Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Dragon Age II

Post-Launch Review
Dragon Age II (PC)
Developer: BioWare
Released: March 2011
Played: complete in 37h:50min


During Ferelden's Blight, many refugees fled the country. Hawke is one of them, arriving in the city of Kirkwall as a refugee. Over the course of a decade, Kirkwall faces much unrest, and Hawke is drawn into political conflicts and a growing feud between the city's mages and templars. As tensions mount, Hawke is forced to choose sides and face the brewing war...

At Launch

Dragon Age II received average review scores of 80%, (though, unusually and notably, user scores are much lower than critic scores). Many reviewers strongly praised the story and the changes to the combat system. At the same time, some critics (and many players) felt that the game caters to people who didn't like Origins while ignoring Origins' fans, and were displeased by the simplified combat system.

Post Launch

Several patches have been released to address various bugs. The current version is 1.04.
Many DLC packs have been released. Three of these - Legacy, The Exiled Prince, and Mark of the Assassin - add story content. For PC, Mark of the Assassin does not appear to be available on Origin, but can be purchased through BioWare's website.
There are several item packs that add more gear.
The free Black Emporium adds a shop and respec potions.
There's also a free high-resolution texture pack for PC players.

Some readers may recall that I wasn't a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins and didn't actually finish the game. Very few of the problems I had with the first game make a reappearance in the second, which is good. Unfortunately, Dragon Age II is packed with its own brand-new problems.

I had heard that Dragon Age II is very different from Origins. At first, I didn't get it - the prologue features hordes of darkspawn in Ferelden, early in Origins' blight, and (to someone who didn't find DA:O particularly memorable and played it a long time ago) gameplay and combat felt the same. Mage combat animations are awesome now, but other than that the RPG mechanics felt the same to me (except that companions can't teach you specializations anymore, which is sad because some of them are amazing). As I played more, the real difference became obvious: this is a story set in the same world at the same time, but in a different place and about different things.
The structure of the story is really cool. The prologue and three acts are separated by years, so you get to see the city of Kirkwall change over time and participate in its major events. The main plot threads seem disparate and unrelated at first, but start linking together and influencing each other as time goes on.

In fact, Dragon Age II helped me figure out more specifically what I didn't like about Origins. For one thing, II doesn't beat you over the head with how every minority in the world is hated and feared - it's more subtle. And the mage-templar conflict is more fleshed out to better show that the templars have really legitimate points and fears about the dangers of magic. But most of all, II's story is more than a battle of good-vs-evil. The darkspawn are bad, no way around it, and that's usually pretty boring to me. But II is about people, the dangers of their choices, and what happens when those people are pushed too far.
The problem is that a huge amount of the game is filler. In fact, the entire first act feels like filler. Hawke is a fresh refugee with no place in Kirkwall, and decides to join an expedition to the Deep Roads to make a name and earn some coin. That's cool, I can get behind that. Except that your quest objective is not "go on the Deep Roads expedition". Your quest objective is "do quests until you earn 50 gold so you can join the Deep Roads expedition". While I was playing act 1 everything felt like it was just getting in the way of my real goal. I suppose the intention was to get me to know Kirkwall and feel invested in its characters and politics, and many of the act 1 quests do tie in to later events and themes, but at the time it felt like mindless busywork meant to pad the game out so it would feel like a "proper" long RPG. Even the handful of later quests featuring guest appearances from Origins characters are pointless, providing mere fan service without any meaningful character updates. Oh hey Zevran, still being hunted by the Crows I see, oh you're leaving, 'kay bye.
To make things worse, the exact same maps are re-used over and over. They aren't even reskinned, they look completely identical. Every quest that happens in a cave takes place in the exact same cave map, no matter how far apart or unique these caves are supposed to be. Every quest set in a mansion uses the exact same mansion map. Some quests will block off parts of the map, but the maps are always the same. The hub maps never change, despite years passing between each act. What makes all this even worse is that most of the maps are completely uninteresting: lots of wide, flat open spaces with very little decoration. For example, Lowtown is supposed to be Kirkwall's poor area, but it's very roomy and clean, instead of the cramped filthy environment you might imagine when you think of a medieval world's slums. Lowtown's "filth" consists of a few small piles of rocks and some stacks of barrels - which, aside from being unconvincing on their own, happen to be the exact same decor as the docks area, making it doubly unconvincing.
There's also the problem that the story's framing device - the interrogation of Varric by someone referred to as seeker - doubles the uselessness of all those side quests. The seeker is talking to Varric to find out what really happened at Kirkwall, why it happened, and whether the Champion is to blame. With this framing device in mind, it makes little sense to include quests where the Champion returns a random guy's sword for a 1 gold reward. Why would the seeker give a shit? (to be fair, she also wouldn't care what I bought at the market or put in storage in my house, but at least those are relevant to gameplay and character customization)

