Dragon Age 2

April 18th, 2011

I really enjoyed the first Dragon Age.  This second outing, I must admit, not nearly as much.  It wasn’t bad, it passed some hours (though a lot fewer than the first game), and it did some clever things with character and narrative, but there was a distinct lack of epicness, a lot of repetition, and in the end it all felt like a bit of a damp squib. 

The game takes place pretty much entirely within one city and its immediate environs, and I have to say the game world really does feel small.  In the first Dragon Age they somehow managed to make the world feel massive, and there were plenty of locations that gave you scale and grandeur.  Here, no.  It feels cramped.  In the first game the Deep Roads (Dwarven tunnels) seemed to go on for miles, one really got the sense of vastness, both in the scale and number of locations.  Magnificent caverns, bottomless abysses, mighty fortresses beneath the earth and all that gear you expect.  In the second the Deep Roads consist of a few little tunnels and about five rooms.  And that pattern is oft repeated, unfortunately.  There’s also a really unforgivable level of re-using the same locations.  So the identical warehouse layout served for about eight different warehouses.  Don’t get me started on the identical cave systems, mansions, and mountain path areas.  You expect a bit of this, but the level of it here really was unforgivable, and it made the experience seem bland.  The item system was odd as well – since your sidekicks have their own armour and some of them their own weapons, you end up picking up an awful lot of gear for which there’s never any real use.  The game seems to accept this by consigning half the stuff you pick up straight into a junk category.  There’s even a handy dustbin icon next to such items.  Probably that’s true of most RPGs but do the bones of the system have to be laid so unromantically bare?  It felt stripped down too far.

Characters were good though – on the whole your party members are detailed and interesting, and there’s a lot of conversation going on in the background between them, some of it pretty funny.  They did try some clever things with the plotting, as well.  The game takes place in three sections spread out over ten years or so, and choices made in one would go on to have effects later on.  Obviously it’s hard to judge how profound this is without playing the game through a lot of times, but the sense was that you could change the way things went a little, at least.  The balance was odd, though, in that villains set up early on would tend to fall away and new ones appear later.  There wasn’t really a single overall arc to it.  The whole thing is set within a framing story with one of your sidekicks relating the tale, and though this seemed to promise much, in the end it didn’t seem particularly important.  There’s no reall resolution either for the main story or the framing one.  It all peters out a little, really.

I’ve been playing Mass Effect 2 over the last few days, and putting one next to the other you really do see what a poor cousin Dragon Age 2 seems to be.  There’s just a lot more imagination, effort, visual flair in Mass Effect, not to mention the gameplay is an awful lot more rewarding.  All in all Dragon Age 2 feels like a step back from the first.  A little bit phoned in.  A little bit of a mess.  I hope they do another, and do better with it, because the game world has great potential…

Posted in games by Joe Abercrombie on April 18th, 2011.

33 comments so far

  • JonathanL says:

    Mass Effect 2 took a game I liked, put all the boring stuff in the shredder, and replaced it almost universally with concentrated gameplay. I’m waitinf for DA2 to drop in price before I get on board. Instead of ratcheting up the awesome, I got the feeling that it almost felt like a different game. And I’m fresh off my second Dragon Age Origins run. It was so great to become king. I actually took my character’s inspiration from His August Majesty, so thanks for that. Finally had a frame of mind to really play a pompous dirtbag who was willing to get a leg up on the world by shoving a few faces into the mud.

  • Tim H says:

    Thanks for the review of DA2, glad I can skip this one. I’m still plugging away at Fallout New Vegas, trying to do every side quest I can find before finishing the main quest. But since Elder Scrolls: Skyrim has been announced everything else seems like filler.

    How was the LA trip, Joe? I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones last night and loved it, especially Peter Dinklage as Tyrion.

  • ColinJ says:

    I have to agree with being considerably underwhelmed. I think even technically it’s nowhere near as detailed and polished as it perhaps should be. The textures and graphic are pretty damn boring. Even an online MMO like AGE OF CONAN has vastly better graphics than this.

    Oh well, I’m pretty confident that ELDER SCROLLS: SKYRIM won’t disappoint. That thing looks astounding.

  • Dan says:

    I’m with you ColinJ. Skyrim looks great. That and Uncharted 3 are the two I’m most looking forward to. DA2 sucked hard and I traded it in after about 6-7 hours of play.

  • Joe, do you mind if I ask you a question? It seems to me that if there’s one common theme running through all of your books, it’s that it’s impossible (not merely difficult — literally impossible) to permanently change one’s nature/character/habits. Even temporary change is extremely difficult, and likely must come from some external source.

