All Hail, Champions of Kirkwall!
The number of role playing video games I've begun and then abandoned is numerous. So, what was it about Dragon Age: Origins that kept me feverishly playing though to the very end and left me anticipating it's sequel like Scooby-Do for one of his eponymous snacks?
To me Dragon Age: Origins was the perfect storm of RPG evolution. It had all the party-building dynamics of the Bioware's original classic Baldur's Gate. The personalities of your fellow adventures were strong and varied as in KOTOR, but unlike that game, the combat was more real-time and tactical versus the turn-based tedium of Final Fantasy VII. The production design of the game was beautiful, such as in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but without the Alice In Wonderland-style high fantasy of it's goofy expansion pack Shivering Isles. And most importantly, the difficulty scaled nicely, unlike in Fallout 3 where some of the grossly-overpowered special abilities made the endgame such a cakewalk that I became bored with it.
The alchemy the designers used to brew up Dragon Age: Origins in such perfect measure never fails too transport me to nerdvana. So much so that I feel as if should be collecting a check as an unwitting consultant. I loved the min/maxing of equipment, the graphics, the controls, the creature design, as well the distinct personalities of my fellow as well as their clever banter. I also liked the moral and ethical complexities at work in the game. Try as you might, there was absolutely no way to keep everyone in your vast sphere of influence happy.
So, after a relatively speedy two month development process, the game's sequel, simply titled DragonAge II was released in March 2011. I finally completed the game and I wanted to share my thoughts. First, here's the game's high-octane trailer...
By the way, you actually get to fight that horny motherfucker, and let me tell ya, folks...he ain't no Darth Maul-style house o' cards.
It's during the character creation process that a felt the first threat of possible disappointment. Unlike Origins, I couldn't pick a character of a different race, like a dwarf or elf. There were only human options, and of this, only three-quarters of the classic archetypes normally found in most self-respecting RPG's were present: the fighter, the rogue and the mage.
But my disappointment quickly turned to feelings of guilt over being two-faced. After all, in the past I'd rarely ever cursed my RPG avatar with the body of a drunken, capricious, cranky, midget and, frankly, I'd rather staple my nuts to a log then play the fantasy equivalent of an emo hippie tree-hugger. So, really, I had nothing to bitch about.
I began the game with the class I seem to always default to: the fighter. I guess I always pick fighters because, I've always secretly wanted to be the dude with no neck that no one trifles with. The sort of guy who, if he ever witnessed a girl being verbally abused by her asshole boyfriend, could conceivably pop the douchebag's head like a zit.
Anyhoo, I put my newly minted scrapper (who I'd christened "Gareth") through his paces in the game's extended prologue, which sees your family fleeing the destruction of Ostagar in the war-torn nation of Ferelden as depicted in the first game. En route to sanctuary in Kirkwall, you hook up with the square-jawed no-nonsense fighter Aveline and her wounded husband Ser Wesley. At one point during our flight, we're surrounded by enemies and it's only through the intervention of the previous game's magical wild card Flemeth do we reach our virtual Promised Land. So far, so good.
But as soon as we reached the gates Kirkwall, I felt compelled to switch classes. Aveline seemed more then capable to be the party's tank (King Tiger, to be exact) and the group needed a Rogue.
Besides, I'd passed by a couple of tantalizing locked chests that I couldn't get into. Why do the designers tempt the Curious George in me like that?
I rebooted my efforts as a ranged Rogue (partially modeled after my current D&D character) and instantly I was pleased by my decision. My re-constituted Gareth (hey, what can I say, I'm lazy?) was opening those chests with a breeze and nicely supplementing Aveline's hack-slashery and sister Bethany's fire-flingery with my own trademarked hail of death-rain.
Once your party gains entrance to Kirkwall the game really begins in earnest. I loved that Gareth starts the out with barely two dimes to rub together. I've always loved the initial struggle at the start of most RPG's: the challenge to outfit your poor squishy character as best you can to avoid an untimely demise. In fact, just as soon as I feel like I've got the best equipment and stats (the usual tell here is that you start to mow down monsters like weeds) I feel that there's nothing to strive for and my attentions start to wane. It's like the video game version of a Monty Haul D&D campaign ("Google" it, kids).
