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Dragon Age II in Review, Part I


During the first few hours of Bioware’s controversial and divisive Dragon Age II, it is extremely easy to slip into a way of thinking about it that could blind you from the things that emerge from it that make it great. The central city of Kirkwall is strangely uninhabited despite a refugee crisis. Combat is almost too fast and feels terribly button-mashy at first. The much-loved origin stories from the first game are gone, and the player is locked into playing a specific character. Minor features are stripped away, and the fact that the game had a much shorter development period is all too obvious in a number of places, like those oft-mentioned repeating dungeons. When it comes down to it, it really should not have been called “Dragon Age II” at all, because it is not a continuation of the story of the Warden, although its narrative begins during the first game’s Blight and there are clear connections to that story. Casting it as a sequel created certain expectations that were not met, particularly since what Bioware has delivered is in some ways a very radical, unexpected kind of sequel. I came close to confusing “unexpected” with “disappointed” myself.

I found myself losing faith in the game after a honeymoon period. My issue was that it felt like I wasn’t really doing anything to move the story along, which I began to view as weak and entropic. My version of Garrett Hawke had fled to Kirkwall with his family to escape the Blight and wound up working for crooks to get into the overburdened city. It was an interesting and compelling setup, but ten hours into the game I was completing quests, meeting people, and exploring without a clear adversary or overarching “save the world” goal. I felt sort of lost, as if I didn’t really have a purpose. But then, I realized how completely different that felt from other roleplaying games.

Even in Mass Effect 2, the shadow of the Omega Relay hangs over the entire game. You know that the Reapers are the Big Bad. Lines are drawn. In Dragon Age II, there is no sign- even thirty hours into the game- that there even will be a Big Bad. The story reflects this, because as it progresses the narrative actually evolves around you. Choices made earlier in the game are like story seeds that bear fruit later on. Political struggle, ideological conflict, and personal vendettas are woven together to form a much richer, much more sophisticated story-web than anything I think I’ve ever seen attempted in a video roleplaying game. The game’s stories feel organic, emerging and unfolding rather than being told or directed. It is also a story that takes place over years of time, meaning that although it is not a continent-spanning epic of distance and scope, it is an epic of a specific place and of a specific era.

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It’s not a save the world game. At least not yet, and I don’t think it will be. Events seem to be building to a head, and I sense that difficult decisions about where Hawke will cast his loyalty are to come.

Despite the smaller scope- it really is just about Kirkwall and its immediate environs- it is still also a story of specific characters, all with ambiguities, complexities, and intricate relationships both with Hawke and the various factions and events in the city. The writing is much sharper, tighter, and more is said with much less than in the first game. Although there’s no character as monumental as Shale, I’ve found that the companions as well as many of the NPCs (the Qunari Arishok in particular) have me completely riveted and interested in seeing how their stories intertwine with the other threads in the game. And man, am I glad that the silly gifting mechanic has been thrown out in favor of a better-integrated system of currying favor with your party members.

One little bit of character writing in particular really sort of blew me away, although it was very subtle. Aveline, among the earliest party members that joins up with Hawke, eventually rises to a position of power in Kirkwall. Through choices and dialogues I cultivated a long-term platonic friendship with her. She was kind of my right-hand woman, but I never had any romantic designs on her because Merrill, the klutzy elf girl caught my Garrett’s eye instead. I stopped in to visit Aveline, and she more or less asked me to help her get close to a City Guardsman she fancied. I actually felt the same “what about me” pang of jealousy that I probably would have felt in real life.

What followed was a quest wherein her inability to confess her love for this guy drew me in as a pawn and eventually I just laid it out to him, inadvertently embarrassing her. She was angry, he appeared to be professionally aggrieved, and I actually felt bad for trying to force the issue. It all ended well though, but later on she chastised me for selling her shield earlier in the game. Um, sorry about that!

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That I’m writing so much about a minor romantic subplot in the game indicates how much the story and characters are the focus- not fiddly, nerd-pleasing mechanics and numbers tweaking. Call it “dumbing down” and blame the console gamers if you want, but the fact is that this is a game that is much closer to actual role playing than even the vaunted Baldur’s Gate games were. That being said, the mechanics present are essentially the same as in the first game, but with some much-needed polish and a lot of fat cut away. The result is that combat is fast, almost (but not quite) action-oriented, and skill trees are simpler and more direct in their content and effect. Tactical pausing and adjusting situational character tactics individually is still critical to winning key battles and although friendly fire is gone on the lower difficulty levels, I can’t say that I’ve missed it. I’ve found the combat more exciting and engaging, and the faster pace and slicker interface has not resulted in a loss of strategic depth.

