Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dragon Age 2: The Dragoning

Dragon Age 2 is cruising along, and I'm now partway into Act 2. For the most part, the game has exceeded my lowered expectations. However, I am also starting to understand what many people were complaining about, particularly regarding recycled environments. I don't recall Origins having any recycled maps at all, and the original Mass Effect was probably the last game I played with that problem. DA2's environments are at least larger and prettier than ME's cave and bunker maps; however, that actually can make it even more frustrating. Honestly, I think Bioware could have almost gotten away with it if they'd just bothered to update the mini-map for each environment so inaccessible areas were just not visible. Instead, though, you see the EXACT SAME MAP for every cave you enter, every cliff area, every dungeon, etc. Depending on the specific quest, though, some doors might be permanently shut, or a boulder might be blocking off a passage... but that corridor or passage will still be visible on your map, and look like a place you SHOULD be able to go. It's just something that makes the game feel sloppy and rushed.

What's weird, though, is that I don't get that sloppy and rushed impression from most of the rest of the game. The story in particular has been very engaging and polished so far. The voice acting ranges from good to excellent, the companions seem to have interesting back-stories, and there's a lot of interplay between different plot elements. Given the short production timeline of DA2, I would have thought that the story would be rushed while the technical aspects (building on DA:O's lead) would be more solid. In practice, it feels like the opposite was true. For DA3, they're moving to an entirely new engine (Frostbite), which seems like it could increase technical risks, but fortunately it looks like they're budgeting a good amount of time to get the game done right.

Let's see... I'll review a couple of technical and mechanical things that have occurred to me since my last post, before jumping into the story.

The interface has been almost totally overhauled, and almost all of the changes are good: they decrease the amount of time I spend in menus, so I can get back to questing. The inventory system, in particular, is much improved. I didn't have any complaints about inventory in DA:O, but in retrospect, it was a little clunky. For starters, the game gets rid of a lot of the trash items that would clog up your inventory: stuff like Frozen Lightning and Lesser Elixirs of Grounding that had some theoretical use, but that I never bothered consuming and that had very little value. In DA:O, almost every enemy would drop something, but it would usually be practically worthless. In DA2, only a few of the most powerful enemies in any battle will leave rewards. These are often cash, which is great. Occasionally you'll get a usable items, and other times you'll get an item that's automatically labeled "trash". These go into a special inventory category, and the next time you visit a merchant, you can sell all of them in a single click. The other part I love is that you can select any item in your inventory and mark it as "trash" yourself. This way, if you know that you don't want to equip a bow but will want to sell it, you don't need to look at it each time you re-open inventory.

I'd previously noted the pros and cons of companion armor changes. I can now automatically mark as Trash any armor I get that requires Strength or Magic to equip. With weapons or shields, it's a little more complicated since I won't be able to compare items until I actually take the person back into my party, but since I need to carry so much less stuff, it isn't a hardship. And since, for example, I only have one companion who wields two-handed weapons, I just need to keep at most one two-handed weapon in my non-junk inventory. Also helping matters is a nice, simple star-based system that shows how effective/special any particular piece of equipment is. When I'm in doubt as to which of two pieces to equip, I can just scan their ratings and see what comes out higher. I could do something kind of similar in Origins by looking at the value of a piece of equipment, but that was hidden in another screen. Two things are a little annoying: you can't see the star rating of an equipped item, so you need to take it off when comparing to an upgrades; and each star rating is unique to the individual, so (for example) my Rogue sees all two-handed swords and mage staves as 0-star ratings. Even those are just minor nits, though. Re-equipping after a major quest used to be a long, time-consuming process where I would flip through my eight companions in camp and decide what to equip, what to hand-me-down, what to keep in the inventory, what to store in my chest, and what to sell to Bodahn. Now, I handle almost all my equipping while on the run, and just give companions upgrades when they re-join my party.

I generally like how maps and travel are handled. I'm starting to wish there were a wider variety of locations, but it is nice to be able to move so quickly between different area. Having a night and day version of Kirkwall is cool; that's a case where I really don't mind a re-use of the map, since there is a different atmosphere to it, and different gameplay implications as well (not just quest differences, but more criminals roaming the streets and attacking at night). Also, a lot of the bigger quest maps have quick exits near the end, which reduces the amount of backtracking you need to do. (In Origins, there would sometimes be story-based ways to quickly exit at the end of a quest, but if you revisited later you would have to take the long way back. Now, there's often a second exit near the end that gets you out in a hurry... actually, now that I think about it, it's a lot like the improved dungeon design in Skyrim.) Oh, and I also like how the Kirkwall map lets you immediately move to some important interior areas, like the Chantry or the house for each companion. One slight improvement would be if you could choose your entrance into the major Kirkwall districts: you can already kind of do this if you go to one location and then immediately select the district, but it would be nice to be able to, say, enter Hightown from the south or Darktown from the east.

