Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dragon Age 2: The Mass Effectening

AKA Dragon Age 2: The Consolizationing. Or Dragon Age 2: The Not Quite As Engrossing As Dragon Age: Origins And Not Quite As Cinematic As Mass Effect 2 But Still Quite A Fun Gamening. It has, as you can plainly see, many titles. My personal favorite is Dragon Age 2: Templar Boogaloo.

The non-spoilery rundown is as follows: You play Hawke, the young refugee from Lothering, who travels from Ferelden to the Free Marches city of Kirkwall in search of an ancestral home to reclaim. You play through the next decade of Hawke's life as he or she rises from impoverished nothing to become hailed as the Champion of Kirkwall. You make friends, you make enemies, you make money, you make corpses- typical fair for any adventurer, and in the end, you make some very big choices that have huge ramifications on the lives of the people of the Free Marches and, potentially, the world.

The game bears a passing familiarity if the only Bioware title you've played is Dragon Age: Origins. It kind of looks the same, sort of. It's much prettier- the characters are rendered in better detail and are largely more attractive (Highlite the text for a spoiler: Until you see Alistair in one of his cameos and go WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?! NOT THE FACE. NOT HIS BEAUTIFUL FACE. The same goes for Zevran. Somehow, the characters from DA:O are not nearly as good looking as they were. It positively boggles the mind.) Their hair sways almost naturally as they talk or fight. It's quite charming. The environments bear a lot of the same structuring as DA:O, but are more lush, are fuller and more detailed, particularly the coasts and mountains. There are far, far fewer locals to visit, however, and this is disappointing. We finally see the world outside Ferelden (not counting the locations visited in the expansions for Origins), and find ourselves contained to one very small part of it. We have only one city to explore, one and sort of a half mountains, and one seaside. When new quests arrive, they only occur in the same recycled hotspots of each map. In terms of scale, DA2 is dwarfed by DA:O.

Despite it's uncanny, permeating and intentional resemblance to Bioware's other franchise, DA2 is similarly anemic in scope when compared to Mass Effect 2, the game on which DA2's conversation and decision-making mechanisms are based. The combat is pulled back enough to allow you to manage your entire group, not as much as in DA:O and is actually much more fun to play on a console than the first installment. In appearance and gameplay, DA2 is a very solid bastardization, taking what ostensibly should have been the best parts of Origins and ME2 and then fundamentally missing the point.

There are many places in which Dragon Age 2 succeeds. The characters are colorful and interesting, the combat is fluid, the decisions are hard, it's just that none of them reach the standard set in the two games that influenced DA2 the most. The character voicing is wonderful: Jo Wyatt moves seamlessly but distinctively through the noble, sarcastic and hard ass options, always managing to sound like the same character despite the extremes in the choices of response. Nicholas Boulton, for all that I'm only four hours into my dude!Hawke playthrough, seems so far similarly adept at managing this balance in the character. He has a nice voice, and unlike ME2, I don't feel obligated to make him a douche bag. Side note: If you haven't played ME2, do so, and play as dude!Shep, and make him as mean as possible, because nothing but hilarity will ensue. Howden, Roth, Emery, Kruger, Newman and Myles all deliver well nuanced performances as your hero's traveling ensemble, and their banter is interesting and human, but the truly stand-out performance of DA2- as Steve Valentine (Alistair) was of DA:O and Michael Beattie (Mordin Solus) was of ME2,  is Brian Bloom as Varric Tethras. Regardless of who you decide to romance in the game, Varric will probably be the one relationship you care about the most. Roguish, charming, mercenary, laconic, sharp- Varric not only has one of the coolest weapons of the game, but is by far the best developed of the companions. He is also your questionably-reliable narrator.

Dragon Age 2 is a story being told. Varric, being interrogated by an operative of the Chantry, is recounting the tale of the Champion's involvement in the plot's main event. This leads to some truly wonderful moments, particularly when Varric lies. It's a device that works tremendously well for the story, and a unique take on linear gameplay, especially when massive time-jumps are involved, that I quite liked and that Bioware really has a knack for (see also: the opening act of ME2).

In so far as Romancing goes, your options are automatically doubled as most of your companions swing both ways. Very cool. I found the lack of interaction opportunities a little vexing, though. There was always something both fun and reassuring in the fact that at any point during our travels, my Grey Warden could turn to any companion and have a conversation. In fact, the player feels encouraged to do so throughout the course of Origins, because initiating random conversations, particularly in conjunction with gift giving, frequently led to fantastically written exchanges that you had no prompting at all to experience. It felt very organic, and was extremely cool. Being instructed by the game to talk to your fellows makes it feel like a mission, and this is mostly because one is usually attached to any chat you may have. I also miss being approached out of the blue by a companion with an issue or a question. Sometimes they'll show up at your house to give you a quest- your home and theirs having replaced a 'camp' where everyone congregates- but not often. The crew in ME2 felt more disparate, and each individual crew member was not so predictable or one-note as the DA2 companions are. This is not a comment on the performances, bear in mind, but the way the characters are written. They are cool and they are interesting, but not as cool or interesting as those in ME2. They are idiosyncratic and they are human, but not half so much as the characters in DA:O.  This seems to be the ultimate trend of Dragon Age 2- the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts, but every component is somehow lacking when held up against its predecessors.