So I really liked that, at least in the first act, young Gareth Hawke is the equivalent of a Dickensian street urchin, just trying to make ends meet and support his sister, moms and (to a lesser extent) his pervy, deadbeat uncle who's frittered away all of the family fortune.
Alas, just by talking to small handful of people, Hawke's Blackberry soon becomes choked with quests. Which brings me to another thing I love about this franchise: the quests are quick, do-able and plentiful. Play this game for fifteen minutes and it'll provide you with a tremendous sense of falsely-inflated accomplishment. You won't even bat an eyelash when you see the hideous amount of time you've sunk into it, time which you could have used for such frivolous pursuits as writing the great American novel, discovering the cure for cancer, figuring out how Israelis and Palestinians can co-exist in harmony or teaching a squirrel how to play chess.
It's not long before you'll find yourself in frequent combat, and I have to admit, the game is a helluva lot easier then it's predecessor. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I went into this one knowing the basic tactical priciples that I had to learn the hard way in the first game. In fact, I like that the game rewards players for fighting smart, and using the benefits of movement, terrain and good co-ordination to tremendous effect.
Although it's a point of pride for me to never play video games on Easy, but I almost had to eat those words in Origins. In fact, in my first few tentative scraps there were a few "poopidy-do's" and "fiddle-dees" as I suffered several spectacular TPK's or had half of my party groggily get to their feet at the end of a tilt sporting dislocated jaws, ruptured spleens and sucking chest wounds. I distinctly recall clearing one vendor after another out of all of their Injury Kits and Healing Potions and then panicking when failed to restock them five minutes later.
But then I realized: "Wow, oh my God, the designers actually created smart enemy A.I. here! The monsters are actually going after members of the party that they don't have to attack with a can opener in order to get to the soft, tasty bits bits underneath. I can't keep rushing into these rooms willy-nilly! I have to use my...*GASP!* brain..."
So, as soon as I started to play tactically (creating choke points in doorways, keeping fighters up front, pausing the action every few seconds to check everyone's status, having a healing mage in the party at all times, concentrating attacks on one minion at a time, taking out enemy sorcerers immediately...etc) then I finally began to stockpile a few poultici and come out of most skirmishes lookin' pretty!
I love games that force me to learn and adapt and Dragon Age: Origins did that in spades. Regrettably, fore-armed with my bag of tricks, there were very few times in the sequel in which I had any real challenge on Normal difficulty. In fact, the designer's only real counter-move was to let enemies inexplicably rappel down from the ceiling to create chaos behind my closely-guarded lines. Now, I can accept this if I'm being attacked by roof-dwelling spiders, but I had to bark a reflexive "Awwww, c'mon!" at the T.V. when bandits jumped in behind me like rejects from Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
Having said that, combat is even more fun to watch this time out. The character animations, flashy powers and spell effects all convey a genuine feeling of chaos and spectacle. Even after hundreds of battle, I still rush giddily into combat, trying to "crush my enemies, see them driven before me and listen to lamentations of their women" as quickly, efficiently and spectacularly as possible.
The other thing that was kinda odd was more restrictions in party equipment micromanagement. Whether you like to admit it or not, this aspect of video games is kinda like playing dress-up with dolls: except with plate-mail, maces and poisoned daggers. In Origins if you were playing a mage and found an wearable suit of heavy armor, you could at least pass it on to the party's enforcer. In DAII, you can outfit your fellow peeps with weapons, accessories and potions, but they apparently draw the line at being told to get nekkid and wear "somefin' pretty" that you just stripped off a corpse in a cave.
Kinda frustrating but it does succeed in making these character seem more willful and not so much paper dolls who are just there for your pervy amusement. Hey, I'm lookin' at you, buddy! Keep both yer hands where I can see 'em!
The more restrictive nature of equipment allocation is counterbalanced somewhat by a fantastic star-rating system that gives players an at-a-glace idea if that Belt of Wicked-Awesomeness you just picked up is better then the Sash of Bitchin' Superiority. Now, instead of going into each item, drilling down on the stats, flipping back and forth, casting bones, and reading tea leaves, the game designers give you a hint to an item's relative value so you can quickly equip it or throw it in the quick-sale junk pile. At the very least, little time savers like this get you back in the action quicker.
