Sunday, January 22, 2012

In Which The Warlock Contemplates Some Criticism...

A few posts ago, you might remember my review of Dragon Age: Origins, which I finished over the holiday break (after only a year of having it sit on my shelf!).  Well, what you didn't see is my Facebook feed, which absolutely lit up with anti-recommendations when I mentioned my eagerness to pick up the sequel, Dragon Age II. Apparently, many of my acquaintances and the like were only the tip of the iceberg.  In fact, the negative reviews for DA2 seemed to outstrip the positive ones by far!

Call it stubbornness.  Call it a determination to go my own way.  Call it raw curiosity.  I bought DA2 anyway. 

And, you know what?  I greatly prefer Dragon Age II to its predecessor, as it made significant improvements in nearly every aspect of both game, characterization and story.

But, before I begin my diatribe, let me just put this here:  SPOILERS AHEAD!  BEWARE!

My biggest problem with the original Dragon Age was its generic storyline.  From the very start, your character was the last of the Grey Wardens, attempting to unite the sterotypically fractions factions of elves, mages, and dwarves against a tyrannical usurper and an incoming totally-not-orcs horde.  the story could have been easily written by a 12-year-old Dragonlance fan, with only a few stand-out questlines where the story shines.

Varric, telling his story to the Inquisitor...
Dragon Age II rectifies this beautifully by tightening up the narrative structure.  While the idea of the epic, world-spanning quest in DA: O is good in theory, in reality it's just unwieldy.  The narrative of DA2 is told through the words of Varric Tethras, one of your characters' companions.  However, the vast majority of the action in DA2 takes place in Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches, to which your family has just migrated from fallen Lothering--a locale from the first game.  Destitute and looking for work, your main character finds themselves making a name for themselves by attempting to become a partner in an expedition to a dwarven ruin. 

However, following various twists and turns, the main character finds themselves in the midst of a city rife with its own problems.  A delegation of the militant Qunari have taken up residence in the city, gangs roam the night, and the Circle of Magi have been butting heads with their Templar and Chantry overseers.  Hawke (the main character) and their band of motley adventurers quickly find themselves in over their heads, confronted with a coming conflict that none seem to be able to prevent...but more on that later.

One of the biggest improvements DA2 made came in graphics, particularly backgrounds.  Often, the backgrounds in DA: O were fuzzy or undefined, and they definitely showed their age, as a game from nearly 5 years agoBut, worst of all, they felt stock and generic. 

The Wounded Coast--one of the most gorgeous areas
in Dragon Age II!
In DA2, however, the backgrounds and setting is used to its utmost.  Each district of Kirkwall has its own feel and theme, from the posh gardens surrounding the Chantry Courtyard in Hightown to the dingy, unkempt slums in Darktown.  Each area has its own design and attitude, which makes the city feel like a living, active place.  It becomes easy to tell where you are as you navigate through the city by night or day, simply by landmarks and background elements.  The view out over the sea when in the Wounded Coast area simply has no parallel--it's a beautiful, visually stunning area, which made my jaw drop for the first time since reaching the Arreat Summit in Diablo II.

Similarly, combat is much improved in DA2.  While the traditional classes of warrior-rogue-mage return, the classes are able to interact through "cross-class combos" that provide additional damage or benefits.  For example, if a mage casts Winter's Blast, the target may become frozen, which allows a warrior to deal higher damage.  Similarly, if that warrior uses a Shield Bash, the target is knocked off-balance, allowing a rogue to take advantage.  With the party AI greatly enhanced--coupled with 20-odd customizable tactics slots available for each party member--it's easy to take advantage of these ability combinations. 

While the game suffers slightly with combats that perhaps run too long, and the "wave" mechanic of dropping additional baddies into a scrum grows a little tiresome, I didn't find myself bored with combat as I did in DA: O.  Previously, I simply mowed everything down while my party mopped up behind me.  In DA2, I felt active and involved, choosing high-priority targets and hunting them down, alternating control of my character with those in my party:  Varric (a surface-dwelling "legitimate businessman"), Isabela (a ship-less lusty swashbuckler), and Merrill (my love-interest, an apostate elven mage).  I always felt like I had something to do, or some new strategy to try.  Plus, the game removed much of the "equipment-juggling" that tends to overcomplicate and clutter many party-based role-playing games, which was a much needed design choice.

My favorite portion of this game, however, comes in one simple piece of understanding, which many critics and even fans seem to have overlooked:  the story of Dragon Age II is a tragedy, not a heroic epic. 

Under the framing narrative of Varric telling the story of "The Champion of Kirkwall" to a Chantry interrogator, Varric's tone throughout the cut scenes is one of loss, wistfulness, and memories of "better times".  And, why shouldn't he feel this way?  Nearly everything that Hawke and his companions build up over the course of the 7 years together in Kirkwall comes crashing down, as their own actions spiral out of control.

The result of all Hawke's works...up in flames...
Case in point:  Varric himself.  Hawke, Varric and the rest are betrayed by Varric's brother at the end of Act I.  When Varric's brother resurfaces, he has gone insane, and Varric is forced to kill his own brother out of mercy.  But that's not all!  Merrill's pursuit of elven history costs her teacher's life, if not the lives of her entire clan.  The mine that Hawke invests in--giving hundreds of migrant Fereldans employment--is burned to the ground and destroyed.  Hawke's own mother is drawn in, then killed by a serial killer who escaped Hawke's investigation in years prior.  Anders, a mage companion, spouts rhetoric not heard outside of Malcolm X or Magneto, decrying the templar oppression from his Darktown clinic, all the while he plans a terrorist attack to start "the coming war". 

Hawke's story is one of loss, over and over again.  It's the story of the rise and fall of power in amongst a maelstrom of rival factions.  Throughout the game, I found my dialogue choices again and again trying to unite rival factions, even as they took up arms against one another.  However, I swiftly found a group of moderates--a group of nobles looking for someone to put on an empty throne, following the death of Viscount Dumar.  In a last-ditch effort, my Hawke threw her name in as a potential replacement...only to find that Anders' actions had brought about the very war that Hawke was about to prevent.

This!  This is tragedy!  This is drama!  This is the sort of storytelling that can elevate video games to that oft-mused category of "art". 

Yes, there are flaws.  As I mentioned, the continual waves in combat grow tiresome at times.  The various dungeon locales are repeated--albeit with some minor changes--fairly often.  And, it would have been nice to have more interaction with two of the major players--the head of the templars and the head of the magi circle--before Act III.  But with varied and interesting combat, spectacular visuals, and a story that breathes and revels in pathos, there's no comparison:  Dragon Age II far outstrips its predecessor.


  1. Yukon Cornelius10:51 PM

    I didn't care for the dungeon repeats, I could tell the difference, but I still knew where I was. Still this game was epic compared to the first one.

  2. That's one of the few issues I did have with the game. While I loved going back through the actual Kirkwall sections, the dungeons could have used some individual tailoring.

    Even still, that was a minor caveat for the much-improved combat and a spectacular storyline.

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