Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Dawn of a New Age

This feels like a confessional statement to write, but here goes: I've started a game of Dragon Age 2.

If you follow this blog... well, first of all, I apologize for wasting so much of your time. Secondly, you may recall my loving-yet-fraught relationship with Dragon Age. The original Dragon Age: Origins has solidified its position as one of my all-time favorite games: it is a vast, sprawling game, filled with fun stuff to do, which also has the best morality system I've yet encountered in any game and arguably the best, most complex characters to ever be depicted in a video game. This is also a game that has broken my heart and filled me with rage, thanks to technical failures and barely-concealed greed. The passing of years has dimmed the pain of its betrayals, and elevated my appreciation for its qualities, to the point where I want to continue exploring the world it has opened.

Which brings me to the subject of Dragon Age 2. Like some other games of its era (see also Civilization V), it was released to the immense acclaim of the professional gaming press, and an almost universal revulsion among the franchise's fans. The backlash was so profound and negative that, coupled with my lingering animosity over the whole DLC situation, I simply dismissed it out of hand.

Fast forward to 2013: I've now completed a second run through the original Origins, and also experienced all the Origins DLC for the first time. I've also had a wonderful experience with the Mass Effect series, which had a great deal of influence on the design of Dragon Age 2. Dragon Age 2 can be purchased for $7 from Amazon (cheaper than the original game, which came out two years prior). Dragon Age 3 looms on the horizon, and while details remain scarce, it sounds as though Bioware has listened to its fans and are making an effort to please them. So, I decided that it would only be polite to at least see for myself what is happening in Dragon Age 2.

As of this writing, I am still early in the game, partway into Act 1. Since this is my first time playing the game, I thought I'd share my reactions as they occur to me. Also, I won't be doing the screenshot thing that I've done in my recent Origins and Mass Effect games, just because I find that it takes me out of the game a little while I'm playing it.

Let's start with the negatives. What does Dragon Age 2 do wrong, or worse than Origins?

The most annoying thing so far has been combat. The designers clearly intended to make combat faster-paced and quicker in DA2 compared to Origins: some big fights in Origins could take more than five minutes to complete, depending on your party composition and how closely you controlled your characters. DA2 combat runs more quickly, and it feels like it runs incredibly fast. However, it does this in large part by instantly spawning enemies directly next to your characters. This makes it impossible to control the battlefield, removes any sense of realism (in DA:O, "spawned" enemies usually had to run in from offscreen), and removes much of the strategy from the game.

It feels like DA2 is caught in an awkward space between a tactical game like Baldur's Gate or Origins and a hack-and-slash game like Dark Alliance. It still has many of the trappings of a tactical game: you can pause at any time, switch between characters, give orders, position people, etc. However, the flow of combat makes it difficult or impossible to approach battles tactically. You can try to defend your mage, but a smuggler can still materialize next to them and attack.

On the topic of realism: watching combat in DA2 is very exciting. It moves very fast, with characters constantly attacking and showing off great animations. However, I often feel like I'm watching Devil May Cry rather than Dragon Age. My main character is a rogue, and has this awesome-looking but absurd move where they pull out two daggers, leap in the air, fly forward thirty feet, then crash down onto their hapless enemy, stabbing them in the head. It looks like something out of a superhero movie, and doesn't have the same tone of grim, dark, realistic fantasy that I loved so much in Origins.

Combat hasn't exactly been hard, though... I'm playing on Normal, and have yet to have any character fall to an injury. I think it will take a while for me to get used to the rebalanced skills and pace of battle. In particular, I've been surprised to see that Heal is such a rarer spell in this game; one of my mages doesn't even have the option to learn it, and for my mage who does know it, the cooldown is very long. On the flip side, though, a single casting of Heal or ingesting a single poultice seems to instantly restore all of a character's health, regardless of how low it is. That may change as they level up, but for now, it's extremely effective.