Effectively, Bioware is asking a lot of tough questions about the RPG genre in this game, particularly in regard to what defines it and what it needs to cut loose in order to evolve into something more story-driven and less focused on dated, gamey mechanics. Most of the time, I think they’ve succeeded and looking at the game objectively I’ve not been disappointed or offended by anything that they’ve stripped away. If anything, I’ve enjoyed the game more than the first because it feels fresher, newer, and progressive instead of wallowing in the late 1990s glory days of Western CRPGs. It might bother some that every item doesn’t have a florid, purple prose name and I know many will be upset that companions have limited and character-specific upgrades to their armor. But in the latter’s case, it’s almost exactly the same limitation that any number of JRPGs have featured, including celebrated titles like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy games.

Where the company’s daring proposition gets a little dicier is in the parts of the game where a shortened development schedule has apparently foreclosed on content and variety. Yes, some of the minor dungeons and even a couple of the major ones are exactly the same. What they’ve done is to reuse maps, sometimes sealing off areas that may be open in another map. The scenery, textures, and environments are exactly the same. At first, this is grating and it’s too obvious and it definitely feels like a lazy shortcut. But I found myself asking if it really mattered if I could turn left instead of right or if the walls looked different, or if I would rather that the game be fifteen hours long and not feature such a rich, textured narrative in favor of dungeon variety.

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It’s a tough call, but I will say that being thirty hours in I haven’t really cared all that much when the dungeons have repeated. It is jarring because it’s too apparent that you’re in a familiar location. But the outcomes and events that transpire are so much more significant and interesting than worrying about a design element that is almost certainly borne out of logistical and economical shortage. They’re really no worse than any of the dungeons in an Elder Scrolls game once you look past the repetition.

This is what Dragon Age II is really up against- folks that are looking strictly at the surface mechanics or presentation and not digging into the things that really matter. Those who are playing the demo or even the first ten or fifteen hours and passing off their zero-score Metacritic user reviews will never even get to see the places where Bioware has done the most work in terms of pushing the CRPG envelope. For a lot of people, it obviously hasn’t worked but for those who understand that experimentation, streamlining, and evolution often precipitates mixed results, I think there is an amazing game here to discover, one that is better than the first game on almost all counts as long as you don’t expect it to carry forward its design principles and foci, which were already largely dated and antiquarian in 2009.

The next time I report in, I’ll be finished with the game and I’ll share some final thoughts as a post-mortem on it. At halftime, I’d list it among the best console RPGs I’ve ever played. Without reservation.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

35 thoughts to “Dragon Age II in Review, Part I”

  1. Really enjoying it as well, currently at the end of Act II (or near it, I think). I’m loving the companions and the interactions… man, one of the quests in act ii was quite emotional, at least I thought so. I felt the same way at the end of act i, as well. The companions are great. I don’t think Varric is quite as fun as Oghren, but I love the portrayal of a smooth merchant prince compared to the typical drunken warrior dwarf.

    I do miss some of the things from the first game. Honestly right now the thing I miss the most is the choice of armor. As a warrior in the first game, I had a choice of medium, heavy and massive armor. The effects were important, but I liked being able to choose mail, scale, lamellar, or plate. But it seems in this one, perhaps due to the limited applicability of armor and weaponry, all the warrior armor is plate, usually of similar style. I wish the pictures showing the item were still there – this way I could see if the same limited choice applied to the mages and rogues, if they got more choice in clothing. I also like being able to see what the longsword I’m about to put 7 gold looks like… I’d be far more likely to buy it if it was more realistic (perhaps a silly thing to care about in a fantasy game, but I’m a historian, I like historical weaponry).

    All in all I am really enjoying it, not as much as Mass Effect 2, but it is a lot of fun. I do wonder what the next Dragon Age will be like, given all the…mixed… reactions.

  2. The item icons in DA:O were just icons, they weren’t actually a preview. They did match up with some of the item variants, but not all. An actual wardrobe mode would be awesome though.

