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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dragon Age 2 Impressions

3 comments
Well I'm about 20 hours into Dragon Age 2 now so I thought I would give an update on my impressions of the game so far. Apologies it's taken so long to put together, but it's taken a while to clarify my thoughts, plus I've been spending what little free time I have actually playing the game!
Dragon Age 2 is hot
There's a lot been said about the game on various forums and gaming sites, with the majority of the reviews being favourable but with a large and vocal part of the community taking issue with the direction that Dragon Age 2 has gone in comparison with the original game. All I can do is offer my own opinion, which is that DA2 is a great, but flawed game. For anyone interested in party-based roleplayers however I would say it is a must-play title. Read on for the full skinny.

Dragon Age 2 feels like a spin-off to Dragon Age Origins, rather than a sequel. There is a lot that is different to the original game, and what has been followed through has been tweaked and finessed to a point where it sometimes feels very different.

Let's start with the biggest change to the game, despite what other reviews would have you think. Not the combat mechanics, or the party set up, but the storyline.

Dragon Age Origins was a heroic fantasy, the grand and epic tale of how one insignificant soldier became the Hero of Ferelden and in doing so saved the entire world from a great evil. Dragon Age 2 is a very different kind of story set in the same world. It is the tale of the rise to power of one person, Hawke, but it is more involved with the struggles and relationships of the protagonist. Family, relationships, city politics and intrigue are the order of the day, rather than the gathering of armies and the saving of the world.

The other big change in the story is that the tale is told over an entire decade of the protagonists life. All that is certain is that the player character is a refugee who over ten years becomes champion of the city of Kirkwall. How that happens and what the outcome of that is depends entirely on the player. In Dragon Age Origins the story is told over a period of about a year (1-2 years if you played through the expansion and DLC). Decisions you made in Origins would have meaningful impact on the story, but only for a short distance down the road. Already in DA2 I am making decisions that I know could come back to haunt me five or ten years later in my characters life. The paths that the relationships I have with my companions and family are already being decided. It's a slightly unnerving experience knowing that a decision my character makes now could have a huge impact several years down the line!

This simple change in focus and timeline makes the game feel very different to Origins. I'm not saying it is better or worse, but if you are expecting another wide-ranging epic tale you may be disappointed. Personally I am really loving the new feel of the story; it makes the important decisions seem more significant, and the relationships I am developing with my companions more realistic and meaningful.

So, story I feel is the one area with the biggest impact on how the game feels different to Origins. There are other areas which initially feel different, but once you scratch under the skin a little the basic mechanics are very similar.

Let's take the much-vaunted new combat system. As set up by default the new combat system means the game plays more like a Diablo-style hack and slash game, rather than the strategic combat of Origins. You only have to control your main character and your companions will be able to cope themselves. Fights are quick, brutal and easy.
Someone spilt the ketchup!
The first thing I did was turn the difficulty up to Nightmare (I turned it down to Hard soon after!). On higher difficulty levels it is necessary to use the same amount of control and strategy that was required in Dragon Age Origins. In fact, Nightmare mode is even harder than Nightmare mode was in DAO. You still have to position your companions and take direct control to get the most out of many situations, and on tougher fights it is necessary to utilise the cross-class combinations and tactics to ensure victory. On Hard and Nightmare the game plays in a very similar way to DAO, except that the animations and combat look and feel much more action-packed and visceral. The "think like a general, fight like a spartan" philosophy really does apply at these settings (despite the rather cornball phrasing Bioware used to describe the system). Overall I am finding the combat fun and challenging, but if I used the default difficulty setting I think I would have got bored.

Whilst initially seeming thinned down, the character progression is actually a little more in depth than the original I think. The ability to upgrade skills rather than just get new ones means you can specialise in certain areas more. The use of non-linear skill trees also makes choosing new abilities when you level more interesting.

Companion characters play a massive part in the game, even more so than in Origins. Their tales are intricately linked to your own, and due to the long term nature of the story they even seem to develop their own relationships with each other. Whilst initially some of the characters seem a little vanilla they do develop over the years that the story unfolds.
My party, kicking ass and making grass in Kirkwall
The inter-character banter as you explore the city of Kirkwall is excellent; better than the first game in my opinion. Each companion also has a set of special abilities that unlocks as they become firm friends or rivals with Hawke as well. The friend/rival system replaces the old faction system from the original game and is a much improved mechanic with greater subtlety.

