Before the Mass Effect 3 Ending Debacle: The Dragon Age 2 Disappointment

I’ve already gone into excruciating detail on my feelings regarding the fan backlash to the ME3 ending, so the fact that, after staunchly defending BioWare’s product, I’m about to turn around here and bitch about the failings of one of their other games might seem a bit hypocritical. Perhaps even worthy of some disdain. I’m going to ask you to roll with me here, galleons. Give me a chance to prove that my criticisms are justified, not just mindless whinging (yes, I think I’m British).

If I fail, you are allowed to mercilessly tear me apart in the comments. I’ll deserve it.

***

I really looked forward to the release of Dragon Age 2. While I didn’t enjoy Dragon Age: Origins as much as my beloved Mass Effect, I was still quite fond of the title. I will acknowledge that there were problems with it (particularly centered around combat), but what made the title so enjoyable was its throwback nature. Origins felt like the high fantasy games I’d grown up with, like Baldur’s Gate (which, given the developer, only makes sense). One hero, with their ragtag band of followers, out to slay the dragon/demon and stop the big nasty evil from overtaking the land. It was full of haughty woodland elves and misguided mages trafficking with demons and underground dwarven cities full of small bearded warriors/smiths. I fought ogres and golems and spiders and dragons and even some giant rats. I traveled with the bastard heir to the throne, the reformed assassin, the kindly healer, the drunk dwarf. It was just classic fun- nothing too new, nothing too special, just a solid, enjoyable game.

So, when DA2 was released, I expected an expansion on the sword-and-sorcery goodness of the first. What I got was… well, it was disappointing. It didn’t feel like the same series at all. And, upon playing it again now, I still feel the same way.

Here’s how DA2 failed me.

The lack of a grand scope/sense of the epic/any solid plot for a good chunk of the game.

It is basically a staple of high fantasy that there is some huge, overarching goal the main characters are striving to complete. Slay the dragon, save the princess, toss a ring into a volcano. You know, that sort of nonsense. In Origins, your character was a Grey Warden, part of a special order of warriors with the job of defeating the rise of the darkspawn (orcish creatures) every few ages (known as a Blight). You and bastard princeling Alistair are the last Grey Wardens, set out to gather a mighty army from the scattered races of Ferelden to march against the darkspawn horde, slay the Archdemon that leads them, and maybe have cake afterwards. Pretty standard fantasy goodness. So, your character travels across the kingdom, aiding the dwarves and elves and mages and men in order to gain their support for the final battle. And, in the end, your army marches to battle, you defeat the Archdemon, and the Blight is over.

Huzzah.

Then the expansion, Awakening, comes out. Your Grey Warden is now working in the province given to the order by the new ruler of Ferelden. You are dealing with increased darkspawn activity, something that shouldn’t happen with the Blight being over and all. You find some talking, weirdly sentient darkspawn who try to get you to help in their plan to free their people from the magical slavery of the Blight, so that the darkspawn race might prosper and eventually work with the rest of the races of the world. You can either agree to help or not, but it sets the stage for some very interesting future developments with the darkspawn.

And then DA2 comes out and… nothing. You aren’t a Grey Warden anymore- in fact, you are a completely different character from who you were in the first game. You are living up in another city-state as a refugee from the events of the first game. You don’t seem to have any more pressing goal than surviving and maybe reclaiming your family estate (which your uncle lost to pay a debt).

…I’m sorry, what the fuck just happened?

Da2 is split into three “acts,” three different years in the city of Kirkwall. Each year has a completely different kind of mini-goal to it, though the “goals” for the last two years are less “goals” and more “situations you accidentally become embroiled in over the course of the year.” If you were to tell me, upon starting the game, what the final battle dealt with, I would have been confused. Hell, you don’t even really meet the two people who become the two final bosses until Act Fucking 3. They have no real presence in your game until the final third of it.

The game just feels woefully cobbled together. Act 1 has you running around trying to scrounge up enough gold to go on this adventuring expedition that will (hopefully) secure your fortune and let your family reclaim their estate. Okay. I can get behind that, I suppose. Then Act 2 rolls around. You have your estate. So…? You kind of just run around doing a bunch of pointless quests because… you want the gold (even though you’re rich)? You want to help people (even if you’re choosing the mega-douche dialogue options)? There’s no fucking motivation for your character’s actions. Eventually, because of a few random quests you’ve gone on, you somehow end up involved in the big qunari (race of big dudes with demon horns who want to convert everyone to their religion/lifestyle or else slaughter them mercilessly)  vs. citizens of Kirkwall fight. You bring an end to it, everyone is happy, you gain a fancy title… Then, Act 3 happens. And, once again, you are kind of slowly, half-assedly dragged into this big war between the mages and the templars.

What. The. Fuck.

Everything feels so pieced together and tacked on. There are a few really interesting, rewarding side quests, but there is no real main quest. It’s not a sandbox, where you kind of build your own game experience, you just go around getting letters and doing jobs for people for seemingly little or no reason. Considering the game is an RPG, this is a major problem for the title.