    In terms of armour variations, in DA2 everybody can wear anything they qualify for, and given the diminishing return on attack stats you can afford to do stuff like a plate mage tank – even on Nightmare. Plate rogue seems to work well in Act I, but falls behind later since you just can’t get enough Fortitude on them.

    Not sure I can really agree non-massive armour had much of a point for warriors in DA:O. I’m not sure I ever used even Heavy in anger for a PC; I’ve used it for enemies for sheer visual variety but mechanically there’s just no real impact.

    I am sorry to be compulsively nit-picking, but I do find it really interesting how successfully DA:O generated an appearance of choice and flexibility for many players that didn’t necessarily reflect the mechanics. DA2 I think in a lot of cases makes some really nice moves towards mechanical substantiveness (if not going all the way), but I guess isn’t necessarily successfully managing the player’s experience of it.

  3. I’ve been enjoying the heck out of DA2 so far. I’ve literally done every quest that’s come up, and I’ve only really just started on the second act.

    My biggest issue with the dungeons is that there are no branches. It’s just a set of linear hallways that occasionally open into an arena. Since most of what I enjoy doing in RPGs is exploring the areas for all the secret nooks and crannies, this really does remove a major aspect of the game for me.

    Totally agree, though, the story and companions are a great deal of fun. They’re what’s left when you strip everything out of an RPG…

  4. I really liked the game overall, there were some things I took issue with, but they were mostly small. The story didn’t feel as awe inspiring as DA:O’s was, they probably sacrificed that chance when they actually allowed people to make game changing decisions. Think of all those old, awful CYOA books you read. I think they could have done some things to make it better, but by the end I cared what happened to characters within the game, and deeply regretted some of the decisions I had made. I consider that the mark of a great game.

  5. Good stuff, Mike. I’ve started up another entry on the game based on the fact that I’m now about 35 hours in. It’s long enough already, however, so I may end up breaking it up into parts. At this point I’ll probably also wait until I finish the game as well, since I’d like to see how everything finally plays out before going to judgement.

    One thing you wrote up there I’d quibble with, though: “This is what Dragon Age II is really up against- folks that are looking strictly at the surface mechanics or presentation and not digging into the things that really matter.”

    What really matters is in the eye of the individual player. Your surface mechanics are another person’s reason for playing; neither of you are wrong. A lot of folks liked Origins for very specific reasons. Not everyone will agree with them, but that doesn’t mean the grievances aren’t justified. I’d much prefer Bioware just come out and say, “Look, we’re not making those kinds of games anymore.” They didn’t do that. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too, insisting that through whatever changes, if you were a fan of Origins you’ll like what they did here. You can’t do that and then act surprised when people get upset that they changed how the game played so significantly.

    Anyway, I’ll get detailed thoughts up here as soon as I can finish, which will hopefully be in the next couple of days.

  6. I really enjoyed the game myself too.

    Never in an RPG before have I felt so interested in the fate of my character, their family, their friends.

    DA2 is a “realistic” tale of love, friendship, family and betrayal, mixed with politics and difficult choices that have an impact over the year.

    The writing is simply excellent, the story compelling, and I cared a lot more about it that I did in DA:O

    Yes the environment are repeated, yes the mechanics could use a bit more polish.
    But god did it feel nice to help your mother or sister, or to save the city from political issue rather than “save the world”

    I have only one thing to say to Bioware:

    Don’t listen to the hater, keep it up, DA2 was great, take your time now, fix the flaw and make DA3 even better.

  7. Yeah…Aveline is amazing. She’s been my moral compass through the entire game. I’ve actually been worried what she’d think about some of my shadier dealings, so I’ll go back and make sure she stays home when we’re doing something not on the up-and-up. Her disapproval is withering, for some reason. She’s much less over-the-top than most lawful good characters tend to be in games. She’s honest, strong, and not silly or exploitative at all.

    She makes a great foil for Isabel, who is cartoonish and almost satirical in her “sexy piratess” presentation. It’s also very interesting how the most sexually alluring and easy to bed character winds up being the most selfish and destructive character in the game…if you thought Morrigan made you feel used and empty…

    That’s a great way to put it, that the game speaks to Biowares chief strengths. Which have _never_ been dungeoncrawling or stats-fiddling in the first place.