One of the complaints I'd read about the game was the design of its interface and menus. In contrast with the natural look of many fantasy games (which use textures that may look like stone, wood, or bone), DA2's menus look almost futuristic, with a kind of chrome appearance. I actually am fine with the look of the menus: it's unusual, but the alienness kind of works for me, and emphasizes the strangeness of the situation that the characters are in. However, I HATE the sound of the menus. There's a futuristic clicking sound as you hover over each selectable entry, and whenever I dismiss the codex (which happens a LOT), there's a faint computerized sound. It's very annoying.

The fetch quests are rather poor. These are the quests where you, say, need to pick up a Widget of MacGuffin and return it to Lord Timewaster. In DA:O, these were generally handled through the job boards. In DA2, it seems like most of these get their NPCs, but I don't know why they bother, since they just recycle generic dialog and don't bother with any cut-scenes. It feels weird to be returning, say, a "Dismembered Hand" and have the other person say, "Oh, thank you! I didn't think I'd ever see this again!"

From a graphics perspective, I don't really like the way that most elves look in this game. The major ones look similar to the ones in DA:O and look good (a little short, upswept ears, delicate facial tattoos). Most of the random elves you meet in the city, though, are much more alien-looking: shaved bald heads, ears that stick out perpendicularly, an almost feral aspect. They look like they could be goblins or kobolds as much as elves. Maybe this is just supposed to be what Elves in the Free Marches look like, and isn't part of a larger transition to the overall look of the species. (It has been interesting to see how the game freely changes the look of things from the first game, even a major NPC from both games who looks drastically different here, even during scenes set at the same time as DA:O.)

I think that's it for complaints so far. On to the neutral: there are several criticisms I've read about the game that personally don't bother me. One major issue is the customization of Hawke, the player character. Hawke is very clearly inspired by Shepard in Mass Effect: you can customize his or her appearance, and control their personality, but many elements of their background are fixed. Shepard is always a member of the Alliance military, and Hawke is always a human refugee from Ferelden. Up until now, all of Bioware's fantasy RPGs have given you a large degree of latitude in creating your character, and all of them have allowed you to select your race. This can allow for a large degree of customization, makes characters look very different, encourages replay, and can lead to more roleplay possibilities. Creating a fantasy RPG where you must play as a human feels like a step back.

That said, I personally do not object to this (though I imagine it may keep me from ever replaying the game). Fans often point to the great variety of origin stories in Origins, where the game was able to give unique backgrounds to your character while still leading them into the same main plot. As I see it, though, this was a necessary tradeoff: Hawke is fully-voiced, and family members carry forward throughout the plot (unlike in Origins, where they would typically just pop up in periodic scenes). From an immediate, selfish perspective, I played Origins once with a dwarf and once with an elf, so I probably would have chosen a human for DA2 anyways simply for variety's sake.

I also read several complaints about customizing your human Hawke: you can pick between the default Hawke appearance, which looks great but can't be customized, or you can make your own Hawke, which can look like anything you want so long as you're fine with looking ugly. I was able to address this somewhat thanks to the Chargen Revamp mod, which lets you tweak the Hawke appearance: you can keep the great hair and facial structure, for example, and play around with hair color, eye color, etc. After spending over fifteen minutes fiddling with it (what, me obsessive?) I ended up with... someone almost exactly like the default Hawke, just with a new tattoo. But I had carefully considered every option, and so felt like I at least had some ownership.

The whole concept of Hawke is still controversial. You can give them a first name, but nobody will ever use it, of course. There's less of a sense that you are creating a character of your own, and more of a sense that you are acting the part of a character that someone else has created. The flip side: it's a more interesting, complex character than I probably could have come up with. This ties in directly with conversation in the game: unlike Origins, where your character was silent (and thus you could imagine for yourself how he or she sounded), in DA2 Hawke is fully voiced, and is more of an active participant in discussions. In Origins, your Warden mostly asked questions and gave orders; in DA2, you can still do those things, but can also commiserate, engage in repartee, plant insinuations, etc.

I'll need to wait until I'm later in the game to decide which system I prefer. I absolutely loved conversation in the Mass Effect series, which I think was due in large part to the wonderful performances from Jennifer Hale and the rest of that fantastic cast. The voices in DA2 are good, but so far have been less impressive. You gain more resonance and color from a voice acted PC, at the cost of the identification you can make with a voiceless (or, as I think of it, self-voiced) PC. That said, I imagine that voice acting is here to stay for the franchise.