Map markers work pretty nicely as well. At the big overworld map, only major quest markers are shown, for stories where you've already learned about where you need to go. Once you actually visit the area, though, you can see markers for new quest givers, as well as for quests that you've started but that don't yet have clear guidance. I think this sets a nice balance, where it's almost impossible to miss a quest, but you also don't feel like the game is leading you by the nose.

Attributes are handled similarly to Origins: same six stats, and similar derived values. However, they seem to have been tweaked to encourage tighter clustering. For example, in Origins Dexterity affected your ability to dodge, and because of that, I would often give a tank nearly as much DEX as STR. Now, in DA2, DEX is really only important for rogues - it technically improves the odds of landing a critical hit for all classes, but to such a minor degree that warriors should never invest any points. Similarly, in Origins a Rogue might want a decent amount of STR if they wished to equip medium armor; in DA2, all rogue armor only requires DEX and CUN. As best as I can tell, rogues just need DEX and CUN with a small amount of WIL and optionally some CON (depending on how glassy you want your cannon to be). And actually, since a major reason for CUN is to deal with traps and locks, and my main is a rogue with lots of CUN, I'm giving pure DEX to my companion rogues. Warriors will want STR and a little WIL, plus some CON if they'll be tanks. And mages... well, I might get into this more later, but mages can dump almost everything into MAG, with some more into WIL or CON depending on how you build them.

So, on the whole, attributes have been kind of streamlined, in a way that makes them a bit less interesting but not totally mechanical. I think most people will decide pretty early on what role they want a companion to play, and then will just dole out points based on that.

Abilities have gotten a more significant overhaul. In Origins, there were many groupings of abilities which each had 4 tiers. You had to take the prior tier before the following one: for example, you could learn Flame Blast, which would unlock Flaming Weapons, which would unlock Fireball, which would unlock Inferno. Later spells were more powerful, but also had higher requirements (increased mana cost, and also often a minimum Magic stat requirement), so you could choose between a well-rounded mage who could react to many different situations, or a specialized mage who knew a few very powerful spells.

DA2 shakes this up significantly: abilities are now contained within trees instead of simple rows. Learning a single ability might unlock two or three others; or, a later ability might require having learned multiple pre-requisite abilities. It reminds me a little bit of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, though more linear... there are still discrete schools, and some overall progression from early to later abilities. Also, certain abilities are now upgrades to existing ones. For example, you might learn Fireball first, and then later learn Searing Fireball, which increases the damage radius and the force of the blast. So far I've been taking advantage of these, since they give you a lot more utility for the same mana/stamina cost; however, since cooldowns are so long in DA2, I think there might be a good argument for grabbing many activated abilities.

In theory, I like the ability trees of DA2 more than the lists in DA:O. In practice, though, some are designed extremely poorly. The thing that bugs me most is when taking an ability requires having a certain number of other abilities from the tree. In practice, this means that the game is forcing you to take an ability that you don't want in order to get one that you do want. It has irritated me enough that I've neglected some abilities that I probably should get, just because I didn't want to play their twisted little game.

Skills are now gone altogether, and for the most part I think that's a good move. I'd earlier complained about how I never got any crafting done in DA:O because you always have better things to spend skill points on. Now, crafting requires three things: acquiring recipes (which can be bought, found, or rewarded); acquiring reagents (which are no longer inventory items! you now discover resources in the world, whereupon they will be permanently added to your capabilities); and spending coin. I have to admit that I haven't actually crafted anything yet, though. I've found plenty of potions while questing and don't need more. I like the idea of getting runes, but in DA2 they're no longer transferable, and I hate the idea of spending money on something that'll get replaced. I may finally buy some when I near the end of the game. I haven't bought any poisons yet, but I would like to try them out.