  8. Welcome Lauraliane, we love seeing new members sign up and comment.

    The spectrum of opinion on DA2 is so varied — I haven’t seen anything quite like it in a while.

    EA finally sent us a “review” copy of he PS3 version (thanks guys…ahem) so I guess I’ll get to throw in my 2 cents soon enough.

  9. I agree that the dungeons are ultimately an issue, if only because they feel so rushed.

    However, my argument would be that the game is not a dungeoncrawl. It’s an RPG. I think there’s an understandable tendency to conflate the two, but ask yourself- was DA:O about wandering around, looting dungeons…or was it about The Blight, the Grey Warden, and Shale and the gang?

    Dungeoncrawling is more suited to games like Diablo or Torchlight than it is to intensely character and story driven games, and there it totally works because the games are about exploration, looting, and secrets. Those games are also more suitable for stats tweaking, grinding, number crunching, and fretting over using one piece of armor over another.

    It may be a fine distinction for some, but I think really it’s a clash of genre expectations more than a case where everything has been stripped away.

  10. Oh man, the regret in this game is killer. Last night I had a turn of events that sent my very tense, very brinksmanship-toned relationship with the Arishok down an unexpected path. He asked me a question, and I literally considered it for ten minutes before deciding, weighing out what I knew of him, the Qunari, and the situation at hand. I chose poorly, and I deeply regret that our relationship soured. All following another turn of events where decisions I made earlier in the game wound up resulting in an unspeakable and quite shocking tragedy.

    As for the story, I’m finding it MUCH more awe-inspiring than the standard “save the world from Big Bad” RPG trope. It’s so much more intricate and compelling, the political and social intrigue is so well done, I think it’s way more interesting than “beat a big dragon at the end”.

  11. I really dislike when anyone says mechanics-driven RPGs are “dated and antiquarian”. Yes, many new RPGs are focusing on story rather than gameplay, and that’s cool; everyone appreciates a good story. But its a fallacy to assume that everyone values story over gameplay. When we were kids, the ONLY reason to play was the mechanics; there was nothing else. But now that games have the ability to present a good story, that does not mean it needs to be at the expense of the mechanics.

    What makes a focus on mechanics outdated? Simply because games for years have been mechanics-heavy?
    Is it outdated because only “hardcore” gamers are interested, and “casual” gamers are not?
    Or are you simply tired of having to learn a complex system with each new game? That’s fine if our are, you’ve changed, you don’t have the time to invest in one of those games, or you just want to play something less demanding. There’s nothing wrong with that. Except when you project this onto the state of Videogames, and proclaim them old, tired relics.

  12. I find the decision to reuse dungeons with minor variations amazing, given Mass Effect.

    Mass Effect had one generic outpost building, one generic spaceship, one generic mine (it is NOT a dungeon, people. This is Science Fiction.) with a few crates/rocks strategically placed to add ‘variety’.

    It was grating and terrible; They got hammered for it, and they listened. In ME 2 they went completely the other way, making every location soaring and unique, which was a great improvement.

    I can’t believe they’ve forgotten their lesson quite so quickly.

    Why does it matter if the dungeon is identical apart from a left/right turn? It matters because it breaks immersion; It says ‘you are playing a game: Look! Here is a copy paste!’. At least it was plausible in Mass Effect, where pre-fabricated buildings and spaceships at different ends of the galaxy might come from the same plan. What possible reason might there be in a fantasy world to make the dungeons the same?

    Lazy, lazy, lazy. Even a simple tiling system would have more variety.

  13. Well, of course it’s subjective and there’s definitely room for differing viewpoints- that’s the sign of a significant creation. But I think that coming into this game with concrete expectations as to what the mechanics should or shouldn’t be is going to result in surface disappointment and it’s going to keep some people from really engaging in what a poster below described as Bioware’s core competencies.

    I think some of the grievances are justified, no doubt, and I think you for example have stated pretty clearly where they are and I can nod and empathize with what you’re saying as an oldtime, hardline RPG gamer (going back to Adventure on the 2600, FWIW). However, I find it very telling that DA:O was not exactly met with effulsive praise and in fact one of the most repeated comments was that it was too similar to older RPGs and that it wasn’t progressive or innovative at all. I also remember complaints about the interface, its lack of originality, and its presentation.

