Kvetching on Dragon Age II

Matt Barton's picture

X, Y, A, A, B, etc.X, Y, A, A, B, etc.I've always been a bit divided on Bioware's games after they abandoned their compromising "real time with pause" gameplay and sacrificed their babies to the god of Twitch. If you listen to some people, they would have been doing this all along, but the technology of the time wouldn't allow it (rubbish). The real goal here is to cater to the widest possible demographic, which everyone seems to think means focusing on spectacle and instant gratification (look, mommie, this button makes him chop!). The only concessions to adults is usually some vague notion of "difficult choices" you have to make at a dialog tree or two, and perhaps a lot of boring text here and there that you can find and read if you're so inclined. You know you've come a long ways down a dark road when the closest thing you get to the tabletop experience is clicking through (not reading) a dozen such screens of text and earning an Xbox Live achievement about being "learned."

But anyway, back to Dragon Age 2. I was one of those poor bastards who actually pre-ordered the collector's edition. I sprang for the PC version, which was apparently a mistake. Still, while I was probably more frustrated by the combat and party AI than anything else, I did enjoy other parts of the game, particularly the characters. Yeah, I know it's a bad when the thing I like most about a CRPG is the drama.

Bioware seems to have taken the complaints (or lack of praise) about the combat seriously, because it's really altered in Dragon Age 2. As my friend likes to say, "Now you're not the coach on the sidelines--you're a player on the field." I pictured something like Jade Empire, which plays like a sort of 3D fighting game with RPG elements. Dragon Age 2 feels more like God of War meets World of Warcraft, though. Of course, the drama is still there, and the good ol' stereotypes we all love are present as well. The elves feel more like elves this time, for instance, and contrary to what I heard, the sex is downplayed as well. At least, I didn't see a woman with her coconuts hanging out like Morrigan's. I'll give credit to Bioware for creating some really interesting characters and some intriguing scenarios; if that's what you like most about the tabletop D&D days, I don't think you'll be disappointed here.

So what about the combat? Well, the God of War stuff is definitely here. What I mean by that is an emphasis on spectacle; they really want you to feel powerful on the battlefield, obliterating enemies by being deft with your controller. Somewhat like WOW, though, is the cool down timers everywhere, so you're moving about, clicking your default attack, and keeping an eye on the cooldown for your shield bash or whatever. Meanwhile, you're trying to keep an eye on your companions, since they (as always) have a nice habit of getting cornered or surrounded and dying. No biggie if they do, of course; just a quick injury kit and they're back up. My guess is that we'll see a system similar to this in the upcoming Star Wars MMO. It's just complex enough to make it possible to control with the standard-issue controller, though they seem to have a hit a wall--you can only six abilities close at hand without having to bring up a radial menu, which I always dislike. I don't know how many abilities they'll end up giving you in Star Wars, but I assume they'll either need a way to display all the stuff on cooldown or find a way to give you another three abilities on standby. Or they could do what makes the most sense to me; put the stuff on cooldown off the controller by default, and let you select abilities to use for that button in the meantime. Perhaps a bit cumbersome, but what are you gonna do? It's not like they have a keyboard to work with.

They've greatly reduced the usual emphasis on weapons and armor, so you aren't spending time staring at charts and perhaps pulling up an Excel spreadsheet to work out the best stuff to wear. Indeed, you don't even get to pick armor for your companions, and probably won't mess with their weapons much either. Your character is a bit more interesting, since they do that old trick of giving you 4/5 pieces of a set and promising you a big bonus if you can get all 5 (I guess when we're 80 our butts will be on a stool at some Vegas casino hoping for something similar).

The only thing I really hated about the game was the inventory system. I really don't see how a system that clunky made it through the QA. You're always having to stop the game to browse the items you've collected, checking and comparing them to see if anything is better for one of your characters. This is especially problematic if you find something that may be an upgrade for a character not currently in your party. I don't see why games like this can't just give you more gold that you can use to buy stuff at a store, where they could ostensibly make it easier to see at-a-glance what is better and what isn't. At any given point I had enough belts, rings, and necklaces to open an accessories kiosk in the Kirkwall Mall. I guess they figure that the typical idiot is wetting his nappy over "lootz" or whatever, but give me a break. Either make the stuff easier to sort through and sell, or put in less junk and make sure every item you find is likely to be an upgrade for somebody. I never had a problem with the older CRPGs, where you only occasionally got an item from a pack of monsters. That was cool, but you were really after the gold you could spend at the stores.