Related to the story, some of Dragon Age II's greatest strengths are its characters - specifically, your party members. Their voice acting is strong overall, they have interesting stories with themes that tie in to the main plot, and they're allowed to develop over the years. As one example, Aveline joins Kirkwall's guard and rises through the ranks as time goes on. She'll even pursue her own love interest (which is an awkward comedy that's almost too awkward to be funny). I particularly liked Varric, a smooth-talking, bard-like dwarf rogue who loves to embellish and exaggerate, but has no interest in telling his own tales, only yours. I kept Varric with me the whole game and he ended up feeling like the soul of my team, looking out for me and the other party members, keeping the mood light, and teasing out more history and personality from the others.
Despite the patches, there are still some major progress-halting bugs. In The Exiled Prince DLC's act 3 quest, there's an issue that causes the game to get stuck on a loading screen indefinitely (which only occurs if the Legacy DLC is also installed, and can be solved by messing with the game files).There's also a bug in Isabela's act 3 companion quest where looting a body too quickly prevents you from finding the key you need to leave the area.

There's also a persistent technical flaw that hounded me through the entire game: it hangs for a second or more at a time, seemingly at random. It was especially noticeable in more intensive sequences like the finale, so I'm guessing it's a game engine thing related to on-the-fly asset loading. It might be less noticeable on higher-end rigs or without the high-resolution texture pack installed.
The DLC missions are pretty strong.  
Legacy and Mark of the Assassin can be played at any time. In Legacy you learn more about Hawke's father, who is hyped up as a great man but not talked about after act 1. You get some extra dialogue and stuff if you bring your sibling along. The final boss fight was especially cool - it alters the environment and pulls surprises on you, forcing you to move carefully, pace yourself, and keep track of your companions. Mark of the Assassin is pretty fun too, with a character voiced by Felicia Day and some nice new environments and fancy gear, as well as a lot of new information about the Qunari. It's a shame that Tallis doesn't stick around as a permanent companion, though - she's got some excellent abilities but you only have a short time to play with them.

 The Exiled Prince has different strengths, and is best installed before you start the game. Sebastian is an interesting character, and you can influence how he develops over the course of the game since his missions are worked into the main plot instead of being standalones. He adds a lot to the finale, providing a voice for the Chantry when none of your other companions are really involved with it. All three mission packs are recommended if you play the game, though they are a little pricey and never on sale since they cost BioWare Points.

The other DLC stuff is okay. The Black Emporium (free) is an extra store with some cool gear, but more importantly it sells respec potions that allow you to re-assign your points and abilities. The item packs are kind of nice I guess, but no matter how good the items are, you outlevel them fairly quickly, rendering the loot useless in short order. There's also a free high-resolution texture pack available, which is nice, and it didn't give me any noticeable frame rate issues despite my PC not being very high end.

Recommendation: maybe.

The majority of the way through Dragon Age II I was firmly on the side of "don't play it". There's some genuinely good stuff in the main plot and especially with your companions, but it's buried behind dozens of hours of filler, incredibly repetitive boring environments, and some persistent nuisances. But the finale delivered, and it delivered hard. I was actually really impressed with the scale of the finale and what it will mean for the world. So I guess my recommendation is to play the game but stick to main quests, companion quests, and DLC. Those are strong, and that way you'll avoid the filler quests and hardly notice the map repetition.
I honestly think Dragon Age II would have been a great game had it been twenty hours shorter, and would have been much better reviewed had the title not implied it was a direct sequel to Origins (which it most definitely is not).

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