Other skills: Combat Training is gone, which is fine; it's roughly equivalent to a few extra attribute points anyways, and otherwise it was just a pre-requisite for abilities, which can be handled just as well with a level requirement. Combat Tactics are now automatically awarded on level-up, and there are a LOT of them - I used to sometimes wish I had a few extra rows in Origins, and don't think I'll ever need half of what I have in DA2. Trap detection, trap disarming, and lockpicking are now all determined by the rogue's CUN score. Pickpocketing is gone entirely. From a roleplaying and lore perspective, that bums me out, but from a gaming perspective, I like it: I wasted a lot of time in DA:O pickpocketing every single NPC in the entire game with my rogue, which was a special kind of tedium but tedium nonetheless. Finally, there's no Persuasion skill any more. There also aren't any [Persuade] or [Intimidate] checks in dialog. In general, I like how they handle dialog now... instead of having choices being driven by skills, they're often driven by previous actions your character has taken. For example, if you learn a piece of information while questioning one character, it might open up a new choice on another NPC; or, if you've previously shown kindness to a person, you might get a new dialog choice related to your past history when trying to convince them to do something. This seems like a good way of doing roleplaying, based on your actual actions instead of which skills you've taken.

Behind the scenes, one game change that has had a surprisingly big impact in how I play the game is the allotment of experience. In many RPGs, experience is divided among members of the party, either equally or based upon the contribution of the party member. In DA:O, only people actively in your party would gain experience, but people outside your party would be automatically leveled-up such that they were never more than 2 levels behind your main character. (So, for example, if you recruited Zevran at level 10, and never used him until you reached level 20, then he would be auto-leveled to 18.) Because of this, you could swap in a character for a particular quest if you wanted to without too big a penalty, but to get the most effectiveness from your party, it was best to recruit your core party as soon as possible, and try to keep the same people in your party at all times.

DA2 makes an apparently simple change: everyone gains the same amount of experience, regardless of whether they are in your party or not. What I'm finding is that this suddenly makes me very eager to rapidly rotate through party configurations. After all, that way I'll get to experience all of the different party banters and hear their comments on everything. When I think I'm heading towards a major confrontation or a particularly long quest, I have a core party that I fall back on; but for most outings, even if there will be combat involved, I feel like I can just grab any three random people and be okay. Thanks to the weird, easy-yet-annoying combat system, I don't get a lot out of combat planning or strategy anyways, so I can have, say, three rogues or three mages in my party and still breeze through fights.

This flexibility also lets me try and match quests to companions. I'm gradually starting to get a good understanding of what makes each companion tick, and so I'll know if, say, a quest will involve me helping a mage, there are certain people I should bring and others who I should probably leave at home. That being said, I do wish that it was a bit easier to change party configurations... there are already a good number of banners scattered around that let you re-form, but I do kind of miss being able to swap out your party at any time in a city area like I could in DA:O.

So far I've experienced two time gaps in the game: a year between the prologue and Act 1, and then three years between Act 1 and Act 2. I do enjoy the storytelling possibilities this opens up. The game can do a lot of stuff very efficiently through exposition that would be expensive or time-consuming to do through narration, and I like hearing about what Hawke and her companions were up to during the time they were "off screen." I decided to play around with this a bit more, and visited the Black Emporium once Act 2 started, where you can adjust your character's appearance. I changed her hair color, gave her a slightly darker tan, and added some more tattoos. I like how this gives the impression that she's actually living through this story, growing older and changing slightly through the years.

Okay, let's talk about story now!

MEGA SPOILERS (for Dragon Age 2, all of Act 1 and early Act 2):

I've been able to stay on the Friendship path with most of my companions so far. I maxed out Bethany pretty early on, but given her smaller ability pools, I already had a hunch that she wouldn't be sticking around as long as the others. I haven't maxed out anyone else, but I've raised Merrill, Isabela, and Varric high enough to unlock their personal Friendship passive. Aveline probably just needs to get a little higher; I started off in Rivalry with her after the prologue, mostly due to my standing up for Bethany and taking care of her husband, but by carefully picking the quests I took her on I have brought her pretty high in the Friendship spectrum. I got Friendship points with Anders off the bat, but he almost immediately raised the prospect of romance, and when I turned him down I took a massive Rival hit. It's been stubbornly difficult to bring him back up; even though I'm generally pro-Mage, he finds all sorts of things to get irritated by. I'm finally back in the Friendship zone with him, but unless something major happens soon, I doubt I will ever max him.

