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Okay, everybody here knows about the mixed response to Dragon Age 2 - some hated it, some loved it, some thought it was good but rushed and wasted lots of potential (I'm one of those people), others had, er, other opinions. There's been forum thread after forum thread where it's been discussed whether the game is a godsend or god's excommunicated demon-worshiping turd. Some of the threads have been deep, interesting debates with good points from all sides, others have been less so.
What makes the game so polarizing? What is it that gets some people angry, others happy? You could take the easy route and say "it's the story's fault!", or "they consolified it! DEATH TO THE CODS!", or "The waves. The F***ING waves. STOP COMING OUTTA NOWHERE ALREADY!!!". But that's not particularly eloquent or in-depth reasoning. We need to ask "why" does some of the stuff in the game work for some, and not for others.
So, I decided to get my lazy butt off the bed and onto the chair two feet away from the bed to start writing some deeper review articles of DA2 and analyze what might have caused the controversy. It's going to be in the form of a walkthrough, going through the game from start to finish (assuming I don't give up on the whole thing in the middle and die on the couch or something) and analyzing whatever comes up ("then why not just do a walkthrough on Youtube?" you may ask; the answer is, I don't have the equipment to do that).
Most of the focus will be on the story, characters and dialogue, since that's what I value most in my games, but I am going to discuss gameplay where appropriate as well (though not so much graphics and soundtrack - I'm really not the right person to discuss those topics).
Also, since this will be a pretty in-depth analysis, I should point out that there will be spoilers!. Just in case, as I imagine most of you who are still here have already played the game, or never intend to play it if you haven't.
With all that out of the way, let's start at the beginning.
The Game Begins
So, after getting a screen where you pick gender and class for your character (though not appearance), the game starts with Varric the Paragon of Manliness being hauled in by guys in black armor - Seekers, supposedly the top secret internal affairs division of the chantry (I'll bet it's easy for them to blend in with that heavy, unique-looking armor with the chantry symbol on) and forced to sit in a chair. The two guys leave, and Cassandra, black-haired seeker extraordinaire steps in (and somewhere a DA fan is touching him/herself inappropriately).
Now, a quick aside; a stated goal of Dragon Age 2 was to bring in new fans to the franchise, and to the RPG genre as a whole. DAO was believed to have been too foreign for potential audiences, that it - among other things - was too difficult and shoved the RPG-ness in people's faces, thus making players drop it without giving it a shot. Personally, I never felt that; in addition to being a soft RPG fan (IE, I had only played TES IV: Oblivion and Mass Effect when I bought DAO), I've also played a great deal of shooters and hack-and-slash games (Halo, Perfect Dark Zero, The Two Towers etc.), to the point that that was what I was used to at the time. And I must say, DAO was actually pretty welcoming for an RPG - far more so than Oblivion. Sure, it took me quite a while to fully grasp the Tactics system, but I learned to play the game rather quick, all things considered - despite it obviously being a PC game later adapted to the 360 as an afterthought.
The point is, I personally think (and this is something many others have also thought) that DAO - give or take some tweaks for the console versions - was good enough, and thus DA2 didn't need such an extensive overhaul as it got because of BW's perceived need to pander to new fans.
Anyway, as this game was supposed to be welcoming to new fans - "people who might give RPGs a whirl if only they weren't front-loaded with a bunch of stats and such" as Laidlaw once said (paraphrased) - and a good "jumping-on point" for said people, let's look at the start of the game as if we were a new guy/girl who has never heard about Dragon Age before (let alone watched any of the game's spoilerific marketing), nor played any RPGs before:
Cassandra: "I am Cassandra Pentaghast, Seeker of the Chantry!"
Okay, what's a seeker? And what's the chantry?
Varric: "And...just what are you seeking?"
Hey, I asked first!
Cassandra: "The champion."
What champion? What does "champion" mean in this universe? The winner of a gladiatorial tournament? A great warrior? The bodyguard of the emperor's chamber pots?
Varric: "Huh. Which one?"
That's what I was asking!
Cassandra: "You know exactly why I'm here!"
Well, I'm glad somebody does, because quite frankly, I have no friggin' clue what's going on.
Cassandra: "Time to start talking, dwarf! They tell me you're good at it. (sticks dagger into the book she previously tossed at him)"
Oh, I'm sure he's good at a lot of things...like chest hair grooming (what did you think I was gonna say?)
Varric: "Well, what do you want to know?"