Eventually you gather together a veritable Rogues Gallery of allies, followers and potential fuck-buddies. For those of you out there who still think that your co-adventurers in Origins were more interesting, then I'm afraid that you are both wrong and stupid. Go away, Andraste hates you.
Just kidding, I actually kinda felt the same way at first but by game's end they'd really grown on me. Here's my (hopefully) non-spoilery take on the characters:
Aveline is like that chick in university that worked at the security desk who you always suspected could cut a junk of wood in six minutes flat. She got a pretty sizable stick up her sphincter but is still very loyal and stalwart. She does get her nose out of joint somewhat if you side too frequently with the mages, but comes back around if you've exhibited at least a modicum of human decency. She may know her way around a battlefield, but she's humorously inept in romantic situations. Her ability to (dare I say it) draw aggro (Ewwww, I feel dirty...) is clutch. Just wind her up, send her into a monster mosh pit while the rest of the party slings arrows, spells, anvils, spitballs and sarcasm. She is the best fighter you can have, IMHO. Plus, if she's combined with Isabella in the party, get ready for some side-splitting dialogue between the two of them.
Varric is pretty progressive for a dwarf. He's not a melee fighter, he doesn't speak in a bad Scottish accent and all of his facial hair seems to have migrated to his chest. He carries a crossbow with him named Bianca which I'm pretty sure he has sex with on a regular basis. He's laconic, funny, easy-going and his ass-clown brother Bartrand is a major story lynch pin for the first part of the game. Since my own character filled the Rogue slot for most of the game, Varric wasn't around nearly enough. The promise of having him as a full-time party member makes for a compelling reason right there for me to re-play the game.
Now, since Aveline was my primary fighter, this broody bitch barely saw much action, which really doesn't upset me very much. As an escapee/amnesiac/guinea pig/science experiment/Black Ops patsy who's body has been laced with a substance that augments his natural abilities, I saw the character as a ginormous rip-off of a certain Canadian-born, beer-swillin', tough-talkin', Japanese chick-bangin' X-Man who also has an affinity for sharp things. "Hey, Fenris! A guy named Logan called...he's want his entire shtick back!" Plus, he's also a pansy elf so that's one major demerit in the whole "Hey, look at me, I'm a bad, bad apple and I'm rotten to the core!" assertion. Fuckin' ponce.
Bethany is the hottest chick in the game, which is regretful, 'cuz she's also very closely related to you. Is it bad that I was cursing the game designers for not including a "Do Your Sister" option on the conversation wheel? Sorry, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em and I really wanted to get all Luke up in her Leia. Bethany seems to specialize in 'splodey magic, which dove-tails nicely with Anders's ability to bake Healin' Muffins. Speaking of screaming at the designers, well...I won't spoil it, but they do something with her that just pisses me off. Suffice to say that she made such an impression on me that I constantly (and one might say mindlessly) sided with the Mages against the Templars even when it didn't make much sense for me to do so. "Hey, sis. I'll catch you later..." *Wink*
Isabela is a privateer Rogue with bosoms that could easily give shelter to a small troupe of very appreciative Boy Scouts. Once you dip her in Javex for a bit, every red-blooded male (and likely about 10% of women) are gonna want to take a tumble with this dusky jewel. Again, since I was the active Rogue in the party she didn't see a lot of game time. In fact, I kept her active just long enough to bang her like a screen door and then throw her away like a used Kleenex.
Actually, I can't even lie about that. I'm such a pathetic sap that, even in the video game world, I tried to start up a relationship with her post-coitus but she kept pushing me away because I was "too nice" for her. Wow, talk about life imitating art. In combat she's a bit of a mixed bag (pun not intended) who has a tendency to rush in, draw DPS (Eeeeeew, another dirty WOW term), get ganked and gobble up Injury Kits like Oprah eats turkey burgers.
Still, it's fun to have her in the party just to watch her try and dry-hump all the male characters and solicit mutterings of disgust from aspirin-betwixt-her-legs Aveline.