    What has happened is that DA:O has become a “cult” hit, and cult fans tend to love more passionately and more uncompromisingly. So when Bioware took in the criticism of the first game and saw an opportunity to do something else and changed things around, the reaction from the cult is going to be negative.

    I think I completely disagree with you about Bioware suddenly making a different kind of game, I don’t think that’s true at all. They’ve simply gotten better at, again, their core competencies and have taken a hard look at what can be left behind to continue to leverage those to make strong, compelling, character- and story- driven games.

    The whole thing could have been averted if they just called it “Dragon Age: Hawke’s Tale” and pitched it to the consumer as a story occuring in the Dragon Age world but not a direct sequel or continuation of the mechanics or story in the first game.

  14. Most people have a different idea of what an RPG should be. Just look at the variety of style within a single tabletop game–some prefer Role Playing, some prefer the combat.

    Maybe Bioware is creating a legit Role Playing Game, not a RPG.

  15. Then that cult audience you mentioned would probably have complained that Bioware won’t make a sequel, and we’d be back to the usual complaints, except they’d be permiated with “It’s not even Dragon Age!!”.

    I think the moral of the story is you can’t please everyone. A lot of people are happy with DA2. I’m sure Bioware are happy counting their income spike. The only people who aren’t happy are people who wanted DA2 to be DA1 with better graphics, a new story and very minor changes and those people who would complain about anything they could.

  16. That’s fair, I really dislike it when assumptions are made that someone who appreciates progress and doing things better or more efficiently is somehow not “hardcore” or that there are absolutes in talking about mechanics versus story. I also think that breaking things down to “hardcore” and “casual” gamers is sort of silly on a site mostly populated by adult gamers who appreciate a wide range of gaming styles. So we’re even.

    A couple of posts down, I brought up Diablo and Torchlight, and if you want to go REALLY hardcore than I can bring in Rogue, Angband, Nethack, Moria, and the entire Roguelike family tree. Those are games that are ALL mechanics and numbers, and I love those. Because that’s what those games do best. They’re mechanics-heavy, and some are extremely complex. Much more so than most so-called hardcore CRPGs.

    But what drives those games simply is not appropriate for an Electronic Arts-published, multimillion dollar game produced by a company that has a track record of producing story-focused games with rich characters and an emphasis on decision making over equipment optimization or dungeon exploration.

    I do think that focusing on mechanics in a CRPG is old fashioned, although I _like_ old fashioned in games such the mentioned Roguelikes. That’s where this stuff belongs.

    It’s a good point that the games we played as kids were more mechanical, but I would direct you to any game in the Ultima series as a counterpoint.

  17. It’s kind of a different issue, but wouldn’t having to go into a sub-screen menu and then fidget with the two tons worth of gear you’re dragging around with you, and then not being able to put a helmet on a mage also break immersion?

    I’m not sure it was lazy so much as it was a de-emphasis on the element and also a simple lack of resources. This game was put together with the quickness. I do agree that it’s obvious and it can be grating- particularly when you go into an area and there are sealed rooms that still appear on the map.

    It’s tough to defend their decision and I just read an interview with Mark Laidlaw where he expressed some recognizance that it wasn’t the best thing to do. I can’t say that I completely disagree with you about it but in the end when I’ve looked at it critically it just hasn’t affected the things that matter most in the game at all.

  18. Glad to have you on board.

    Definitely agree that the politics and family issues are more interesting than the usual fantasy adversaries- I hope Bioware continues to develop these kinds of ideas.

  19. Exactly- it’s why dungeoncrawl board games like Descent are a different entity than Dungeons and Dragons. The board game is stricter in structure and process and more mechanical, the RPG is more focused on player action and choice to shape the story.

    I totally think Bioware is trying to make _role playing games_ at this point. When Mass Effect 2 was being yelled at by the internet for “taking out all the roleplaying”, I rolled my eyes. There was more role playing in that game than just about any other to that point. Switching out gear and micromanaging party members is _not_ roleplaying.

  20. You could say the same of FPS games.

    “Why are all the enemies wearing their black hair in the same style? Lazy, lazy, lazy.”

    How about Gran Turismo?

    “They put in loads of Subaru Imprezas, and they all look the same. Lazy, lazy, lazy.”

    Or enemies in RPGs?

    “All they did was change the colour pallete. Lazy, lazy, lazy.”