    I’m not saying, as depressing as this is on the face of it, that I disagree — I am wondering whether you agree, and, if so, whether this was purposeful (and whether we might continue to see this theme it in the already anxiously awaited next book. (BTW, aren’t you done with that by now?!)

    Re DA2 — shame to hear it … or, good to hear it, the first one was a huge time-suck! It’ll leave time to be more “constructive”.

    PS I suppose Beck, in Heroes, is a bit of an exception to the rule, but he’s a kid.

  • Doug says:

    I felt as though Mass Effect 2 was phoned in as well. Its shooting element was very poor compared to polished shooters and they stripped out all the meaningful character building, micro managing things that most fans of RPG’s love. So, it failed on two fronts. If your goal was to play through a movie where you get to decide if the hero is nice or a dick… you got that. That’s the only way it succeeded. Both suffered from editorial decision making by EA, I believe. They want easy, stream lined game play to create as much mass market appeal as possible. Additionally, Dragon Age 2 suffered from 18 months of development. Most AAA titles get at least 2 years of development, often more. This one was turned out extremely quickly and really should have gotten at least 6 more months of love to add more environment and work out some storytelling flaws. However, in its defense it was still more RPG than Mass Effect 2 ever dreamed of being. ME2 got about a C- from me and DA2 got about a B.

  • Nick Sharps says:

    I loved Mass Effect 2. I felt real loss when the majority of my party died during the final mission.

  • DrGonzo says:

    Should perhaps start with Mass Effect but the Sci-Fi Setting did keep me away from it so far.

    Started with Dragon Age an realy like it. You can see that it came from Knights of the old republic but It is someting like a RPG with a story for grown ups. Sadly a lot of computer games lack this part. So far just the gothic games and mafia convinced me. Friend of mine started DA2 and came more or less to the same conclusion as you. I’ll wait till I can get it somewhere for just a few bucks.

  • Big Andy says:

    I agree with you totaly on both DA2 and ME2.
    I remember when Bioware did the Knights of the Old Republic games – those games were epic. I still go back and play them again every year or so – they are just so rich in character, story and action.
    I believe they had Drew Karpyshyn writing the stories for them at the time.
    On that note, why don’t YOU offer to write the story for DA3?
    Nuff said.

  • Redbhoy says:

    Just finished dragon age 2 and I have to say towards the end it was just a chore to get it finished.def not a patch on mass effect 2 the only character I even liked was varric.dull and disappointing.However A Game Of Thrones is very promising.

  • Leslie says:

    I must admit I quite enjoyed DA: 2, however I agree that it was a bit of a tag on to the first game. However if the Game Developers had more time I think they could have done something very special. I remember reading somewhere that they were under pressure to release a sequel due to DA:O’s popularity. I think this is lampooned within the game because many of the characters comment on the similarity of their surroundings, for example Varrick comments that he swears some one is renting out warehouses for clandestine meetings, similarly another character mentions that all the caves are starting to look the same. This said it does not change the fact that the games a rush job, however I think it’s nice they acknowledge it’s a rush job.

    I think the character development was superb, although Fenris despite having some cool abilities was a bit of a whiny little gimp that I could have slapped into blood ruin. However it is testimony to the character development of the character that I kept him in my party in the end. I also think you were forced to make some quite difficult decisions and more often than not they would come back to bite you in the next episode. Also because you have family there is a sense that your decisions have more weight as your family can be easily targeted as I discovered in one genuinely harrowing sequence which I will not mention here (don’t want to spoil it).

    I do have a few issues with the game though in addition to the obvious ones already mentioned.

    1. Big sword Syndrome, yet another game which is pre-occupied with massive Berserk, anime style swords. I mean big swords are ok within reason but you only have to look at Meredith’s sword, it looks distinctly anime in style. I’m sorry this is a trope of Japanese RPG’s keep it out of games like this, its just silly.
    2. FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!!! Every quest culminated in a fight which was unnecessary as some quests were light hearted character driven ones. Case in point the quest in which you are trying to get Aveline and Guardsman Donnick together. You end up fighting people on the coastline so they can have a romantic evening together. Its needless, makes no sense and frankly ruins what is essentially a comedy quest. I remember playing RPG’s in the late 90’s early 00’s like Baldurs Gate and Planescape Torment which had quests like this, they usually boiled down to running around collecting items and indulging in some comic dialogue, the dialogue alone was enough to entertain. In a more recent RPG the Witcher there is a type of quest like this where your character needs to work out whether he should get with a girl or not. Instead of hacking your way through a load of minions you end up going to the tavern with a couple of your mates and you get royally bladdered and through drunken dialogue you decide which girl you love, you then end up going drunkenly to her house and end up sleeping on the floor, oh and guess what you get exp for this, without a blade drawn.
    3. Retcon!!! why do the quannari suddenly have horns and appear vastly different from the first game. It’s not explained at all, obviously Hawke will have encountered Quannari before in Ferelden as there were a few lurking about in mercenary groups in the first game, there was no explanation. Yeah they looked cool but some more info would have been nice

    Any way these are my views, sorry for clogging the forum!!!