Customization is actually a pretty hot topic in DA2, and is one of the things that Bioware has explicitly said it's looking at for DA3. In Origins, you equipped your NPCs similarly to how you equipped your main character: you could assign them some assortment of helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, and boots, either to focus on certain statistics or to give them a particular look. Sometimes you can find matching pieces of equipment that form a "set", which gives the character a more unified look and also provide additional bonuses. In DA2, your main character can still be equipped this way, but all your companions wear special "companion armor". This gives them a single appearance; the armor automatically upgrades as the game progresses, but you'll never find a cool helmet in a dungeon that you can give to your warrior, for example. The overall system is very similar to Mass Effect, where you can make fairly fine-grained decisions about how to equip Shepard but have less control over your companions.

I'm not sure yet how I feel about this change. There are some nice benefits to it. For starters, I spend less time sorting through my inventory, deciding what to do with equipment. If I get any armor that requires Strength or Magic, I can just sell it. In Origins, I would often hold on to more armor than I needed, just because I thought that one of my companions back in camp might have a use for it. You can still customize your companions' stats somewhat, since the game lets you equip them with necklaces and rings, which can have significant bonuses.

As for appearance, as Bioware has pointed out, restricting companion armor has allowed them to actually create unique bodies for each companion. This would be prohibitively expensive if they had to account for every permutation of companion and armor.  (As an example, in Origins, Morrigan was the only companion with her own body model, and if you ever put her in any armor other than her "special" armor, she would revert to the default female model.) While I don't much care for Varric's body model, I do like the way most other companions look. I currently have three females on my party, and they're all visually quite distinct. Also, while I really enjoyed customizing the look of my companions in Origins, it can be very difficult to make someone look good piecemeal: what to do if they already have a matching set, and you find a much more powerful and uglier breastplate?

So, on the whole, it's been a bit of a mixed bag. It's a simpler system, and has helped lead to great-looking companions, but is also yet another thing that decreases variability and diminishes the odds that I would ever replay this game.

Possibly the single most controversial element of DA2 is the dialogue wheel. This is the element that was most obviously taken from Mass Effect, is one of the first things you will see when starting a new game (even before creating your character!), and drives almost every interesting scene in the game. Origins, like all other Bioware fantasy RPGs before it, presented you with a numbered list of choices to make in any conversation. These would combine questions, statements, demands, whatever was appropriate. A short dialog or one taken under duress might only have one or two options; some expansive ones could have a dozen or more. This gives a great deal of breadth in planning and conducting conversations.

In contrast, the dialogue wheel that Mass Effect introduced is constrained by its interface, such that you can never see more than six conversation choices at any time. In certain cases, by placing some choices into a secondary interrogation wheel, you can have a total of up to ten speaking choices, but that's pretty rare. And you will rarely get the full six options; again, for trivial conversations, you might just see one or two.

Origins and other earlier games generally presented you with the specific words you wanted your character to say: "What have you heard about Arlathean?", "Let us kick the butts of evil!", and "Farewell, my dear friend" might all be valid options. With fully-voiced games like ME and DA2, the conversation wheel instead gives cues about what your character might say, and you'll hear the actual dialog after making your selection. The above lines might be represented in the wheel with "What about Arlathean?", "Let's go!" and "Goodbye." Furthermore, there are general rules about the wheel that give you some clues as to the impact of your choices. In both ME and DA2, questions tend to be on the left of the wheel, while decisions are on the right. In ME, Paragon responses tend to be at the top of the wheel, and Renegade responses at the bottom. I actually really like DA2's use of symbols that materialize inside the wheel when you hover over a response; there's a surprising variety of them, and they indicate whether your option fits any of a variety of categories, including Diplomatic, Humorous, Helpful, Aggressive, Lie, Extort, and so on. I'm especially excited to see the arrival of clear symbols that inform you whether an option will initiate or terminate a romance; that's been one of the most frustrating aspects of Bioware romances going back to BG2, and I'll be delighted to no longer need to play the game of "How do I keep this romance from starting or ending?"

