-view it with less emotion. Hopefully, we can understand what the concerns for DA:I are from the DA:O crowd and from the DA2 crowd and if they are ever in opposition. So here we go.

 

Combat

Negative: Waves of spawning enemies. It's a lazy way to ratchet up the the difficulty.

Positive: Cross-class combos! “Do I make individual characters awesome? Or do I engineer a massively effective party dynamic?”

Positive: Combat has better-looking special effects.

Negative: Combat is cartoonishly fast. No weight to larger weapons.

Negative: No traps. Not even out-of-combat glyphs! Overall, less tactical combat.

Positive: Better talent-trees. Upgrades are attached to their abilities and there are multiple paths to get to the highest tier talents.

Positive: Better tactical menu. More conditions available for characters to trigger actions.

My take on combat: I know most people complain about the waves of spawning enemies but I didn't even notice it until I read about it on the internet. My willing suspension of disbelief was able to encompass it, even during the Nightmare run. Once it was pointed out though, it became a source of irritation. However, my biggest gripe was the lack of traps which meant that I couldn't prepare for any encounters before combat. Nevertheless, I hope they expand on cross-class combos and keep experimenting with talent-trees.

Summary for DA:I: My guess is, combat in DA:I is what worries DA:O fans the most. It was simplified from DA:O to DA2 for “broader appeal”. How much further will they go in DA:I? (Other issue was choice, which is dealt with later on.) Overall, it feels like DA2 had some combat upgrades from DA:O, and some downgrades. I hope they keep the good stuff and revert the more tactical stuff back to DA:O.

  

Exploration

Negative: Fewer places to explore.

Negative: Dungeons reuse layout, break suspension-of-disbelief.

Negative: Fewer reasons to explore. The removal of collectible craftable items meant that there weren't many resources around. And if you missed a crafting resource, you just had to kick yourself because now it was permanently unavailable.

Positive: Better looking environment. From green trees to gold statues, it was a graphical upgrade from DA:O.

My take on exploration: I crinkled my brow when I hit the same dungeon layout for the third time. I actually gasped with disbelief when I saw that they did not even change the mini-map layout even though the actual dungeon had differences. (E.g. A path was shown on the mini-map which was not accessible in this dungeon. For reasons.)

Summary for DA:I: Keep upgrading the graphics. Bring back resource collection and DA:O crafting. (Obviously,) Do not reuse maps.

Until now, most of the points have been more or less objective. The following points are more subjective and likely to be more contentious. But that's what we are here for, so let's keep going.

 

Companions

Positive (contentious): Companions have their own agendas. In DA:O, every companion was willing to help you defeat the archdemon. They were divided primarily into “altruistic” (Leliana, Alistair, Wynn) and “pragmatic” (Morrigan, Zevran, Oghren, Sten). In DA2, the companions have more realistic characterization. They each have certain guiding principles: pro-mage, pro-templar, altruistic, self-centered, wanting to carve(r) their own identity etc. Their response to every situation will differ based on their principle. This creates a much more multi-dimensional group than that of DA:O.

Negative: Some characters don't have characterization other than their guiding principle. I'm speaking of Anders, of course. I know there is in-world justification of this because of Vengeance. But it doesn't excuse the fact that your only healer is a one-note character who loves to raise his voice to make his point. Constantly.

Positive: Companion quests evolve your view of your companions. Because the quests take place over a longer period of time, you see your companions changing, some for the better and some for the worse. Fenris becomes more depressed, while Anders becomes more obsessed. On the other hand, depending on your actions, Isabela and Aveline moderate their views and tend to align themselves closer to you over time.

Positive: Ambient dialogue is improved. Companions comment on side quests and companion quests. Varric starts taking care of your other companions. Over time, they start hanging out at the Hanged Man playing cards together. Fenris and Isabela start a physical relationship. Aveline covers for Anders' clinic while Isabela teaches Aveline to open up sexually to her lover. All of this is conveyed entirely through ambient dialogue. More of this, please!

Negative: Companion armour was not customizable.

Positive: Keeping the characters' looks consistent made their costumes iconic. It is super easy to recognize DA2 cosplayers in a convention.

My take on companions: I thought the characters were better in DA2 than DA:O. Even Anders, who became more annoying, raised some very interesting questions, like “how to deal with an extremist who is also your friend”? I cannot be the only one who has a friend or an acquaintance with extreme points of view. These people can be annoying to hang out with but does anyone go the extra mile and try to change their views? Or check in on them to see if they are developing violent tendencies? Most people do not. It really brings home the point that all relationships are fragile and you never truly what is going on in another person's head.

Summary for DA:I (contentious): Bring back armour customization but keep the characters multi-dimensional, each with their own guiding principles.

 

Story

Positive/Negative (supremely contentious): The lack of a clear antagonist or conflict from the very beginning and the resulting three-act structure made for a better/worse story. People fall on both sides of this issue. For some people, the story was pointless or aimless. There was no sense of purpose, so there was no feeling of epicness. For others, the departure from traditional story structure (set up bad guy, gather resources, defeat bad guy) was novel enough to warrant experimentation. The fact that you didn't know who was going to turn out to be your antagonist made it more exciting. And more realistic, because real characters (like Loghain, Arishok, Meredith) slide slowly into villainy. Pure evil characters like the Archdemon are just plot devices.

