it's the little things that bug me in Dragon Age 2
I started playing a new game of Dragon Age 2 last night after about five months of not playing it. As I play through it again, I can’t help but get frustrated all over again with the laziness shown in the game. I thought the game was okay, but like many fans of Dragon Age Origins, DA2 didn’t feel like a proper sequel. There are so many little details that add up to make it seem like the developers were either incredibly rushed or thought the fans were idiots. Lots of things in the game give the feeling of rushing you along, instead of making you want to pay attention to detail and immerse yourself. The lack of item descriptions, for example, along with boring item names. You find dozens of Rings, Belts, and Long Swords, items with completely generic names like that, and items in DA2 have no description, unlike in Origins, so I tend to disregard them as soon as I get them. In Origins, even if I got a plain amulet or a wimpy mace, it had a bit of descriptive text that I wanted to read. “This mace is deceptively heavier than it looks”, something like that, so that even everyday items encouraged a second look before confining them to the junk heap.
Another rush-you-right-along detail of DA2 is springing traps. When I have Varric unset the floor trap so we don’t all go kablooey, it’s instantaneous; he doesn’t kneel down to fiddle with something, there’s no pause, all he does is make some comment while he stands upright and still. In Origins, when a rogue would deactivate a tripwire or spring a bear trap, she had to kneel down and actually work on it a second. Little things like that are what help keep away the feeling that you’re just toggling bits in a computer. My epic heroine has to spend a little time making the pathway safe for her and her party; traps are something worthy of notice. In DA2, they’re just a blip, a button press–I know it’s a danger just because some text flashes on the screen pronouncing it a trap. There’s no corresponding acknowledgement in the game for the characters; they don’t move or do anything with the trap, they just stand around. Deactivate enough traps in DA2, and it starts to feel like busywork the game developers are making the player do, not a part of the characters’ world.
The maps in DA2 also suffer from a lack of creativity. I’m not going to talk about how entire dungeons get repeated with only different paths unlocked, because that’s a major criticism of the game that everyone has made. No, I’m talking about the little map that shows in the corner of your screen, indicating where your character is and the immediate surrounding area. In Origins, each minimap was styled to look like an actual map painted on rough, brown canvas, with little details indicating features in the environment. In DA2, it just consists of white lines and black areas. The DA2 minimap is no easier to read than in Origins, so I don’t consider it an improvement. My guess is minimap artistry wasn’t seen as a big deal to the DA2 developers, so it’s just another little thing that got tossed out when budgets or timelines got tight. The players won’t care, right?
I miss being able to talk to my companions whenever, wherever, like I could in Origins. In DA2, if you don’t have a quest for it, talking to your companions results in a one-liner given in passing, with no dialogue screen even opening. In Origins, if you tried to talk with Leliana anywhere in the world, regardless of whether you’d made any progress in wooing or befriending her, she’d tell you about your current area, and let you ask questions of her. Not being able to start a conversation with my companions makes them feel more like cardboard cutouts, or like the bytes of data they really are. I’m not asking for them to present completely new dialogue options every time I speak with them, but a more organic growth would be better. In Origins, as I earned a party member’s approval, new dialogue options would appear one at a time. In DA2, getting to know a companion happens in fits and bursts, as I find new gifts to give them or hit important plot points. And it’s all so serious, too. There’s no joking around like what I did with Alistair, before finally asking him the serious personal questions. You say a couple things to a companion in DA2, ask some questions that are all serious in nature, and the conversation is over. None of the companions in DA2 are particularly long-winded, either. Wynne in Origins would lecture me for ages before she finally made her point, asking me probing questions to feel me out. Leliana would tell involved stories, further exposing me to the lore of Dragon Age. Varric, the professed storyteller of DA2, doesn’t have anything on Leliana for storytelling.
There are lots of side quests in DA2 that are really just fetch quests that you didn’t even know you signed up for. You’ll kill an enemy, loot his corpse, and find some random shawl or treatise that triggers a Quest Updated message. “What quest?” you wonder, only to see it’s some random dude who lost something and will give you a pittance to return it. In Origins, you found similar quests posted on the Chantry board, but they at least had a backstory consisting of a couple paragraphs. In DA2, you get a one-liner indicating where to find person x who wants thing y.
The fights in DA2 seem less meaningful than in Origins. I wander into a street and I’m swamped by Redwater Raiders, Sharps Highwaymen, Flint Company Mercenaries, or Invisible Sisters. They all look the same, there’s some vague backstory to each that begins the same (kill them in a few random encounters) and ends the same (go to their hideout and kill the remainder). All the people in said bandit group are faceless–seriously, they all wear masks so you can’t see their face–clones of the others in the group. None of them have names, and even the leader is usually given a generic name like Group Name Leader or Group Name Chief. The only purpose they serve is to slow me down on my way to the destination for the real quest I’m on. It feels very transparent to me that there’s nothing unique about these bandit hordes as I blow through yet another group of them in a random encounter–like with unsetting traps, it starts to feel like busywork. That’s a feeling I want to avoid as much as possible in a game, especially an expansive role-playing game with lots of lore and story, like the Dragon Age series should be.