And the game has next to nothing to do with the events of the first game. You can import your Origins save in, but all it does is influence whether or not a few cameos happen. Nothing that even remotely influences the actual story… because there is no fucking story. It takes one of the small areas of contention in Origins (the templar and mage situation) and eventually blows it the fuck up (literally) after 2/3 of a game full of shuffling your feet and misdirection and tries to pass this off as some grand story.

It’s not. It’s really, really not.

Take Mass Effect (I can’t help but compare the two series because they are both BioWare creations… sorry). Imagine Shepard had managed to defeat the Reapers in the first game. And then, instead of any continuation of the Reaper/Shepard story, the second game has you playing as a survivor of Eden Prime who, I don’t know, becomes a merc and fucks around in spaceland for a bit, eventually ending up involved in some kind of human coup on the Citadel, and finally accidentally ends up hardcore reigniting the human/turian war. You’d have been… disappointed, no? Confused, maybe?

I think the fact that the story from Origins didn’t directly carry over to DA2 would have bothered me less if they hadn’t pulled that “keep your save files, they’re going to matter” bullshit on me. My Origins decisions impacted less than nothing in DA2. Honestly, the idea of having different protagonists having different adventures across the same world is fine and dandy. But don’t bother with having me import a save if it doesn’t mean anything. The Elder Scrolls does it right- they set each game in different provinces (and at different times), you never import a save, you are playing isolated heroes. Lore grows and continues from game to game, but your old characters have no impact. And it totally works. Nobody’s complaining. Play it one way or the other, but don’t do this half-assed import bullshit, BioWare.

I know this is their story and their world and I feel kind of cheap complaining about it when I so harshly judged people for doing the same to the ME3 ending. I feel like I really have less issue with where the story went and more issue with how they got there, painfully limping along until they decided to make a point.

Speaking of the “point”…

The story got WAY too political WAY too fast.

This is a high fantasy series. At least, that’s what it had been touted as. We’ve already discussed some of what one expects when that term is tossed around. And that’s what the first game was.

And then holy shit, DA2 tries to jump into a completely different direction. By Act 3, when the thing finally decides to come up with some semblance of a plot, they’ve decided to just blow the whole mages/templars thing into a full-blown war.

In the Dragon Age world, mages are taken from their families at young ages and locked away in the Circle of Magi, a tower or something in every province where mages live and study under close watch of the templars, guards from the Chantry who are there to make sure the mages toe the line. Throughout history, mages just fucked with shit, calling up demons and using blood magic and making everything fucking awful with their sparkly magics. So, the templars keep them in check, killing the ones who show signs of possession or blood magic dabbling. The mages are essentially imprisoned. If you don’t want to live in the Circle, and you have magic, you are known as an apostate, and templars will kill you or haul you off to the Circle if they catch you using magic out in the world.

So, the mages are bitchy because they are locked in a tower their whole lives with horrible sword-wielding guards breathing down their necks and waiting to run them through, and the templars feel like they have to crack down harder as more and more mages escape/call on forbidden magics to try to escape their prison.

I mean, yeah, it’s a shitty situation. And I feel really bad for the mages.1 But they go from mild discontent in the first game to full-on claw-your-face-off-with-lightning crazy in the second. And the templars go from being stern guards who at least attempt to be fair to religion-crazed-sword-happy lunatics. It was a situation I’d have been happy to play through and resolve, except that the two factions became so fucking insane that I didn’t want to side with either of them. Kind of just wanted to firebomb the lot and run off with the pirate wench.

Instead of gathering a giant army to face a demonic invasion of the land, I’m playing errand-boy/girl back and forth between these two whiny, completely batshit groups. No matter what I do, I’m about to help someone ignite a giant war across the world between these two factions. Try as I might to minimize the damage, in the end, everything goes to shit. I’m trying to be diplomatic and political when all I want is to go stab stabbity stab a dragon in the eye.

The game is incredibly claustrophobic.

The entire game is set within one city and a few small, surrounding areas. Mostly, it’s just this city. You don’t get to go anywhere else. Hightown. Lowtown. The Docks. The Gallows. Darktown. The coastline around the city. The mountain summit by it. A mine nearby. That’s it. So, you’re just running back and forth between different parts of the city. Again. And again. And again.

You spend the whole time feeling closed in and like you’re going nowhere (which is greatly exacerbated by the lack of cohesive plot). It’s fucking maddening.

Another facet of this is…

HIDEOUS FUCKING MAP RECYCLING

I have no idea who thought this was a good idea, but let me at ’em. I’m gonna bitch slap them so goddamn hard. There are, like, 5 (maybe) different dungeon maps that just keep getting recycled. They’ll close off a section one time, make you run it backwards the next, but it’s the same thing again and again and again.

