(Pictures are clickable thumbnails)
In Dragon Age 2 you play as Hawke (Warrior, Mage or Rogue), a survivor of the battle of Ostagar and refugee from the now destroyed town of Lothering. The first time you get to take control over him, he is in the process of fleeing from the Darkspawn hordes together with his family. You don't really get to know them so it is not very surprising that it would leave you uncaring to... certain things happening in that event.
Why can't the game start in Lothering instead, where you might start to appreciate your "home" with the hot topic around town being the currently waging war... introducing the characters for about an hour and forming a bond/connection to them till the Darkspawn come about and start ravaging everything so you can actually care?
During that Prologue, as one of the first things you also meet your first Companions aside from your own family, Jaheira and Khalid (now named Aveline and Wesley). A few fights later you find yourself on a boat floating towards the city of Kirkwall, a city that is apparently so overcrowded they can't let in any more refugees. Of course once you get in you find out that it isn't exactly as full as they make it out to be, either that or they purposely lied to you... because aside of the few vendors that don't really want to talk to you and let you rummage through their coffers instead and a few decorative NPC groups that look like they've fled Everquest for higher-resolution pastures which you can literally walk through, there's barely anyone around. Some of those vendors apparently can't even afford a chest to store their wares in, but let you stare into their empty market stand and discover all sorts of wondrous armor instead.
There's one word best describing Dragon Age 2: lazy (alternatively rushed or disappointing)
While the graphical quality of the game and the engine behind it has increased overall, which can easily be observed by the improved character models - barring of some of their horribly malformed hands - , lighting, shadows and a few parts of the game including DX11 features and improved downloadable High-Res Textures: http://social.bioware.com/page/da2-patches ), the use of it and general set pieces has not, in fact it has decreased by a lot... while Dragon Age: Origins was also... sketchy at best within certain areas a few examples like the start of the human origin or the dwarven city were generally more carefully designed. The city of Kirkwall is just a set of repeated building-blocks and textures and looks more akin to what could be produced with the Neverwinter Nights 2 Toolset (or a Lego set) some years ago, rather than an actual "living city". It has the appeal of a German plattenbau and is disjointed even further by the repeated zoning and loading screens. I estimate there was probably more work behind a single Mass Effect 2 quest-hub than the entirety of Kirkwall. This is especially regrettable, since almost the entire game is spent in this very city of Kirkwall... and not only do you have to walk through all the "districts" (so aptly named Hightown, Lowtown and Darktown) anew in every Act both by Day and Night to hand in quests you have to complete and get new ones, but they're also used in story context several times and even inspired some of the very few "dungeons" the game has to offer, notably for Darktown and its wallpaper-like layout, but also the Docks/Lowtown which look eerily similar to one another.
- 1) Brown waste without any kind of vegetation or features, also tenderly labeled sh*t mountain by certain people.
- 2) There's trees! 11 of them! Otherwise most of the "out-of-town" backgrounds/skyboxes resemble the planets from Mass Effect.
- 3) Look, it's the quadruple towers of Kirkwall! And they all look exactly the same.
- 4) The towers are celebrating their comeback in the skybox of Hightown. I count at least 4 of them. The rest of the buildings are the same you'll see all over Hightown and are all also base building-blocks carelessly placed with very little to no detail or prominent features to stand out.
- 5) You start to think that either those towers are a very integral part of Kirkwall or that a level-designer was a little lazy doing his job, there they are again. This time in the skybox/background of Lowtown and there's at least 5 of them. All the rest of the buildings look almost the same. Same re-used texture on every wall, same windows/doors, spikes in 2-3 variable musters on each and every surface...
- 6) The Docks use the same buildings/building blocks as Lowtown in a slightly different configuration, the same textures all over the wall that were used for Lowtown, the windows are all rectangular and black, there's spikes everywhere again. In the background to the right there's a large brown texture, that is supposed to be a mountain... or something?
