Thursday, December 8, 2011

Belated DA 2 review

I was derailed yesterday from popping up a few words about DA2 yesterday. Damn you Jon Stewart, damn you to the Hell of Being Flayed Alive for bringing me ridiculosity so early to keep me from my appointed task.

I wanted to do a review of DA2, now after Skyrim has hit the shelves, because I thought that the early reports of DA2 were a little off base. Comparisons seem to keep popping up here and there, and that is sort of like comparing apples to mangos.

Dragon Age 2 is obviously the sequel to BioWare's swords and sorcery title, Dragon Age. The former was more than fair popular, with scads of downloadable content, an epic storyline, and much more blood than you could shake a stick at--which seemed to be a selling point in some mind at BioWare at one point. I can only imagine the meeting that idea took hold in.

"So, Bill, the blood? It seems kinda...excessive."

"Yeah. Buckets. And you can KEEP the blood on too! Just walk around drenched.  It's for the kids."

Dragon Age was a gritty sort of fantasy, with Dark Spawn rising from the bowels of the earth, to consume the flesh of the living and put all they found to the sword. The Grey Wardens, sentinels and warriors charged to fight these creatures of darkness, are themselves tainted by the blood of their foes, giving them power and dominion to oppose such fell creatures.  Betrayed, the Grey Wardens are nearly wiped out, not by their eternal foes, but by the political mechanizations of nobles who seek the throne. There is back biting, there is betrayal, there is blood, there are the usual BioWare mechanics of choosing your companions' paths, making decisions that affect the plot, the fate of those companions, and the fate of the world.  The scope of DA was huge--the fate of the nation is in your hands, to help a king rise, to avenge your family's honor, to battle the Archdemon, and unite the lands.

Heady stuff.  The first game had some issues. Maps were not just repetitive, but often exactly the same. The gameplay was somewhat repetitive as well. The animations were sometimes a bit wooden, and it shared some of the flaws of BioWare's titles of the time, in sort of odd gathering quests and the like. The story and characters, that pushed the title up though. Sweeping saga of the last Gray Warden, charged to refill the ranks of his order...

DA2 is not just a sequel, it's pretty much a different game entirely. Voice acting for your character takes a spotlight--and the dialog choices are ALL fairly satisfying.  The combat is not a deep system, but looks pretty, and you can still turn the gore up, though it is less a factor of looking like your character walked in from the set of Carrie. The whole gameplay system has been revamped. Skills and abilities flow in trees that boost performance, but the choices are fairly limited. Progression to a godlike status is not fueled by some mystic ability imbued by the ingestion of the ichor of the Dark Spawn, but about the skill of the Champion of Kirkwall.

And that is maybe the real difference between the games. The scope is far different this time around. While the first game was an epic of the rise of the Grey Warden, DA2 is about a refugee from the war, who lands in Kirkwall, and scrambles to take care of his/her family. The linking scenes and structure set the entire game as a flashback, where one of your boon companions is held by the Chantry and interrogated. Varric tells your tale, your unofficial chronicler.

Structurally, the game was, to me, much more satisfying because of that. It wasn't an epic, it was a self contained tale. The rise of a merry band of heroes, looking not to save the kingdom, but get paid. At least at first. It is a more personal sort of tale. It was in many ways, a deeper look into the world, because you get to see it more up close.  The Circle of Magi was featured in the first game, but more as a resource to call upon.  In the second, you get to see the effect that religion of the Maker has on the mages. How it impacts the politics. You get to be involved in some of that dirty politicking as well. Where before, you shape the fate of a nation, you are a little closer to the fray in the second. Your actions impact, if anything, your character's actions have a sweeping impact. The return of Flemeth. The Qunari. Sparking a war. But at the heart of the game, it is not about setting these huge things into motion with any great plan, but rising out of consequences from smaller actions.

That, I thought, was the real strength of the game. While DA was epic and writ large, DA2 is a smaller scope. Your actions have impact, but those actions are spilled over from small ones. To save this soul. To save that one. To let someone go. To show mercy. To help a companion. Stay loyal to a friend, and it spills over later on.  And to be fair, it's a game that doesn't make those decisions easy.

In BioWare games, you tend to have two choices. Be a goody two shoes, or be a right bastiche. The nobler path is almost always less profitable, but ends up with its own rewards in the overall arc. DA2 allowed you to be noble, fell, or just a smart ass. Yes, I chose smart ass fair often. The dialog for the smart ass options were far more entertaining. The thing is, you can lose companions if you chose the nobler path always. You build not a force of shining heroes, but friends and companions. Of any BioWare game, DA2 had some of the hardest choices to make in the quest to build up your merry band of troublemakers.  Paragon or Renegade in the Mass Effect games is fairly easy. DA2 doesn't make those choices easy. In serving your companions loyally, can lead you to some fairly dark stuff. Even with the best of intentions, it can lead you to doing some very bad things. The consequences for doing the "right" thing aren't easy to wend through. There is no real righteous path. Which, for me, was the real draw for the game. The story unfolded, and you were at the heart of this conflict, and the consequences for seemingly small actions early in the game spun out later.  Structurally, it was a better story than the first, for me.  It wasn't epic, but set the hooks. It builds, but from tiny actions, you are at the heart of the chaos, and your best intentions can wind up impacting everything. For me, that was wildly satisfying.

Epic is fun. To have this grand sweep of armies, the fate of nations. DA2 wasn't that, but the consequences of these more personal tales, wind up igniting a war. It shows how the Law of Unintended Consequences can play out. It is a very different title than its predecessor, and that is not a bad thing. It is a game with a different scope, and that more closer look at the world, the people, the consequences, that was what I think the franchise really needed. I thought how the team structured the tale was clever, and the choices to be made, aren't simple and easy. That was refreshing. It wasn't that you were mired in blood and danger always, with huge import, but that you had choices to help a friend. To do things to support their own quests, often at odds with your own, and fraught with their own difficulties. Your companions are often at odds with one another as well, so balancing them all is a challenge. It is a more personal game, in its scope, and that was a lot more satisfying for me, than just building an engine of destruction to rain down fire upon my foes.

It has flaws. The maps are still an issue. The same ones, over and over again. Admittedly, this was less an issue for me, since you were visiting the same places over and over again. The DA team really needs to look at how the Mass Effect team builds their maps, because each location in Mass Effect, while often similar in flavor, is unique. The combat was sometimes laggy--RPGs aren't action titles, so that is forgivable. The inventory system was odd, in that you had a junk pile--items that had little intrinsic value and were not useful to the story, not useful to building much of anything, and yet, you put the little bastiches in your pack anyway. The crafting and equipment upgrades were very basic, though it was sort of nice to hear the chime of finding a new resource.  There are certainly issues to work on, but for me, the story was key. The combat system could still be tweaked, but it was serviceable. It was a huge leap graphically, and the addition of voice acting was a boon for the franchise. It is a game that was a good sequel in my mind because it didn't try to recreate the same epic feel of the first. It expanded the view of the world, of the events shaping it. It was a huge leap for how the this world is revealed. Structurally, it was a more cinematic tale, with a strong feel for a beginning, middle and end. It played a bit with conventions in the genre, and it certainly played with characters, and they were fun. It wasn't a game of turning your character into an engine of unstoppable rage, and I kind of liked that.

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