Yes, another article ranting about how bad Dragon Age II is. However, I also wanted to touch on the missed opportunities and lost potential that it had. Indeed, it isn't an inherently bad game; it's simply a rushed, confused mess gobbled up by corporate greed and stupid decisions. Could this game have been a true successor to it's masterpiece of an original? I think so. Here are some small, quick fixes that could have made Dragon Age II less of a mess, and more of a proper sequel. In addition, I would like to talk about how Dragon Age III: Inquisition could learn from these mistakes and improve from them.
A lot of people hated Anders in the second game. Why? Because he whined a lot? No, that's not it. Alistair whined all the time in Dragon Age: Origins, and that didn't seem to bother anybody. In fact, he seems to be a fan favourite. Sure, he whined a lot, but he was reasonable about it. His reasons for complaining seemed justified, and never defined his character. In the Awakening expansion, Anders became the new Alistair. He was witty, charming, and
handsome badass. But he also had a cause. He believed in something. Like Alistair, he had his fair share of troubles and convictions. However, that was a facet of his character, not his entire character.
In Dragon Age II, Anders became obsessed with the Mage's plight. He slowly became more depressed, and at the same time, more infuriated, whenever he saw the injustice. It drove him to commit an unspeakable act of terror. This actually sounds OK. I like seeing character development. Unfortunately, this is just a sad case of a good idea being poorly executed. I certainly don't think Hepler deserved all the flak she got, but she could have been a little more subtle in his characterisation. It came off as way too heavy-handed an jarring, and when Anders complained, we didn't want to hear it. Anders didn't show another side of him in the sequel. All we saw was "freedom for mages". He never shut up about it. Even when it wasn't relevant, he found a way to weave it into the conversation. It turned me off to him and his cause. If we saw a little bit more of Anders the person, and a little less of Anders the mage, I think he could have been a great character. That didn't stop me from having crazy mage sex with him on my second playthrough, though. All in all, he's bad, but at least he's not Fenris bad.
No, seriously. Fenris is the Vega of Dragon Age.
One of the biggest problems with Dragon Age II is that it was extremely disorganised. It was trying to tell a ton of different stories at once, with very little tying them together. Each act felt like a separate episode. The acts are all fine by themselves, but there's nothing keeping it all together; it's just a jumbled, disorganised mess. In the first act, those random plot threads it sets up are acceptable, because everything is tied together by our need for money. Once we get enough coin however, the game forces you to do those quests, and no real reason if given for completing them. Like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3, Hawke is nothing but a nosy busybody.
What this game needed was a single, clear, over-arching goal. One thing to hold it all together. If all three of the acts could have been synthesised in such a way that each individual part served the greater whole, it would have delivered an altogether more cohesive experience. Look at BioWare's other games. Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Origins both involve world-shattering events via an unstoppable race of monsters (or space aliens). In both games, every part of the main story somehow related to stopping the bad guys. In the previous Dragon Age tile, every main quest you went on ended with you getting troops for the war effort. This gave all the quests purpose, and when you reached the final battle, it felt like you were at the triumphant end of a long journey, one that had purpose.
Dragon Age II had some brilliant moments, but they also felt like they were there for their own sake. The main underlying conflict in the game is Mages vs. Templars. What does fighting the qunari have to do with that? Not much, really. This game shifts focus so often, it's hard to keep up. If the qunari conflict in Act 2 was part of a larger problem, or indeed, the entire problem, that would have made more sense. Maybe we have to quell the Templar/Mage infighting and unite them against the invading qunari? Act 2 was arguably the best act, but it doesn't really serve the ongoing themes. The game was about Templars and Mages, work with that!
As it stands, Dragon Age II is a mess, and I pray that BioWare keeps that in mind when working with the sequel.
Ah, dialogue. The meat and bones and gravy of these games. These are the real reason people play these games right? To experience an interactive branching storyline with lots and lots of dialogue. It's a game heavy on story, and that's OK. So if this is the major selling point, why is is constantly being streamlined into non-existence?
