Dragon Age 2: Miscellany

This is the first of probably three Dragon Age 2 wrap-up. The other two are going to about the characters and the story, but before getting into the heavier stuff, I though I’d do a catch-all wrap-up post addressing all the various other issues about the game.

It’s certainly crunchier and faster than in Origins. The crunchiness, I think, comes from better feedback on connecting attacks, also, loathe as I am to admit it, from making me press “A” over and over again to do basic attacks. It is nice to see enemies react and stagger when they’re hit. And it really is nice that large weapons can connect with multiple enemies at once. It adds a tangible difference between two-handed and sword-and-shield warriors, especially since the effects of armor seemed less apparent to me than it was in Origins (though, granted, this was on normal difficulty). All this pressing “A” has side-effects, of course. It uses up attention that could otherwise be spent monitoring other party members, and what’s happening in the rest of combat. It also often led to my accidentally picking up items from dead enemies during combat, without getting a chance to see what they were.

I want to mention again how fast combat is. There just are not a lot of opportunities for micromanagement. I do greatly appreciate that queueing up an ability no longer unpauses the game on consoles, even if it doesn’t work very well for melee abilities. For such attacks, you can’t select the ability and target it, and expect the character to move into the correct position to execute the attack. It’s great that ranged characters are more self-sufficient – between their attacks causing stagger animations, and them being more proactive about moving away from enemies – because they’d be unmanageable, otherwise. Of course, when things did go wrong, when, say, a ranged character got separated from the rest of the party because he backed away from an enemy, and then had the second wave of enemies spawn on top of him, I felt like there was very little I could do to salvage the situation. And I can’t imagine trying to play with friendly fire enabled. It would just be a mess.

The biggest problem with the combat, and perhaps the greatest weakness of the game overall, and the thing that will, ultimately, stick in my mind as the key reason not to replay the game, is how monotonous and repetitive it is. There’s a whole lot of combat. It’s forced into every quest, even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Every encounter has a dozen or more enemies total, even when these number seem absurd (just how many Qunari outcasts are there, if there’s only one ship’s worth of Qunari in the city to begin with). They always spawn in waves, with the second wave always coming in from behind. And, most damning, with the exception of one or two boss fights, combat never requires any special tactics. Every fight feels the same, regardless of whatever visual differences there are in the enemies. This is the real cost of moving from slow, strategic combat to faster action. There’s just not enough variety given the volume of combat in the game.

Character Development
It didn’t feel like I was ever making non-trivial choices when it came to my character’s attributes. The decision to reduce each class to two primary statistics just made explicit what was already mostly in place in Origins. It’s always just pump up your two stats until you qualify to wear the best armor available, and then sink the rest into whichever stat governs your attacks and damage, with maybe a few points in constitution and willpower in order to have enough life and mana. And, perhaps because attributes are increased in such small increments, I never really felt like they were making my characters stronger. If I can’t really feel the impact of a decision, then perhaps it’s not worth letting me make that decision. I do miss the choice the role dexterity played in Origins for defense for tanks. It made tanks feel appreciably different from damage-focused warriors beyond their choices of equipment and talents, in a way that 2 doesn’t really capture.

I do like the new talent trees, though. In particular, I like how they make each character feel distinct. In Origins, with perhaps the exception of mages, if you knew a character’s class and weapon of choice, you more or less knew exactly how they were built. Everyone’s warrior-tank, whether it was Alistair or Loghain or their PC, was pretty much the same. In 2, Not only is Aveline going to be built differently than I’d build a player-character tank, my Aveline may very well be built differently than yours. There are just more useful talents available. I like the ability to spend an extra point or two in a talent to make it more powerful, though I wish some of the modifications were more significant, rather than just adding extra damage or duration or the like.

Nerfing mages was necessary for balancing reasons, but it’s still kind of disappointing, especially in a story that keeps trying to emphasize how dangerous mages are. Losing the mana clash ability from Origins, which rendered mage-battles trivial, was a particularly obvious call. Less obvious was the decision to remove the possibility of developing one’s mage as a tank. I thought it was particularly cool that Origins gave the player the flexibility to pursue even that unusual route.

