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Rush Job

August 7, 2011

One of the biggest game surprises that I’ve had in the past couple years was Dragon Age: Origins, which had some of the best storytelling and character crafting I’ve ever seen. So naturally, I waited with baited breath for its sequel, Dragon Age II, which was released only about a year and a half later. Though since I played Origins over six months after its release, it was only about a year. Dragon Age II starts out with an important tie to the story of Origins: the Blight rushing upon Fereldan. One family from Lothering, the Hawkes, flees from the Blight as it moves north, and along the way, they bump into the Witch of the Wilds, Flemeth, who takes them to safety in return for a favor. You play as the eldest son of the Hawkes, who you get to name, and you get to choose your class, though not your race. You and your family, down one member, as one of your two siblings dies less than half an hour into the game, along with the warrior woman Aveline Vallen, travel north to the Free Marches city of Kirkwall, where your mother’s family was nobility. Keyword, was. Your uncle has lost all their money, and you have to work to pay just to get into the city.

Over the course of your time in Kirkwall, you meet a number of interesting characters, including the pirate captain you met in Denerim in Origins, Isabela, the former First of the Dalish clan from the Dalish origin in Origins, Merrill, the wayward apostate Grey Warden, Anders, a business-savvy, storytelling dwarf named Varric Tethras, an escaped elven slave from Tevinter with strange powers named Fenris, and if you buy the Exiled Prince DLC, the heir to the Free Marches city of Starkhaven formerly promised to the Chantry, Sebastian Vael. As you try to survive in Kirkwall, you end up finding your way up in the world and get caught up in the city’s various troubles, most notably a rather large group of qunari shipwrecked in the city and increasing tensions between the Circle and the Templars, both of whom are led by very stubborn individuals. And this whole story is told as a flashback by Varric, who is being interrogated by a mysterious woman from a Chantry-related organization called the Seekers who claims that in Hawke’s rise to glory, he/she caused a terrible catastrophe that has changed the entire world.

Cool premise, right? Strong basis in pre-existing Dragon Age history, a diverse cast, it all sounds like an instant winner. Or it would be, had the development team not decided that speed was more important than quality. In their hurry to complete the game, Dragon Age’s creators left quite a few things unpolished, and those are the game’s most obvious flaws. For one, the area that the game takes place in is extremely geographically small: Kirkwall and its surrounding environs. Now, they could have made the city absolutely massive with dozens of areas so that it still seemed far larger than it was. Instead, you only have four major areas within the city and two that you revisit all the time, and there’s very little change in what’s there. Plus, there’s only one cave, Deep Roads, warehouse, sewer, etc. map, so all the dungeon maps are constantly reused. Seriously cutting corners. By the end, you know you’ve been to those same warehouses a dozen times. And the city brothel looks just like Fenris’ mansion looks like Varric’s brother’s mansion looks like the fake guard headquarters, etc.

The plot is also rather lacking in many areas. The concepts are, again, very solid. It’s great to see these major ideologies, a.k.a. qunari, mage, and templar, butt heads. It teaches you a ton about the world of Thedas, and they’re all very natural conflicts. The problem is that the game’s writers didn’t take full advantage of their potential. The qunari leader, the Arishok, is well developed, but First Enchanter Orsino and Knight-Commander Meredith only pop up at the end of the second act out of three. And you still barely get to know them in the third act. Perhaps the writers’ intention was to make us fear and be interested in these characters by their absence. Sometimes that can be used to great effect. But instead, this just served as a letdown. Both turn out to be flat characters who don’t seem to have much reason for their actions aside from “well duh that’s what a mage/templar would do!” Sure, Meredith has a tiny bit better of a reason, but you can only find that out if you make the right in-game decision. Worse, your in-game decisions aren’t really as crucial as they could be. One of your party members does something horrible that affects the entire city, and even though you had three acts to convince him to change his ways, there’s nothing you can do to stop him. Your friendship does nothing to change this character; it just enables him. It makes you feel rather powerless. The writers did want to convey this feeling of “tossed around by circumstance,” but instead, it just comes across as lazy, like they didn’t want to spend the time to do all the work that major diverging plot choices would entail.

Worse, the characters, the signature part of Bioware games, fall flat. Aside from arguably Merrill (who, for some reason, has a sizable crowd of haters despite being the sweetest, most stupidly innocent person in the entire world whose every word makes me want to hug her), the rest of the characters are boring to varying degrees. Anders and Fenris are angsty and as stupidly bullheaded as Orsino and Meredith, Varric is a an admittedly funny and likable one-trick pony, Aveline has very little back story, Isabela is rather unsubtly “easy,” and Sebastian is the epitome of a flip-flopper. Some are better, and some are just horrible. The worst are your siblings, which provide virtually no extra depth to the story and do nothing. Bethany’s a waste of space, and Carver’s an absolute asshole who would disapprove of your actions if you were the messiah. Your mother’s pretty useless too. Even Hawke himself is stuck between the three options of being an incorrigible master of sarcasm, an absolute do-gooder, or a complete jerk. You can’t have more subtle nuances of character, as the game keeps track of your picks and eliminates certain plot choice options. If the developers had spent extra time, they might have realized that three stereotyped options eliminate the numerous possibilities of more complex gameplay and roleplaying.

True, there are many good things about this game. The graphics are absolutely great, a massive improvement on Origins, and the voice acting is of equal quality. The gameplay is very streamlined in the same fashion that Mass Effect 2 did for Mass Effect, though some people find that this streamlining in both or either game is diluting the RPG experience. I thought that the gameplay changes were an improvement, as some battles in Origins moved at a snail’s pace as my character slowly swung his sword over and over. Still, I could do without my enemies inexplicably exploding when I just cut them. They’re people, not True Blood vampires. The music is also suitably fantasy and Dragon Age-esque. But the biggest feeling I got from playing Dragon Age II was that there was so much wasted potential. If the development team had not rushed for that early shipping date, if they had taken full advantage of the game’s gameplay and plot potential with more complex characters, greater plot development, and more plot choice, it might have been a suitable sequel to Origins. Instead, it was just disappointing because the original was so much better. It’s still a rather solid game, to be sure. I’ve played it twice, and it wastes quite a lot of time, and it’s still fairly engrossing. But in comparison to Origins, it’s just sloppy. I expected much better from Bioware.

Story: 7.2      Gameplay: 9.0      Presentation: 8.3      Soundtrack: 8.5      Acting: 9.3      Overall: 8.2

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