How about the story? I'm still not quite sure what's going on; guess I shouldn't have clicked through all those pages of static text without reading them. Does anybody really read that stuff? From what I could tell, it was mostly about a racial and cultural conflict with the Qunari, a race composed of strong silent types. Your character, though, is a refugee to the city fleeing with his family from the blight. I guess Bioware wanted us to feel what it's like to be an unwanted refugee. Oh, wait, you soon get super rich and become an aristocrat. I don't think that happens to most Somalis. But anyway...I enjoyed doing the "companion quests," which are optional quests you can do to build up the relationships with your fellow heroes. All of the characters are well-developed and have their own things going on, so don't get the impression these are just fetch quests here. Bioware did a great job integrating all of this into the bigger picture, so you get to learn about the elven factions by helping out Merrill with her evil mirror project. It's all good role-playing fodder.

I don't really have any complaints about the combat; I knew what I was getting into and they never made any pretenses about it being strategic. I never felt bored in combat. Like the Witcher, the only truly tedious thing is all the running from point A to point B, but unlike that game, but here it's more manageable (the zones are smaller and you run faster).

I don't want to BE one of these guys; I just want to command them.I don't want to BE one of these guys; just command them.I was wondering what this game would have looked like with turn-based combat and the option to create your own party from scratch. For the former, I could see drawing some inspiration from the Total War series with a time slider, so that you could speed up or slow down time instead of a purely turn-based system. And of course you'd need an indirect way to give orders and direct movement. In short, you'd be the "manager on the sidelines" rather than a guy on the field.

At some point, you just have to decide what combat should be like in a CRPG. Do you want to feel like the guy swinging the sword? Or do you want to feel like the guy standing over a table full of miniatures, contemplating the terrain, troop movements, area effects, and so on? For me, it will always be the latter. That's why I liked Pool of Radiance so much; the combat looked like a tabletop miniatures game come to life. Oblivion seems to have come closest to putting you in the boots of an actual warrior in the field. Dragon Age 2 seems somewhere in the middle, with some armchair stuff but mostly concerned with making you feel responsible for making your warrior's arm move or your mage's staff shooting fireballs. Coming back to the military metaphors, DA 2 seems to make you a sergeant. You're giving orders, but you're also there on the field playing the game. So if we compare the three game types, Oblivion makes you a foot soldier, DA 2 makes you a sergeant, and the games I prefer make you a commanding officer, guiding the preparation and action but not usually in the fray. If you wanted to go all the way to general, seems like you need to shift into the strategy genre.

As far as creating your party from scratch, I don't see the problem. Why not just base the companion quests on their race, gender, or class? You could always have NPCs coming into and out of the party if you needed to, or perhaps a set of personality templates to choose from that could be tied to voice actors and scripts. I know of a lot of us old-school types like to imagine all that on our own, though, but I can see why it's hard to craft a good drama around empty templates. Perhaps just letting us make lots of choices would be enough, such as where the character is from, his trade/education, etc.

To sum up, Dragon Age 2 is an excellent game for what it is: an action game with just enough RPG elements to distinguish it from something like God of War. The story and character elements are, as we've come to expect from Bioware, quite good and worth playing the game just to experience. Don't go in expecting to engage in lots of tactics or strategy, though--perhaps you could do that, but you can also just mash buttons.

Comments

clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
i think you summed it up

i think you summed it up nicely (far nicer then I would have) But i wont say much as I didnt stick with it more than about 6 hours. Someday I may go back. I honetly think Drakensang did a better game.. as DA and Drak really play the same (in a lose way) DA had a deeper story (better? maybe not but better constructed) and quite honestly better quests, but as far as game play/combat/ and dungeon layout I would pick Drakensang. Some go in for the stuff in DA where your a mouse or deamon or ? I dont care for that stuff. My idea of a good RPG is making the clay I'm givin into a mean green fighting machine (to quote bill in Strips). i teally does come down to as you said. Do you want ot be the player or the coach. Me I like both..and both have limitations and problems. I shout the Praises of DEMONS SOULS (get it!!!!) ypour the player and coach. NOTHING but pure you.. no random dice rolls, no perception checks, nogame mechanics to blame when you die.. its all you.. If you didnt see the baddie in the dark corner that follows you a bi then strikes when you are fighting 3 others.. its not the game being cheap, its your foolish lack of exploring, making sure you where safe. There isnt a SINGLE spot in the game that cant be beat with the one thing we all have, maybe in differnt strengths (your brain).