    You’re confusing laziness with practicality. It wasn’t practical to make unique dungeons for the whole game given the time limit, much like it isn’t practical to make a bajillion unique enemies for an FPS. There were more important things to complete, like character development and storyline, that spending time on some stupid cave floor plan would have impeded. Quite simply, they had a deadline, and they did what they had to to meet it.

    Wether it’s a fantasy setting or not doesn’t come into it. Something called real life affected the final design. It happens to games all the time. It’s just a fact of life. People don’t have a lifetime to design this stuff.

  21. I’m not a “hardcore” gamer by any means. I don’t even put in an hour a day anymore; nor was I calling you a “casual” player simply because you like a story-driven game. In fact I was using them as archetypes to illustrate that the “mechanics for hardcore/story for casual” theory is bogus.

    I applaud Bioware for the games they are making and the innovation; they are fantastic leaps in the storytelling medium.

    But why are mechanics-drive CRPGs inherently old?

  22. I think for some people the games are just about scale. In this one, there are many more smaller stories played out instead of just in the codex. In the other one though, people traveled all across the realm, had the chance to be king, kill an archdemon in dragon form (not exactly original, but these things are in multiple games for a reason) and end the Blight. There is also a fairly large ending here, but it’s of a different sort, you don’t play it out like you did the last, you just start a chain of events, which I think is a common theme throughout the game.
    I’m not quite sure what I prefer between the two styles of story. Probably this one if they do end up following through on this story like the game hints at.

  23. Maybe it really does all come back to what you said about players’ expectations and Bioware’s marketing.

  24. Because storytelling has come so far in games that it isn’t necessary for a game to be steeped in mechanics to tell an effective story or present quality characterizations. Back when games didn’t have the technology or production values of today, it made sense that “CRPGS” focused on the mechanical elements.

    Maybe it’s too rigid to call them old, because obviously games like Diablo and Torchlight are very successful at what they do and there is a demand for them- I’m part of that demand.

  25. One thing I really like in what Bioware has done here (and with ME2) is that the stories are very episodic and cross genres. In ME2, there were detective stories, action stories, philosophical stories, and even horror stories. DAII is like that as well. The episode with Aveline’s romance was a nice, almost rom-com bit that felt genuine and natural…yet it’s in the middle of a fantasy RPG. There are obviously a lot of political stories in the game, but also stories about exploration, love, religion, and more subjects. I really like this approach, and I think when you start weaving these things together something emerges that is bigger in scope emotionally and psychologically than running all over the country and doing “big” things.

  26. Thank you very much, Mr. Barnes, for your commentary on Dragon Age II. I had read so many reviews and comments which ultimately conveyed a tone of disappointment with the game that I was beginning to feel a madman or a fool for enjoying it so thoroughly. Though I do acknowledge there are repeated dungeons, for instance, I barely find myself noticing them during play, so engrossed am I in watching Lady Hawke explode men into chunks of meat with her twirling blades of doom.

    Oh, yes, and the story elements are fantastic.

    I find something interesting in your commentary with regard to the matter of the ultimate goal. I have heard the point echoed through the Interwebs that Dragon Age II did not give you a goal. You did not have a purpose towards which to strive; you just sort of existed, and people might give you stuff to do. But there was no Archdemon to slay, no Reapers to defeat, no Star Forge to destroy/appropriate for your own nefarious purposes. You, above, point out that ultimately, this leads to a different kind of narrative, which is in many ways more complex, deeper, more thoughtful than the goal-oriented narrative. I would agree, and I would be interested in developing this point a bit further.

    I am a frequent tabletop RPG player (not D&D, not White Wolf games, but small-press or independent RPGs), and I find the mode of narrative described in this game to be perfectly, utterly natural. There is a world. You are living in the world. This world has problems. You have some problems, too. They are relatively small, in the scheme of things. Do as you will.

    Obviously, there is a bit more structure to it than that, but I never once felt the lack of some huge, overarching goal. Never. Instead, I felt like a character, genuinely living within a given setting. It felt much more akin to some of those tabletop experiences I have had. Your character might kill the one villain, sure, but that was never the overriding purpose of your character’s life. There are other villains, and other problems which aren’t even attached to villains. There’s the fact that the agriculture of the town nearby has been decimated in your duel with the dragon, and then there’s the part where, sure, you cleared out the mine of the horrible monstrosities awoken from some deep, ancient slumber, but you caved in the tunnels in the process, and that mine was critical to the local economy.