I found cross-class combos to be fundamentally uninteresting and artificial-feeling. Being hit by a flying boulder, or by an exploding fireball, can’t stagger an enemy? To make an enemy brittle I have to hit it with both of my ice spells consecutively, and even then it’s not a sure thing? I generally found that between Cleave and the passive ability from the 2-handed tree that adds staggers to critical hits my warrior tended to generate a lot of staggering, and I did set up my mage and rogue tactics to exploit this. But unlike Origins, these combos don’t seem to have a lot of big effects except for bonus damage. In Origins, one could turn a fireball into a sustained area-control effect via grease. One could instantly kill enemies via shattering. One could produce a large area-of-effect stun using force-field and crushing prison. In 2, all this variety, as well as the possibility of experimentation, has been lost, replaced with this odd, overly-mechanical system.

I also miss the non-combat skills. Rather than removing them entirely, I wish they had expanded their importance. Losing these skills means losing a lot of the potential for making quests feel substantial without them having to be padded out with combat. One of the things Fallout seems to do very well is provide ways to use skills in interesting ways in order to gain information and side-step conflict. Dragon Age 2’s player character is already a poorly defined cypher – removing skills means removing yet another opportunity for the payer to define their character and give them a feeling of belonging in the world.

I was very much pleased to have lots of tactics slots. Combined with the reduction in the number of spells, it never felt like I had too few tactics slots for the number of abilities I had, a problem I frequently had with Origins and, especially, Awakenings. Also much appreciated is the “x party members below 50% health” trigger that is there specifically to enable proper group healing. Still absent is a trigger based on not being in combat, so that sustained modes can be turned off automatically when combat is over. “Self: Surrounded by no enemies” comes close, but doesn’t quite do the trick. Another unfortunate, and baffling, absence is that “Stunned” and “Frozen” are not on the list of enemy states that can be used as triggers. Which makes no sense, since there are a number of talents that rely on exploiting these states. I also couldn’t find a trigger that would work sensibly for the warrior’s Elemental Aegis ability, an important sustained ability that provides substantial resistance to elemental damage, potentially to the whole party. Neither “Self: being attacked by magic” nor “Enemy: using magic” ever triggered it, and so I was forced to manage it manually.

Though that may be the one case where it was more convenient to do something manually rather than just do it with tactics. It seems like every single character had some sort of finicky sustained-ability juggling (Anders’ offensive and healing modes, Berserk for warriors) or talents that should be reused constantly, as soon as they exit cooldown (Cleave) that are better managed by tactics than by manual control, to the point where I was struggling to find which character I could manage where I’d have the least negative ability. It made me wish that I could set it so that tactics would take over even for the character I had selected if I wasn’t providing manual inputs. This system worked in Final Fantasy 12, and I know it was controversial there, but I don’t think making me manually do something over and over that can be done better with automation makes for compelling gameplay.

I really didn’t care for the item system in Dragon Age 2. On the one hand, the system is stripped down enough that I never felt like I had a meaningful choice to make in terms of what to equip. Picking out the best equipment is trivial. Fatigue, from Origins, is gone, and along with it any incentive not to wear the heaviest armor available. What’s the point of random drops, especially for armor and weapons, when the best equipment always comes from scripted drops that are received during quests? And when half the items I pick up are stuff the game literally classifies as junk, whose only purpose is to be sold for money, I have to wonder why the game is bothering with an inventory to begin with.

Given that Bioware apparently wanted to streamline things, what with the removal of companion armor, as well as just generally less variety in the sort of perks items provide, I wish they had gone further, ditching the legacy of Baldur’s Gate entirely. Why not go to a full-on modular system, building on the rune system. Instead of picking up new equipment, just have add-ons that can modify equipment. A mage would have a basic wand, and then you could upgrade it to do a particular type of elemental damage, and a slow, or an area of effect. It could be free-form, or it could be in some sort of unlocking tree structure like talents. Or have most weapons and armor come from a crafting system. Since part of the main story is about how Hawke gets rich, let her commission weapons and armor like she can with runes, gathering special materials as needed. Either way, just make sure that the player is making difficult, meaningful choices, unlike in the current system.

