Saturday, March 19, 2011

REVIEW - Dragon Age II.

We all expected great things from Dragon Age II, thanks to its mighty pedigree. The pressure was on BioWare to make Dragon Age II the next Mass Effect 2 - to take a very good game, pare back the fat, refine the combat and put out a stunning realization of potential, without sacrificing the inspiration that lays at its center.

They haven't really done that - but neither is it a true disappointment.

Much that was troublesome in Origins has been addressed, repaired or removed entire - and improvements have been made to the game engine, combat, art direction and even the way you develop relationships - but some things have been lost in the rush to get Dragon Age II on shelves a mere eighteen months after its predecessor, and it shows.

Still, this is still a BioWare game - it's near-impossible to not start caring about the cast, and get sucked into the story - and that's half the battle, when it comes to RPGs.

Your comrades are entertaining, interesting, and well-drawn - though it's a bit transparent that each and every one of them was designed as the antithesis to their Origins counterpart. For example, Varric - the story's narrator and your right-hand dwarf is the opposite of every dwarf you've ever seen or read about - a clean-shaven, smooth-talkin', barmaid-lovin' businessman.

All of your followers are archtypical, in their own way - badass mercenaries, emotionally troubled mages, stalwart warriors - but just far enough removed from the standard to feel fresh. Supported by absolutely excellent voice work and above-par writing, I found myself hunting down their personal quests not to unlock some reward or improve their relationship stat with player-character Hawke, but to spend more time with them, and learn more of their stories.

Merrill and Aveline, in particular, stand out as unique video game heroines - powerful, engaging characters, with no whiff of exploitation - which made meeting Isabella The Rogue Sex Kitten thoroughly disappointing. You meet her, roll your eyes and think "great, here's the sex appeal character. Ah, yeah, a sailor joke - that was really funny..." And then you sigh, and switch her out for someone with better DPS - or at least more interesting conversation.

She is the exception to the rule, however (and does reveal herself to be less than two-dimensional, if you give her a chance). The characters, their stories and the player's degree of engagement to them are easily one of Dragon Age II's greatest strengths.

The other major strength is the art style and direction, which looked so bad in early screenshots I was, perhaps, overly harsh. It still looks very unusual, when you first start playing.

It's not realism. It's not cartoony. It's something different - something I found very difficult to put my finger on, until I realized the imagery, the emotion, the feeling it summoned up, a few hours into the game. It's classic fantasy.

I know that may seem over-simplified - and rather obvious - but Dragon Age II's iconographic styling, with its slightly muted colors, its bleeding, liquid skies, its deep shadows, warms lights and architecture of ancient, looming stone summons up the feeling one gets looking at old paintings of scenes from The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. There's a Frazetta-like vibrance to it that echoes the soaring, romantic visions of those dreamscapes - it works fabulously well.

This extends to the characters. They fall on the southern side of the uncanny valley - not courting true realism - but, like a good animated film, they manage to perfectly elicit the required empathy, allowing the player to buy into the world.

It's not going to push your PS3, but it's a great-looking game.

Dragons. Check.

Combat on the console version has been massively overhauled. At its best, it feels responsive, savage and beautiful. It's no longer obscenely difficult on normal mode, but instead provides a reasonable threat that keeps you on your toes. The party interface has been improved, but the major difference is that, on normal and easy difficulty, you can essentially play Dragon Age II as an action-RPG. A rather button-mashy one (with occasional fantastic animation), to be sure - but it makes slogging through another two dozen skeletal warriors less of a bother than it was two years ago.

Harder difficulties require greater strategy, and so greater use of the pause-and-issue-commands mechanic, but Dragon Age II is trying to have its cake and eat it too. There are turn-based battle systems that look like real-time (Final Fantasy XIII) and there are action-RPGs (Mass Effect), but in trying to do both, Dragon Age II's combat falls shy of either mark. Its autopilot systems will run in the background as you mindlessly mash X, leaving you with a crucial ability or spell on cooldown when it could save your party or deliver a killing blow to a boss - which is hugely frustrating.