I've pretty much given up on Friendship with Fenris. Again, since I'm pro-Mage, he disagrees with most of my decisions. It feels like it has enough momentum to now be hard to reverse: even when I gave him a gift and said nice things, he reacted with Rivalry. But, it's not all bad... his Rivalry bonus is at least as good as his Friendship bonus, so this feels like a good solution to give you different ways to roleplay your relationships with followers and still play effectively.

He does have an interesting story, though. I'm sure that there's more to come from his quest, and more revelations about who he is, what was involved in his tattooing, his master, etc.; but as it stands now, he's already providing my first glimpse into the Tevinter Imperium and the noxious combination it creates between slavery, political power, amoral research, and endless war. The thing that frustrates me is that Fenris understands more than anyone else how evil slavery is, and yet his own prejudices against mages make him a stern advocate for a de-facto enslavement of mages. I sometimes wish I could shake him and make him realize that freedom is a universal need, not something to be shifted from one group to another.

I'm currently flirting with both Merrill and Isabela. I imagine that the game will eventually make me choose (at least, every other Bioware RPG so far has), and I will probably pick Merrill. Isabela's a lot of fun, though, and I've really enjoyed the cut-scenes in Act 2 that show the two of them interacting in the Hanged Man. Merrill is so curious about the world and how it works, and Isabela has so many stories to tell about the world and how it works.

Merrill's been a pretty surprising character, though. My initial reaction upon meeting her was basically, "Awww, what a cute elf!" Then, during the first quest when she uses blood magic to open a barrier, my reaction was, "Awww, that cute elf knows blood magic!" Like it was, you know, a character quirk or something. As I've gotten to know her better, though, it's become an increasingly interesting combination: she seems so cheerful and open-hearted, and yet, as she will cheerfully inform me, she sees absolutely no problem with making a deal with a demon if it proves advantageous for her.

Possibly my favorite part of the game so far has been when I visited the Fade to try and rescue a Dreamer. I brought along Merrill, Isabela, and Varric. (Anders sounded worried about entering the Fade, or else I would have brought him instead of Isabela.) This is a much smaller glimpse of the Fade than we got back in Origins, but it's still pretty awesome: weird books that fly around, ethereal architecture, discursive demons. Anyways, Isabela was tempted by a Desire Demon who promised her her own ship to captain if she would fight against me. (Which led to the amazing, groan-worthy line, "I like big boats, and I cannot lie.") Later, Merrill was tempted by a Pride Demon who offered her power. In both cases, I learned that I could significantly boost Friendship by picking the "joking" response (basically, "Yup, that totally makes sense, you should absolutely betray me"), killing them, and then accepting their apologies after the fact.

Running through the other companions: Isabela is still kind of an enigma, though I'm guessing I might learn more about her relic soon. I like Varric much more now than I did in the beginning... I still wish he would put on a shirt, but he's very funny and knowledgeable, and he also does a great job when I need him to tell a lie for me. I like Anders a lot more in this game than I did in Awakening... he's more serious, and doesn't joke as much, but I think that focus and sense of purpose gives him some much-needed gravitas. Plus, it's totally fascinating to think of Justice co-inhabiting him, and it makes some of the odd epilogues of Awakening make a lot of sense. Finally, I really enjoy the sardonic rapport that Hawke and Aveline share. Aveline is totally honorable and honest, and knows that Hawke does a lot of illegal stuff, but chooses to focus on the worthwhile things Hawke does. I feel like Aveline hopes that she can redeem Hawke and make her live a better, more virtuous life.

The new mansion is nice. That's another positive aspect of the time shifts in the game: it can give you a significant sense of social progress within the game. Now, in the middle of DA2, I feel a little like I did while playing Awakening: like I was already a fairly well-known and respected personage, who had made an impact on the community and was exerting some large-scale influence on the overall society. I think this is a terrific way to design a game, and, incidentally, it also avoids embarrassing artifacts like people in Skyrim saying things like, "Do you get to the Cloud District? What am I saying? Of course you don't!" long after you've become renowned throughout the land as a mighty dragon-slayer.

