Thursday, February 28, 2013


I have a confession to make: possibly the biggest single reason for me to finally pick up Dragon Age 2 was the chance to play Mark of the Assassin. This was the final DLC released for the game, and in addition to providing a great, complete adventure, it also serves as a bit of a showcase for Felicia Day. I really enjoy Felicia's work, including her creation of The Guild and all the great stuff she does at Geek & Sundry, so I was eager to see her efforts in yet another medium.

In Mark of the Assassin, she plays Tallis, who may be the best DLC NPC I've yet encountered. Yes, she's another dual-wielding female rogue, bringing my party total up to 3, but she has a very different personality from Isabella, and interesting combat mechanics as well. She has unique daggers (similar to Varric's Bianca) that she can actually throw at range, allowing her to be a mid-range DPS character, distinct from the short-range melee and long-range bows I'm used to. Her personal ability tree has skills borrowed from the Assassin tree, appropriately enough, and she also has access to all the standard Rogue abilities.

If you don't read anything else in the post before playing the expansion, read this: bring a Maker's Sigh with you! Her initial skill allocations are absolutely horrible; in my game, at around level 24, she had absolutely no Willpower, making her practically useless in fights. With a Maker's Sigh, though, you can rebuild her any way you like. I brought along Aveline and Isabella, and was actually able to get a party that made some sense despite having three dual-wielding rogues. Selene had already mostly focused on Dual Weapon and Assassin, while Isabella focused on Dual Weapon and Subterfuge. I gave Tallis base abilities from several trees, but mostly built out her personal tree ("Infiltrator"), then focused on Sabotage with some points in Scoundrel as well. So, in most fights, Tallis took care of crowd control, Aveline handled tanking for powerful enemies, while Selene and Isabella dealt the most damage. In some fights, though, Tallis was very valuable as a semi-ranged DPS fighter, so she brings a lot of flexibility to strategy.

I liked combat in Mark of the Assassin much more than I did in DA2, or even Legacy. I think that by this point Bioware had gotten the memo that gamers were unhappy with dematerializing waves of enemies, and I don't believe that there are any to be found here. This doesn't mean, though, that enemies just stand around waiting to be attacked, like they did in Origins. When fighting Ghast, for instance, they leap out of burrows, chattering menacingly. They tend to do this one at a time, which is both good (you can sometimes kill the first one before the second is ready to fight), and bad (threat management becomes very challenging when new opponents are steadily trickling onto the battlefield!). In other fights, enemies will reinforce, running in through doors or the like. And in still more fights, you're progressively drawn farther in, forced to chase a string of opponents, similar to several of the encounters in Awakening. Anyways. I found the fights to be much more tactical and satisfying than others up to this point.

Some of the fights are very difficult, but most of those are also optional. I doubt that many people will choose to skip them, though... I love combat that requires careful thinking and strategy.

What I liked most about MotA (besides Tallis) was all the stuff that wasn't combat, though. I'll get into this more below, but unlike most other DA games, you spend a substantial amount of time doing things besides talking and fighting. It gave me a fresh appreciation for what the engine is capable of when designers put their minds to doing something new.

The rewards from MotA felt a little weak... it was definitely "worth" doing, but I came out of it with very little gear that I plan on keeping. There is a new armor set that stat-wise seems to be the best I've found yet, but (at least on my female rogue) I don't really like the way it looks. There are several accessories that are pretty powerful, but unfortunately, the best ones are bound to Hawke, and my Hawke already has other equipment that works better for her. You do get a good amount of coin in the game, albeit less than Legacy provided. Oh: one thing that's very cool, though, is that your companions each get personal side-quests in the game, and completing them will reveal some more story about each, and also provide them with a good personal item. Again, I would have liked something more powerful, but I'll probably end up equipping them, if just for the flavor. Finally, there isn't a ton of XP to be gained here... again, I think I just gained a single level over the course of the expansion.

Time-wise, MotA lasted longer for me than Legacy did. I didn't keep track of my hours, but it probably clocked in a bit under ten. Subsequent play-throughs will undoubtedly be quicker: I spent a lot of time on some of the puzzles, and was too obsessive about taking screenshots, frequently pausing the game and manipulating the camera. It's hard to resist, though: it just looks so gorgeous! There are phenomenal vistas: gorgeous green mountains, lush forests, idyllic mountain lakes. There's also pretty stunning architecture, along with the requisite caverns and dungeons.

