I was a few hours into Dragon Age II when what was bugging me about the whole thing finally hit me. This wasn’t the game I fell in love with two years ago- this was Mass Effect: Fantasy Land.
Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect is an amazing series. The second was the best game of last year but we have the third on the way, so did we need Bioware to turn their other famous series into more of the same? Yet every change made in the sequel to Dragon Age seems to try and shoehorn it into a more action-oriented system that clashes with what made the game so special in the first place.
The problem is that Dragon Age: Origins (review) was a fantastic game that didn’t need an overhaul. Mass Effect is a good game that needed those changed. It was plagued with problems- repetitive environments, mind-numbing side missions (oooh, ore!), boring combat, that stupid Mako vehicle, those horrific elevator rides. Thankfully everything else about the game universe was so great that you were sucked into it anyway. With Mass Effect 2, nearly every problem was addressed. The combat is much more fluid and fun, the inventory streamlined, the environments varied and exciting. It felt like Bioware took every criticism to heart and fixed each and every one.
But Dragon Age: Origins is a much different beast. The slower combat relied on strategy and smartly utilizing your team, and you really felt that your actions had an impact on the world and who your character became. The game offered up more paths to choose and ways to play through it.
Here’s some things that have been changed in Dragon Age II, and not for the better.
There’s an elephant in the room that no one seems to want to address. Melee combat in Dragon Age: Origins was simple- you clicked a button once and your character would attack an enemy and keep at it till the enemy was dead as dead. In Dragon Age II you hit a button for every swing of the blade, which would make sense for an action title as it’s much more intuitive. The combat looks and feels much more lively (and the ability tree is a welcome change) but it seems that no one considered YOU’RE PLAYING A GODDAMN RPG. Do you know how long those things are? Do you know how much combat is in it? You’ll welcome lighter dialogue-driven quests just because you won’t have to jam on a button nonstop.
The Main Character.
One of the bigger gripes with the first game was that your main character didn’t talk. With about six different actors needed to play every possible character in the game we gave Bioware a pass, especially since the dialogue was so amazing.
In Dragon Age II you control a male or female human named Hawke who is a set character with a set past. You can play a more good or evil version of the character but you know who the person is and play him or her as such. Rather than choose a certain specific dialogue lines like in Origins you now choose a general mood via a dialogue wheel like in Mass Effect. It doesn’t always do what you want it to and actually makes you feel less connected to Hawke.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is this- in Mass Effect, you’re playing another character; in Dragon Age you lived as the character. You were able to rationalize your character’s every choice because you’d experienced their past.
The sequel has lost that.
Dragon Age: Origins works like most rpgs. You pick up equipment, see who in your party can use it, and make them wear it like good little dress-up dolls. Not so in Dragon Age II! No, only the main character can wear the stuff you find on enemy corpses and crates all over the world. Consider that there are three classes to choose from (warrior, rogue, mage), all with different armor requirements, and this essentially means that two thirds of the crap you find is unwearable junk that only clutters up your inventory.
Bioware was smart to simplify the stupidly convoluted inventory of Mass Effect in the sequel and save you the trouble of breaking everything down just to have space (how much fucking Biogel could someone possibly need?) but Dragon Age was all about the loot. Half the fun was finding new weapons and armor and making your characters as great as they can be.
Here you’ll be forced to keep running to shops to unload all this unusable stuff. Oh, and did I mention that you can also pick up Junk items, that have no use whatsoever? They go straight in your junk and do nothing but take up room. Because you won’t have enough stuff doing that.
The Level Design.
Dragon Age didn’t exactly have the most sprawling levels around, but each place felt different, and you knew where you were by the look of the place. Dragon Age II uses the same maps over and over again. Heading into a cave? It’s going to be the same one every time. Same thing with mansions, warehouses, and outside environments. Each time different doors and passageways are open or locked and it makes you go away it in a mildly different way but Bioware isn’t fooling anyone.
This is the kind of repetitive, mind-numbing shit we hoped was lost on the moons of Mass Effect.
It doesn’t help that the world is tiny, too. We’ve gone from exploring a vast country to mostly hanging out in one city. 95% of the quests see you running around to the same locations (pictured above) over and over again, in the same bland city. And after completing all the side quests to be found in all the city locations, in both day and night (double the locations!), you’ll face a climatic moment that propels the story… and then simply return to the city, to start doing the same side quests all over again. This happens multiple times.
What, they haven’t invented towels in Kirkwall, either? Wipe that red crap off your faces when you talk to me, you bizarrely animated people!
The big problem with having a “save the world” story is that there’s nowhere to go but down in the sequel. The story in Dragon Age II, infuriatingly told via flashback (a classic writer’s crutch) feels very small in comparison. You’re mostly mucking around a town and helping annoying people with their little problems, fully aware that there are people out there that are doing more important things. Perhaps this game shouldn’t have had a number in the title…
Know what the funny thing is? Even with all of these gripes, it’s still a good game. Still compelling, still full of that top-notch storytelling that we’ve come to expect from Bioware, still guaranteed to suck away dozens of hours of your life. You’ll grow to like and care about the characters and become invested in their tales. I’m currently making my way through the game (a review copy that came last thursday didn’t help for a timely review) but I’m leaning towards four out of five stars. The thing is- it could have easily been a five, a triple-A title on par with their sister series. Bioware has taken steps back by trying to remedy a system that simply wasn’t broken, or at least not in the way they assumed it was. It’s become harder to see the differences between their two big franchises and it’s sad to see Dragon Age go.