I think the developers got too caught up in making a pretty, faster-paced game. I would have loved to see more of Origins: big world, characters I can really get to know and have an opinion about, and interesting events. It’s obvious there’s still a market for expansive, detailed games–look at how well Skyrim did. Fans love it, reviewers love it; it’s a great game. I’m not saying make DA3 into a Skyrim clone, I’m saying take the best of Origins, take some influence from Skyrim, and run with it. You don’t see recycled maps in Skyrim; the Skyrim world is expansive, beautiful, and detailed. Yeah, the same rock or tree shows up everywhere, but I don’t care. Recycle the parts, but arrange them in unique ways. Let me have different places to visit, like Origins had with Orzammar / Brecilian Forest / Redcliffe / Korcari Wilds / Circle Tower, and like Skyrim has with Riften / Markarth / Whiterun / Solitude / Windhelm. DA2 confined you to one city, one beach, and one mountain, and it all got very dull after a while.
Another area where the Dragon Age developers should look to Skyrim is with character race. While the Dragon Age devs simplified things, going from three possible races in Origins to no choice at all in DA2, Skyrim maintained the ten playable races of its predecessor. It’s okay to give players a choice, Bioware. We’re not so stupid we’ll be confused and hate your game because we can’t figure out this human / dwarf / elf thing. Obviously Skyrim did okay with it, offering three elven races, a lizard, a cat, an orc, and four human races. I read that the DA2 playable-race restriction was based on voice acting, that each race has to have a different accent and it would be too expensive to have the main character voiced by three different males and three different females. To which I say: bullshit. I don’t care about elves sounding Irish and dwarves American and humans British. Sure, it’s cool to hear the differing accents as I talk to characters in the game, but I don’t want my gaming experience limited by that. Let me be an elf with a British accent, that just makes my Hawke character even more unique and special. I hear talk about modern games being dumbed down for console players, and I just want to scream. I point to Skyrim as a shining example of the marketability and demand for intricate RPG games, even on PS3 and Xbox. I think the elves look really cool in DA2, and I would love to play as one, but I’m stuck as a human every time.
I’ve played through Origins multiple times and have beaten it at least four, trying various combinations of the dichotomies for the final battle: templars / mages, werewolves / elves, golems or no golems. I’ve beaten DA2 exactly once, and each time I’ve started replaying it, I’ve gotten bored partway through. Probably because I saw this cave again and just couldn’t stand it:
While Origins had major choices to make, one thing that limits the replayability of DA2 for me is the lack of meaningful choice. Oh, I’m going to side with the mages in the end? Big whoop, I still have to kill the same main people. Often times a major choice involves whether I want to fight one particular dude or not (e.g., I can kill the Arishok or not), not a choice between saving one people at the cost of another, or fighting one side while the other lives and helps me. There was some weight to the decision in Origins of going with or against the elves. If I kill them and side with the werewolves, I better be damn good at healing spells, because there goes my infinite supply of Elfroot for potions. If I don’t kill the Arishok in DA2 and lose Isabela as a result, what have I lost? Not that Isabela isn’t cool, but she’s one person versus the loss of a whole village. That’s not to mention the practicality of losing access to all the supplies I can buy from the elves in Origins if I eradicate them, and the benefit of having them with me in the final battles. Same with the mages versus templars. I don’t get to pick the members of any army in DA2, and the two main people at the end? I have to kill both regardless of which side I favored.
When I see reports of playable dragons and multiplayer in future Dragon Age games, I just get sad. I want them to focus on another game as awesome as Origins, and try to win back some of their alienated fan base. Bethesda has earned so much respect and love by continuing the awesomeness of the Elder Scrolls series in Skyrim, and not selling out by producing a cheap, rushed, lazy game. I don’t want something crazy and experimental for the Dragon Age series, I want tried-and-true RPG awesomeness. I’m not saying give me a cookie-cutter copy of Origins, but neither do I want a complete deviation from the original game. The original was awesome, DA2 was lackluster and embarrassing, at least under the “Dragon Age” name. I love the following chart so much for summing up my opinion of Bioware and Bethesda recently:
I hope Bioware gets it together for Dragon Age 3. It could be a really awesome game if they stick with the engine behind DA2, because DA2 is a pretty game. They just need to take it back to the roots a bit, in my opinion, rather than jumping the shark with ideas that have no place in the world Origins laid out for us.