MINI-SPOILERS (for MotA, mega for DA2)

I've had a hard time not bursting out with this already, but: it's a heist! It's a heist! It's a heist! IT'S A HEIST!!! Boy oh boy, do I ever love a good heist! Heist movies, heist games, heist episodes... I can think of few purer forms of entertainment than a good heist, whether it's Firefly's Ariel or The Castle of Cagliostro or reading The Great Train Robbery. MotA hits all the important beats: assembling the team (albeit in abbreviated format - would have loved scenes of you convincing your companions to join you, but I'm sure that was too much to ask), planning the job (done with an entertaining voiceover by Day against the cool Dragon Age animated backdrop), meeting with your mark, scoping the area, infiltration, seducing guards, the trap, the reveal, the escape... it's all there and all good.

It's not everything, though. While it starts off as a heist, it moves in some interesting directions. Which is fun!

As I noted above, the expansion does much more than just add new characters and new battles (though both of those things were great). It also adds some entirely new game elements. The most significant of these is a stealth portion, which felt a bit like an answered prayer, since I'd just finished bemoaning how stealth no longer was a viable solution in DA2. As far as I can tell, you can choose whether to sneak or to fight your way through this segment; but really, if you had the chance to be stealthy, why wouldn't you take it?

The stealth mechanics are decent, if not amazing; this isn't like playing Thief: The Dark Project or Metal Gear. Still, a little bit goes a long way. The best element is having guards (some stationary, some patrolling) with true line-of-sight implemented. I was delighted to see that there are multiple ways to deal with them: you can throw a small stone to cause a distraction, or sneak up behind them and knock them out, or simply creep along and try to stay out of their vision. Multiple solutions to a single problem is one of my favorite aspects of any RPG. You also have access to shadows; I would have liked to see more of this mechanic, but the developers were probably limited in how much they could do.

Puzzles also form a significant part of MotA's playtime. Yes, I know we've had puzzles before, but nothing quite like this. They take different forms: sometimes you need to observe your environment to discern a solution; other times you need to plot a path through a variable maze; and there's one particularly fiendish tile-flipping puzzle that ate up far more time than I care to admit. The puzzles feel somewhat reminiscent of those in Golems of Amgarrak or the Stone Prisoner, but are unique and more challenging (at least for me) than those earlier works.

Oh, and let's not forget the characters! I've been skipping over them since I'm so excited about the new game elements, but I got a lot of pleasure out of everyone you can meet. I mean, one of the first things you get to do is attend a dinner party! A dinner party! How cool is that? I have odd tastes in my RPGs: I love dealing with politics and schmoozing. The guest list is particularly impressive, and brings together several folks from both Origins and DA2. There's Bann Teagan, impressive as ever, gently supporting the irritable Arlessa. Lady Elegant and the Comtess de Launcet hold court. My breath vanished when I moused over a far figure and her name popped up: Leliana. My love! It was slightly jarring to speak with her; I have grown very used to the version from Dragon Age Redesigned, so this seemed like a different person. The voice was still as sweet as always, though, and it was wonderful to encounter her again. Our chat was civil and far too short. It seems as though Tallis has met her before, and given their similar pasts, I suspect they may have been rivals or partners or lovers or some combination thereof. I like to think that this was all before Leliana met Kiriyon, though.

I'd alluded to this before, but there's a ton of content for your companions: maybe fewer banters than in Legacy, but a lot of participation in cut-scenes, plus personal quests and items and such. I was so happy that I brought along Isabella and Aveline: those two's relationship is probably my favorite in the entire game, and they were in excellent form here. There are some terrific lines, too... at one point, Selene brought up the possibility of Tallis joining the team. Tallis said she wasn't sure whether she would fit in, at which point Isabella said something like, "Let's see. Are you possessed? Consorting with demons? A pathological liar?" Aveline complained that she isn't any of those, so Isabella amended the list: "Can you run five miles while carrying a cow?" Anyways. I don't see myself replaying DA2, but I do think I'll likely replay MotA with different companions so I can do all their personal quests and hear more great dialog.


The reveal that Tallis was a follower of the Qun was a bit surprising. Not unprecedented, though.. the events near the end of Act 2 make it very clear that the Qunari are followers of a religion, and not its predominant race. (It also seemed like a potential ret-con for why Sten looked the way he did in DA:O. He was a 'Qunari', just not one of the horned ones we generally see now.) There's also some interesting symmetry between the Ben-Hassrath and the Seekers: both are powerful, secretive, independent organizations within a larger religion that have a fair amount of autonomy while working to enforce orthodoxy. I can imagine this stuff becoming a very significant part of Dragon Age 3, what with the game subtitle and setting in Orlais and everything.

It also makes for some more interesting comparisons between Tallis and Leliana. We don't know much about Tallis's past (at least I don't - I still need to see Redemption sometime), but it seems like Leliana started as an assassin and later found faith, while Tallis found faith and decided to fulfill it by becoming an assassin. Both are fully devoted to their religion, and also extremely critical of those within it who are doing wrong.

