Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Dragon Age 2 (Fast 2 Furious)

The elephant in the room. For any new MMORPG, it's World of Warcraft. for Nick Clegg, it's David Cameron, and for a zoo it's presumably an actual elephant in a room. In the case of 2009's Dragon Age: Origins, the elephant took on the unmistakable form of the widely respected Baldur's Gate II, with comparisons between the games launched at either end of the decade being inevitable. Whilst Origins was always doomed to come off worse in that particular face-off, it never the less made for an extremely compelling example of deep, tactical RPGs of the epic variety being viable in today's instant gratification market.

Now that a sequel has arrived just 16 months later, comparing Dragon Age 2 to its forebears will no doubt be the order of the day. Have Bioware maintained the homage to the great RPGs of old; the isometric camera, statistic-based combat and unforgettable characters that allowed Origins to be mentioned in the same breath as Shadows of Amn to begin with?

The answer is probably somewhat of a foregone conclusion to fans of Bioware's modern output. Being familiar with the developer's crusade to trim the so-called fat from the RPG genre, the news that they have once again further refined and reshaped their original design will perhaps come as less of a surprise. As the studio attempts to remain one step ahead, DAII is perhaps now more accurately next door to the room with the elephant in it – and no, the elephant isn't a romance option.

The shift away from the aforementioned tactical isometric camera will most likely be the hardest loss to take, cut from the game as if to prevent infection. DAII eschews it in favour of a more claustrophobic, action-orientated angle, bringing the PC experience in line with the consoles. Whilst the changes to combat aren't drastic, it will certainly feel jarringly fast for the early phases of the game, with encounters resembling something closer to Kung-Fu Hustle than Lord of the Rings.

Enemies will descend from the rooftops and spawn from windows and doorways, meaning most fights are no longer a case of WYSIWYG, and will require a change of tact in terms of party positioning. Mages wildly twirl their staves like they've got nothing better to do, whilst rogues will leap and cartwheel around as you try to spot where they've hidden the fly-wire - only for a concealed assassin to pop one of your less well-defended companions like a balloon with a face drawn on it. All of this takes place beneath a thin haze of gore, as your enemies now violently explode at the slightest provocation.

Combat certainly takes some settling in, but it eventually clicks and you'll happily find yourself with the game paused, surveying the the battle and coming to the conclusion that you're not in fact anywhere close to playing the God of War clone you were afraid of. Skills and spells have undergone improvements to leave far fewer duds in the repertoire, and they're now unlocked through trees to allow for a choice of paths to the desired abilities. The UI in general is highly functional, if not surprisingly soulless, and so clean you could eat off of it.

One of the more predictable changes from the people who brought us Mass Effect was always going to be the inclusion of Hawke, a fully voiced human protagonist who's immediate family represent the focus of the adventure, as they flee their home from our old friend the Blight. With the same choice of three classes and all the usual facial customisation available, the benefits of this decision are felt strongest in the vastly improved dialogue scenes; characters sit at tables, lean at bars and move around freely as they speak. No longer do people simply idle face to face whilst you carefully read and select your speech.

The dialogue wheel is an example of genre-honing at its best; Hawke's conversations are shaped by picking from a choice of diplomatic, witty or aggressive stances, coupled with the ability to ask specific questions and request the input of companions. Traditionalists may baulk at the loss of complete control, but a few hours spent in Hawke's company as he makes light of a brutal murder and subtly mocks higher ranking members of society will undoubtedly smooth things over.

Romances are similarly boiled down to a sign-posted option on the wheel, at the expense of any suspense you may have felt whilst attempting to get into everyone's pants in Origins – a decision you're likely to have instantly regretted upon seeing those macabre 'love' scenes. The upshot of removing the guess-work and reloading is a friendship/rivalry system that allows for compelling relationships (of multiple kinds) at both ends of the scale, rather than pumping companions full of gifts to obtain maximum affection. Thankfully, the Madame Tussauds dry-humping intercourse is also replaced with something altogether more tasteful and involves less sinister eyes.