- 7) All buildings in Hightown look alike, both from the out- and inside... again same building blocks repeated everywhere, same windows and whatever those decorative things on the roof are. Even the trees are exact clones of one another. There's no dirt, mud or anything on the ground, just boring featureless stone slabs.
- 8) Darktown, while it looks different and has a few new textures I'm not exactly sure what they were going for. It looks like there's wallpaper hanging from all the walls and the ceiling.
Talking about dungeons, there isn't exactly much variety available, there's 5 or 6 in total (cave, deep roads, mansion, warehouse and darktown) and by the end of Act 1 you've already seen them all... Let me repeat that, by the end of Act1 (of 3) in a Single Player RPG, almost all sense of discovery and mystery is gone because there are no new areas to explore, merely retreading of the old ones. There was a point where I had to run through the same underground cave for 4 side quests in a row. Not only do they heavily reuse the same levels, but they also have these giant "stone slabs" that either act as a very classy barrier so the dungeon seems slightly different or a door.
Gee, this looks... natural...
The combat and out-of-town (as few as they are) areas and dungeons are usually entirely linear, you'll be lucky if there's a single fork in the road that goes two ways. There's not much sense of exploration as you can usually only walk a few steps to the left or right at any given point on most of those maps and further they're not very memorable.
spans a 7 year narrative. Varric, the local storytelling dwarf and teller of your tale gradually skips a few chapters so he can get to the uninteresting parts depicting your character Hawke collecting 50 sovereigns or helping totally unimportant people with their insignificant problems. Despite of the skips through time several times and certain things happening around the city, not much change takes place in either the Free Marches or the city of Kirkwall and although 7 years might have passed people (including your companions) don't seem to age or require a change of clothes. Nor do any of the merchants on the city streets decide to move at all, waiting for you to talk to them on the same spot they were years ago. The buildings all look the same as they did before, there are barely any changes to the city and the story always takes place around the same time of year so there's no snow or rain or anything to remotely distinguish it from a previous Act. Even the senile barkeep in the Hanging Man tavern can delight you with mostly the same familiar rumors he already told you 7 years ago while not many people are willing to talk to you about the past events (or at all for that matter) aside of the few words your companions utter every now and again.
You travel between locations via map screens
The quests range from rather swell to mind numbingly boring, unfortunately the latter represent the majority. I won't deny that some of the main quests around the Hawke family, the Qunari and the overarching conflict and your companions are rather well done, encourage you to contemplate every now and then and also have fairly well written dialogue options, which incidentally is also the best part of the game.
But alas, most of your daily chores consist of your band of adventurers getting the task to save someone (let's name him "Bob") or collect something or other, which usually ends with you traipsing across the land, entering a cave and disposing of all the foes within then initiating in a bit of dialogue and repeat. Alternatively you might also be charged with killing someone directly or picking up a certain number of items, which doesn't seem to change all that much about the basic procedure. Most of these quests are very MMO-y and forgettable in their nature and you'll be lucky if they're initiated by speech and not by a letter from your home base or some board around town. There's also some that just "pop up" after you kill a certain group of enemies or when you pick up/inspect items in the environment that don't have any kind of dialogue and have you return say a finger bone of a corpse to its owner in the city, after which he usually replies something intelligent like "Oh thank you, never thought I'd see this again." and hands you a few silver or even gold coins for your troubles. Along the way you're also compelled to expand your plant and rock collection so you can order the newest shiny things from the latest catalogue copy of "adventuring daily" at home.
Almost altogether gone though are the short "atmospheric" quests of DA:O or previous Bioware games about the little dwarven girl that wants to be a mage, the waitress that dreams about owning her own establishment, skill/class-specific quests like healing a wounded animal or pick-pocketing/stealing from people have also been rationalized away, same with stealth-based missions and puzzles that were still prevalent in DA:O. Everything seems trimmed for efficiency, random NPCs not in any way belonging to the main plot don't have a story to tell other than one line anecdotes, they don't tell you anything about themselves and more importantly everything seems to end with Hawke bashing someone or something's head in.