I'd like to see BioWare make a choice between the two, for this franchise. Turn-based battles would serve the series well, allowing deeper strategy and greater ease of use, on the part of the player - but I've doom-and-gloomed enough. The battle system is still a huge improvement over what we had to deal with in Origins', and often quite fun.

Combat, thank goodness, isn't the reason one plays Dragon Age II, or any BioWare RPG. It's all about the great story, the endearing and interesting characters, the richness of the world... In this case, it's about one city - one major location.

I hope you like your fantasy urban.

In the game's opening, you and your family are fleeing the kingdom of Ferelden as refugees, on your way to the city of Kirkwall. After running around the city, making friends and enemies, you'll head to The Deep Roads for a little dungeon action.

Then it's back to Kirkwall for the rest of the game. I'm not kidding.

This fantasy RPG - a genre and sub-genre built upon the inspiring pleasure of exploring a beautiful, mysterious world - confines you almost entirely to a single city. You select your destination from a map, and change channels on your TV during the load screens (which are almost offensively long).

Yes, it does guide one to have a rather intimate knowledge of the city, but let's be honest - it's a bit of a kick in the knickers, is what it is.

I heart Merrill.
We're very happy together.

Dragon Age II
almost entirely lacks the sense of... grandness of its predecessor. Origins' world felt absolutely rich with history and detail, while DAII is designed for thoughtless, easy digestion. Almost everything that could slow the player down has been pushed to the side or entirely removed, and the result is an unusually fast-paced RPG.

It still takes 40+ hours to play through, but those hours just disappear as you're playing. The central narrative arc and, more importantly, all the little side stories are just wonderful - nearly all of them employ BioWare's classically gray moral quandaries, and are thoroughly involving - and it is through these that the greater view of DAII's world is delivered.

At the same time, the overall events of Dragon Age II - the central story - doesn't end up feeling very important. We, the player, are told that it's all very important. We're told that our actions have rocked the world of DA to its very core - we've changed everything, and nothing can ever be the same!

We're told this, but not shown - and so, we don't believe it. The player is waiting to see the actual impact all their choices have made, but Dragon Age II just winks at you, tells you "you made a huge difference!" and rolls the credits after setting up Dragon Age III.

That, too, is a kick in the knickers.

It is, at the very least, interesting to play a fantasy RPG that's so different from all the rest. The grand scope of its contemporaries has been replaced by a focused view of ten years in a single city, and while its overall narrative fails to truly inspire, it still manages to engage the player during their time with the title.

Dragon Age II sings, in its details. Its world is focused, but beautiful. Its characters are a joy to explore, its dialogue is sharp, and while its combat still requires refinement, it's a welcome improvement over Origins' cumbersome system.

Purists will abhor its limited scope, its repeated dungeons, its streamlined interface.

A player with an open mind, who just wants to fling themselves down a fast-paced, greased-up waterslide of a fantasy RPG, however, will find hours of pleasure here. The game grips you with hooked talons, and holds you close - Kirkwall may be small, but once I started playing it, I found there was no place I'd rather be.

-it's a beautiful game, with great art direction and style
-excellent writing
-excellent voice work
-entertaining, endearing cast of characters
-the companions' stories and the side-quests
-that wonderful BioWare moral gray area
-combat system greatly improved over Origins
-unusual crafting system
-I really like the combat animations
-nice fast pace
-the over-arching plot is thoroughly engaging, right up until the closure-less ending

-the over-arching plot is thoroughly engaging, right up until the closure-less ending
-combat still needs refinement
-almost zero exploration
-doesn't feel as grand and ambitious as Origins
-you go through the same dungeons, the same caves, the same mansion-house layout countless times
-learn to love the loading screen, 'cause you'll be seeing a lot of it
-goddamnit, Anders!

occasionally disappointing,
thoroughly absorbing.

1 comment:

  1. I have a somewhat large response for this in my head and partially typed out, but I have class in less than fifteen minutes, and I've only just scratched the surface (I truly understand why you take so long putting up reviews: you don't want to miss anything), so I'll put it up in a few hours. Just know that it is coming.