Merrill is a elven mage/contrarian/milksop who always looks like she needs someone to wipe her nose. In a desperate (and failed) bid to try and make herself less of a loser, Merrill decided in her infinite wisdom to embrace Blood Magic, a type of sorcery that specializes in demonic consultation, hellfire and rank sarcasm. When she isn't morphing into a suit of Rock Armor or hurling Arcane Bolts, Merrill likes to indirectly cause the deaths of people with her ethically questionable arts n' crafts projects. None of this really prevents her from being a sniffly, weepy nebbish who shows more concern for the unkempt state of her flat versus the fact that she's tampering with EVIL, UNHOLY FORCES. Stupid bim.
After being used then tossed aside by Isabela (the National Bicycle of Thedas) Merrill became my inadvertent rebound fling. At one point I made the mistake of picking the "Heart" dialogue option and the next thing I know the needy bitch is all over me like...well, like Oprah on a turkey burger. And let me tell ya, guys, this chick consistently brings the crazy from there on in. The next thing I know, she's moving into my crib, racking up credit card bills for flashy new duds and accusing Bodahn's barefoot in the head son of trying to touch her goodies.
God, I soooo wanted to hook up with my sister instead.
But, in all fairness, Merrill is kinda sweet in her own neurotic way. She's also better in a scrap then Isabela and makes a good second banana to Bethany. As such I can live with her many, many, many peccadilloes.
Anders is a jackass. 'Nuff said.
So, as the eventual Champion of Kirkwall, you need to co-ordinate this wildly disparate band of misfits into a cohesive fighting unit. You face several challenges together including "Spelunking 4 Cash" in the spiderlicious Deep Roads, trying to tamp down an uprising from the Qunari (led by the Arishok, aka Mr. Horny in the trailer), and trying to mediate a bitter dispute between the unpredictable Mages and the letter-of-the-law Templars.
Now, none of this is as world-reaching or as epic as the subject matter in the first game, but frankly, I really dug the more realistic, low-fi story. I can imagine the game designer's collective relief after the powers that be told them that they didn't have to come up with yet another tired "end of the realm" scenario. I liked this entry's Jack Kerouac "stream of consciousness" approach and the fact that it just about an average schmo who achieves fame just by trying to make his way in the world and do a few good deeds.
This does come with a pretty big visual demerit, however. Although the lush environments you explore during your travels are well designed and sometimes quite spectacular, you're still based in and around Kirkwall for most of the game. As such, the game tends to recycle the same dungeons, caves and assorted generic underground lairs over and over again at different times. This certainly cuts down on the game's visual variety and eventually makes things seem a bit stale.
The challenges provided generally scale quite nicely, regrettably, this doesn't extend to the boss battles. For example, my 12-round, mid-game donnybrook with the Arishok was like trying to run the world's most grueling biathlon whilst and at the same time being chased by a ten-foot tall goat-headed psychopath wielding an axe the size of a manta ray. Frankly, no other challenge (save perhaps the High Dragon battle), comes close to the feat of endurance required to overcome this challenge. Frankly it's a bit of a letdown when the big climactic final confrontation is a veritable cake walk in comparison.
Is Dragon Age II better then it's precursor? No. Is it still absolutely amazing? Absosmurfly! Most of this boils down to how much care and attention to detail that's been lavished on character design. The dialogue of your companions is memorable, smart and often uproariously funny. The voice acting is perhaps the best I've ever heard in a video game. Their decisions either make you fall in love with them or engender barely-restrained rage. All of this adds up to overseeing an odd, dysfunctional virtual family that you just can't wait to revisit just to witness their reactions to the next set of developments.
This even extends to you own character. Since now we're all playing slightly tweaked variations of "Sirrah Hawke" in Dragon Age II , our own avatars are smack-dab right in the middle of the conversational action. We're in all the cut-scenes, we're constantly referenced by name and our responses (kindly, aggressive or wise-assed) can be heard in the exchanges and really effect what follows. Frankly, I didn't mind sacrificing some customization in order to feel better integrated into the action.
It's a great game and it's a virtual guarantee that I'll be going back to explore the first one courtesy of the expansion pack Awakenings which I somehow telegraphed on my first pass. I'm also sure I'll re-play DAII just for the privilege of witnessing a different group dynamic and getting the satisfaction of murdering Anders in his sleep.
Of course it was good!
I finished it, didn't I?
out of five. Tilt: up.