  • Tim H says:

    Off topic, but did anyone read Giana Bellafante’s snarky review of Game of Thrones in the New York Times? She dismisses fantasy as “boy ficiton” and claims that the sex was thrown in as a ploy to appeal to women. She may have a point there because, as a man, I was totally put off by the silken breasts and glorious bottom of a certain actress, and I did not pause or rewind these scenes more than five or six times. Yuck!

    Ms. Bellafante has now opened a blog post for comments, which should be fun.


  • Elizabeth says:

    This is a game that really benefits from a second playthrough. The second time, you find yourself noticing all the little things that come into play in later acts. Your interactions with the characters have a lot more poignancy when you know what’s in store for them, and what they’ll become.

    This game does have flaws, most of which seem to be because of the rushed production schedule (you’re absolutely right about the repetitive environments and odd inventory system, plus the more limited conversations). But despite all it did wrong, it did a lot of things right. It was much better-looking than DA:O – there’s an actual art style now! I loved the elf and Qunari redesign. The combat animations were vastly improved (no more shuffling!), and the spells/abilities were more interesting. And above all, it wasn’t afraid to throw in some grey morality. DA:O did have some decisions to make that didn’t have right answers. But in DA:O, there was still a big bad to contend with and you were still the hero saving the world. DA2 was much less clear-cut. You try to do the right thing, and it blows up in your face. Sometimes you’re the bad guy. And all you can do is help people as best you can while everything spirals out of control. There is often no right answer here, and that made, at least for me, an emotionally engaging experience.

    It’s not perfect. I know it’s been getting bad reviews, and some of those reviews are definitely justified. But I do think that’s it’s better than it’s getting credit for.

  • pete says:

    I completely agree, DA2 was a disappointment considering how huge the first iteration was

    Too easy, too short, although it was fun to see some old favourites again

    I sold my copy on eBay very soon after completion, whereas I replayed DAO many times, shame really

  • Troy says:

    Yea the only real joy i found was running into alistair again and seeing some old favorites. Was upset loghain was not in it at all for a cameo atleast 🙁 i do wanna sell it but having some small hope they will come out with an expansion worth a damn (yes yes i know its just putting money in ea’s pocket but damnit i like the world too much not to wanna go back in it and mess around a bit…Still waiting on that epic First law rpg to be announced. spring 2015??? 😀

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Grumpy Buddha,
    I agree that’s a theme in the books, but that’s more because epic fantasy as I saw it was full of all these smooth, lasting, successful and satisfying changes (the boy who becomes king, the coward who becomes a hero, the weakling who becomes powerful, and so on) and in this, as in many other things, I wanted to present an alternative that in the canon of fantasy generally would weigh on the other side of the scales. I don’t think change is impossible by any means, but I think it’s often temporary and incomplete, and I wanted to represent that in my work, I guess. There are characters in there who change – Shivers changes radically, does he not?

    Big Andy,
    Old Republic? How about Baldur’s Gate? I think in Mass Effect they’ve done a brilliant job of making a kind of roleplaying light that fuses action with filmic interludes, taking what they started with Old Republic to its logical extreme. But Dragon Age seemed to offer a slightly different flavour with more of that old school roleplaying scale and complexity that Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights used to offer. DA2 feels like a dumbing down, and very much the poor cousin to Mass Effect.

    Big Sword syndrome. Excellent point. That was lame.

    I got the sense it would benefit from a second go-around, but that’s not a lot of use if you don’t find it compelling enough the first time to give it a second look. I’d much rather play Red Dead Redemption four more times than give this another go…

    I agree they did a good job of giving you some difficult decisions, but at times the whole thing felt more than a little forced – there was often no sensible way to resolve things, and you could see the conversational options gradually whittling away to leave you no real choices.

    On the art style I think that was true of some things – the characters looked great and the loading screens and whatever were nice but the settings were very weak to my mind. Very little in Kirkwall that wasn’t straight off the fantasy peg, and some of the dungeons and passages were deeply, deeply feeble. That was a big problem I had with Morrowind and Oblivion, but at least there they had the excuse that the game world was truly vast. No such excuse with DA2 at all. A lot of Origins was pretty generic, that’s one reason why I liked it in a way, but at least there was some some variety, some grandeur, some scale, some … well … effort put in. If you look at the detail and variety in the backdrops on Mass Effect 2 there is NO comparison.