Another area of the game that has been changed significantly from Origins is the conversation system, which now uses a Mass Effect style conversation wheel. Each option is given an icon that denotes the tone of Hawke's conversation, an improvement over Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade options. Additionally Hawke will start to naturally adopt the general nature and tone of your most common responses automatically - I have been picking sarcastic and humorous responses, and Hawke now often opens conversations in a humorous/sarcastic way. My wife has been picking mainly aggressive responses with her playthrough, and her Hawke is a much more aggressive character in general as a result.
Those pesky raiders...
The voice work is excellent throughout; up to the usual high standard we have come to expect from Bioware. I like having a voiced protagonist, though it has not always been popular among the community. For myself I found DA:O oddly soulless after playing Mass Effect. Having the main character stand silently in conversations seemed odd. The conversation system does unfortunately make the same mistake as Mass Effect's system in that the summary of your response that you choose in a conversation does not always give a true indication of what will actually be said. This is something Bioware need to look at for all their future games.
Conversations are normally more interesting than this!
Graphics are superb on my rig (I am lucky enough to be able to run everything in DX11 and maxxed out). Much better than Origins, the screenshots do not do them justice.

The major issue I have had with the game so far has been in the prolific repetition of area use. Many of the caves and houses you visit during the quests are exactly the same layout, even having traps and encounters in the same areas. This really does start to grate a little after a while, though it is not much worse than in the original Mass Effect. If you could stand the re-use of area maps in that game you should be able to cope with DA2 as well. Still, it does give the feeling of corners cut.

The inventory system also feels a little mean compared to Origins. You can no longer equip armour to your companions, only weapons and trinkets such as amulets and rings. I understand the technical reasons for this (each companion has a completely unique character model this time round, meaning each armour item would need 10 different models creating), but it does feel like an option removed and a simplification. Additionally the large amount of junk items does simplify inventory management, but also makes the system feel a little dumbed-down.

I have read complaints about the length of the game from some quarters, and I cannot understand this at all. I guess if you ignore all the (many) side-quests and play on easy mode you could complete the game in around ten hours. However, playing in Hard mode, and doing all the side quests, I was still in year 1 (the shortest of the four main years in Hawke's tale) after fifteen hours of playing. It is going to take me at least 40 hours to complete the game I would imagine.

Overall I am absolutely loving the game. I am finding the story compelling and interesting in a different way to the usual high fantasy epic tale, and the combat is consistently challenging and interesting. The new conversation system works very well for the most part, and the companions are interesting and feel more like real characters than they did in Origins.

The prolific re-use of area maps does tarnish the game a little, but it is something I can live with when there is such an interesting tale to be told.

If you are a big fan of Dragon Age Origins then you may want to think about what you liked about the game before picking up DA2. The story and combat are different enough that they may come as a shock if you were expecting more of the same. Most of the game is set in the city of Kirkwall, again a sign of the story's tighter focus compared to the large and varied environments of DAO. If you are willing to overlook a couple of flaws though there is much to enjoy in Hawke's rise to power. Those looking for a deep and involving party-based RPG that is a little different to the usual saving-the-world epic will find no better place to spend their time.

3 comments:

  1. That's one hell of a write up mate. From reading that I seriously think some gaming webby should snatch you up to report and games test for them. Awesome stuff Bro. Most definitely.

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  2. Aye, nice write up indeed.

    Interestingly I preferred playing DA2 on the PS3 rather than PC, and although my current hardware limitations surely bias my opinion I find the character movement to be more fluid and the controller vibration feedback adding physical impact to Hawke's downswing increased the enjoyment.

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  3. Thanks guys :)
    Unfortunately I can't afford to get it for my PS3 as well, but it would be interesting to try the console combat mechanics. Perhaps I'll download the demo on PS3 to give it a try.
    Will be posting some other thoughts when I've finally fully completed the game too.

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