Negative: The pacing was off. People on both sides of the split above agree that Act III was too short and underdeveloped. There is also a general sense that Act I was too aimless.

My take on the story: Having pure evil bad guys is easy and, at this point, lazy. Dealing with characters with extreme points of view is more interesting. Feeling bad about killing virtual characters ought to be counted as a strength instead of a weakness. Similarly, the save-the-world fantasy has gotten iterated so many times that it has become default and the easy way out. I prefer the main story arcs of the Witcher series to the main story arc of Skyrim. If you have been set up to save the world, you most likely will. But if you are tasked with just saving yourself and your friends? Then maybe you cannot save everyone. Maybe the adventure will leave some emotional dents in you.

Summary for DA:I: This, I believe, is the major source of worry for DA2 fans about DA:I. While DA:O had interesting combat, it had mostly uninteresting enemies (demons and darkspawn: pure evil). On the other hand, while DA2 had less tactical combat, it had more interesting enemies (humans: misguided, idealistic). DA2 fans worry that in an effort to appeal to DA:O fans Bioware will dumb down enemies to “pure evil guys”. As of now, we know from the marketing that rifts (tears in the Fade) are opening in the world and demons are pouring out. My guess is that the fears of DA2 fans are justified.

 

Choice/Consequence

I'll preface this section with the Extra Credits video on Choice vs Consequences: bit.ly/XPIzFj

Positive: Choice. The one true reason I love love love Dragon Age 2 over so many other games is because of the choices it forces me to make. Every time it asks me to choose between Templars and Mages, I know exactly what it is talking about: security versus freedom. When mages complain about random searches, the game is essentially asking if I am okay with Stop and Frisk. (After thinking about it, I am not. It is too personal an invasion of privacy.) When Templars say that they must accompany circle mages everywhere, the game is asking if I am okay with a surveillance state. (After thinking about it, “yes” on the streets but “no” on the internet. Why? Well, I'll have to think some more to answer that.) Similarly, every dialogue choice with the Arishok makes me think about the discipline that comes with following a rigid ideology versus the flexibility, innovation, and degeneracy that comes with following no rigid ideology. This game is chock full of interesting choices.

Negative (somewhat contentious): Consequences. Despite all the interesting choices presented, different options do not lead to different consequences in the game. I could understand why this might lead to a lot of development effort if they had to keep track of every single choice. And to their credit they do keep track of choices made in some side-quests so it can affect future quests. And I also understand that they are building a greater lore, so they have to keep parts of it the same across all playthroughs. But at least, at the very very least, do not make me kill both Orsino and Meredith! For anyone who has invested in the story, that last choice is a very difficult one to make. To not respect that shows contempt for the players.

The reason I put “somewhat contentious” above is because there are fans of DA2 who believe that the lack of multiple consequences is a theme of the game. They say that Hawke is just one person and (just like the player) Hawke has to understand Hawke cannot save everyone. While I do consider this a credible theory, I still believe that the final choice should have had more distinct consequences.

(One article exploring the lack of consequence as a major theme of the series can be found here: bit.ly/YWUL8v Sadly, because of how old it is, its links to other related articles are broken. Another article called “Shades of Grey” considered the same issue but tied it better to DA:O. I can't find it anymore. :( )

Summary for DA:I: Both DA:O and DA2 fans are really concerned here. DA2 want to preserve morally ambiguous choice without a “save everyone” option. This will allow the choices to have more emotional weight. Meanwhile, DA:O fans want consequences to the choices they make. This tailors the story to each player and respects their emotional investment in it.

  

Final Words

Dragon Age II gets a lot more hate than I can understand. It is a flawed game. But to me its story and characters are strong enough to outshine its flaws. I have had four playthroughs so far and depending on how I roleplay, the reaction of the story and the characters have changed just enough to make every Hawke unique.

(E.g. Even on my third playthrough, I was surprised that my morally upstanding Templar was actually beginning to fall for Isabela. I had planned another romance for him (Merill, maybe?) but my Templar Hawke got somewhat jaded with his morality. Meanwhile, by showing trust in Isabela, she started opening up to him and became less jaded. In the end, it was too late story-wise to pursue a game-romance with her. But my headcannon had no doubt about it. They were totally doing it.)

With this post, I hope to explain to the people who dislike DA2 why others legitimately love it. (I swear I haven't been paid by, nor slept with anyone in Bioware or EA. That I know of. I think. That one night in June is kinda hazy though...) I also want to use this forum to ask you folks what it is that drives people from “dislike” to “hate”. The more specific you are the better.

I also hope that Bioware has legitimately understood these issues. For the most part, the demands of DA:O fans complement the demands of DA2. There's no reason they can't go together in DA:I.

November 18th cannot come soon enough.

 

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About AvtrSpiritone of us since 8:47 AM on 09.10.2013

Gamer since Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Playstation and PC are my boxes of choice.

Gateway drug: "Crash Bandicoot: Warped"

First addiction: "Age of Wonders"

Worst addiction: "Dragon Age: Origins" & "Dragon Age II" (over 400 hours combined), "Heroes of the Storm" (over 1000 matches)

Currently experimenting with: "Gigantic", "Beyond Good and Evil" & "Life is Strange".

Favourite games -

Credit to Dango for the custom-made banner! <3