The pacing of the story suffers immensely, because the entire first Act is basically comprised of exactly these type of quests. You sometimes get the feeling you're in an MMO (and it's sad that even some of those started having more engaging and memorable NPCs and quests than a Bioware game)... alone and have to grind money to get your first mount or something. Arkham Asylum this is not...
Speaking of combat,
it doesn't seem inherently broken, some things like animations and the ability trees (which were kind of a catastrophe in DA:O) have been improved upon although can be a little confusing starting the game and being able to choose from about 7-8 trees at once without knowing which is good and there seems to be a general lack of Active Abilities throughout, but certain parts of it make it very unsatisfying.
For instance the wave mechanic, which breaks any kind of tactical pretense the game might give you. There's no planning ahead or positioning possible when you don't know how many waves, what kind of enemies and especially from where they're going to come. They often just appear mid air and drop down on you all around you. They also seem to love spawning directly onto your mages and taking them out on higher difficulties. Some of the groups that you'll have to fight approx. every 20 meters in a combat area you can actually see in front of you, others again "drop in" a few different ways out of nowhere akin to JRPGs and they also have Level-scaling (at least once they're cleared, they're gone till the next Act)
Enemies appearing mid-air
Playing on Hard for the most part of the game - which is kind of similar to Normal in DA:O (till the end of Act2 to be more exact where a ridiculous fight took about 30 minutes of Benny Hill-style kiting and I decided that I just want to get it and the game over with) was somewhat challenging during the boss fights, you had to plan and tell some of your characters what to do or reposition them. I also regularly used the Tactics screen to change the behavior of my companions somewhat because it wasn't really entirely possible to keep an overview over the battlefield with the narrow camera and only took control of them when I absolutely had to. In DA:O I'd usually start a fight by getting into position, Pausing and zooming as far out as I could to plan my moves. Regrettably that isn't possible at all in DA2 where I always start a fight by rushing right in and mainly pressing 1-2-3-4 whenever the cooldowns are down and the situation requires it. "Cheesy" tactics also generally seem to work on a lot of bosses including dragons, where you just run around them while everyone else is killing them or just running away through a corridor when you know there's going to be a lot of waves spawning and they either follow you so you can kill them easier around a corner or they sometimes spawn and stay in the room till you come and get them separately. Most of those tactics unfortunately often seem to work better than most actual in-game tactics. The game also seemed to require a certain group composition at times to be effective (inspired by MMOs with the "Holy Trinity" between Tank, DPS and Healer/Support with an "Aggro" mechanic and skill cooldowns) which I don't particularly WANT in an SRPG but whatever. On Normal afterwards, during Act3 it was pretty much a Cakewalk... click enemy, enemy explodes in a comic manner and fills both your screen and floor with ridiculous red goo, move on. I don't think I had to reload a single time and the class system also has an ancillary role.
Parts of Anders's tactics options.
I also find it debatable if adding both Health and Stamina/Mana shouldn't be done via each Level up instead of having to spend separate points into constitution yourself. Unpredictably appearing enemies can slaughter your squishy party members without enough health, and to make matters worse there are a lot of "Sustained" Modes that decrease your Stamina or Mana pool by very high percentages, sometimes up to 40-50% or more if stacked so I usually kept those kind of abilities to a minimum unless required for say Healing or the likes, otherwise there wouldn't be enough for more than a few attacks.
For this the cool finisher moves of the first game had to go?
Another reason why the combat seems unfulfilling overall (especially in the higher difficulties) is that the normal enemies just seem to gain more HP and damage resistance while most of them don't seem to pose much more of a tactical threat (unless they spawn right into your squishies...) and you'll fight the very same group composition of baddies, most of them also looking the very same or similar over and over. The higher the difficulty, the longer it takes to dispose of them (double or triple the time, not just slightly longer), it usually seemed more tedious than challenging. A perceived difficulty induced just by larger health bars and respawning enemy waves never feels as rewarding as it does frustrating and cheap. Pause, outside of Boss fights didn't seem to be a very required feature on either mode, I generally used it to target a specific enemy cause the camera didn't seem to allow that when they were right in your face and jumping or running around.