Anyways. I don't totally buy the premise that the dialogue wheel intrinsically harms dialog. While it's true that the interface supports fewer options at any given point in the conversation tree, a technical capacity for more discussion does not guarantee, or even generally correlate with, a higher quality of dialog. I vividly remember the keyword-based dialog system of Ultima VI, where there wasn't even a menu to choose from: you directly typed in what you wanted your character to say. In theory, this could have led to nearly limitless combinations of interaction, deep nuance, and incredibly deep and varied conversation trees. In practice, though, it didn't much matter, because almost every conversation consisted of you typing "name," "job," and "bye" in sequence. In contrast, in Mass Effect I was only rarely frustrated by missing an option; the things I could say seemed well-thought-out and reflective of the character.

The other point to make is that a dialog is, well, a conversation. I'm noticing that DA2 conversations with companions tend to be narrower but deeper. In other words, when I chatted with a follower at camp in Origins, I would often have a very long list of potential topics to explore with them. I would pick one, then follow it through the follow-up questions and responses, then pick another topic and repeat. In contrast, speaking with a companion in DA2 will generally auto-initiate conversation on a particular topic. You can explore it deeply, and then it's gone. I feel less like I'm ordering off a menu, and more like I'm, y'know, actually talking with someone. I'll definitely need to play longer before making a final decision; right now, I feel like the DA2 dialog system is different from Origins, but not necessarily worse.

One particularly rough patch for me, though, is Hawke's tone. Hawke has very distinct intonations used for the different types of things you can say: roughly, one voice for "good," a second voice for "funny," and a final voice for "evil." It's the same voice actor doing all the voices, but it's very jarring to switch from one to another. I'm still trying to get a feel for my character: I'd initially imagined Hawke as one of my typical rogues, who are supremely larcenous but have a fundamental moral decency, but because of all the family interaction at this stage of the game, I've been primarily sticking with the Diplomatic/Friendly options. So I've gotten used to Hawke sounding a certain way, but when I feel like role-playing dictates a sarcastic or aggressive response, it sounds very jarring. (In contrast, in the Mass Effect trilogy, I played Shepard at roughly 80% Paragon and 20% Renegade. The Renegade responses sounded like my Shepard had grown too frustrated and was boiling over a little, but it still seemed like the same person.)

Having companions with their homes is another interesting departure from Origins. From a story-telling and roleplaying perspective, I like it better than the camp in Origins. It fits this story better: since we're all living in a city, and the main character isn't exactly in a palace, it makes sense that people would be living in their own place. I also like the sense of character you get from each follower's lodgings. In Origins, it felt very evocative to have Morrigan building a separate fire far away from the large flame in the middle of camp. In DA2, you can get little details like that for each of your followers.

From a gameplay perspective, though, it's very annoying. Each companion is in their own zone, so you'll need to sit through a loading screen for every person you want to visit. (Fortunately, loading times are quite speedy in this game.) Worse, though, we've lost the great ability from Origins to view all party members' inventories at once, which was a terrific way to flip through everyone, shuffle around equipment, and decide how to put together your party. In DA2, as far as I can tell, you need to pick who to put in your party, then you can only manipulate their equipment, whereupon you will need to re-form your party, and give the old equipment to the new members. My party is very small at the moment so it isn't a big problem, but I can definitely see this becoming a headache when it grows bigger and, for example, I want to make sure all of my mages are using the staves that make the most sense for them.

Last but not least, let's talk about what the game does well!

For starters, it looks gorgeous. It's a bit hard to believe that it came out so soon after Origins, because it's a drastic step up in visual quality. The character models are much more detailed, the environments are lush, and as I've noted before combat is very pretty to watch (if maddening to play).

I'd like to particularly call out the wonderful idle animations all of the characters have. I sometimes enjoy just taking my hands off the controls for a while, zooming around the camera, and checking them out. They'll work out kinks in their neck, examine a sore elbow, or knock the dust from their boots. It looks incredibly smooth and natural and makes the world feel very lived-in.

