Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dragon Age II: Potential

dragon-age-2-artwork-logo-356x300I never played Dragon Age: Origins. I’m not quite sure why. And once it passed me by, I never found time to catch up.

The enormity of DA:O’s world and the scope of its adventure were intimidating. The kingdom of Ferelden, in the continent of Thedas, besieged by racism and classism of the highest degrees (not to mention more fantastical problems like the Blight, demons, and dragons), dwarfs the narrative content of most top-shelf games on the market. I simply couldn’t muster the courage to step into its immense fiction, and the passage of time only made the prospect more daunting.

I decided I would join the series for its second installment, Dragon Age II. BioWare’s pedigree practically demands it. As I guided my human rogue Hawke through the streets of Kirkwall, I could see each attempt of BioWare’s to address common complaints about RPGs. Everything from conversations to combat has been streamlined – not with the same fervor that saw the absolute removal of loot from the Mass Effect, but the emphasis on immediate gratification is tangible. And there’s great potential there.

Unfortunately, true gratification is hard to come by.

The Bad

Let’s start with quests, the bread-and-butter of RPG player gratification. With DAII, BioWare’s tried to make them as easy to find and complete as possible. This isn’t a perfect solution. Like unfamiliar guests at a crowded party, quests large and small trip over one another, bump elbows awkwardly, and occasionally ignore each other altogether. Major story beats occur in what feel like side-quests. Storylines unfolding over multiple quests often leave little lasting impact on the city and its denizens.

Sometimes, you’ll open a crate and find an item, something along the lines of “The Magic Hat of Tom Foolery.” The next time you wander through Kirkwall, the previously-nonexistent Mr. Foolery will sport a quest marker above his head. He’ll give you gold, shout a generic “I thought I lost that!,” and disappear forever. I’d rather grind cave spiders than return people’s lost trash.

That’s not to say every quest is dull or nonsensical. A few of DAII’s companion quests truly shine. Playing matchmaker for my friend Aveline, on a serious rebound after losing her husband earlier, warmed my heart. I also enjoyed a trip into the otherworldly Fade to rescue the mind of a troubled mage. Watching my companions succumb to demonic temptation colored in what were before mere caricatures. If only every aspect of DAII were this fleshed out.

The decision to confine the entirety of DAII to Kirkwall is not inherently bad. In fact, it had the potential to be a revelatory experience in a genre dominated by world-saving adventures. A rags-to-riches story of a refugee in a city teetering on the brink of self-destruction sounds appealing to me. Too bad DAII tells you that story, instead of letting you play it.

A framing device of a woman interrogating the rakish dwarf Varric divides the story into three acts. A year passes after you first land in Kirkwall. Three more pass after you journey underground on a treasure hunt. Another three pass after you deal with a major insurrection. Those time jumps are more interesting than most of DAII’s actual story. How exactly did I purchase my fancy mansion? Did I help Kirkwall rebuild after the insurrection? I want to know!

The Ugly

You will stare at this map of Kirkwall a lot.Kirkwall’s constraining city limits are more than a missed storytelling opportunity. They’re a free pass for the art department to recycle environments ad nauseam. Every cave follows an identical floor plan, as do all the warehouses in Kirkwall. It’s disorienting and frustrating. Even the characters seemed annoyed by this. At one point, when Varric suggested we return to a mansion we’d cleared out once before, Hawke replied, “Very well. We’ll investigate the mansion…again.”

Here’s the final nail in this homebody of a coffin: DAII’s final battle takes place in one of the first locations you ever visit. This choice feels borne of convenience, not impactful narrative closure. The area hasn’t changed substantially over the course of seven years. The antagonist’s relationship to the location is underdeveloped. The only reason to choose it is its open floor plan – plenty of room for boss-killing.

Almost every problem in DAII can be solved by killing, so expect to do a lot of it. Just temper your expectations: the combat, like everything else, is incredibly uneven. Intense difficulty spikes ruin the Zen-like flow attainable in most encounters. Enemies spawn in waves out of thin air, which rarely makes sense (human thieves will just kind of leap over the nearest wall or otherwise appear in the distance) and emphasizes crowd control over character placement. At its best, the action is fast and furious, with one major exception.

About twenty hours in, my speedy rogue looked like he was fighting underwater. Hawke’s slow-motion gyrations rendered all his agility pointless. The community on the BioWare forums identified the issue: a broken attack speed buff based on Isabela’s friendship. How ironic that a game designed to speed up combat ships with a bug that slows it down to the point of my main character being unplayable. As of this review, the problem has yet to be patched for the Xbox 360.

The Good

MerrillIf you’re playing on PC (so you can hack around the bugs) and don’t mind wading through the repetitive environments and aimless story, you will be rewarded with some excellent companions.

DAII takes pains to establish relationships not only between you and your party but between the companions themselves. The vampy pirate Isabela took snide potshots at prudish Aveline during the aforementioned matchmaking quest. Late in the game, I found myself awkwardly interrupting conversations between two of my party members whenever I dropped by for a visit. I romanced the cute Welsh elf Merrill and Isabela simultaneously, and I routinely caught the pair sharing a drink at the bar. Varric even called me out while we were strolling through Kirkwall.

Some of your companion’s actions, and their feelings towards you, will impact the story. More often than not they are inevitable, contrivances of authors who want you to experience a specific moment. More so in DAII than previous BioWare games, I felt like I could see the seams, the smoke and mirrors disguising inevitabilities as choices. Had they been able to more effectively integrate the wonderful characters with the story, perhaps my time in Kirkwall would’ve been more enjoyable.

The Cause

Having finished DAII, it’s clear to me that BioWare knows the pitfalls of modern RPGs: the bloat, the rote characters, the obtuse combat systems. They just don’t know what all the solutions are.

The story and setting are noble yet failed experiments in restraint. The combat is an evolution toward accessibility marred by lazy encounter design. The quests fly by so fast its hard to catch the rich lore I’m sure they’d love to impart.

Declaring it flat out bad would be wrong, despite it being an obvious rush job. Some will love the characters and combat enough to look past the flaws. But those flaws are there, and Dragon Age II is proof that even an amazing studio can fail to reach its potential.