I have always disliked the random part of RPG's.. dice. I KNOW there really inst any other way to do it so while disliking it, ehhh its the way it is. Maybe that is why the newer action RPGs are fun to me.. I control the character, not the dice. It does LIMIT the RPG element alot, but sometimes I prefer that, at least as a change. Maybe I was to hard ON DA II on my first try, I may have to look again. After listening to Matt above it sounds like just my kind of game, im not sure why I didnt car for it nearly as much as DA when I played it.

Once again a thouhgtfull write up.

Chris
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Joined: 07/27/2011
DM vs PC

I think the 'At some point, you just have to decide what combat should be like in a CRPG. Do you want to feel like the guy swinging the sword? Or do you want to feel like the guy standing over a table full of miniatures, contemplating the terrain, troop movements, area effects, and so on?" Is really:

Are you a Dungeon Master, or a Player Character.

If you're a DM, somewhere in your soul is wired the desire to go big. To have lots of options within the group, and enjoy the dynamics. If you're a PC at heart, then you're interested in taking one person as far as they can go. I think there is room for both style games in the RPG market, but I'm with you in that I've always preferred building a party, and working it out that way.

I think, however, it goes back to comments made elsewhere as to why most publishers pick on style over the other. Control over a single person speeds up game play. People don't get bored with your game before it's over. Or so they say... I still think that argument about gaming is something lazy developers have sold us, since there are people so involved in WoW that they loose their jobs... proving that you can make a game infinitely long... if it's fun for for an infinite amount of time.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
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Joined: 01/16/2006
DM or Player
Chris wrote:

Are you a Dungeon Master, or a Player Character.

If you're a DM, somewhere in your soul is wired the desire to go big. To have lots of options within the group, and enjoy the dynamics. If you're a PC at heart, then you're interested in taking one person as far as they can go. I think there is room for both style games in the RPG market, but I'm with you in that I've always preferred building a party, and working it out that way.

That's an interesting way to put it.

The most brilliant game designers I know all have one thing in common: they were all DMs. I think that's not a coincidence at all! Learning how to be a great DM taught them the skills, gave them the insights, and instilled within them the confidence to make truly outstanding games. That said, I think a lot of them got sidetracked, losing sight of the ultimate goal (enthralling players) by the immediate goal (how to turn the quickest, surest buck). I think it was also too easy to get distracted by audiovisual spectacle (something you can show and impress people) vs. the details (which you have to get engrossed in the game to appreciate). You could never, ever tell just watching a trailer (much less looking at a description) whether the details are right in a game. The only thing you can easily see is whether the graphics (or at least the cutscenes) are great. Thus all the emphasis on the latter. Most people will probably not read reviews anyway, so they'll buy a game based purely on the trailers and/or still shots.

I'm wondering how apt the DM metaphor is for describing the choice, though. You could say the game itself is like a DM, at least the kind that sticks to official campaign modules and enforces the rules very strictly. It's more like you're playing all the characters yourself, though the fun is imagining that they are a real group of people. In short, it's like just imagining the role-playing your friends would be doing around the table, this guy pretending to be the tough soldier, this guy the academic wizard, that girl you have a crush on being the rogue or whatever (I know I'm a sad loser, but I would sometimes even name a female character after the girl I had a crush on. Needless to say that wouldn't have impressed any of them AT ALL!) But hey, it is a fantasy, right? :)

I'm not really sure what all a game designer could do to promote the type of imaginary stuff I'm talking about here. If you script it, you're taking that away from the player and foisting your vision on him. That can be all right, but it's not the same. I guess you could have players answer a series of personality type questions to create a character, then have that character act accordingly, though it'd be need to be fairly abstract (i.e., sim-lish instead of real English), and maybe play out in things like their choice of weapon, style of armor/fighting, skill perks and so on. So maybe if you said character X was very laid back and loved the outdoors, he'd naturally incline towards being a hunter, but if you said character Y was more studious, maybe she'd get really excited whenever you found some old books or artifacts. This could all be represented by nonsense symbols and the like and perhaps some gauges. Again I'm probably thinking too much like The Sims here, but it is a viable model IMO. I guess there are probably some good psychological profiles and such that you might use to predict behavior based on how the player answers a few dozen questions to help out here.