Other players have complained about repeated environments, and I suspect I'll have the same complaint by the time the game is done, but at this point I'm mostly amazed at how well-designed they are. Kirkwall is orders of magnitude cooler than Denerim, which was a pretty cool city to begin with. Kirkwall feels much more three-dimensional, has a great variety of neighborhoods, and jaw-dropping backdrops. I also really like the sandy and mountainous outer environments I've seen so far. Like in Origins, they tend to be pretty linear, but they look great.

DA2 has the good sense not to mess with some of the best stuff from DA:O, and should get credit for that. High on the list: intra-party banters. These are always my favorite part of Bioware RPGs, and the ones I've heard so far have been great. Relaxed, interesting, revelatory dialog that clues me in to what my companions are thinking and feeling, and adds to the feeling that they're independent people with their own ambitions and desires, not just pawns under my control.

The quest journal is good. I like the categorization into types of quests - DA:O also had categories, these have less character but are clearer. (So you'll see "Secondary Quest" instead of "Mages Collective", for example.) The plot markers are handy as well. I'm relieved to see that the game does far better than ME3 in this regard.

I'm too early in the game to know what the big plot is... and that's good! First of all, I'm pretty happy that I've made it this many years after DA2's release and haven't been totally spoiled on the outcome. Secondly, it's just neat that I don't already know where the game is going. For all that I love DA:O's plot, you learn very early on exactly what the game is going to be about, and spend much of the game getting there. It feels nice to be a bit in the dark as to what's going on.

I'm also digging the framing device for the game. As an English lit major, I dearly love unreliable narrators. We've had them in video games before, but they aren't common. There's some fun stuff that you can do with it, and it also lends itself nicely to some meta-ideas like reloading saved games and replaying the game.

The time gap in the game is pretty neat, and from what I hear, there will be others in the future. I like it when Hawke runs into someone and they reminisce about something they did together between the prologue and now. It's another thing that makes it feel less like I am Hawke, but also makes it feel more like Hawke is part of a living, breathing, growing, complex world, and gets up to all sorts of boring stuff that the game skips over.

From what I read, the game gets rid of the straight/bi orientations of DA:O and the straight/bi/gay orientations of ME3 and lets anyone romance any romanceable character of either gender. I like that idea, though I haven't gotten far enough into the game to see how well it works in practice.

Oh! I also like the idea of Friendship/Rivalry replacing Affection. I absolutely adored DA:O's morality system, but I also felt like the game was implying there was a right/better way to play the game. You could roleplay any way you wanted to, but by making certain decisions, you could maximize your followers' affection. More affection was always better, so there was a mechanical (as opposed to story-based) reason to make everyone love you. I like the idea that I can deepen my relationship with a companion in a negative way, and still get a benefit from that. It's a bit like if there were separate Paragon/Renegade meters for each individual companion. Again, it's too early in the game for me to tell how well it succeeds, but already it's brought up some intriguing situations. My decisions early in the prologue set me a little ways along the path to Rivalry with a character I like a lot, who I will probably try and keep in my party. So now, I need to decide whether to continue pushing towards that Rivalry in order to unlock the associated perks, or to take the longer and harder path and reverse course towards Friendship.

Let's see... there are just a couple of companion-related things I'd like to address. Out of an abundance of caution, I'll place these under:

MINI SPOILERS (several hours into Act 1)

For the most part, I love the way that companions look. Merrill is my favorite so far, and I have a feeling she'll be my romance interest (although I know there's at least one more female companion I haven't met). Like I noted above, each companion gets their own body in this game, and Merrill's is great: she's an elf, so she's diminutive and delicate. Her idle animation is fantastic, and reflects the wide-eyed wonder she feels towards the world of humans, along with her nervous skittishness. Her eyes are great, too, and feature the largest irises I've ever seen outside of anime. Her voice is incredible, too, as is her adorable way of growing tongue-tied and frantically digging herself out of conversational holes.

Varric is my least-favorite-looking companion thus far. I would like him 100% more if he would just put on a shirt, though.

Bethany is pretty fun. I'd vaguely remembered reading before about how Varric, the unreliable narrator, makes her far more buxom in his embellished version of the tale than she appears in "reality." That said... it isn't that much of an embellishment.

