A review: Dragon Age 2
If you’re one of those people that freaks out when you see a spoiler, go ahead and click on the “Back” button on your browser. I’m gonna get into some depth on this.
In order to review Dragon Age 2, I need to step back to the first game and delve into what I did and didn’t like about the game. It’s important, at least for me, to establish a base line. Dragon Age: Origins was an okay game — not great, but good. I’ll start with the positive.
The story itself was tight and well-crafted, despite hitting two tropes I didn’t care for — more on that later. It worked and worked well, and it didn’t adhere to the stereotypical fantasy setting. Elves as a race were broken with many living as second-class citizens in the ghettos of human cities. Dwarves are receding into isolationism due to their constant fight with Darkspawn. Humans… well… humans are dicks, but that’s not too far removed from reality.
Missions made sense, gathering allies and resources to help fight the Blight, and didn’t stray too far from the core story line. The spread of the Blight was handled well, despite the game not having a strict time table for events (typical to computer RPGs). Game play was a good attempt at mixing turn-based and real-time RPG mechanics, with the exception of the army summoning feature that was used during the final battle.
So what went against it? Well, there was the mute protagonist, something of an endangered species with gaming these days. I think what really got to me was the combination of the “save the world” and the “last of my order” tropes. This tends to lead to a “Chosen One” protagonist, which is something I strongly dislike. One might argue that Ferelden isn’t the world, but for the purposes of DA:O it sure was. And yes, you can argue that your character isn’t the last of the Wardens, and that much is true. You don’t have to be the one to kill the Archdemon, nor do you have to sacrifice yourself should you choose to do the deed. The game has enough options to work around that, but first impressions can be lasting.
Bioware caught some flack for not carrying through with their original promise of carrying the Hero of Ferelden through to the second game in the series. Also gone is the ability to customize your character — choices are now limited to class and gender, with race and origin no longer on the list. I can understand this sort of change. Without considering origins, you have eighteen potential storylines surrounding a protagonist. That’s a lot of work, especially when it comes to dialogue trees. Given as I wasn’t as emotionally invested with DA:O as others, I could look past that and give the game a fair go.
So what worked for DA2? Let’s start with gameplay.
Combat is faster paced, if heavily influenced by “God of War” button mashing to attack and use special abilities. The list of abilities is robust, allowing for extensive customization to make up for lack of character building. Refresh times for potions make for a more challenging experience, forcing you to strategize, even if the amount and appearance of reinforcements gets ridiculous at times.
As protagonists go, I like and dislike Hawke (and I’m only critiquing the male Hawke). The voice and the in-game look don’t match the character I saw in the trailer. That version of Hawke had an intensity to him that got replaced by a more jovial nature. The character still worked for me in the long run.
I liked the scale and scope of the plot of the DA2 much better than DA:O. This wasn’t a “save the world at first level” quest — it starts with Hawke just trying to save himself and his family. Using Varric as an unreliable narrator also worked well. Despite a deus-ex machina moment with Flemeth in the prologue, I was glad to see the pacing for DA2 was more relaxed. While the geographic scope was more limited, and by proxy the ability to explore, the game made the most of its environment.
Act One reminded me of Baldur’s Gate 2, going on various quests to raise capital for a larger expedition to the Deep Roads. Once I made the connection I was fine with how the plot played out. A good old-fashioned treasure hunt was a fine change of pace. Act Two was even better, a play on the conflicts of race and religion — more the former than the latter. Watching the tension build up between humans and Qunari to a boiling point made the game all the more worthwhile. I actually felt a sense of dread at what was coming, even if I did predict some of it.
Then came Act Three.
The third act, focusing on the rising conflict between Mages and Templars (more a religious issue than presented in the previous act) was both short and buggy. I had fewer quests to exploit and I ran into issues with several. One went unclaimed due to timing on my part, but another went by the wayside because I couldn’t talk to a key NPC at all. Then there were the trapped areas that you had to cross while the traps were active because the visual effects weren’t timed to the mechanical effect.
