Saturday, March 12, 2011

Dragon Age 2 or Dragon Age Poo? The evolution of Bioware

I'm going to detour from my book ramblings for a moment and discuss Bioware's latest interactive offering. I'll preface this by saying that I've been on these fence about the studio for some time now. That's not to say that I don't believe they still make great games, which they definitely do. But Baldur's Gate 1 & 2, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are basically classics. I don't know anyone that doesn't hold these games in the highest esteem. The PC version of the first Mass Effect suffered from some minor polish issues, but was still a decent game, despite its clumsy combat and six hours spent riding in elevators. It was still a Bioware game and it was still great.

Then fast forward to Dragon Age: Origins, which Bioware claimed to be an attempt to recapture the success of their classic RPGs like Baldur's Gate, which, for the most part, it did. The only complaint I can come up with for Dragon Age: Origins, which isn't even a complaint, is that there's just too much to do. It's a game that definitely begs to be played through at least twice to experience most of what it has to offer.

Mass Effect 2 is where things star to veer off course. The game, in its own right, is a great game that fixed most of its predecessor's problems--by stripping them. It was no longer a RPG, but a 3rd person shooter with a handful of RPG elements. Don't get me wrong, I loved Mass Effect 2, and I think that, for the most part, it went in the direction the series needed to go.

And then Bioware (influenced predominately by EA, no doubt) announced the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, a game set to be released just slightly more than a year after its predecessor. This alone says one thing and one thing only, rush job. I figured early on that there was no way Bioware could put together a game as expansive as Origins, there just wasn't enough time, and that's assuming development started shortly after the release of the first in late 2009, or even sooner.

Now, I'm not one of those crazed Origins fanboys that completely despise the sequel. I think in a lot of ways it improves on the first in the same ways Mass Effect 2 improved on its first, but without stripping all of the RPG elements in the process. But early out of the gate, you can tell how rushed Dragon Age 2 is. I have to admit I haven't actually finished it, but fifteen hours in, and I'm about as sick as I can be of seeing the same cave for every other quest. And Kirkwall, oh Kirkwall. For the first game, you basically had an entire country to roam around in. In Dragon Age 2, you have one city and its surrounding area. I just hope I get to see some new vistas before the end of the game. If not, I may burn Kirkwall to the ground.

Early on, my friends seemed perturbed that you were no longer going to be able to stop in the middle of your adventures and have two hour conversations with your companions, but I think the companion system is much improved in the sequel. Their storylines are told through multiple quests for each companion rather than through conversation trees.

The combat system has gotten a lot of flack for being too action and not enough RPG. I can see both sides of this argument, but I don't mind the combat system at all, even more so once I learned that R, by default, would instantly target and attack the nearest enemy. I seemed to have an issue with right clicking a target to attack, missing, and then clicking to move in that direction. It irked me. I think the ability trees are much improved over the first game. I love the selection of skills and corresponding upgrades for each one, and I love that each Companion gets its own special talent tree.

I don't know the full arc of the story yet. I don't really want to be spoiled, but through the first act of the game, the protagonist, Hawke is basically just some random Joe trying to make ends meet. It isn't until the first jump forward in time that the game begins to actually build on any sort of overall conflict. In the first game, the conflict is there looming over your head the entire game: Darkspawn gonna eat my face! But fifteen hours in, and I still really have no idea where the game is going. This could mean one of two things, either Bioware had no idea where the game was going, or the Hawke storyline is going to span its own trilogy, just like Mass Effect's Shepard.

This has become far more verbose than I originally intended, so I will close saying one last thing. Considering the length of time Dragon Age 2 was in development, it's damn impressive what Bioware was able to accomplish, but just think how good Dragon Age 2 would have been if EA had allowed it more time in the oven.

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