Cassandra: "Everything. Start at the beginning."
Well, first you need to grow the chest hair. I recommend that you cover the whole chest area with some blood from a virgin elf; that should get it growing. Then you need the right comb to groom it once it's grown - a comb of clarity from Aimo's art shop should do...
Silliness aside, the first conversation and cutscene in this supposedly noob-friendly game has passed, and any new guys know nothing. Nothing about the setting (except that there's dwarves and humans in it), nothing about what you're going to do when you start playing, and nothing about the plot. In contrast, DAO started with a badass cutscene explaining the basics of the setting while showing epic battles. Here, we get a cutscene of two people talking about stuff of which you know nothing and stabbing a book (*sniff* I hope it's alright). So much for pandering to the new fans, Bioware. Really, only a DAO fan, or someone who watched the pre-release marketing, would know what's going on at this point. Since I was both, I had no problem with it, but imagine the people who never heard about the franchise, or this game, and then got treated to riddle-speak and then thrust into the next scene, learning nothing.
You think I'm overreacting? Well, let's get to the next scene, again from the new guy's/girl's perspective:
Okay, here's the game's logo, now what will the dwarf do- wait, what!? We're in a desert-kind-of-place! What is this place? And what are those tanned-skeleton thingies? What are they looking fo- wow! Where'd that bolt of lightning come fro- hang on, that guy with the sword looks like my character, but who's the woman with him? And now he killed those albino goblins, badass- wait, shouldn't I have gotten to fight them?
Bethany: "Scouts. We'll have to fight them sooner or later."
Wait, were they scouts, or are the race called Scouts? What are we fighting!?
Hawke: "Then we make our stand here. Prepare yourself!"
Wait, we're gonna fight right at the start of the game!? I thought games were supposed to have quick tutorials before jumping into the action! OMG, what buttons do I use!! What're those square thingies to the bottom right of the screen!? Why couldn't the game start in the town or something, to get acquainted with the basic controls, like most other games?
So, this game, which wants to attract new people, at the potential cost of scaring off old fans, just tosses the player straight into the battle with no warning. You have no idea what you're fighting, who you are, who your sister is, or where you are. Wow. Even Halo and Gears of War didn't toss you into a battle just like that; there they go over the basic, non-combat controls before you tackle combat. I might be wrong, but that's also the case in most other games. So Laidlaw thought DAO front-loaded too much, what with all the stats, equipment types, tactics, etc. But, you know, at least it started slow and allowed you to learn the basics before being thrust into battle against things you do know about, rather than going in blind against things you don't know about. Sorry if I sound angry, that's not my intention, but I find it strange that BW emphasized the needs of new fans, and yet do nothing to help them at the beginning of the game.
Rant over, and I'll drop the "new guy/girl" perspective so we can get this over with. Hawke & Sis defeat a couple waves of darkspawn (it's quite literally, impossible to lose the battle), then an ogre and a couple waves of darkspawn. After that, the battle is interrupted by Cassandra calling bullshit on Varric, and it turns out all that fighting was the story he told to the seeker, explaining why it was so easy. Cassandra counters she doesn't want stories, and asks him to tell her everything he knows about the champion, in order to try and save the chantry by learning what the champion did that shattered it in the first place.
Summarized, and with snarky writing aside, my personal opinion of this portion of the game is that it wasn't handled too well when you look closely; instead of letting the player learn the basics so that they're ready for when the fights do start, or give said player some basic insight into the setting itself, he/she is thrust immediately into battle after some unknown rambling from characters he/she knows nothing about. Personally, I find that approach to be more off-putting than the DAO one. However, as I was both a fan of DAO and had kept up with the marketing before DA2's release, I wasn't particularly affected by the intro - certainly not enough to scare me away from playing the rest of the game. The really frustrating parts, that really dented my enjoyment of the game, didn't come until Act 3. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Ironically, one of the stated goals of DA2 which was heavily criticized (wanting to draw in new fans), was also not done very well.
Okay, that's the first part of the game, analyzed and ridiculed for the pleasure of the poor souls who decided to read this. In hindsight, I hadn't intended to appear so spiteful and anti-DA2 since, well, that's been done a lot ever since the game came out, and I actually kind of like it. For the next part, where I'll look at the Flight from Lothering, I'll try and do a more objective analysis. If anyone has recommendations on how I could go about this better, let me know. And I hope you were able to enjoy/learn something from this.