by: Aaron R.
; edited by: Michael Hartman
; updated: 4/18/2012
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Dragon Age 2 has proven to be a bit of a controversial game this year, with old fans hating the changes in the release, and some newcomers liking the touch-ups. Is it really as bad as the most vocal critics say?
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I wanted to just write “Yes" and collect the check, but apparently that is frowned upon by my editors. I personally didn't care for it, but I'd like to keep this as a somewhat more analytical review, a nice look back at whether they let down the core audience in a shameless cash grab. To keep this from spiraling into a frothing rant, we'll go piece by piece for what made Dragon Age: Origins good and whether Dragon Age 2 failed in that category.
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For both Dragon Age games, combat was naturally a huge feature. Your missions and quests usually involved a battle at some point, so the way that the games approach fighting is important.
Dragon Age: Origins was fairly standard tactical fighting. You directed your party of four around in the fight, guided by their automated tactics and your intervention and then used abilities and your weapons to overcome enemies.
Dragon Age 2 honestly follows this fairly closely. The fighting has more of an action feel to it, which to be honest, I liked. It'll be perfectly subjective, but giving a little more direct control to the fighting gave a real sense of power to rogues and warriors. And, if someone didn't want to play it as an action game, it was certainly possible to pull the camera back, pause often and play it in the older fashion without too much of a change.
That's not to say that the combat didn't end up being disappointing though. Anyone who's honest with their review should have noted the omnipresence of waves of enemies. I swear, local gangs must mug kings every night to be able to fund dozens of skilled mercenaries to throw themselves at you. You can also insert a few jokes of your own about the common bandits taking lessons in expert rappelling just to surprise you.
Every fight was the exact same. I think I can even say that literally. Every fight consisted killing ranged fighters/mage, then the grunts and preferably the leader, once you got some breathing room, all while watching the waves of reinforcements for any priority targets. It didn't matter if it was spiders or bandits. All that it impacted was whether I was fighting a spitting spider or archer. There was nothing to any of it. Just cardboard enemies with different name tags.
There were no tactics, beyond spamming abilities and praying that your mage was left alone. Positions didn't matter, because enemies would literally come out of thin air to flank your ranged fighters. Cooldowns made healing impossible, while heavy limits to stamina and poor squad AI meant that you were out of energy before the first wave was dead.
Compare this to Dragon Age: Origins. Yes, you often fought darkspawn, but there were golems, bandits, rogues, demons and mages and they all required different strategies. It was possible to actually position your group strategically and plan out fights.
The combat, while actually making a nice step forward in its appearance, took a flying leap backwards in the actual implementation. If a rage demon and bandit fight the same way, then something is very wrong.
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Setting and Characters
This is where it really starts to get tricky, because we're getting into subjective territory. Characters are hard to judge. Personally, I liked Aveline and Varric, and even grew to tolerate Merrill. I didn't really like the rest of the bunch that well, but there is one good thing that I'll note about the series. They managed to preserve the banter, and they added in companion homes.
This is one thing that I'll note as a clear improvement, and one that I hope Mass Effect 3 takes to heart. They actually bothered to make it look like the characters had lives of their own. When you visited them, you could see their interactions with other people in town, and other members of your team. It's just a nice touch.
Things go off the rails at that point though. The setting honestly could have worked. The idea of watching one small area change over time, and through your actions, is fairly brilliant. I'd love to see someone actually pull this off in a good fashion.
What ended up happening with Dragon Age 2 was a slog through the same boring town. Ntohing happened. It looked exactly like an abandoned quest hub. There were a few merchants spread through out several pointless districts. Even within the town, there was no flavor. Lowtown looked like Hightown, and Darktown was just like Lowtown with slightly more hovels.
They really wanted the players to feel comfortable, so they went ahead and recycled the dungeon environments. The whole thing felt like a low budget MMO, with one hub and a small series of repeating quests in the same dungeons. Something feels very wrong about clearing out the same warehouse five times.
Dragon Age: Origins just has it beat hands down in this regard. It doesn't do anything ground breaking, and generally sticks to tried and true fantasy environments, but at least it felt epic. Each section of the world was unique, with its own enemies and people. Even inside this area, there were unique locations inside them. Just compare Kirkwall to Orzammer, and remember that Orzammer was just a small section of the world.
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I'll have to break format and say that there's absolutely nothing good about Dragon Age 2's story. It's just a complete let down for the fans of Dragon Age: Origins.
Let's just take a look. Dragon Age:origins is nothing magical. It's a standard fantasy tale. Spoilers ahead, obviously. The hero winds up in a group of special fighters, winds up on their own and in charge after a disaster and has to kill the ancient evil while picking up a ragtag group of fighters.
There was a lot of flavor in that though. You get to pick the future of Orzammer, there are minor decisions even in the starter town of Lothering, there's the entire fight between the elves and the werewolves, and there's just a lot of little things that you can do that actually feel like they have weight beyond a plus or minus in a relationship meter.
Dragon Age 2 was a mess. The story tries to tell a tell a tale of Hawke's rise, but it makes little sense. You just wander inside the acts and then skip through time to another set of railroaded events. Choices feel pointless. It doesn't matter if I side with the Qunari for most of the game, they still attack me and things carry out roughly the same. It doesn't matter who I side in the fight between the templars or the mages, or how I complete most quests. There's one narrative and it gets told regardless. You can't change anything. It seems to have forgotten what the R stands for in RPG.
And the narrative just doesn't make a lot of sense, despite the lengths they go to to serve it. In the marketing, they made a great deal of having a “darker" and more mature story. It reads like a student's efforts at being edgy. The templars are shown as evil, but potentially right for the greater good. Mages are dangerous, but oppressed too far. Then the narrative just can't stay consistent. Literally just about every mage you meet in the game will make a pact with a demon and go crazy with blood magic, and just about every templar starts to go mad with power. Both sides are horrible, they can't be saved and they will betray you or fail you.
This isn't actually good story telling. There actually is a good way to show shades of gray morality, but just going “everyone's pretty much evil" and walking away is incredibly lazy writing merely to look “mature." The fight between the Chantry and the Qunari has the same issues. Making each side evil beyond redemption is just foolish, especially if they force the player to become involved.
This is probably the biggest let down for me, as they threw away genuinely interesting material. The Qunari were a fairly interesting and mysterious warrior race...now they're just crazy fanatics. The templars vs. mages issue was somewhat interesting before. Now it's just two crazy groups fighting in the corner while I wonder why I care who wins.
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Dragon Age 2 really let down its core fans. The game just fails to come close to its predecessor.
As my disappointment grew with the game, I couldn't help but think that making this a new IP would have solved a lot of problems. Dragon Age 2 could have just been an easily forgettable action RPG, had it not tried to ride the wave of success from its predecessor.
But it did. Dragon Age: Origins offered a rich RPG. There were tons of locations to visit, an incredible amount of gameplay and quests, fairly fun and tactical fighting and a fair story and setting. Dragon Age 2 decided to capitalize on this for easy profits.
Instead of living up to the name, it is just another generic RPG. It's a much shorter game, with a far worse story, a boring and repetitive setting, boring and repetitive enemies, flashy but incredibly flawed combat and very little to really love. For a big title, it just completely fails to live up to its name. They really burned a lot of fans with this one, at least in my ever so humble opinion.
If you care to disagree, agree or just call me an idiot or a fanboy, feel free to post a bit in the comments below.
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All information and screenshots based on my "hard" difficulty playthrough of Dragon Age 2