Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part IV: Dragon Age II

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


In my completely unhumble opinion, Dragon Age II is a pale, inadequate and bastardised shadow of Origins in almost every possible way. I’m not claiming that Origins was a perfect artefact; despite the manifold pleasures I derived from it, there were moments of frustration, areas where its execution faltered. I loved it for the breadth and depth of its world-building, its social and political sweep, its ability to transcend traditional computer game polarities into shades of grey, ambiguous moral decisions and no-win trade-offs. I adored its companion development and the capacity for building relationships amid all the questing. The things which bugged me tended to be minor and peripheral: the disappearance of interesting companion interactions in the high-stakes final stages of the game versus the high concentration of interactions early on, for example, or the minor inconsistencies in responses and plot details as earlier decisions were ignored. It’s about skimping on playtesting and quality control. I also got a little narked at some of the more clichéd armour choices available for female characters. The ones with lots of breast. You’re above that, Origins.

But these pale into insignificance beside the manifest iniquities of the sequel, which appears to have wholesalely cannibalised Origins‘s world-building as a basis for systematically junking about eighty percent of the qualities which actually made the first game, you know, good. The things which particularly got up my nose:

  • Graphics glitz. Origins had a slightly muted, medieval look and feel, both in the world design and in the design of things like menus and character screens. There was a small nod to realism in character and opponent movement: you felt the effort when you hit something with a sword. The sequel has replaced this with a high-gloss definition which makes for pretty landscapes, but which replaces the feel of the original with an almost cartoon feel. You leap your own height into the air to land a blow, for example, or move at impossible speeds to flank or backstab. I hate it. You’re not supposed to be able to bloody teleport in this world, they say so explicitly! The journal and character development screens are also weirdly modern, black-backgrounded, lacking in character and rather difficult to read. I loved the parchment-style ones from the first game. This is not an improvement.
  • Scope. It’s shorter than the first one, and is also a small-minded game – not just in locations, a single city and its environs, but in the bulk of the dilemmas and objectives which confront you. You’re money-grubbing, basically. There are larger and potentially interesting issues there – the Qunari, the mage/templar conflict – but in the end you lack the instrumentality to affect the outcomes which the first game so magnificently gave you.
  • Writing. You feel as though you’re being railroaded in this game in a way you didn’t with the first one. There are continual gaps and inconsistencies in the quest plots – your inability to talk when it makes sense, for example, so that far too much of it defaults to killing large numbers of people rather than actually, intelligently, trying to solve the problem. This is reflected in your quest journal, which has become shortened, stilted and mechanistic.
  • Corner-cutting. This drove me demented. There is absolutely no attempt to make locations different; they have, as far as I can work out, two cave layouts, one underground ruin, two upper class houses and one lower-class and a few sandy outdoor tracks, and every single encounter takes place in one of the above. They “change” them by blocking off particular doors or exits, but they leave the doors there and the map intact. Nor is there much attempt to give them a superficially different feel with colour or lighting. It’s fundamentally lazy. It makes the world feel very bland and undifferentiated, and as a player, it makes me feel insulted. Do they think I won’t notice? Honestly.
  • Your companions. The bulk of them are either damaged, or idiots, or damaged idiots. Honestly, you spend most of the game mopping up the bloody stupid decisions made by the criminally short-sighted and self-absorbed among your companions. There are very few of these people who I actually like, whereas in the first game I actually liked almost all of them. Fenris is OK, once you get over the broody goth-boy stereotype. Varric is quite fun, and I enjoy Aveline when she’s not inflicting me with assisting in her incredibly lame and fumbling attempts at romance, but the rest? aargh. Your siblings: largely lacking in personality, more so because they’re removed from play at the end of the first act. Merril: narcissistic, self-destructive teenager convinced she knows it all. Isabela: slut stereotype pure and simple, and also incredibly self-absorbed. Sebastian: sanctimonious Chantry dweeb. And don’t get me started on Anders, who was rather fun in Awakening but has deteriorated into a whiny one-dimensional fanatic. Bleah. DA is made by its companion interactions, and I can’t work out what happened. Did they fire all their writers and hire adolescent boys, or did they just squeeze this aspect of the game into a corner and spend all their time and money on graphics?
  • The truncation of the romances into a set of mechanical, limited quests, which you have to do in the right order at the right time or an entire romance option whisks off into impossibility, forcing you either to give up on it, or go back and replay the last ten hours. There’s none of the open-endedness of the first game, the sense you had that you were exploring character possibilities alongside the questing; instead, you’re ticking off boxes. Yup, had that talk, gave that gift, finished that companion quest: have jumped through hoops in the right order, bring on the romance! And you’re given far less of conversation and interaction to sustain your sense of the relationship through subsequent events.
  • The RAMPANT SEXISM! Isabela’s costume makes me feel physically ill, it’s all straining bust against skimpy corset thingy, and she’s a truly horrible slut stereotype. (Zevran’s the male version in the first game, but he’s a far better rounded character without the essential selfishness). I also ran across several complaints on the internet noting a tendency for the female Hawke romances to be far less well developed than the male Hawke ones, both in interaction and in screen time. I haven’t played a male Hawke so can’t attest to that, but they certainly felt a bit perfunctory, at least compared to the first game. The romantic cutscenes in the first one were a bit lame, but at least they were trying, you know?

This game felt as though it wasn’t the labour of love that the first one was; that it was impoverished in budget or time or both. It feels provisional; the really interesting world-building stuff is sparked off at the end of the game, as though they’re simply setting up a sequel. It’s profoundly unsatisfying to play, and horribly disappointing to anyone looking for the same immersion experience as the first game. There’s enough entertainment in it that I’ve played it through three times, but that’s more about the state of health and mind I’m in after ten days in hospital than anything about the game’s actual quality. I worked out how to use the developer console in Origins, because it was the only way to deal with a quest bug; however, in second and third playthroughs of DAII I cheerfully used the console to cheat (mostly money and companion approval), because I don’t fundamentally respect the game enough to refrain. As a self-confessed Lawful Good player I don’t use console cheats in computer games; that I should feel no guilt about doing so here is quite significant. It’s sad. This could have been so much more than it is.

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