Dragon Age II impressions so far

I’m playing Dragon Age II right now and I’m tired.  The transition from tongue-in-cheek blitzkrieg shooter Bulletstorm (highly recommended by the way, if the opportunity to kick a crazed freak into a cactus sounds even remotely appealing) to DAII‘s classic stat-heavy role-playing is proving tough.

Looking back on the 30 hours I’ve played so far, I can identify distinct high points and low points.  There are sections of the player character Hawke’s journey which are genuinely engrossing, dramatic, and laden with tense political sub-plot.  And then there are much longer and more frequent sections that make me want to quit, slide off my chair and roll around on the carpet like a lunatic just to dispel the onset of suffocating boredom.  Taken as a whole DAII is like a roller coaster, albeit a great deal more depressing.

One thing that’s not variable though is the combat, which is, apart from a single exception that I’ll come on to, extremely unsatisfying.  I will agree with most other reviewers that it is an improvement over the combat in the original DA.  But it’s not much of an improvement.  And the combat in DA pissed me off anyway, so it’s not a particularly good benchmark.

The polygon count has obviously increased and that means everything looks prettier, from the detail on characters and monsters to the environments and the pyrotechnics.  I can also applaud the animations, which are smooth but also appropriately rapid-fire.  Hawke is meant to be an action hero after all; slow clumsy moves wouldn’t have fit the bill.

But the combat itself does get very tedious very quickly.  Of the hundreds of quests I’ve done so far, I can count using my fingers (although that would be retarded so I won’t) the ones that haven’t followed the same standard template.  There are almost always 3-5 routine encounters, each encounter consisting of 2-3 waves of combatants, each wave spawning as if from nowhere (occasionally the Bioware designers have bothered to add the illusion of a door through which the enemies burst, which is a bit better) and so obviously timed that there might as well be a countdown in the middle of the screen.

Even the environments are templates.  What Bioware have done, rather than go to the trouble of actually designing a new map for every location, is design a smaller number of maps (like five), and repeatedly re-use them.  It’s exactly what they did back when they shat out Neverwinter Nights, with its 50 practically identical caverns, and it wasn’t a good idea then either.

To add to the insult, bosses are far too common, and as any economist will tell you, when something becomes more common it can only depreciate in value… or something.  I’m not a big fan of bosses in games, but I do think that if you are going to include them, you should make them rare and special, and give them some unique abilities and behaviours that challenge me in new and exciting ways.

Setting those poor design decisions aside though, the main issue is simply how boring the combat is.  Again a comparison with Bulletstorm is worth making because in that game the fight scenes are just as frequent, if not more so, equally repetitive, and yet addictive enough to cause one of those idiot ‘scientists’ to claim that it’s “poisoning the youth” or some such nonsense (which actually happened of course).

We can all name a game we’ve played that’s like that: repetitive almost to a fault but absolutely brilliant.  Batman: Arkham Asylum, with its spectacular brawling template duplicated a hundred times, springs to mind.  DAII makes the mistake of being repetitive and joyless at the same time, which is a double-whammy of tripe.

Perhaps I don’t get it.  Perhaps it’s not for me.  Perhaps true fans of the franchise play on hard difficulty (something completely beyond my ability and patience) and love the combat because that’s the sweet point at which it becomes rewarding.  If that’s the case, take my assessment with a pinch, or mug, of salt.

While I’m on the subject of the difficulty setting though, I should say that I feel as if I’ve been duped.  The interview with Mark Laidlaw, plus my own positive impressions of the demo, led me to believe that DAII had been made markedly more friendly to the casual gamer.

To an extent those impressions were accurate: playing on normal, most of the fights are about as hard as I, a pathetic noob, want them to be.  But then there are lots that are too easy, and a sizeable portion of ultra-taxing encounters on the other end of the spectrum.  It’s unsettling.

But I would be a false and vile trickster if I failed to underline the fact that, in spite of all the gameplay hiccups, the main story is quite excellently told.  Those high points I mentioned earlier have all occurred when I’ve stopped pottering about completing lame side quests and focussed on that story.

It’s about being an outsider, about regaining pride, caring for (or neglecting if you so choose) your broken family, attempting to triumph in a period of intense political turmoil, and ultimately leaving your mark (whatever form that mark may take, based on your decisions) on an ancient city with a history that’s troubled to say the least.  This aspect of DAII really is fantastic, and sufficient grounds for me to recommend the game to any fan of the genre, even if like me you didn’t enjoy the original as much as the majority seemed to.

And while I’m hemorrhaging praise, I should note that one exception to the rule that the combat sucks.  Near the end of the game’s second chapter you’re forced to confront a whirling storm of sentient rocks called an ‘ancient rock wraith’.  It’s a boss battle, and the only one so far that I’ve properly enjoyed.

It resembles a boss battle in World of Warcraft, in that there are several distinct stages requiring you to react in particular ways.  At first the wraith seems to be a powerful but dumb catapult; a simple matter then to surround it on all sides and slowly smash it to pieces with sword and spell.  But what’s this?  It pulses with electrical energy and curls up like a hedgehog, levitates and quickly enters into a raging barrel roll!

Hawke is instantly knocked unconscious and my healer is badly injured.  He recovers and resurrects Hawke just in time to witness a second assault: the wraith begins to crackle with energy once again and like Arnie in Predator, I sense my impending doom.  Ducking behind a nearby column, my party are spared the full impact of the ensuing explosion.  We all return to rock bashing and after a while settle into a tactical rhythm.  Victory comes soon thereafter.

It’s not rocket science to comprehend by any means, but it doesn’t need to be.  I don’t want to have to alt-tab and google for a step-by-step guide to progress to the next zone; I want to be placed in a situation where I can observe, learn, experiment and triumph without having to reload my last save twenty times over.  The rock wraith delivered on all those criteria and it deserves a medal.  Maybe the purple heart?

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