  • ColinJ says:

    Joe mentioned that DA2 seems dumbed down. Now, I’m ready to be flamed for being a PC snob but I’m sure that has a lot to do with the big push for this game on consoles.

    I think it looks and plays much more like a compromised console game than something as rich and sophisticated as the first game, which truly shone on the PC.

  • Alas, poor Shivers. I remain convinced that deep down inside, he still wants to be a better man. Yes, I’m a sap.

    Be a shame if the only path to permanent change was loss of a body part, though.

    H’m. It occurs to me that Jezal was actually at the brink of changing, until Bayaz slapped it out of him. I know we got a taste in Best Served Cold, but I’m guessing Jezal’s in a different place now than where he started, and not just in the sense that he’s now a puppet-king.

    I just found it telling (?) that you have so many characters that seem are explicitly trying to change something key about themselves — Logen, Shivers, Cosca, Craw — and they all fail or revert to baseline, or worse. Actually, that’s different from epic fantasy in another way — you have characters that (gasp!) actually have attitudes about themselves. So not only are they not changing, they’re not changing even though they seem to really want to.

    Anyway — thanks for responding. I’d add that you’re my favorite living author, etc., but I’m sure you already get enough of that crap.

  • I see mention of Baldur’s Gate — my main memory of that game was entering the final room of a castle — a 10’x10′ room — and fighting

    99 Dragons
    99 Dragons
    99 Dragons
    99 Dragons

    On my old Commodore 64 it took about 3 hours to do that fight. Damn, I was sooo addicted to that game …

  • Chris Upton says:

    Baldurs Gate came out on the C64? New it was a mistake to buy that Amstrad 6128.

  • Re character changes, or lack thereof … Joe, it occurs to me that you’ve covered (or at least touched upon) failed psychological change (Logen), failed lifestyle change (Craw), change that is only temporary (Cosca), stifled change (Jezal), change in the wrong direction because ow stop jamming that red-hot poker into my eye (Shivers), but no character yet that has successfully undergone a big change, but circumstances are trying to force him back …

    Of course, now that I’m thinking about what you said your next project is … thinking back to old William Munny. I liked the ending of that movie. “Prospered in dry goods …” Supposedly, unless I missed some subtext.

    Sorry for the rambling — I just like thinking about your stuff, thinking of variations on that theme … only other one I can come up with is the indubitable fact that anyone who actually does successfully change themselves is liable to be a huge pain-in-the-ass about it, and try to get others to make the same change as well.

  • Thaddeus says:

    I broadly agree, Mr. Abercrombie. I read that Inon Zur, the composer, let the cat out of the bag and stated that the game had been rushed, and the repetitive (and smallish) dungeons do bear that out.

    The game missed a trick with Kirkwall; I think they could’ve kept the game in one city but changed that city substantially over the decade. The voice acting’s pretty good, however, especially the Arishok.

    I hope DA3 returns to the scale of Origins, and, more importantly, that Bioware have enough time to make a proper game instead of having to rush it.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for the reply!

    You’re right that there’s absolutely no comparison to Mass Effect. Every location in those games, especially ME2, had its own unique look while still tying into the visual style of the whole. The DA series’ style is more generic. (ME is my favorite game series of all time, so I’m slightly biased here.) I’ve been trying hard not to mentally compare DA and ME, despite the Mass Effecting of DA2. They both have a pretty distinctive feel.

    It’s true that the game world didn’t feel as vast. I felt that the breadth of time helped to make up for the lack of space, if that makes sense. Even though it took place in one location, events and people were growing and changing as the years went on. It did start out slowly, too, and picked up a lot near the end, so I can understand why a lot of people got bored and didn’t finish.

    I should also add that I’m willing to sacrifice a lot of technical stuff for a good story. There were a lot of flaws, but it left me emotionally drained when it ended and that was good enough for me. Not that the environments, etc., didn’t bother me, but I was definitely able to live with it.

  • DrGonzo says:

    Hmmm hmmm hmmmm…

    I think the problem is the same for a lot of this rush published 2nd parts. I dont know if anyone knows the german Drakensang RPG based on the DSA pen an Paper game.
    Not a big game itself, it had his small sucess and came pretty near to the feeling of the world it plays in. After this the developers seemed to be in a rush using the whole engine for a sequel. And WHOOOOPS there we are!!! Nothing new, a sloppy backgroundstory and a add on published a few mounth later with an complete loveless story.