    It’s the sensation that you’re in a living, breathing setting, that changes with response to your actions, instead of being in an arrow-straight tunnel leading you into a confrontation with some ultimate opponent.

    I’m curious if this is what computer and video game RPGs are likely to continue to progress towards over time, or if this is something of a fluke. Personally, I would love to see more of this type of narrative, but I haven’t the faintest if this is sustainable, particularly in light of the disappointed reactions of many commentators. I would be interested in hearing other opinions on this.

    Once again, Mr. Barnes, thank you for your insightful commentary. This blog has fast made its place into my “reload 20 times a day to look for new stuff” list.

  27. The strongest feature of DA2 is where I think Bioware is best-in-class: the companions.

    Bioware’s games deliver on the strength of synergy between a number of well-executed RPG elements. For each of those elements, I can usually think of a studio that does it better – except companions. And I love the DA2 cast (especially Aveline, best Lawful Good character ever) more than any Bioware cast before.

    So while they’re definitely moving forward, and for all that I rant about the combat, I feel like core of the game is a best-in-class execution of Bioware’s traditional strongest competency.

  28. Thanks for the impressions. I think you’ve done the best job yet in explaining why those who like DA2 are willing to overlook the flaws.

    That said, I felt better about the game in the end of Act2/beginning of Act3 frame then I did at the very end, where I feel they lost some of the momentum. So I’m very interested in seeing how you feel when you are actually done with the game.

  29. I actually finished my first play through (and there will be undoubtedly another), and I actually thought the final parts of Act 3 were some of the best endings that I’ve done in an RPG. Obviously some choices were forced (hey why can’t we all just get along guys?!), but the way my play through came out… man there are some things I regret doing now.

    I also looked at the time counter on my last save games… and it clocked in close to 47 hours… so yeah, maybe the game wasn’t as polished as DA:O, but nobody say that Bioware gives us short games…

  30. Eh, Bioware isn’t making visual novels. As I said below I really feel Bioware delivers on a synergy – you get invested in the fiction enough to care about the fighting, which makes your companions comrades in a legitimate endeavor so you’re more invested in them, so on and so forth.

    The mechanics aren’t at Blizzard’s level, but they’re a critical partner to the story. DA2 in particular makes significant improvements and additions to the core system (though it does excise some peripheral stuff and make Tom sad. WTB DLC cosmetic crafting skills

  31. “Even a simple tiling system would have more variety.”

    Well, that’s pretty much it. There’s less variety *because* they’re not using a simple tiling system. Making level art for DA:O is really hard compared to NWN, which I assume means artist time/expense. In fact from my amateur perspective I’m guessing it’s the #1 time/money sink for a AAA rpg.

    I’m not a fan of it either, but it’s fairly clear why it happened.

  32. My primary DA:O save and my last DA2 save both clock in at 50 hours. By the exact science of save game divination I declare them to have precisely equal content

  33. There’s been so much negativity surrounding this game I was actually planning on skipping it, despite the fact that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the recent BioWare titles. It’s nice to read a review that (I feel) takes a more evenhanded look at the features of the game that are different from DA:O.

  34. I just finished my first playthrough as a rogue. Pretty sweet experience.

    One thing I appreciate in this game is the tough decisions. They really are tough decisions, from a player perspective. You never really know what is going to happen, and it takes some time to figure out what actually DID happen.

    Maybe a lot of the plot points that unravel are just deus ex machina, but maybe they aren’t. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but just having all this material to think about and play with is interesting.

    One thing I really miss from DA:O, though is all the item descriptions you can read by examining things in your inventory. If they had more time to develop this one they probably would have included them, but that was something I really enjoyed in the first game.

    Sure it would be nice to have more in it, considering the rate at which they churned this thing out, it’s pretty sweet. Another one like this within a couple years? Yes, please! Going to begin a campaign as a warrior sometime this week.

  35. I’m actually not so much a fan of dungeon crawling per se. More so of dungeon _exploration_. I’d love a game where I faced half as many enemies as in DA2, but had twice as much stuff to discover.

    There was recently a game where which was set in a single city (and it’s outskirts), had deep exploration, I was very much involved in it’s politics, and there was the occasional dungeon to delve. The more I play DA2, the more I wish I had been like Fallout New Vegas.

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