The lack of a proper overview is probably also the main reason why friendly fire is only available on Nightmare, I can't really imagine having it on while I can barely see a few steps around me and can hardly control my party members effectively in battles aside of using the Tactics menu...
I guess it's one of those reasons all those RTS games use that weird isometric perspective instead of a 3rd person over the shoulder camera.
Oh yeah, and all the fun and different spell combos you were able to do in DA:O... they got replaced by a "if the enemy has a glowing symbol above his head use a certain skill" system.
The game's UI
is another step back, while the first Dragon Age had a respectable book layout that could be navigated easily with the mouse, DA2 has a nondescript "menu" for a lack of a better word with big letters more compatible with a TV on which you have to scroll through and click "Back" a lot to get to wherever you wanted to be. They've also streamlined the inventory and instead of separate -hand-drawn icons and item names you've got different symbols like a shield or a sword, the items (almost all of them) are also redundantly labeled as such. You'll find a lot of amulets labeled "amulet", a lot of rings labeled "ring" and a lot of shields labeled "shield" (gee, thanks game, I thought that shield-shaped thing might've been a space hamster). There's also a Junk tab for items that are mainly vendor trash now. Why it is there and why they didn't just include more coins in the barrels and chests all around the world I don't really know, probably because they might have seemed too empty without.
DA:O and DA2 UI
Part of the UI is the Dialogue wheel that, unlike Mass Effect 1/2 (in which I really do not want to miss it or the voiced character) I had a problem with in Dragon Age 2 (especially considering DA:O). While it's nice that the main character is voiced now, about every conversation piece had mainly 3 options "diplomatic", "jerk" and "aggressive". Clicking on any one of them usually leads to very similar results, if there's any difference in the outcome it's the "Friendship" or "Rivalry" points you get out of it. More often than not there is the illusion of choice where there barely is one... Want to kill a certain apostate during a certain quest? You can't. Want to hand her over to the templars? She'll come back later and hate you for it. Want to let her go? She'll come back later in the same scene and hate you for it in both cases turns to blood magic.
There's also the problem of having to interpret the short summary of what you're about to say on the screen and your character saying something completely different, idiotic, insensitive or contrary to what you thought the outcome would be or you intended saying. In DA:O you could at least read all the options (there were a lot more) and weigh them. There was always one that was good enough or close enough.
Not only that, but the "other" options popping up once in a while seem to have been made completely idiot-proof. There's even a symbol for every time a dialogue choice will start a fight so you don't have to burden yourself with the thought process of considering if insulting the Qunari standing in front of you may be the best course of action to take. There's also a heart or broken heart for any Romance option etc., I guess it helps making things clearer in an otherwise broken conversation system where you can't decrypt the meaning of the summary without it though.
on the other hand were the strong point of the game for me, while there might have been cases where I was more sympathetic towards other characters in earlier Bioware games or ended up liking them a lot more, every Companion in Dragon Age 2 has his own personal home base and contrary to Kirkwall and the outside world they do advance and change somewhat throughout the game. They seem to have their "own life" outside of your adventures and aren't portrayed as extras waiting somewhere for you to return and show a little mercy by taking them with you. They integrate within Kirkwall and most of them have their roles to play, not only in their Companion quests but also in the overall plot. Chances are you'll get attached to some of them and start hating others and you'll want to follow through to see how their life develops. There's also the possibility to call upon your companions during certain conversations, if you do that they take over for you and add their "personal touch". The amount of party banter has also been increased and it changes as time passes by. Even their relationships seem to evolve and when you go to visit one of them, more often than not a familiar face is already there. Unfortunately aside of the few times you are supposed to talk to them by quest Bioware has eliminated the possibility to converse and get to know them/get to know the backgrounds of their stories altogether.