I couldn't completely reconcile Tallis's innate goodness (her desire to preserve life, to prevent the suffering of innocents) with her devotion to the Qun. The Qun certainly isn't an evil philosophy, but Tallis was the first person I've met who seems to think that the Qun is compatible with virtues like compassion. I thought that the Qun was all about certainty, and order, and obedience to a higher purpose. I don't see Qunari regretting actions that they've taken.

But, to be fair, Tallis is very different from the Qunari I've seen before. In many different ways.

Some notes on combat: the hardest fight for me was actually fairly early on, when you need to / can fight the Sky Horror. Having an all-melee party did not help matters. I eventually found success by saving Selene's cooldowns on Mark of Death, Assassinate, and Twin Fangs. Any time that the Horror rejoined the field, she and Tallis would immediately drop what they were doing and use their highest-powered attacks on him. If we were lucky, we could drive him back behind the barrier before he fired off his ultra-deadly AOE attack. If we were unlucky, we died and I reloaded. In between, we would just fight the summons; I made use of short cooldowns like Backstab and ongoing attacks like Pinpoint Strikes, but generally took my time here.

My party died a LOT. I had optimized the group for fun and personality, not for combat effectiveness. (I initially brought Merrill with Aveline, but felt weird flirting with Tallis while she was there. Merrill did seem surprisingly blase about the situation, though... after complimenting Tallis after her initial appearance, Merrill said, "Yes, she is very pretty, isn't she?") It got to the point where I didn't even bother using injury kits on Isabella or Tallis, since odds were pretty good they would die soon regardless. It was still good fun, though. Many fights ended with Aveline and Selene dual-teaming the last boss, and a couple finished with Aveline beating down the remaining enemies into a bloody pulp, which takes FOREVER but is weirdly satisfying.

There were lots of good, interesting fights though... the Wyvern is difficult, and seems to be one of the only monsters who can actually interrupt a rogue mid-Backstab, so I had to use more careful manual positioning than usual. The Baron was an entertainingly pompous foe, and the use of terrain led to some interesting Legacy-style fights. The most drastic turnaround for me was probably the fight against the Harlequins. On my first attempt, I had everyone focus on the guards to save the boss for last, and everyone swiftly died, even Aveline. On my second attempt, I had Selene immediately target Harlequin, who went down almost immediately. The rest of the fight was pretty straightforward, although it did grow hectic once reinforcements arrived. I've commented before on the unique mechanics of the ghast battles. Oh, and I forgot to mention the stone pirates, but they added another interesting wrinkle to the fight against the Duke's Chasind bodyguard. (I really agonized over the dagger decision, and kind of wish I'd just let Isabella keep it, which would be in character for her; having Stinky Pete and his crew show up to lend a hand made my day, though.)

The highlight, though, is undoubtedly the final battle against the Duke's forces, which was one of the more insane and entertaining things I've seen. I mean, any one of those elements would have been terrific, but having a gun AND riding around on the back of a wyvern?! Crazy! I loved it.

As usual, the lore was one of my favorite parts of the expansion. I enjoyed getting some more glimpses into Orlesian society (particularly the outrageous accents and manners), a fresh perspective on the Qun, looks at some new creatures, and what felt like some foreshadowing about a struggle between the Orlesian Empire and the Qunari.

The final scene with Tallis was sweet as well. Tallis has a friendship/rivalry meter, but nothing you do seems to ever generate any points on either side. She keeps track of what you say to her, though, and this affects her later dialog. In my game, Selene was very affectionate towards Tallis, flirting whenever possible and supporting her through the discussions about the Qun. Tallis leaves at the end no matter what (I'm guessing it would be prohibitively expensive to add dialog for her into the main game), but she did give a kiss.


In terms of value, I'd say Mark of the Assassin is absolutely worth the ten bucks. Game-wise, it's the most interesting and varied installment yet of DA2. Felicia Day is fantastic as the voice and model of Tallis, and there's a wealth of new content for your companions and other old friends from Thedas. I think MotA will probably have particularly high replay value, thanks to all the attention given to companions.

Like Legacy, it can be played at any time throughout the game. Story-wise, it's probably best played late in Act 3, by which point you will have met more of the NPCs who appear and can unlock some fresh dialog. Game-wise, it might actually be better in an earlier act; the gear it provides at endgame is nice, but not noticeably better than what you get from Legacy.

And now: surprise! A meditation on DLC!

DLC seems to be a very political issue in the gaming community. Words like "greed" get thrown around a lot. It seems to be here to stay, but it also is evolving and changing over time. We've gone from full-on expansions to one-shots like Horse Armor to various mission packs and expansions and such.