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Chris
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Joined: 07/27/2011
Storytelling
Matt Barton wrote:

If you script it, you're taking that away from the player and foisting your own vision on him. That can be all right, but it's not the same.

That is one of the biggest issues in Table Top RPG styles. Are you a story teller, who's telling a story for the players to go through... scripted with them making a few choices? Or is it an open world for them to play in, and they make the story.

You wouldn't believe how much flack I took when hosting my podcast for suggesting that the latter is the better option.

So like it or not, it's the flavor of the day, on the table and the screen. It's going to take some indie guys to revitalize the open world approach again. A goal, a sword, and a world between the two... Good luck!

Anonymous
DA2 Enemies

I think the combat of DA2 worked very well(always room for improvement though) and was even better then the first game, but the enemies made you think why am I fighting at all, in DA:O or any other bioware game I played for that matter, the enemies always stood out and made you want to fight them no matter how small a fish there where, killing random darkspawn in DA:O almost made you scream "die sucker" at the screen and killing mini bosses like Arl Howe filled you up with joy when he got what was coming to him, the shear expectation to that fight made raiding his estate and fighting his guards a lot more exciting.

But in DA2 you fight faceless foe after faceless foe and you never really build up an real relationship to the end bosses, the Arishok felt more like a random quest giver to me and although he was invading the city, I was contend to let the templars handle it, I mean what are we paying them for, likewise boring was Meredith when you finally meet her at the end of act 2 and are expected to build up a big relationship with her by racing though Act3 the shortest of all the act, when end game came, my first though was finally those two boneheads get to fight it out, I better stay out of it.

In my opnion the should have made the final boss Bertrand, now there where a guy you could hate and got a real emotional response when you couth up to him.

Anonymous (not verified)
Absolutely. My biggest

Absolutely. My biggest criticism with the second game was the lack of interesting bosses. In DA:O it was different. The satisfaction of a Human Noble killing Howe, or a Dwarf Noble taking Harrowmont's side against his brother. I am a bioware fanboy, no denying it. I enjoy their story telling and the illusion of choice they manage to work into their games. So long as the game isn't unplayable I am going to love a Bioware game.

This game though, left me wanting. I never felt like the things I was doing were my choice. Going back to the human noble origin: you're damn right I'm interested in finding and killing Howe. Even if the game railroads me there, it's pushing me to a very logical action. I honestly couldn't have given a rip about the deep roads expedition or the Qunari or the mage/templar war. Orsino, Meredith, Arishok, all of them could do what they wanted so long as they left me alone. The companion interactions/quests were the one saving grace. But I have hopes for DA3 because I enjoyed the story/background/lore of the latest DLC.

Codexer (not verified)
One of the key changes in

One of the key changes in RPGs -- and games in general -- of the last few years has been the increase in cinematics. That's what bothered me about DA:O. It's hard to be strategic when every other minute, every 20 feet you walk through a town or dungeon, there's a cutscene. You take your hands off the keyboard (or gamepad) and sit there for a minute or two watching a cutscene. You might get to pick a line or two of the conversation but it's mostly very scripted.

It made it difficult and frustrating to play, for example, a stealthy rogue who wanted to scout ahead in a dungeon. You'd go into stealth, tell your party to wait behind, and walk 10 feet down the hallway when BAM cutscene time! So you see your rogue, no longer in stealth, leading his party, no longer waiting behind but following behind you, walking directly into a room full of enemies. You're surrounded and now get to watch a cutscene as that evil mage makes a speech ("Take this you meddling adventurers!") and BAM now you fight. Surrounded by enemies, with your rogue right up front like he's supposed to be the tank. Strategy? Right out the window but Bioware gets to tell its precious story.

