[An exploration of the popular opinion of an issue -- long-time or currently trending that examines it from various angles to determine exactly how much truth there is in it. By removing the layers of superficiality and bias and examining it from different perspectives, this feature aims at determining what exactly is the "Truth" and what is "Illusion]
Renowned for making top-quality role-playing games from the CRPG-glory days of Baldur’s Gate II to the modern era of Mass Effect 3, one could easily blame BioWare for getting complacent somewhere on that path. Others blame it on their takeover by EA. BioWare’s track record was pretty much spotless before that, a rare feat for a developer that has been around in the industry for more than 15 years.
Then, Dragon Age II happened.
Despite positive reviews from the critics, Dragon Age II was criticized by fans for being extremely bland, lacking any sort of strategy its highly-acclaimed and universally-loved predecessor Dragon Age Origins brought.It was torn apart throughout the Internet – be it BioWare’s own forums, fan sites or Metacritic. Such was the fans’ fury at being “let down” by a developer they had thought was infallible, they didn’t even spare its lead writer, Jennifer Hepler, harassing her till the company itself had to step in and make a statement in her support. This would be BioWare’s first experience (and not the last, as they would find out a year later with Mass Effect 3 Retake fiasco) of the wrath and fury of their own fans.
DAII wasn’t without its fervent supporters though who claimed the game was experimental, more fun than the original and many of its haters simply didn’t “get” it.
Two years later, away from all the noisy rants and ceaseless arguments over why Dragon Age II “sucked” so badly and curiously intrigued by its divisive opinion, I began my replay of the game to finally figure out exactly how bad Dragon Age II really was. Or whether like some RPGs in recent memory namely – Final Fantasy XIII, Alpha Protocol and Fallout New Vegas, this was another case of a divisive, misunderstood and underappreciated RPG.
The combat is flashier but less fun
This was a chief aspect about Dragon Age II that had divided the fanbase. BioWare had significantly altered the slower-paced strategically-inclined combat from Origins to a faster flashier and more MMO-esque combat where instead of strategically positioning your allies, the players had to be mostly concerned with cooldowns, hotkeys and clicking on enemies to attack.
This simplification may have reduced the learning curve, a barrier which was fairly high in Origins for those unfamiliar with BioWare’s older games and opened the series for gamers not wanting to frequently pause and re-position their characters by breaking the flow of the combat. This accommodation however also resulted in the strategic aspects from Origins – the AI-altering Tactics, the importance of controlling your allies, which still remained in DAII to appease the older fans, seem secondary and often forced at times.
An argument can also be made that those strategic elements seem forced due to the game’s “waves of enemies” design which instead of having enemies positioned at a fixed point in a map, makes them appear predictably out of thin air, their entry alternating from the front of your party to their back. This pretty much forces you to reposition while pretty much taking away the purpose of pre-planning before a combat. What’s the use of planning an ambush when you *know* that the enemy reinforcements are going to appear out of thin air behind your back and attack you?
The combat works conditionally in shorter bursts rather than extended fights. Smaller skirmishes are far more entertaining as the faster paced combat rightfully takes the advantage of the adrenaline rush. However, longer boss fights suffer as they essentially boil down to mashing your hotkeys and waiting for cooldown for long periods.
Customization – double-edged knife
DAII deals with customization rather unusually. On one hand, it offers you the ability to speak dialogues in a specific tone, which eventually ends up reflecting your character’s personality quite nicely. It’s a neat touch and an added level of personalization to the conversation system it implements from its sci-fi cousin Mass Effect. On the other hand, Dragon Age II does not allow you to customize your ally’s armor, something that has traditionally been a taken-for-granted feature in RPGs. Instead, it simply offers “upgrades” to your ally’s armor.
While this simplification doesn’t bother me as much as it does to some, but what it does is pretty much make the loot useless by narrowing its utility down to just one character – Hawke . So the frustration of players is more than understandable when they go through the entire dungeon and open a chest to find out that the cool armor they found isn’t available for their class. That piece of cool armor isn’t worth anything more to the player or their allies than the “Junk” the game so graciously segregates in your inventory.
Reused environments and a tale of a bland Kirkwall
Unsurprisingly, this is the most common complaint because it’s the most apparent irrespective of your preference to faster or slower combat. It is no secret that Dragon Age II was developed in less than half the time they took to develop Dragon Age Origins. A mere 15 months of development is rushed in any AAA-developer’s books especially one that makes 50 hour long RPGs. BioWare may have had to prioritize and it’s apparent that level design took a backseat. Environments are frequently repeated particularly the dungeons – hell they don’t even bother changing the map accordingly often conveniently stone-walling smaller dungeons to prevent “access” to a larger dungeon you’ll visit some other time at some other place.
The biggest victim of the prioritization that the rushed development brought is Kirkwall . For a game that took place in a single city and needed the city to be well-developed for the players to relate, Kirkwall was incredibly bland. Parts of it were aesthetically well-designed but the streets were so empty and lifeless that one would mistake that it was under martial law during day.