Nobody enjoys spending money, and I think consumers are particularly sensitive to feeling like they're being tapped again for previous purchases. People generally seem happy when they purchase an item like a new TV or laptop, and generally irritated paying for ongoing subscriptions like cable or Internet service.

Back in my early days of gaming, I never regretted paying for an expansion to a PC game that came in its own separate box: Civilization II: Scenarios, Civ 2: Fantastic Worlds, Ultima VII: The Forge of Virtue, Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast. Functionally, these were practically identical to today's DLC. They require you to already own the base game, they cost less than a new game, and they add some new features; interestingly, all of those examples also allow you to play content throughout the course of the main game, instead of requiring you to first beat it and then add some extra stuff after the end.

Somehow, though, when physical expansions morphed into digitally downloaded content, something about the experience changed. Part of it may be because it feels less substantial: we're paying real money, but don't get a nice box with pretty art on the front to put on our bookshelf. More of it, though, may have to do with the pace with which DLC is released. The most egregious example is the infamous "Day 1 DLC", where functionality is actually built into the game, and you must pay a fee to "unlock" it. This leads to some metaphor shear on the part of the consumer, who thought that they had bought the game, only to learn that they can't actually use all the bytes they purchased.

Now, I've heard that this phenomenon is actually not rapacious; the lead-time to bring a "finished" game to market is substantial, and thus enough time can elapse between having a gold-master-ready candidate built and actually selling the game in stores to allow the company to finish work on additional characters and quests. That isn't the perception, though. I think game companies could avoid a great deal of ire if they simply delayed all expansions for a decent interval after a new game arrived.

This leads to another issue, though, which I'm currently confronting in my Mass Effect experience. ME is one of my favorite series of all time, and I was very satisfied with how well it ended (with the Expanded Cut). However, because it has ended, all DLC that Bioware has released is necessarily positioned earlier in the third game; unlike Tales of the Sword Coast or Lair of the Shadow Broker, you can't choose between playing it in-line with a future game or after the end of your previous game. For a narrative person like me, that makes this sort of DLC very unsatisfying. I feel like I have an authoritative, canonical version of Shepard who has saved the galaxy, and... I dunno, it just feels weird to rewind that and start inserting different things into her story.

I think that a lot of fans handle these sorts of dilemmas by just re-playing the game. Frankly, though, I doubt that I will ever replay ME. I love all my memories from the game, but don't think I'd be able to stand driving the Mako, sorting through dozens of useless weapons, and scanning planets all over again. It's possible that I might try another game one day as an Adept or another drastically different class, but it's far more likely that I'll spend my limited gaming time on new entertainment, or older games with highly varied PCs and stories (Baldur's Gate trilogy, DA: Origins).

So it is with DA2. I'm really happy that I bought it as late as I did, since I found Legacy and MotA to be even more fun minute-by-minute than the main game, and I could enjoy them within the context of Selene's rise to power. If I had bought DA2 new and finished it before the expansions arrived, I doubt that I would have ever bothered to go back and play them. This is a distressing thought for several reasons: I might not have given Bioware money to support them, and I would have missed out on some really fun gaming and lore.

What does this mean for me going forward? I'm not sure! I've really enjoyed Bioware and their games and want to continue showing my support by buying new games and snapping up enticing DLC. However, experiences like ME3 and DA2 make me feel like I'll be much happier waiting until the inevitable Ultimate Edition arrives, which will allow me to make a canonical run through the complete story.

To be totally clear: I think that DLC has value. A lot of effort goes into writing new stories, creating new creature models, building new environments, scoring new music, designing new battles, and all that good stuff. I'm glad that companies continue to add more things to games that I love, and I think they deserve to be paid for it. I'm just not sure what the right model is to use for designing and distributing it so every customer can get the most from it.

I'll need to make this decision soon with Mass Effect: Citadel. Playing Omega was already a bit of a weird experience. I'm excited by everything I've read about Citadel... and it makes me regret playing ME3 so early instead of waiting for it to come out, so I could have had those experiences with my Shepard. Will I revisit this? And would there be any point in finishing the game yet again afterwards, or do I just splice that story into my existing tale?

And, though it pains me to admit it, this also makes me more hesitant on Dragon Age 3. I'm actually quite optimistic about the game, based on everything I've read and heard from the developers so far. But will I maximize my happiness by grabbing the game immediately? Or will I need to wait another year or two for it to reach a more complete form?

Well, that was longer and less productive than I had thought. Sorry about that.

Final note: as usual, I went ahead and tossed together a whole slew of screenshots. And I do mean a SLEW. I ended up with a round 600 (!) screenshots for this EXPANSION. Careful editing and trimming brought me down to a svelte 409. As always, spoilers fill every nook and cranny of this album.

No comments:

Post a Comment