I'm fine with voiced characters. They help bring your character to life. However, the paraphrasing system in Dragon Age II was confusing at best, and outright annoying at worst. Why paraphrase? There is nothing wrong with having a list of possible dialogue options written verbatim, and then having the actour say them. There are a few other games that do this very well. Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes to mind as a game that more or less tells you directly what you are going to say, then having the character say it. When you choose a dialogue option in that game, Jensen says what you thought he'd say. Hey, imagine that! Dialogue options that do what you think they do!
The best dialogue system I've seen in any game however, has to be The Walking Dead: The Game. I've already gushed about what makes this game so great, but I think we should take a look at what makes this dialogue system work so well, and how BioWare can take a few pointers from this. Each option is clearly represented by a different button, and written almost always verbatim to how your character, Lee, will say it. There's never any confusion when you make your decision. I hate being led to believe I'm doing one thing, only to be surprised by my characters actions. It's annoying and worse, creates a disconnect betwixt player and character. When we aren't acting in harmony, the entire experience just falls apart. Luckily, this never happens with The Walking Dead. You know what you're going to say, and then you say it. It's a system that really works.
The are a couple of other features I really liked from The Walking Dead: The Game that I hope BioWare can pick up on. The first is the ellipsis option. For most of the game, you could just say nothing. Your character could be at a loss for words at any given time, and that's really cool. Silence is golden, right? Well, there are plenty of times where Hawke really should have just shut up. The second feature I liked was that your options were timed. Now, I don't think this could work all the time but it's certainly something BioWare could pick up on. It helped make situations more tense, and definitely helped to make you feel like you were right there in that scenario. These two facets alone make it one of the most immersive game of the year. BioWare, play this game, and whilst you're at it, bring a notepad.
Along with dialogue, people play Dragon Age for their fix of morally ambiguous decision-making. That's what makes these stories so incredible; they can be experienced in a thousand different ways. Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to player choice in gaming. It's sad then, that its successor fails in this regard, both as a sequel and as a standalone title.
There are multiple endings to the first game, complemented by a slideshow that further details the effects of your actions. The sequel has to possible paths that all lead to the same conclusion. It is blatantly obvious that Dragon Age II is merely an interlude for the third game, and that's a damn shame. Any game should be able to stand on its own as a complete story, but this game ends on an ellipsis. No matter what we do, the outcome is largely the same. It's extremely disheartening when you know the plot could have easily resolved itself without the main character. In fact, in a good story, the plot can't exist at all without the protagonist. These stories are character-driven. The character drive the plot onward in a good story, whereas in Dragon Age II, they are at the whim of the plot. The events in the story don't happen because of Hawke; they happen, and they react. The protagonist is supposed to be the most important person in the story. If the story can happen without them, you're doing it wrong.
In games such as these, the best way to define the player character is by giving them choices, and choices that actually matter. If a story is completely linear with only one outcome, why even give us choices? Why did Orsino have to become a Harvester and a hypocrite in both scenarios? Well, because the game needed another end boss of course! Yes, this is in fact the reason given. Instead of having a deep, branching narrative, they threw player choice back in our face, just so we could mindlessly hack and slash at another enemy.
No matter what side you pick, you end up fighting the same two people. What's the point of picking a side if I end up enemies of both? The whole point of player choice is to deliver a more personalised storytelling experience. That's the great thing about video games; they can give us radically different experiences each time. So I say to BioWare: be radical! Take your story in a hundred different directions! If we make one choice, allow it to open up an entirely different story altogether. Is this a difficult thing to do? Absolutely. Is anything easy worth doing? No. If you have a true passion for your story, and you want it to be great, be prepared to spend the time and money necessary to deliver on what the player wants. If BioWare can keep in mind what made Dragon Age so great in the first place, and not what makes the new kid on the block so hot (Skyrim), then maybe, just maybe, their next game could be a return to form.