This is one of the biggest complaints from the fan community. And with good reason. For a game that’s isolated to this one city, you feel like you could go nuts making gorgeous/interesting/complex/unique dungeons to keep things fresh. Instead, you have a handful of small, boring, shitty little maps being used again and again.

By the third time you’re canvassing the same map, you’re ready to strangle someone. By the tenth, you just want to cry in frustration. It’s the worst.

The Stamina/Mana and Cooldown Fuckery

Okay, so you have a stamina bar. That’s fine. You can only use talents until you are out of stamina, with the bigger, more powerful attacks using more stamina.

Or, you have cooldowns on your talents. You use one, then it takes thirty seconds or something for that one to be useable again. The more powerful the attack, the longer the cooldown.

But you don’t have BOTH. This is actually a carry-over issue from Origins. Not only do you have a stamina bar that depletes as you use your talents, but they all have cooldowns. Plus, your heath/stamina/mana potions all have a damn cooldown. It can make it fucking impossible to do anything in intense combat situations.

It would be like having both the weapon overheat system from ME1 and the thermal clips from 2&3. Together. At the same time. Just redundant bullshit making it unnecessarily harder to fight.

The romance options are incredibly one-dimensional.

I know this is a silly concern, but I’ve been spoiled by the ME games. Garrus. Liara. Tali. Thane. Ashley. They are all so interesting, with real personalities and humor and stories. They all feel like real, flawed, wonderful people. So, I expect BioWare to be able to create some really memorable characters like that for me in the Dragon Age games as well. And in Origins, they did. Leliana. Zevran. Alistair. Morrigan. They were all layered, interesting characters.

Then DA2 happens. I have Fenris, the broody elf with the sexy voice who is super emo and tortured because he was a slave and single-mindedly hates magic and mages. There’s Anders, the once-playful healer who is super emo and tortured because he’s an apostate and single-mindedly hates templars. Sebastian, the prince-turned-priest (sort of) with the Scottish accent who is super emo because of his complete, pathetic inability to decide whether he wants to stay a priest or go back to being a prince. Isabela, the skanky pirate wench who, bless her, is just a skanky pirate wench constantly trying to get in your pants. And Merrill, the totally naive elf mage who is actually stupid enough to think blood magic and demons are okay. The characters do not grow or change or have any real depth beyond this.

I forgive Isabela, because her wenching is hilarious. There are various scenes where she’s hitting on everyone and having to go to the healer for her STDs. She’s an unabashed tart. I can’t help but tip my hat to her.

But the rest… god, it makes romancing any of them a fucking chore. I get to the point where I want them all to just shut the fuck up. I’d rather romance the dwarf- he’s the most interesting companion of the lot. I romanced Fenris last go round and if I so much as tried to be a decent human being to a mage, he got pissed.

There’s a scale of friendship/rivalry for each character and you need so much friendship/rivalry to successfully romance one of them. Yes, that’s right, you can romance them as their rival. They hate everything you stand for, but man, then just can’t wait to jump your bones.

Most of the time, rivalmances make no sense. Then again…

Playing as one of the major classes doesn’t make any sense.

I thought about playing a mage on the play-through I just started, but I had to stop because it makes absolutely no sense that Hawke, who gets into fights all over town (including right in front of the templars at the very beginning of the game), could get away with being a fucking mage when the templars supposedly kill/imprison anyone who even smells like a mage. It would be completely unbelievable to play the game as a mage. There’s no way they’d constantly turn a blind eye to you, I’m sorry.

Then again, if I can’t figure out the motivations for my own character’s actions, how can I figure out the motivations for other characters?

***

So, okay, that’s a lot of bitching, I know. And it probably makes you wonder why I’d ever continue playing the game. Thing is, on its own, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever played. As broken as many aspects of the game feel, there are other areas where it shines. It’s 100% BioWare in that the party banter and much of the dialogue is just great. And you have more varied options in conversations than you do in the ME trilogy- I love that sarcasm option like mad (it makes Hawke a smartass who makes really bad jokes only he/she thinks is funny… sound familiar?).

And I just really, really love slashing things to death with my daggers.

Anyway, unnecessary tirade over. I still maintain I’m not a total hypocrite. I’m allowed to dislike a game and/or portions of it. I’m not going to go around bitching and demanding BioWare change everything to make me happy. I’d like to hope they take some of their failings into account in the future (like never doing the map recycling thing again), but at the end of the day, I’m not going to love every game I play or even every game BioWare puts out. So it goes.

If you don’t buy my “I’m not a hypocrite” logic, I am more than happy to face the full brunt of your rage/disdain. I still am not sure I don’t deserve it.

1 DA2 makes it a little difficult to feel truly sympathetic for the mages’ plight, seeing as 99.9% of the mages you meet either become demon-possessed abominations or use blood magic at the slightest insult. The mages are more likeable in the first game- you meet abominations, sure, but you also meet mages who don’t run around with demons, who feel trapped in the Circle even though they are totally good guys.

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