From the gameplay mechanics side of things there are also a few changes that went awry, for one you can't equip any armor on your companions anymore, it's just one slot that is "upgradeable" and there are very few new "skins" that may be updated as the game progresses for 2 or 3 companions depending on your choices. This was obviously done to save time on character-based armor redesign. All slots that don't offer any visual cues are still there. If you do that... why not give every character at least 1-2 alternate outfits similar to Mass Effect at least? Even for your own character, apart from the 3 sets and 1 or 2 unique armor models everything I put on looked the same, from helmets to gauntlets to the main plate with just the hue changed slightly. Only ever found 4 or 5 different helmet designs for instance with my warrior. (3 of them being from armor sets)
Not only that, but your companions are basically restricted to a single main way of playing them. They only have one certain main weapon tree like "Archery", "Shield and Sword", "Dual Wield" or "Two Handed" and are further restricted by their specialization tree, which is only useful for a certain way of playing them. Mage characters are limited by not being able to choose the healing tree and a few support trees, there's no real customization possible and if you play on the harder difficulties you'll have to take companions with you that fill a certain role even if you don't like them.
I thought the way the "Lore" system was implemented into the game was an improvement though. In DA:O new entries usually just went into your Journal for you to forget about or be overwhelmed by and give up on later, whenever I clicked on an item that would add to the Codex in DA2 though it opened a small window and I was able to read through the story. Spreading it out more and making the Codex entries more specific to the places you picked them up at would improve it even more. Generally I also spent a lot more time with the Codex in this game (and read every entry) whenever I started being too bored by the game itself. It was one of the more interesting parts in combination with this map and a basic understanding of their calendary system e.g. "9:30 Dragon" means 930 A.D., 930 years after the events around Andraste and when the chantry was first founded. Every 100 years the chantry gives the next century a certain name, which in this case is "Dragon".
Unfortunately a lot of entries seem to be directly copy/pasted from DA:O, there's even some referring to "Here, in Denerim, the elves even have their own quarter".
From a technical standpoint the game exhibits a very bad/unplayable performance in DirectX11 on any NVIDIA cards at the moment and there's no Patch out, the latest Beta Driver helps somewhat but it is still near unplayable even with top of the line cards in SLI mode while it seems to work with most ATI cards, so while games like Crysis and Metro 2033 work on those machines at max. Settings and look amazing, Dragon Age 2 does not and does not so I played it using the "High" Setting only. I also had the game freeze on me around 10-15 times throughout the playthrough , luckily I Quicksave often.
There were also a few broken quests that wouldn't start or complete (I think 2-3) and Gamma goes from 0 to 1 in the Video Options Menu with 1 being Standard and much too dark in certain situations having to manually edit the DragonAge.ini, what's up with that?
Some more minor annoyances
- The bodies of dead enemies disappear into the ground just a few seconds after they've been slain... which isn't exactly contributing much to realism or suspension of disbelief.
- There's no "camp site", where you can equip/un-equip your party with items. Instead you have to rotate through them to do that (curious because DA:O had that exact same feature and it was much appreciated)
- Unlike Dragon Age: Origins, the same-sex part of the game is a lot more "in your face", the two male romances literally jump on you the moment you talk to them first and if you "discourage" them to do so you get Rivalry points. Every single time you speak to Fenris, romantic music starts playing in the background which kind of... doesn't exactly fit to his general overall characterization and the bordello has an unusual 2:1 male-to-female ratio with a hidden transvestite to boot.
- It's a really minor thing, but I always loved the effects of enchanted weapons in a lot of games e.g. Diablo 2, Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights or even Dragon Age: Origins... if you enchanted a weapon with fire/ice/lightning it had an effect around it, in DA2 it doesn't have any effect.
Despite all of its faults and blemishes it is not a total disaster or necessarily a bad game like some people make it out to be and in parts even shows promise that it can have a stronger story and narrative than DA:O, if you have the ability to wear blinders towards all of its shortcomings and focus mostly on the characters and dialogue of the main storyline you might actually end up enjoying it...
Other than that, it isn't really on par with customary Bioware quality standards one has come to expect and I'd give it a 5.7/10 , really Bioware?
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