I enjoyed the expedition at the end of Act 1. It was some truly new territory to explore, plus it had a very challenging fight at the end, which was the only time so far in the game where I've actually had to reload. (I'm pretty sure that I'm missing some strategy element to this fight - I was never able to find a way to avoid taking massive electricity damage during the phase where the rock wraith turns invulnerable.) Bartrand's betrayal was surprising; I had a feeling that he was rough and unscrupulous, but was not expecting him to actually turn against me. It seems pretty clear that the idol is going to be more important, but I'm not sure if it actually possessed him, or if he knew about it ahead of time, or what. I'm also very curious to learn just what the deal with that "thaig" is. I get the hunch that we may be learning some pretty deep lore about the dwarves... maybe something about what they were up to before the Darkspawn arrived, or about a long-lost branch of them, or, uh, I dunno, maybe mage dwarves or something goofy like that.

As noted above, I've mostly been hewing to the mage side in the controversy, but it's a tough choice! Within the world of Dragon Age, mages really are dangerous. There's a reason why the Circle exists, and the damage an unprepared or unworthy mage can do seems comparable to the restrictions placed on their freedom. I can't think of any satisfying real-world analogy to their situation... perhaps a virulently infected person, if their disease also gave them superhuman powers that could benefit mankind when their disease was kept in check.

I've been quite happy with the little ways in which the game has honored the choices I made in Origins. Little details go a long way: when I hear someone refer to Queen Anora, I puff up a little bit in pride: "That's right! I MADE her Queen!" It has recognized a bunch of stuff that Kiriyon accomplished: putting Prince Bhelan on the throne of Orzammar, freeing Ferelden's Circle of Magi from the Templars, transforming the werewolves back into humans. I've even been mostly-okay with the way the game ret-conned Flemmeth back into the story: I think it's a stroke of genius for the developers to make you actually act out the retconning yourself in-game, rather than just handing it to you in a slice of exposition. Plus, they foreshadowed it rather nicely in Witch Hunt. (I have heard some people who were less happy when the game denied certain major decisions they made in Origins, but so far I've been lucky in that regard.) One thing that has been interesting has been trying to tease out the differences between Kiriyon and Selene... for example, when I first encountered the surviving Harrowmont by the Kirkwall docks, I needed to reconcile Kiriyon's support for the Bhelan ascendancy with Selene's own moral compass. Selene has never visited the Dwarven cities, and hasn't seen the impact of the old caste-system first-hand, and so she wouldn't weigh Bhelan's value as a reformer as highly as Kiriyon did. Based on the evidence in front of her, she would naturally side with Harrowmont... and so she did, and thus in a small way helped undo a little piece of Kiriyon's accomplishment. Similarly, Kiriyon, as a mage, was automatically in favor of increased autonomy for the Circle. Selene's own perspective, as a non-mage who belongs to a family with magical talent, is more nuanced.

From an immediate role-playing perspective, Selene is profoundly protective of Bethany. If her sister weren't a factor, Selene would probably be more cautious, and perhaps steer a middle path through the controversy or seek the greatest profit. As it stands, Bethany opened Selene's eyes to the suffering of mages, and because of that grows even more sympathetic of people like Merrill and Anders who live their lives in fear of capture.

Selene is driven by several factors, which can pull her in contradictory directions. She is loyal to her mother and sister (though not all family - she had a deep well of patience for Gamlen that he swiftly ran dry). She also loves her friends, and will support them even if it means causing trouble for other people or suspending her own ambitions. In Ferelden, she was well on her way to becoming an accomplished thief. Since the upheaval of the blight and their flight to the Free Marches, though, she has mainly abandoned her aspirations of larceny and now dreams of building a fortune and becoming a player in the city's politics. She doesn't want money and power for their own sake, but sees herself as potentially becoming an actor for greater good in the world. She is perhaps willing to occasionally use some less-than-reputable levers in order to achieve those good ends. Old habits die hard. She has a particular soft spot for the oppressed: Ferelden refugees, elves (both Dalish and city), and mages. She doesn't oppose the rich or the powerful, though; rather, she hopes to join their ranks, and reform their institutions. On a D&D scale, I'd say that she's vaguely Chaotic Good.


I'm still cranking along, having a pretty good time. I think that if I'd plunged into this game right after playing Origins for the first time, I'd be disappointed by the smaller scale of the world. But, since I'm playing it after hearing for years how bad it is, I've been pleasantly surprised so far. Other than the combat and the recycled environments, I think that the game actually improves on Origins in a lot of ways, streamlining the interface and systems such that you can focus more on the story and less on clicking through menus. There's still plenty of time for them to screw it up, but thus far, I'd say I've more than gotten my seven bucks' worth.

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