Dragon Age – Degradation


bioware-logoYou may have heard of a little company called Bioware.

No? Well, no biggie. It’s just one of the biggest names in PC gaming development, thanks to its many successful endeavours in Western RPGs. You may have heard of Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, just to name a few of their games based on non-original IPs. In recent years, Bioware has been thriving on their original ones, with the greatly acclaimed Mass Effect trilogy -although they seem to have dropped the ball with the third episode’s finale- and their return to the (pardon me the joke, here) origins with the aptly named Dragon Age: Origins, a spiritual successor to their Baldur’s Gate series.

Dragon-Age-OriginsThe lauds and accolades this RPG received are well earned. It has an immersive and variegated world with a gripping atmosphere, wonderfully thought-out gameplay that even earned it the AbleGamers Foundation Most Accessibility Mainstream Game of 2009 award -meaning that it was the most accessible game for people with disabilities for 2009- and a non-linear, sprawling storyline with some of the best writing to date in an Videogame and a multitude of dialogue choices and personalisation options. Also, it wins the ‘Game Meinos Kaen has replayed most times in his life’ award too.

And that’s no small honour.

Now, if Bioware kind of dropped the ball with the third ME’s finale -trying to fix it retroactively by DLC- they arguably dropped it completely with the immediate sequel in their dark fantasy series, Dragon Age 2. There are two adjectives that define this game perfectly, in my opinion.

Less and similar.

maxresdefaultLess because everything, compared to the first game, is less. I’m not talking about the reviews’ scores and the lack of awards, even if they’re a direct consequence. It has less customization options, less ways the storyline can progress, less immersive fight system, less ambients. Less. Everything.

In Origins, you could choose race and background story of your main character, and thorough the world you could discover various hints concerning what had happened to the other not chosen characters and your interactions with the world and NPCs around you changed accordingly. In DA2 you can’t. No matter what you look like or what sex you are, you’re still going to be a Ferelden human refugee named Hawke.

In Origins, the order you go through the various arcs of the game is up to the gamer. A Mage of the Circle may feel more comfortable going to the tower first, while a dalish elf may prefer visiting his tribe first. In DA2 the story is hopelessly linear.

SkillsIn Origins, you had an incredible number of ways you could personalise yourself and your party, in abilities and equipment, making the combat and the growth itself highly tactical, and also letting you decide on what the characters wear which can be cool. In DA2, you can’t personalise your allies at all. They have to stick to one weapon style and their clothes and weapons change with story checkpoints or side-missions. Also, the fight system is undoubtedly simpler, but it’s not as fun.

And: that UI is horrible and the overall colourization of the game is stale and damp.

Similar, because if you think about it, it’s pretty obvious what happened, what Bioware chose to do, since they already did it once, again on a sequel. Still nothing comes to mind? Well, just go to Youtube and search for a video of any of the game’s dialogues. Does the circle system that replaced the Baldur’s Gate styled one remind you of any sci-fi trilogy?

mass-effect-2-screenshot-special-dragon-age-armor2Bioware decided that their successful IPs had to be more similar than they already were. They were both successes, commercially and critically. They both had great gameplay and writing with styles of storytelling that perfectly suited their settings. But in some misguided vision they attempted to make the younger IP more like its big brother, probably trying to make ME fans traverse to DA and viceversa in their mission to have ‘CoD level of sales’. But in their misguided vision, they decided to focus more on looks than anything else. Dragon Age 2 sure looks better than Origins, but the overall result is inferior.

As a stand alone game, Dragon Age II is decent. Not perfect, it has some great flaws like the continuous re-use of the same ambient graphics -I lost count of how many times I had to visit those damned cliffs-, the combat quickly comes to feel repetitive and boring and the overall writing and atmosphere aren’t that gripping. Not worthy of Bioware’s usual standards. A 7 out of 10 at most, which for what Bioware got us used to, it’s a disaster.

Dragon-age-001But compared to the game whose oh so big shoes he had to fill, DA2 is sorely lacking. If you add the above flaws to the shell-shock of the original game’s fans who were expecting a worthy sequel and not what feels like an experiment in making a Mass Effect 2 with swords and chain-mail, you can understand why a large part of the gamers didn’t just think of DA2 as inferior to Origins -which it is, even if taken as stand-alone games- but as a genuinely bad videogame.

In the end, I think we can all agree that imitation without innovation is always going to be disastrous. And yet, I think that Bioware may have gotten away with Hawke’s story without that much flak if they just didn’t put the 2 stamped on it. It’s clearly an experiment, seeing where they could take their IP. A bit like Nintendo has been doing with Legend of Zelda for years now, but lacking the constant level of grandiose storytelling and adventure that characterises each instalment. Story-wise DA2 is not a full story, but just a beginning. A small stepping stone for the next world-saving epic.

dragon-age-2If Bioware had just called it something akin to Dragon Age: Sundering or Dragon Age: Kirkwall, not declaring it a sequel to the original and thus not forcing a confrontation, the release would have been met with disappointment but not with that level of justified outrage from their fans.

On the other hand, though, it may have just been delaying the inevitable. Bioware has declared that there’s zero chances of a U-turn concerning Dragon Age III: Inquisition and the further wait would have turned into more built-up anticipation and consequent rage upon the next release.

We can just hope that they can manage to integrate what was good from both games for the third chapter, hopefully taking us back from saving a city to saving the world or at least a nation. Maybe it could be the first game in history with the main character having multiple voice actors, since they announced that the game will be fully voiced and go back to having multiple races to choose from. Now, that would add to the replay value.

E3_2013_Screen21But, honestly? I’m not optimistic. How can I be, when what I hear is talking about ‘some aspect of multiplayer being introduced’ and mounts? Mounts, Bioware? Really? I mean, a horse as cool as the Mabari from Origins would be great, but the plural makes me just cringe.

But, I’ve been wrong before. I’ll be patient and I’m going to stick to the lessons taught to me by my experience with Dragon Age II: always check user reviews and play demos when available. While I don’t completely regret buying the game, I sure regret buying it at full prize at launch.

About Meinos Kaen

Meinos Kaen is the secret author identity of one Simone Simeone, born and raised in Italy since anno domini 1988. You’ll never find a person with a harder accent to pin to a precise geographical location, be it Italian or English he’s speaking. God help us all if he ever manages to actually learn Japanese.
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