In ME2, I didn't mourn the random conversations that made DA:O so real and so engrossing. The game works seamlessly, and I didn't find any one part lacking, although during a second playthrough the planet probing aspect was tedious; In DA:O, I didn't mind not having a voiced main character, because the dialogue trees were so extensive and the performances by the companions so complete; and in both games, the mission was so grand, the tasks so epic, the world so vast that at times I felt overwhelmed by possibility, but never impatient- except in combat. Difficult fights in DA:O were messy and repetitive, and this has been vastly improved for console users in DA2, though I hear the PC gamers' experience has been less thrilling. As for everything else, DA2 just doesn't quite hit the mark.

Now, it can be argued that DA2 is a much more personal game. You're following one person's rise and possible fall in one city. Much like I think the Iron Man movies showed, a hero's journey can be personal and the stakes don't have to be world endingly high for the story to be grand and feel important. DA2's sort of doesn't, though, and at the end of the game I was left with the feeling that the choices I had made didn't really affect the outcome that much- everything is very binary in DA2. You are for the mages, or you are for the templars, there is no middle ground. At every major plot point, all the little things you thought you were doing, all the times you tried to be fair and balanced, go out the window and you're left with a black or white decision to make. So what's the point of all the little decisions in between? The overall experience just wasn't as fulfilling. This has nothing to do with any attempt on my part to replace human relationships or success in my career with video games. Shut up.

Overall, the game is very pretty and very fun, but fails to surpass what came before.

Now for the spoilertastic fangirly bits. You can stop reading now, I'll just be over here freaking out.

(More after the jump)

The fanservice in act three of this game is absolutely ridiculous. Out of the woodwork comes Leliana, Zevran, and Alistair. Oddly, they are not as attractive as they were in the first game. Alistair looks bland and puffy, and HIS HAIR ISN'T THE SAME WHY. WHY IS THE HAIR NOT EXACTLY THE SAME IT JUST LOOKS DIFFERENT WHY. DO NOT WANT. Zevran's lovely, fine boned features do not mesh well with the new Elf design, which features the nose so Roman it's practically an aqueduct. Leliana looks okay, but her lips aren't as pouty and her eyes aren't as bright. It's just sort of strange. Smaller characters from Origins reappear, also, like Cullen. Last seen being outraged at my Grey Warden's decision to spare the Ferelden Circle of Magi, he is now the right-hand templar of Knight-Commander Meredith, who is an unadulterated bitch. Still, Cullen is sort of a long-suffering puppy, and it was nice to see the ginger bastard again. The characters I missed the most, of course, were Oghren (who would not approve in the slightest of slick surface-dwarf Varric, and also- HOW did Bioware manage to make a game without Steve Blum in it? I'm baffled.), Shale and Sten. Sten, the Qunari with a heart of gold. Or something. Mark Hildreth's performance of Sten was more moving than any of the Qunari voices in DA2, but I think that has more to do with the race's activities and relationship to the Champion. If you ever read this, I love you, Mark, and whatever the whining otaku said, I thought your Heero Yuy was excellent. Man, I'm a dork.

There is some seriously dark stuff in DA2. In Origins, I was not infrequently taken aback by the choices presented me: killing a small child, manipulating my fiance into sleeping with a witch so she would conceive a demon baby, aiding and abetting despots. Whatevs. By far the most unnerving creature in Origins was, of course, the Brood Mother. The Brood Mother is what the darkspawn turn women into. They taint the women with their blood, then force feed her people until she becomes a giant grotesque darkspawn breeding creature. It is Nightmare Fuel of the very Highest Octane. Similarly, the characters have dark pasts that involve serious emotional abuse, physical abuse, enslavement, etcetera, but everything is couched in terms vague enough to be merely unsettling and not necessarily evocative of a visceral response. In DA2, when Anders just comes right on out with the information that templars raping circle mages is not uncommon, or when Fenris talks about his past as a slave and life under the magisters, it's a bit shocking.  There is a lot of very disturbing sexual content that you never see, but is most certainly there. The violence level is extremely high, not just because the blood spatter is as unlikely as ever, but because terrible things are done to people who do not deserve them and cannot defend themselves, and the repercussions are dire. Kirkwall is not a nice place, and the people in it are not, for the most part, lawful good. If they think they are, watch out, because they might be a serial killer.

No, actually.

Let's talk about the Qunari mage. In a truly grotesque moment, the player is shown what the Qunari does to their magi: they bind and shackle them, weld iron masks to their heads, and sew their mouths shut. Magic is chaos and at odds with the Qun. They are leashed like dogs and used like tools, but then, all Qunari at tools of the Qun. They may choose to be, which is obedience to the Qun, or they may choose NOT to be, which means they will be exterminated. After quite the ordeal to get a Qun mage safely out of Kirkwall, he chooses- instead of living a life as an exile of the Qun- to obey the will of the Qun and immolate himself. Not particularly quickly. It is horrific. And amazing.

