I’m mid-way through Act 1 (and will be spoiling up to that point). I am not very impressed right now. I take issue with a number of the decisions Bioware has made, both in narrative and storytelling, and in gameplay.
The opening sequence is reasonably successful in tying the game to Origins, but it doesn’t do a great job at establishing who Hawke is and where she comes from. My Hawke is a warrior, and the game seems to imply that she and her brother were in the army. Does that mean that we’re deserters? In wartime? This decision to run away instead of fight for their homeland is just glossed over quickly without much thought. Likewise, Hawke’s sister’s initial decision not to join the Circle in Ferelden seems like it needs some more examination. The painting this paints of our “Champion” and her family is not flattering.
I’ll pass over the over-arching story-within-a-story narrative device for now. It’s too early to judge it, except to say that it has yet to justify itself. I’ll also pass over the Flemeth sequences, except to say that it’s a little odd that our heroine was mandated by the game to wait a whole year before following through on her promise to Flemeth (and furthermore doesn’t seem to have had the option of not following through on the bargain at all, though I haven’t verified this).
Speaking of that one year gap. That gap, and the decision leading up to it, are perhaps the oddest thing thus far. Upon arriving in their newly adopted home city of Kirkwall, our heroes must find a benefactor to put of the bribe money so that the city guard will let them enter. There are two options – a mercenary company and a smuggling ring. Each offer to put up the bribe money in return for one in-game quest (I did the mercenary one, which involved killing a nobleman and all his guards – which seems like a great way to make a good first impression upon Hawke’s new homeland) and a year of service. This seemed like the first choice I was given as a player, and it feels like it should be one with major implications. But after making the choice, the game almost immediately jumps ahead a year, so that the indentured servitude is over, and Hawke and company have established themselves in the city. This is bizarre. It makes the smugglers versus mercenaries choice seemingly meaningless (none of the connections Hawke made in this year have yet to have anything to do with the mercenaries). This process of being an outsider and getting established seems to me like it should be a core, vital part of the refugee experience, and it’s just glossed over. Even worse, it deprives me, the player, of the opportunity to learn about Kirkwall along with Hawke. Games are so often about outsiders because it’s a way of making the character’s and player’s knowledge of the world are roughly aligned. Or games choose to tell an insider’s story so that the character has a strong identity and an established place in the world. Dragon Age 2 awkwardly straddles this line between insider and outsider in such a way that it get the benefits of neither case. I can understand Bioware wanting the story to jump forwards in time so that Hawke’s rise to power doesn’t seem too precipitous, as well as so that they get out beyond the timeline of Origins and Awakening, but this choice makes the prologue seem superficial and meaningless. It certainly ends up being much weaker than both Origins’ and Mass Effect 2’s openings.
And then there’s the question of what I’m actually doing now, after the one year jump. Apparently, my primary goal is money. In the short run to fund an expedition into the Deep Roads, and longer term to buy back the family home. In service of these goals, I’ve committed a fairly brutal home invasion (they were apparently slavers, so that makes it ok, I guess, though there weren’t any slaves there?) I’ve slaughtered two-dozen Templars inside a church (they ambushed us, but still, we were in the middle of committing a crime). First of all there’s the issue that these acts haven’t seemed to have any repercussions (at least not yet). I can’t even tell if the game considers these acts to be immoral or not. And given that I’m being railroaded into doing them, I really wish, at the least, that I had more motivation for committing these acts than just money, especially since, given that Hawke’s sister (and two other companions) are unlicensed mages, the party really should have an incentive to keep a lower profile. It’s implied that making our fortune will allow us to be safe from the Templar’s authority, but the game has not really followed through on the idea yet. (Actually, given set-up, and the apparent eventual importance of the templar versus mage conflict, the game hasn’t really thrown a lot of narrative weight behind it yet at all.)
It’s really hard not to compare this first act with the first few chapters of Baldur’s Gate 2, which has a similar arc of arriving in a new city under calamitous circumstances, having a mage run afoul of local law enforcement, and then needing to raise money and make connections within the city with one of two shadowy organizations. In Baldur’s Gate 2, you’re given a large variety of choices for optional quests to earn money in and around the city. But the combat in these quests was mostly against monsters, or bandits outside the city, at least at the start. Then your chosen institutional backer comes into conflict with the other institution, lending some meaning to the choice of which one you allied with. And all of this effort is motivated by the desire to gather the resources necessary to rescue an imprisoned friend and exact vengeance on a man who captured and tortured you and your companions, and who is still out there hunting you. It provides a much more solid grounding to the proceedings than I feel like I’m getting in Dragon Age 2.
Then we have the combat, which I still haven’t done quite enough of to get a handle on. I don’t like constantly having to press A to do basic attacks. I also don’t like having to manually position myself for the game to let me do a special attack (in Origins, pressing the button for a special attack while out of range would command to the character to move into position, then do the attack; here, it does nothing). That said, the combat does have a chunkier, more satisfying feel to it. There were two major changes to the flow of combat: reducing in power of healing abilities, and enemies spawning in waves, often behind the party. Both of these cause an increased emphasis on cooldown management and positioning and I’m not really sure yet that the tactics system is up to handling this. But thus far, I’ve been pleased by how aggressively my ranged characters have avoided melee attackers, but less pleased at may party’s efforts to conserve mana and abilities for when they’re really needed. Also, the cross-class combinations seem much less elegant than the spell-combos from Origins. If I’m reading the system right, one character has to hit an enemy with two consecutive upgraded skills from one tree, and then a second character has to hit the enemy with an appropriate upgraded skill of their own. I can see the damage potential, but it hardly seems worth the trouble given that it’s difficult to stick status conditions on harder enemies, and weaker enemies dies quickly enough anyways. Perhaps this is the expected way to deal damage quickly enough before enemies overwhelm the party’s healing capacities? Presumably there are lots and lots more combats to come, so I’ll be grappling with these issues for a while, and will have more to say later.