I'm delighted to have Aveline in my party. For starters, this is the first time in any DA game that I've been able to have a female warrior as a permanent companion, which means I can finally run an all-girls party if I want. Second, I just really like her personality: there are some echoes of Jaheira in how her story starts, but the game is really getting into some of her great qualities, like independence, loyalty, honor, stubbornness, and career orientation. I was pretty surprised to see a romance heart pop up after I completed her first personal quest, since I hadn't thought that the game would let me romance her. I didn't pursue it, since I don't think she would get along too well with my rogue, but I think that relationship could work great with the right character.

For the first part of the game, I was mostly "stuck" with my initial companions. I've now acquired Merrill, and think I'll probably be getting Fenris and Anders soon. I like Anders a lot more now than I did in Awakening (at least, based on the little I've seen of / heard from him so far). Fenris looks cool, though I've only briefly met him so far. Anyways: I'm currently running a group with Hawke, Aveline, Bethany, and Merrill. Two mages seems a bit redundant, since they appear to be less powerful in DA2 than they were in DA:O. I'll probably swap out Bethany for another warrior or rogue at some point to increase my DPS.


That's it for analysis! I imagine that future posts will be more concerned with plot, but I'll certainly mention if I suddenly start loving combat or hating dialog or something.

A few quick notes about my build before I call it a night:

I'm playing as a female rogue named Selene Hawke. I still really don't know what I'm doing as far as putting together a build; I'm dumping most points into CUN and DEX, with a slight preference for CUN, and have invested a couple into WIL. I just reached Level 7, and took Shadow as my Specialization. I dual-wield daggers. I typically open a fight by knocking a Miasmic Flask towards the largest group of enemies, and then focus on bringing down weak ranged units. I use Stealth whenever I draw too much aggro, then re-attack once I'm free again. So I think I'm going to mostly be a backstabbing, stealthy rogue, but we'll see how I end up.

I'm currently running with a tank and two mages. Only one mage has Heal, which is weird. I'll probably try and introduce a two-handed warrior at some point; I haven't regularly used one of those since my initial play-through of Origins back in 2009.

At the moment I'm following my standard operating procedure for RPGs and doing every side-quest and getting every companion I can before continuing with the main quest. It looks like I still have a fair ways to go.

And, frankly, that's kind of what concerns me. Thus far, my DA2 experience has been very positive. It remains to be seen how well it will continue to wear over the long run. Based on the reviews I've read, there's a fair chance that it will come to feel repetitive and annoying before the end. I wonder if this might end up being a problem somewhat like what Coca-Cola got itself into back in the 1980s. As Malcolm Gladwell recounted in his interesting book Blink, Pepsi was famous for issuing the Pepsi Challenge, where they would present consumers with Pepsi and Coke in small, unmarked cups. The consumer would sip each, and declare which one they preferred. They almost always picked the one with Pepsi. Coca-Cola initially assumed that this was because the tests were biased; however, when they ran their own secret versions of the test, they were shocked to come to the same result. So they created New Coke, a new formulation that reliably beat Pepsi in these blind-taste-tests. And... as we all know, it was a disaster. As Gladwell points out, the problem is that they were solving the wrong problem. In the real world, we don't take a few sips of a soft drink: we buy a can and drink the whole thing. Pepsi's sweeter taste may seem better than Coke's with just a couple of sips; over a whole 8 ounces, the even sweeter taste of New Coke was unpalatable.

That's what worries me a bit about DA2. Moment to moment, the game looks gorgeous and exciting, full of kinetic action, stunning environments, and glamorous characters. I can see how, if a professional reviewer sat down with it for an hour, they might walk away fully impressed at all the ways it has improved over the original Origins. That isn't the way RPG fans play games, though: we dig in, we explore, we locate every nook and cranny, we run every optional side-quest (even if it isn't fun!) and every bonus dungeon. In games like Origins and BG2, we could do that and have fun... then do it again, and again, and again, and keep doing it more than 15 years after the game first came out, still reveling in the variety of the game. Will DA2 continue in that tradition? I feel like the mass of gamers has said "No." I hope I'll be able to say "Yes." I'll let you know what I find out!

No comments:

Post a Comment