The majority of your companions can now be swept away by your wrecking-ball one-liners, and for the most part the cast is perfectly appeasing and rage-inducing in the appropriate measures. Only time will tell if they are destined to be especially memorable, but for what it's worth, the bar for emotional character development seems to be getting higher – even wet-dream pirate Isabela has her poignant moments. It's almost as if the designers suffered from a last minute crisis of confidence over her market appeal with such emotional maturity, and quickly hit the 'Deploy Emergency Breasts' button.

Such improvements would all be for naught were the story itself to fall flat, so it's a substantial relief to discover that Bioware's thirst for innovation has mostly paid off in this regard. A personal tale of Hawke seeking to provide for his or her family and regain a respected position with the city of Kirkwall, the game is cleverly framed as a story being told by one of your companions 3 years after its conclusion. Not only does this tend to suit the much more intimate nature of the plot when compared with the epic structure of Origins, it serves as an intriguing device that leaves room for the game to take a few unique twists and liberties with proceedings.

Obvious villains and indisputably evil entities are refreshingly avoided as far as motivations are concerned, and instead you'll find yourself engaged in several distinct scenarios with no clear right or wrong path, with far-reaching consequences. With the game divided into three acts across roughly 40 hours, and a number of years passing between each, your initial time in Kirkwall can occasionally feel a little aimless; quests are resolved and you're simply ushered towards the next with seemingly no purpose or connection.

It's not until later that you become aware of the web being spun around you, with threads reaching far back to events you'd since disregarded as non-essential filler. The latter half of DA2 steps up this pace, culminating in some of the most difficult and fundamentally challenging decisions seen in a game to date. Forums are sure to be rife with theological discussion and debates over decisions for months, if not years to come – a testament to the detail to be found in the game and its Codex.

It's because of such admirable qualities that the mystifying shortcomings of the game are all the more lamentable, with what can only be described as a confusing disparity in production values severely holding the game back. With a plot so focussed on one specific city and the immediate surroundings, that city should be teeming with life and wonderful things to discover; as it stands, Kirkwall is never anything more than vaguely pleasing to the eye and inadequately populated. The Black Emporium bundled with new copies of the game is a fine example of creative imagination – if only this much attention and detail had been applied to more of the locations.

The biggest injustice in this sense is Bioware's failure to capitalise on the passing of time so integral to the rest of the game. Other than some rudimentary and temporary aesthetics, the city doesn't change at all during your residency, making it a missed opportunity to further enhance the ongoing story and events. This, however, is simply disappointing – it pales in comparison to potentially the games biggest flaw.

Throughout your rise to power, you will visit a house, a mansion, a warehouse and a cave. With the exception of the scant unique locations to be seen, all of these will be identical – I fully expected to see a Scanner/Photocopier listed under the credits. They are at least very nicely designed houses and caves, but their blatant repeated use is unforgivable in a modern game that deliberately chooses such a small geographical scope.

Baffling discrepancies in design philosophy aside, a number of areas have inevitably suffered in the wake of Bioware's ruthless efficiency. The inability to change the armour of your companions isn't an issue in itself, presenting us as it does with much more visually distinct and recognisable personalities, but a further degree of customisation through loot and rewards to match this level of individuality wouldn't have gone amiss.

The once exciting process of the looting itself does not really work in this iteration, and is only present in some twisted, malnourished form presumably to prevent mutiny. It would be preferable to remove it completely rather than suffer through what seems like a hangover from a botched MMO. The presence of a 'Junk' category is about as useless as it is dull to find Torn Trousers and Moth-eaten Scarves as loot, whilst two-thirds of the armour you'll find will of course be incompatible with your chosen class of Hawke and unavailable to your companions.

Dragon Age 2 is an undeniably strange entity. The flaws and inconsistencies in production leave it just on the right end of being something highly enjoyable with a number of disappointing elements, as opposed to the inverse. For the time being, the Dragon Age series remains just within reach of Baldur's Gate II's party-based, tactical ideals, but the danger of Bioware's surgical refinement of the genre going a cut too far and alienating their core audience is firmly in evidence, and an ever-increasing threat. Their fate now rests firmly in the hands of a pair of titles ending with '3'.

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