It is pretty obvious BioWare looked at Athkatla from Baldur’s Gate II as inspiration for Kirkwall, but they failed to implement an important aspect that was key to Athkatla’s success – sound design. Athkatla wasn’t just crowded, it sounded crowded. Contrast this with the Lowtown market in Kirkwall that alternates between ambient dialogues and silence at the backdrop of its score .
It is a pity because had BioWare paid more attention to Kirkwall, the connection which the story demanded may have actually been much stronger and thus the impact of your decisions affecting the city much more profound.
Dragon Age II wasn’t devoid of ambition particularly of a sequel in this era where “playing it safe” is all too easy. One of its key selling points prior to its release was its three-act narrative split over 10 years.
While this has been done in few games before, it was rarely ever focused on a single place and group of characters over a decade like this. To their credit, I think BioWare did an admirable job in describing the evolution of both the city and the characters over a period of time with starting moments of each act dedicated to “catching up” providing an obvious but necessary exposition on the developments in the “time jump” between the acts. It gave more weight to some of character’s relationships and particularly how some of the characters like Aveline – easily the strongest in DAII’s cast if you ask me – evolved over the decade.
Another thing I appreciate about DAII is that it is one of the best examples of character-centric narratives in RPGs in recent memory. There is no central overarching “save the world” conspiracy in the game. In fact, the potential main antagonists don’t enter into the picture until two-thirds of the game. The narrative is more of an observation of a situation – the Templar-Mage conflict and how people’s roles and opinions change around this central conflict over the decade. The calamitous events aren’t brought down by a mysterious antagonist you fight at the end but by people you have come across many times in the game. This break from the overused “save the world” narrative in a RPG is refreshing and serves to give an important tinge of uniqueness to a game that is built on too many familiar fantasy-RPG tropes .
We know it, BioWare knows it but at this point these romances have become such a popular thing that people associate with their games that even they just don’t want to give up. The ones in DAII were typical BioWare romances – mostly cringe-worthy and filled with so much saccharine to make you diabetic. It had its usual moments but some of the best exchanges with characters in DAII happened outside the romance. In fact, the likes of Aveline, Varric and Bethany/Carver had better dialogues with Hawke than any of the romances. Oh well.
One of the strong suits of DAII besides its experimental narrative was the inclusion of a family. This has been done in games like Fable II before but in a very minimal way. DAII makes family an integral part of the game by having fully-fleshed characters who develop a strong bond with players in the game’s opening act and help carve out a unique identity for Hawke . It is also good to see that Bethany and Carver aren’t the identical versions of one another (despite being twins) making the replay worthwhile in a sense.
Of course, it had to come down to a single point where the delicately, loosely-constructed house of cards that Dragon Age II builds on a not-too-solid foundation of hollow traditional RPG elements and character-centric narratives, it all had to fall. In DAII’s case, it happened literally.
At a point in third act, just as things are heating up to the boiling point, comes a quest that completes an arc that ran through its three acts. This quest aptly titled “Best Served Cold”, like many others, revolves around the Mage-Templar conflict and irrespective of what side you chose before, whether you supported the apostates or the holier-than-thou Templars, the choice is made by default for you.
This is not the same as a “scripted, linear” decision because instead of being funneled down a single path, your decisions are altered to put you on this narrow path. Characters in this quest – blood mages and templars behave highly questionably blaming Hawke, irrespective of whether Hawke had helped them before.This undoing of what the players’ did in the past two acts breaks the “illusion” of role-playing and brings down the house.
I realize RPGs have to force players down a linear path before the ending, but there is a way to do it. You may introduce a ‘deus ex machina’ like Mass Effect 3 did but you do not invalidate and alter decisions made by player . Because in that moment’s frustration, it makes them question exactly why they wasted their time with this game. That was where DAII suffered the majority of their fans’ ire, those who tried overlooking its numerous flaws, appreciating its ambitious attempts were eventually unable to see past this “Unforgivable Sin”.
Dragon Age II had the potential. One can say that about a lot of games but it’s especially true for this. It does a lot of things differently – not something we can say often for sequels nowadays. Some of them work, others don’t. It drudges through similar issues plaguing recent BioWare games and commits a vital mistake in undermining the importance of players’ decision. I think Dragon Age II is partly responsible for the hate it gets but I also believe that all the haters overlook the game’s ambition and some of the things it does pretty admirably.
- Reality is DAII is BioWare’s weakest game (if you ignore that Sonic handheld RPG they made)
- Illusion is that DAII is an awful RPG
- Reality is DAII suffered because it was a sequel to Origins
- Illusion is DAII was better than Origins
- Reality is DAII would have been better with a longer development cycle
- Illusion is EA forced DAII to be the stream-lined exercise it is. Publishers and corporations aren’t to be blamed for everything – be it AIDS, meteors or your dog tearing your homework etc.