a review of Dragon Age 2
a videogame developed by bioware
and published by electronic arts
for personal computers, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Toph Stuart
Dragon Age was Bioware’s “computer game.” Mass Effect was built from the ground up to be a console blockbuster, integrated from word one with The Most Popular Action Mechanic (which happened, at the time, to be third-person cover shooting), The Most Popular Action Aesthetic (space marines (in the most literal sense: you are an infantry detachment of a navy in space)), simple d-pad AI commands, and a dialogue wheel designed to be negotiated with an analog stick. Dragon Age was Bioware patting the heads of pants-wetting nerds everywhere. Whoa, hold on there! We can still do layered menus and complex AI behavior and high customizability and high fantasy. See, look – this is like, some Ultima stuff we’re doing here. Relax you guys, we are still legit.
Dragon Age is worse than Mass Effect on a number of levels. The writing is worse, nobody’s fault but the writers’ I guess, the universe is less compelling (Tolkien with precisely one new idea that forms the basis of every single conflict in the gameworld), and it’s a damn sight uglier, which is too bad when you spend half the game staring at faces as they woodenly spout line after line of lavishly fully-voiced dialogue. (One of the weirdest nods to PC-nerd-demanded “customizability” is that the player character is the only person whose dialogue isn’t voiced, I assume so you can pick a voiceset for your character’s little click-triggered ejaculations for move orders or attack orders or interact orders. And everyone finds a way not to say your name so you can type one in yourself. What a waste.) Mass Effect’s faces weren’t great, it’s no Half-Life 2 or anything (what is?), but I could at least stand to play the game with subtitles off and just watch it. Not so in Bioware’s flagship fantasy series. It’s also got a frankly bizarre attachment to blood-soaked ESPN2 XXXtreme presentation, I don’t know who they were trying to market that towards, skateboarders from 1997 I guess.
The game’s biggest sin is its interface. Dragon Age is actually fairly difficult and you need to manage your team’s abilities appropriately. Basically this boils down to WoW-style tank ‘n spank: get your beefy dude up to take the hits, put your melee DPS in flanking positions for backstabs, and put your ranged DPS and healers far the hell away. At its best the game uses clever environments and enemy placement to make tactical positioning interesting and measured use of all your abilities necessary. Unfortunately, the game has delusions of being realtime. You’re supposed to set up long lists of FF12-style gambits to control all your characters, but they’re not sensitive enough to the relevant criteria (to wit, positioning, which is like 70% of playing the game correctly) and your wizards will sit around like idiots and let orcs beat the magic out of them. Meanwhile, characters move with all the friction of a dozen greased superballs in a sock so it’s impossible to maintain a flank because enemies will squeeze and slide around your team while attacking. What you end up doing is turning off all the tactics and literally pausing about once a second to micromanage every action of every one of your team. It worked okay in Baldur’s Gate 2 because the game was a little more ponderous and contemplative. Dragon Age has delusions of realtime and your constant pausing is much more frequent, frenetic, and frustrating.
That’s probably the root of the problem right there: Baldur’s Gate envy. Not that there’s anything wrong, necessarily, with drawing inspiration from the classics, but we here at Action Button Dot Net always prefer to see thoughtful revision over thoughtless imitation. But at least they were trying. It’s obvious that a lot of people put a lot of effort into Dragon Age, that they sincerely believed they were making something awesome. Like that other hopelessly mismanaged and flat-footed critical darling Bioshock, it doesn’t understand itself well enough for it to be any fun to play but you can at least draw out some elements you might be able to appreciate in isolation.
Dragon Age 2 is a disasterpiece of horrific proportions. Everyone was trying to do something experimental without communicating to any of the other developers about their little experimental piece and they each only got a quarter of the way there before deadlines loomed and they had to pump the rest of the game thick with unthinking, desperate filler. It’s a game, like CODBLOPS, that everyone should play and no one should pay a red cent for, just to appreciate the succinct presentation of everything wrong with today’s videogame industry. Oh, you’ll say. This is the enemy.
They tried to pull a Mass Effect 2, streamlining and actionifying the combat and getting rid of a lot of “unnecessary” complexity. Remember that deep combat system with tons of abilities to use and stats to manage that actually required some level of mastery because the game was difficult? Forget that stuff, everyone’s teleporting all over the god damned screen and kobolds will explode into blood geysers by the wagonload. Remember how big a role careful tactical positioning played and how that could interact with the level design? Never mind that, every battle consists of at least three successive magically-appearing waves of enemies that come from 360 degrees around you so you can’t do anything but pound all your most powerful abilities as quickly as possible and hope your damage outpaces theirs. Except, um, ability cooldowns are a lot longer, so you can’t pound as much as you need to and it’s actually more of a boring chore to play, and the best tactic (when you need to use tactics) is to piss everyone off with one dude and run around in circles while everyone else shoots at the bad guys, until one of them pisses them off, then you switch to him and run him around in circles. WoW one-click autoattacking all the time, though I hear on console you have to JAM X TO ATTACK, talk about salt in an open wound. How could we make this drudgery any more mundane? I know, let’s have them press confirm over and over again just to hit things like in a bad JRPG.
They Mass Effect 2ized the story, as well: instead of a nations-spanning quest to stop a world-ending menace, it’s about the player character and her friends making ends meet in a new home, scrounging up the cash to fund an expedition that will advance, or rather restore, their position in society. (There’s that Baldur’s Gate 2 again – does everyone else smell that? Where is that coming from, the vents? Did someone burn popcorn down there or something?) All the politics are local, and the intent is to tell a novelistic story, spanning years, chronicling the slow burn of the conflicts between the city’s power players and the PC’s role in the middle of it all. A zombie-splattering Middlemarch, or maybe a goblin-exploding The Wire.
Instead, the player stumbles through identical corridors from the FF13 school of level design (if it’s a cranny that doesn’t directly lead to your goal, there’s a treasure at the end of it), each reused an astonishing number of times ostensibly to reinforce the parochial “theme” but actually because of a critical shortage of development time (thrill to exotic locales such as Lowtown (Act 1 (day)) through Lowtown (Act 3 (night))), looking for the glowy people to click on to initiate Dialogue Events that present Important Choices that you will quickly intuit have no effect on the relentless drive of the story. The Mass Effect dialogue wheel makes an appearance, but the options are represented by a bewildering array of Skittles-colored icons that can’t possibly mean as much as they seem to. Years pass without warning in the span of a single poorly-scripted cutscene and barely anything changes (new higher-level items in the shops!!) and no one ages. Your reactions impact your friends positively or negatively depending on their own personalities but there are bonuses for them loving you OR hating you so it’s irrelevant. All characters, no matter how nuanced they initially seem, descend into caricature so they can form the basis of Dragonball Z boss battles (kaio-ken times teeeeeEEEEEEENNNNN plkow whoosh) or otherwise insulting Emotional Moments of Choice. Party members can’t equip any of the armor you find so there’s no unsightly alteration of their character-defining concept art outfits.
By the end you’ll be laughing your way through each gut-wrenching twist and turn, wondering what irrational nonsense the game could possibly pull next. You’ll also be dropping the difficulty to Casual to minimize your running-around-in-circles time. Also possibly closing your eyes and flicking the mouse around to pick dialogue choices at random and make your character as close as possible to the unpredictable psychotic she would have to be, living in a world like that. Playing Dragon Age 2 is like watching parts 2, 7, 29 and 48 of Let’s Play Dragon Age 2 with commentary in pig latin by Weis and Hickman. If this review seems scattered and incoherent, well, you can figure out why. What a dubious mess.