This would also mean I don’t have to be constantly opening chests and barrels and crates. It’s just a waste of my time. And like the items that exist only to be sold, the items that exist only to be returned in a meaningless quest are asinine and annoying, especially in the way that they take up space in the quest log. I’d also like to note one particular bit of cognitive dissonance generated by this system – some of the objects that function as crates are actual piles of gold coins, and yet looting these containers often yields less than a single gold coin of currency.

Characters apparently look significantly better than they did in Origins. I didn’t really notice that much. It just didn’t make that much of an impact on my experience. What did have an impact on my experience what the area art. The Gallows have a suitably imposing feel, and the sea-scape of the Docks are pretty, but so much of Kirkwall is drab and drown and unappealing, not just the outdoor areas, but the corresponding dungeons as well. It’s easy to argue that areas like Lowtown and Darktown are poor and poorly maintained, and so they should look like that. But a central part of the story revolves around Hawke having a desire to protect Kirkwall and make it her home, and that’s harder to do when the city is so visually unappealing. Being outside the city, in the main wilderness areas, was consistently refreshing after the claustrophobic monotony of the city. It undermines the storytelling when I wouldn’t mind if the city I’m supposed to be protecting is wiped off the map.

Voice Acting
The game could have used a few more character barks during combat, especially given how much combat there is. I also really dislike the female Hawke voice. Even when she’s supposedly being diplomatic, she comes off as snide and arrogant. But otherwise, the acting seemed good.

I hit a few bugs and quirks, more than I’d expect from in top-tier title. I had conversations trigger at inappropriate times, for example, just before the final fight with the boss of Act 2, I got into a conversation with the boss that clearly belonged earlier in the act, and which, I’m pretty sure, I’d already had. The “Staggered” icon above enemy’s heads tended to stay hovering there, long after they were dead. There’s the way the entry to the endgame of Act 3 is handled – after picking up the last quest from a letter, entering the Gallows area triggers the point of no return, meaning that any quest that goes through the Gallows, which includes at least one of the companion quests, can’t be completed after this letter has been read. All this contributes to the feeling that the game wasn’t made with enough care and attention to detail as one might expect from a Bioware game.

Dungeons get reused a dozen times each. Almost quest has the same structure: dungeon, boss fight, conversation involving superficial choice. Almost every fight feels the same. It’s hard to craft a memorable experience when these core elements are so lacking. Excepting, perhaps, the ending sequence of Act 1, and the journey into the Fade in Act 2, nothing feels special, or unique, or hand-crafted. Games need sequences that make the player sit up and pay attention and say, “Well that was different. That was cool.” There’s just nothing like that here. It’s all just going through the motions, over and over again.

Let’s be concrete about this. Compare stepping into a dungeon in Oblivion to the same experience in Dragon Age 2. In Oblivion, it’s tense. You don’t necessarily know what’s out there, or how long the dungeon will be. You don’t know if you’ll be able to handle what’s in there. You may be familiar with the tileset that the dungeon uses, but the configuration will be unique. It’s likely to be poorly lit, shadows cast by your torch flickering on the walls. You’ll get this experience of slowly, cautiously exploring into the unknown. By contrast, enter a dungeon in Dragon Age 2, and it’s a race through a familiar, brightly lit landscape. The only uncertainty will be which doors will and won’t be open this time, and whether the encounters you know are coming will have two or three waves of enemies in them. It’s filler, meant to be rushed through. There’s no sense of danger, or of facing the unknown. In fact, maybe that should have been the subtitle for the game as a whole. Dragon Age 2: There Will Be No Surprises In This Dungeon.

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