Dragon Age 2: Act 1

(Spoilers for all of Act 1 and early Act 2)

I had a lot of gripes about Act 1 of Dragon Age 2 last time, and they still pretty much stand. I think there were too many quests that felt too similar and that the game did a poor job of teaching me about Kirkwall, particularly the hierarchy and motives of, and interplay between the various factions therein. I still really wish there had been a proper tour of the city, with a guide, something like Assassin’s Creed 2 does when you first get to Venice. Or perhaps someone like the seneschal in Dragon Age: Awakening who could have introduced me to the political dynamics of the city. Just something that could give me a better feel about what and who is important.

After the jump, I detail a particularly awful quest, and then things get better:

The quest in question is called “Shepherding Wolves“. It begins when we rescue a priest from being ambushed by thugs at night in a bad part of town. She thanks us for the rescue and wants us to meet her at a house nearby to do a job for her. When we get there, she and a Templar buddy of hers want us to smuggle a Qunari mage out of the city. The mage himself is magically bound and gagged (this is how Qunari traditionally treat mages) and so communicates only in grunts, and is totally passive, not giving any indication that he actually wants to be freed. The presence of the Templar, combined with comments from the Sister that indicate that she doesn’t actually care about the welfare of the mage but is instead hoping that this will trigger popular outrage at the Qunari eventually leading to a holy war, sets off alarm bells in my mind, and so I decline to help them. That really should be the end of it. But the game has decided that this is a main quest, so even though I said no, it actually makes me follow through with the smuggling. I can’t ignore it. I can’t turn the Qunari over to his own people in the city. I can’t turn everyone involved over to the captain of the city guard (who just so happens to be in my party and a good friend of mine) and let the authorities figure it out. For no discernible reason (I’ve already raised enough money to fund the expedition that will form the next part of the main quest-line) and against my better judgement, I have to smuggle the mage out to progress in the game.

And sure enough, it’s a set-up. After going through a dungeon that I’ve already been through at least twice before (aside: it’s hard to make quests feel unique when they all use the same three or four dungeons – it’s kind of amazing after all the criticism that Mass Effect got for doing this on side-quests that Bioware went and did it again, but this time using the dungeons for main quests too) I emerge to find that the Qunari have been tipped off to the smuggling, and are waiting for us. Even if we turn over the mage and co-operate fully, due to the wacky Qunari honour code, we have to fight them to the death. The mage ends up dead, either killed by the Qunari, or by his own hand if we try to set him free. We go back to Kirkwall to confront our quest-givers, and they admit readily to tipping off the Qunari, hoping that they would kill us, causing an international incident and inciting a war. And then they pay us and we let them go on their merry way. Again, not because I want to, but because I can’t do anything else. I can’t kill them (despite having killed people for much less earlier in the game). I can’t turn them over to the authorities (again, the captain of the guard is right there, and they pretty much just admitted to treason). Clearly the designers are setting us up for future conflict with the pair, but it’s done in such an awkward way that denies choice to the player, and it forced me through yet another formulaic mission (quest-giver, short dungeon, conversation with illusion of choice, boss fight) that I wanted nothing to do with.

This is such a terrible incident of railroading, and was definitely the low-point of the game thus far. But things have been picking up. The Deep Roads adventure was a fun romp. A unique area. Some tricky boss fights. Strong character motivations. And Act 2 have been doing a good job thus far. I now feel like I actually have a place and stake in the city, rather than just being motivated by money. There was a follow-up to a quest in Act 1 that involved a trip through the Fade, and a number of interesting conversations with demons (though, annoyingly, two companions succumbed to demonic temptations, despite my being at full-friendship with them). There’s been a cute quest where one of my companions tries to work up the confidence to ask a man out. But then the game implicitly compared Templars to Nazis, and it lost whatever goodwill it had been accumulating.

I also have one more specific world-building gripe. A lot of the quests thus far have involved tensions between Templars and renegade mages. Many of these quests resolve with either sending the mages to the Circle under the auspices of the Templar, or helping them go underground. To help in making these decisions, it would be highly useful to have a feel for what the Circle is actually like. But as far as I can recall, I have yet to meet a member of the Circle in good standing. It’s clear that Circle mages are treated badly, but it’s by no means clear how badly. This omission is especially frustrating given that at the end of Act 1, my character’s sister was taken by the Templar and forced to join the Circle, and apparently my character’s mother has been able to visit her there. So not only does this mean that I should have an extra incentive to find out what life in the Circle is like, it also means that I should have a direct method of doing so: visiting my character’s sister myself. It’s baffling that the game is forcing this blind spot upon me.

I’ve gone all this way without talking much about the gameplay. The combat has become routine and even a little boring, but it’s still satisfying to design a good set of tactics. The enemy reinforcement wave thing is still absurd, and I haven’t found a tactics-set that deals with it well. Characters tend to blow all their abilities and mana on the first wave, and then struggle a bit with the second. I do think it hurts the game in comparison to something like Baldur’s Gate, or even Oblivion, that combat goes so quickly. It means there need to be a lot more encounters in order to make quests feel significant, and so each individual combat feels less significant. It also hurts that, since any given enemy dies quickly, they have less time to do anything interesting, and so encounters tend to have a very similar feel to them.

Also of note looking forward is that this may be the first Bioware game in a while where I go relationship-less. None of the companions I’ve been traveling with particularly appealed to me. Anders, besides sharing his body with a spirit, is too broken and obsessed with mages. Aveline is otherwise engaged, so to speak, and besides, she’s a bit dull and straight-laced. I don’t think Varric is an option even if I wanted him. There are the companions I haven’t been using – Isabella, maybe – but I certainly don’t expect to get attached to any of them the way I did with Alistair or even Garrus.

Anyways, like I said, Nazis aside, the quests in Act 2 are picking up, and so I’m looking forward to the second half of the game.

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