Talking about horrific and amazing, let's talk about the end of the game. THE VERY END OF THE GAME. THE LAST THING THAT HAPPENS IN IT. PLEASE STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN'T PLAYED IT YET.

So, having quite liked Anders in Awakening and finding his newly tortured and Justified soul (haha) to be rather endearing, my Champion chose Anders to become romantically involved in. We were all kinds of in love, everything was going swell- until he started acting like a sketchy bitch, asking me to distract high ranking members of the church while he went a-skulking about, donning black robes and being suddenly distant and not at all affectionate. What the hell is this?

Oh, it's him bombing a church like a damn terrorist. Fantastic.  The magnitude of what Anders does is huge, and automatically belittles everything that happened in the game before it, because nothing you do can prevent it from happening. Now, this makes sense from the point of view of the narration: these events have already happened, they are simply being told and you are, essentially, acting out the telling. But nothing else you do in the game feels as though it has any real significance in the face of this event. The Arashok must be defeated, the elves are going to get wiped out, your sibling is going to either confiscated by the Chantry or sentenced to death by the Dark Spawn. There's no feeling of possibility spiraling outward from your character like in DA:O and ME2. I just wish the game had felt like more. All this said, I really, really enjoyed my time with it. I got invested and had emotional responses, I admired the turns that companions' stories took and the glimpses of the Chantry and the Qunari we were offered. The overall plot was interesting, but it accelerated too quickly into something so huge at the end, I honestly didn't know what I'd been spending my time doing for the last forty hours.

Will play again, and enjoy again. but definitely not as many times as I did Origins. I desperately hope that the next installment of Dragon Age is followed by a colon and a word instead of a number, and that they apply a lot of the ME2 mechanisms that did work to the scope and character depth of DA:O to put the player back in Ferelden, continuing on their Grey Warden's path (if they're not dead, I mean.). Fingers crossed for a trip to Weisshaupt and a final showdown with one or more witch and her demon spawn. And some freaking Griffins.

Dragon Age: The Griffoning. I'm in.


Unknown said...

And then the very last thing that happens is NOTHING because they didn't bother to write anything beyond the final battle, what. Just some vague sequel-hooking.

The implication that the Warden and Hawke are working together to fight, I dunno, Flemeth or something is NOT ENOUGH.

But then, they can't do the epilogue of DA:O because, as you say, none of the decisions you make actually change anything, so they can't say 'and then this happened as a result.'

I am dissatisfied. I liked it, it's still better than many games, but... graphically and playwise a step forward, a step back in terms of story and player input. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

As it turns out, the elves may not get wiped out. There's a choice you can make that lets you walk out of there without massacring them.

Unknown said...

And what's this nonsense about no pre-final battle kiss with Anders? I spare your terrorist ass and agree to run away with you (leaving behind a PRIME piece of real estate) and all I get is a rousing speech?! SRSLY?!

Also, I found maybe half a dozen bugs/glitches. Not gamebreaking, or as many as DA:A had, but still pretty annoying. Isn't that what game testers are for?

In conclusion, I fracking loved this game. Despite my griping. Really liked your fair and balanced review!

Eleni said...

I had the same thought when I saw Zevran. What did they do to his face? I am trying to forget it and only remember him as he was in DAO.

I missed the extensive conversations with party members, too. How else are you going to learn that Leliana loves shoes, or that Sten's favorite thing about Ferelden is cookies? Given all the random conversations between party members in DA2, it seemed like they all had more of a rapport going between each other rather than with Hawke. I thought that was one of the game's strengths, actually--that it felt like the party members had lives outside of following you around. They didn't always sit in the same spot in camp, or lock themselves into one room on the ship. Sure, you could unrealistically always find them in a certain place when they weren't in your party, but they visited each other, looked out for each other, played cards and stuff while you weren't there. It helped to make the characters and the city feel real.

It's true that the places you can travel in DA2 are pretty limited (apparently everyone who runs away from Kirkwall ends up on the same stretch of the Wounded Coast...). But in return, we got to become familiar with a more fleshed-out city. I'm still not sure I love it as much as Athkatla, but it didn't bother me that there was so much to do in Kirkwall.

The game felt very...second part of a trilogy. We didn't save the world, but we were an important player in events that have shaken the world and will need to be resolved. Hopefully, Hawke can help resolve it. I like her. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel. It will be interesting to see how they work in the Grey Warden depending on whether he/she is alive or not.

Blogger said...

If you'd like an alternative to casually dating girls and trying to figure out the right thing to say...

If you would rather have women chase YOU, instead of spending your nights prowling around in noisy pubs and restaurants...

Then I encourage you to play this short video to uncover a weird secret that has the potential to get you your very own harem of beautiful women: