Welcome to a new, regular series of retrospective articles on recent games of this generation that slipped under the radar, were given a commercial drubbing, or were ignored commercially by the gaming audience at large. These are games that deserve a second chance, that deserve the opportunity to be re-discovered and reassessed. First up: Dragon Age 2.
If disappointment is the gap between expectation and reality, then the release of Dragon Age 2 can be seen as one of the strongest examples of a game successfully achieving this feeling. At the start of 2011, Bioware were in a position of almost unparalleled critical power. Mass Effect 2 was widely considered one of, if not the best, games of 2010, and the year promised the tantalising sequel to their excellent and unexpected 2009 hit Dragon Age: Origins. Couple this with the imminent arrival of potential World of Warcraft rival, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and the future seemingly belonged to the Canadian developer.
However, it wasn’t to be. The game turned out to be a shining example of a fan base being let down by the increasing encroachment of publisher influence in the later stages of this generation, a victim of trying to appeal to the widest possible demographic to maximize sales. To add to this, Bioware’s work on Mass Effect 3 (originally due to be release later in the year) and the upcoming MMO, meant that resources and man hours were clearly thin on the ground, resulting in a trimmed down, slighter game.
The major criticism was that EA exerted a huge amount of pressure on Bioware to pander to a more casual crowd and that the experienced RPG studio compromised too much, forcing out a sequel to ride the wave of the first games relatives success, resulting in re-used assets, a less epic story and less RPG mechanics to tinker with.
I myself felt this disappointment. After the grand, involving and time consuming Dragon Age: Origins, the game felt like a step backwards – except it wasn’t. In my humble opinion, Dragon Age 2, despite it’s obvious shortcomings, needs to be celebrated for all it did get right. The game, viewed objectively, is pretty damn good. It both benefited and suffered from it’s transition from a PC style RPG to a console action game, but the balance is much more in the positive than most people are led to believe.
Dragon Age: Origins was a unexpected delight, but belonged to a different era. It menus were unwieldy, its systems fairly unintuitive. Dragon Age 2 simplified and streamlined the menus for the better. Organising equipment for your party could be cumbersome in Origins, and though in the later game there is still the necessity to do this (this is an RPG after all, and don’t forget, Mass Effect 2 was criticised for taking customisation out) it is so much quicker to do so. Quick taps of the triggers and bumpers to switch between character and item types allow you to manage your party quickly; less time spent in the inventory is always better to optimize your experience. You can also customise your character in terms of their skills. Despite only having three classes, the customisation and specialisation is fairly deep, allowing you to tailor your play style to your own personal preference.
And in terms of the way the game played, it was so much better than it’s predecessor. The combat was much, much superior. Rooted in last generation, PC centric combat, and hampered by the legacy of Baldur’s Gate, Origin’s combat system needed dragging in to the next decade. There can be no doubt that the combat for Hawke’s adventure was optimised for console usage, and this was only for the better. It’s fast, flashy and no matter what class you chose, there was variety and satisfaction in laying waste to hordes of enemies, drenching your party in swathes of blood and gore. If you opted for the PC version, you were still playing with the older style bar system, so despite the optimisation, for consoles – it still worked on PC and in fact offered a suitable alternative for different audiences.
Yes, the story was less epic than the original game, which ended with you taking on the largest and most powerful demon the world had ever seen and delivering the whole of the known world from certain extinction. Of course a second story was going to feel a little less impactful. Bioware made up for this by making a more personal story, a story of a refugee, protecting their own family and friends, as well as creating a smaller core of party members. Had they made the decision to go with another end of the world scenario, would it have been as effective? I believe it would have been criticised for being more of the same; the more focused story is a clear benefit, and the fact that they chose a character who had no destiny beyond circumstance and ability was fairly refreshing for fantasy RPG’s moving away from issues of destiny, fate and the main character taking up the mantle of ‘the chosen one’ to a more human, realistic story – Hawke becomes a legend because of their actions, not because of predetermined roles.
Even though the story had a more streamlined focus, the world was affected by your progress in Origins, determining whether your warden from the previous game was still around, and who was on the throne. This allowed for a nice progression for anyone with a save from the predecessor, whilst not alienating new players, players who may have been intimidated by the overbearing depth and commitment of Origins. Those new players with no previous back-story from the first game were still allowed to choose a background for the world of Ferelden. The ability to transfer saves from a game as huge as Origins should be celebrated, but not as an absolute necessity, as this would have created a complex set of rules that Mass Effect 3 showed the developer was maybe not ready to implement.
When it comes to narrative in game play, Bioware have always been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries, and Dragon Age 2 continued to highlight the developers continued commitment to developing the treatment of minorities, especially it’s development of strong female characters: Aveline, the female warrior who very quickly becomes the leader of the City of Kirkwall’s guard, is one of the most impressive female characters I’ve met. She could have easily been a male character, and her gender isn’t really bought up as an issue – she is just a strong, competent leader. Let’s also not forget the strides Bioware made with the ability to pursue same sex relationships, something the industry as a whole really needs to get off its arse with.
Speaking of character interaction, the conversation system is much improved, taking Mass Effect’s wheel to replace the simple menu system from the previous game. In addition to this, Bioware developed it to allow you a variety of nuanced responses, from aggressive to playful, pragmatic to diplomatic. Whilst you can question the ultimate outcome of the differing option, just like the recent The Walking Dead, it allows you to truly role-play your character, responding to character not just how you felt you character would respond in that situation, but also to allow you to vary you responses to individual characters. This is something that Mass Effect’s binary and restrictive paragon / renegade system should have learnt from.
It was also a more easily digestible experience. I loved Dragon Age Origins, but damn was it long. Dragon Age 2 was a lengthy game, offering at least 40 hours for a single play through and of course, there was huge replay-ability. In addition, players get to own the world, and stamp their imprint on it the city of Kirkwall.
The city of Kirkwall. A major criticism levelled at Hawk’e adventure was it’s limited setting and it’s repetitive environments. Yes, assets were reused ad nauseum, and became it could become highly distracting to enter the same reconfigured house, cavern or warehouse again and again. There can be no denying or defending this point. But missions were extensive, varied and fun enough to ensure the time spent in these same areas was not misspent.
Thinking back, there was very little about my experience with Dragon Age 2 that was negative. Yes the repeated environmental assets and the streamlined, more watered-down approach can be criticised, but Dragon Age 2 gets so much right, and develops so much in the right direction, that to simply ignore it and brush it under the carpet as a blot on the generation and on the franchise and developer, is a crime of the highest order. Go and find out for yourself and be pleasantly surprised. If you have any love for RPG’s and have yet to play it, do yourself a massive favour and check it out.
Next time on Reloaded: Alpha Protocol. Let’s have your thoughts on this espionage classic for inclusion in the article. Get involved and DM me on the site, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter me via @craigieh28