But the worst of it was the plot. Without the plot building the first two acts had, we never get to see the tensions between the two groups rise in a logical manner. In addition, it’s also the first time we meet Knight-Commander Meredith — a character whom we are told is mean, nasty, punches babies and flips off kittens. When you first interact with her, she comes across as so callous and unsympathetic, it’s difficult to take the Templars’ side from the very beginning.
The worst of it comes with the game’s final quest, a sequence of events so illogical it made my head spin. It starts when your party meets outside the Chantry to try to calm things down between Meredith and Orsino. The core of this conflict is that Mages are being treated poorly by the local Templars and being repressed. There’s an undercurrent of dissent among the community of Mages, leading some to become Apostates or resort to blood magic. In other words, the actions the Mages are taking help prove the Templars right when they say Mages are dangerous.
Anders is one such Apostate, sick and tired of being sick and tired of his brother Mages suffering under such tyranny, so what does he do? He blows up the Chantry as part of his “Free Cuba” screed. Templars may hang out there, but they have their own barracks in another part of this city. So instead of wiping out the Templars in their base, Anders instead chooses to grease a large number of innocent people, including the Head Cleric of the Chantry, a person trying to stay out of the conflict and get the two parties to act like adults.
Meredith’s response to this is equally inexplicable. Instead of cutting down the idiot Apostate that’s admitting to the deed and standing not more than two paces away from her, she invokes the Right of Annulment, which is an order kill all of the Mages in the Circle — even though NONE of them are involved in this whole mess. Even though Anders is fessing up to the deed and is RIGHT THERE!
Ander’s action is like someone blowing up the Vatican because he doesn’t like the KKK. The response is like punishing all licensed drivers because one unlicensed idiot ran over people while drunk. Like the Chewbacca defense, it makes no sense. What makes even less sense is that even though all parties involved are all in the same area and ready to throw down, they decide to break off an head to an isolated part of the city to duke it out for the game’s final battle.
And then after the final fight, Varric delivers an epilogue, which can be summed up as “after killing Meredith and creating another power vacuum in Kirkwall, the Champion and his friends all fucked off, and I haven’t seen him since.” And then they mention the Hero of Ferelden (the protagonist from the first game) disappeared.
I think the game suffered from deadline syndrome, also known as “It’s shipping when? Shit, we gotta wrap this all up!” Game reviewer Ben “Yahtzee” Crosshaw once suggested a designer’s first priorities should be plotting and implementing the beginning and end of the game before working on the middle. The idea is that even if the game runs short, you have your hook, opening, climax and denouement all worked out. After seeing the very end of DA2 fall apart, I’m inclined to agree.
What bothers me is that DA2 has a few parallels to another sequel game: Knights of the Old Repbulic – The Sith Lords. In DA2 you’re dealing with the fallout of a devastated region (Taris or Ferelden), you play a different character from the first game, and end up facing against a magic/Force hating feminine antagonist (Kriea or Meredith). Then the protagonist disappears after an all too brief epilogue.
Then Knights of the Old Republic Three fell by the wayside for Bioware’s Star Wars MMO, leaving the KotoR story line unfinished. To be fair, Bioware hasn’t made any announcements towards a Dragon Age MMO, and they’re the type of company that learns from their mistakes. I don’t see this series going the same way as KotoR did.
So can I recommend this game, assuming you’re the one reader that hasn’t picked this up yet? I don’t know. The bugs in the Third act are an issue, one that Bioware says they’re working on, and I would like to think that means all platforms. And while the plot falls apart badly in my eyes I can’t say that’s enough to condemn. Had the issues occurred in the beginning, I’d suggest avoiding it.
My call: Wait for the patch at least, so the major bugs are fixed. The end plot may not bother you as much as it did me, but I’d be curious to hear from those of you who did beat the game — especially if you chose to side with the Templars. Based on what I experienced, I found it impossible, considering the Circle was innocent of wrongdoing and Hawke’s sister was threatened.