  • Haakon says:

    I find it odd that the various developers in the same company ends up taking feedback on previous games in such a different way…

    When ME2 was released, I remember some interviews where bioware people said they wanted to do away with the similiar sidequest locations, the elevators and the other repetitive stuff. So they did, and while a lot of people don’t like ME2, it’s mostly because they watered out the rpg elements of character building and so on too much. In DA2 they said “meh” to this feedback, and pretty much do the same as most MMOs, add a couple of location templates, and reuse them over and over. And still water down the character crunch… It’s just weird.

    And the actual fighting parts makes WoW feel interactive, god I wish game devs would stop thinking every fantasy rpg has to work like that.

  • Felix says:

    I’m afraid I’m generally underwhelmed by the DA franchise. I think DA:O already was a bit sparse on real character development. They held a lot of information back for later, but that’s not real development. Also, you can’t deny that most of them are a bit childish, like teenagers, which I think is a bit unrealistic, even if they are still young. And I found they could have done with a little less padding with fighting waves of enemies. As it was, it was almost like a spiritual successor to the Icewind Dale games, which are pure dungeon crawlers, instead of a complex storytelling RPG. And I would have liked a bit more life in the different regions, or some dynamic between them, to make them more than stopovers. It’s like just when one of the regions got interesting, it’s about to be over, and on to the next.
    Maybe I expected too much after BG2 and KOTOR, something more revolutionary. Not just a game that might take lessons of both, but make something perhaps not quite as important as either. But in DA:O at least you get the sense of the long development time it took, and its raw parts make it a complete whole, so even if it’s not as ingenious in all aspects as one might have hoped, I suppose you can get really invested in it.

  • Joe P says:

    Yeah, I think they tried to do what Mass Effect 2 did with its predecessor. They tried to dumb down the RPG elements and up the action. But while ME2 did this really well without sacrificing the basic things we loved about the original, Dragon Age 2 falls short.

    I thought the city environments were amazing! Starting out the game, I had high hopes until I realized I’d be spending pretty much the entire game running around the same streets over and over. This would have been fine if the world was more open, but instead I’m stuck in a city where I can’t even open up 90% of the doors.

    Combat was fun, if a little ridiculous. I’d say it was a decent sequel game, though I admit I’ve stopped playing and haven’t finished it yet.

  • Irkalla says:

    I must admit I quite like Dragon Age 2 on a whole. There are certainly things that have been improved, but there are also things that have been streamlined and blatantly dumbed down as well. Recycled levels are actually the least of my complaints, because really, the whole going through the same routes really helps with finding all the loot and essential upgrades, being mostly in the same place and all. What bothered me most is how little my decisions mattered on the long run, whether I chose to spare somebody or not, it would result in the same outcome, no major shitstorm or just the same shitstorm. That is what rpg-ing is for me, making decisions, for good or ill, that come and bite you back in the ass according to what path you chose for yourself. I really missed that the most.

  • Andrew Pearce says:

    Reply to Grumpy Buddha about the 99 Dragons thing: you’re thinking of Bard’s Tale, pal…

  • DJR says:

    I couldn’t get into the first DA at all, I started seperate origins and found the same, continuous problem – the dialogue/script was awful, often cringeworthy, when coupled with poor voice acting it became unplayable for me.

    Funny that Baldur’s Gate got a mention as I’ve just re-bought BG2, never completed it and I was probably too young to appreciate it first time round. I’m completely addicted, the characters are interesting and the script is impressive, often funny and at times touching. I wonder whether the addition of full voice acting in pretty much all RPG’s nowadays has led to a simplification of dialogue?

  • Trey G. says:

    To tell you the truth, I really did enjoy this game, but I seem to be a minority on this. All the problems you mentioned were irritating but they didn’t hamper my overall experience with the game. For me, it seemed like they had the same bugit to work with as they did for Origins’ but opted to spend it on other things. And don’t worry about it. They’ll make another one as this game sold over a million copies.

  • Dante says:

    I agree with most here dragon age 2 feels more like and expansion of dragon age than a stand a lone game. at least dragon age gave me about 50hrs+ of gaming. dragon age 2 I finished in about less than 25. I am really looking forward to skyrim in the fall hopefully the makers of this game won’t make the mistake that the makers of dragon age 2 made and dumb the game down

  • Bow says:

    EA forced them to rush the game to make coin, in my opinion. I’m in ACT 3 and haven’t quite finished. I’ve had fun with the game but agree that it lacks the epic flair of its predecessor. I didn’t care nearly as much for this group of characters as I did for the last group, though. Sten, Leliana, Morrigan…good times.

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