DA2 embraces this interactive movie concept even further but in a sense I'm okay with that. Maybe I was stupid enough to fall for Bioware's "spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate" with DA:O, but with DA2 there's none of that marketing hype. It's just hack and slash away and watch bodies explode and then watch a cutscene. Then fight some more and then another cutscene. Where DA:O pretended to be strategic (and failed horribly), DA2 just says "hit that awesome button and enjoy yourself!" and in that sense is the better game.

clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
I agree, cutscenes are

I agree, cutscenes are overdone. I know the game makers are in touhg spot, we all want more story, but as Matt stated earlier NObody reads anything anymore, you click throuhg it and... as all games lead you on a leash to your destination or goal nowdays (anotehr reason nobody reads, why? its all doen for you anyways ( the figureing out).. and the real problem is most people while they wont say it LIKE it that way.. the one ones who spend the money have voted. And before I sound all "uppity" I'm one of them.. KINDA.. I look at how WOW has evolved with quests.. I was a HARDCORE everquest person and WOW was quite simply Childs play compared to it, no danger, no penelty for dying, Heck once you have the game down with its abilities/specials ettc.. you can escape pretty much every bad situation. Not so IN EQ, if you made mistakes, got in to deep you died.. no escape. Wow was not my type of game when it came out, to simple to easy.. but with time I noticed soem of that was nice from time to time. I could get somewhere in WoW without huge investments of time. It maybe was at satisfiing, but it had its moments. Time proved WoW while much easier was fun too. Just a differnt type of fun. One has to decide what type of fun you liek the most, HARD long queststaht you have to figure out, or short simple ones that the location and plans are laid out for you. One must admit spending a week figureing out a location or 10 minutes can be a a big draw, you get to see much more game guickly. Of course easy means less fufuilment (at least for me) a level that takes 10 minutes and comes quickly cant have the same sence of acomplishmnet one that you HAD to figure out you had to be carefull, a death ment probebly hours of repeat work. I recently started Forsaken World ( f2Play MMORPG) its very WoW like but . it has one featuer that I find nice and hate at the same time. Quests are like all otehr games.. bu t says " kill 10 snakes and loot 10 eggs and come back to me" the uest dialog would have SNAKES, EGGS, AND quest givers NAME all highlighted. you click on snakes and the game will actually RUN your charcter to the snakes. once you kill 10 and get your eggs ( no looting, if dead creature had anything it is auto looted) you click on quest givers name and you automaticly run back to said person.. so your only descisions are the actual battle and where you put your skills. After a few hours of this in the early levels its kinda nice as you dont know where anything is.. but it quickly becomes boring.. and kinda eliminates what I like about games, exploring and figuring them out. But it really seems the common people who buy games like this far more then the old way of figuring it themsleves.

I think we all have to face it, the most common buyer likes his content easy. Which can lead to game completion which is the end reward and you can consume more (which makes the companies who sell us this content very happy).

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Easy is Good
clok1966 wrote:

I think we all have to face it, the most common buyer likes his content easy. Which can lead to game completion which is the end reward and you can consume more (which makes the companies who sell us this content very happy).

I think that describes me pretty well, actually. At least if by "easy" you mean the opposite of frustrating and penalizing. I detest it when I feel like a game is trying to punish me for screwing up. I'm not saying it should be a cakewalk (otherwise I'd play all games with trainers on), but you should be able to recover quickly from your mistake and get to try again without it being a big deal. Indeed, I love it when games make death an occasion for humor, showing a funny animation or quip to inspire you to try it again. I hate hate hate it when a game makes you start a whole level over again. I guess the very worst is the old Sierra adventures that would let you get almost to the end and get stuck; come to find out you didn't get the toothpaste three days ago so now you get to start all the way over. NO THANKS.

In any case, a modern game using screens full of static text to tell a story is just plain dumb. As I've said before, if they want you to read something like that, they should print it and include it in the box as a journal or novel. Now that we have all the Kindles and such, it might make sense for them to use that to "unlock" e-books as you play so you can read it at your leisure on a device intended for that purpose. That would actually give you incentive to hunt it down and read it.

In my opinion, it's a failure of game design when you're asked to stop the game to read a full screen of text. A better designer would find a way to tell that part of the story without resorting to that. I don't know what kind of guy would actually enjoy stopping the game just to read a screen or two of text, but I definitely am not one of them, and I'm an English professor for God's sake. It may have been necessary before we had (for all intents and purposes) unlimited storage space, but now there's no excuse other than being lame. Even Bioshock does a better job with that, even if the idea that folks just left tape recorders all over the place is kinda silly. At least it doesn't break up the gameplay.

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Craig (not verified)
Summing up DA2

"an action game with just enough RPG elements to distinguish it from something like God of War".

Matt, I've been struggling for a while to sum up DA2 (and why I don't like it that much). That sentence does it for me.

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