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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Game Play: Dragon Age II (and failed reviews in general)

I'm finding Dragon Age II a pretty fascinating game, and not just because of what comes on the disc, but also how it's turning into a somewhat controversial title. Not controversial like "Hot Coffee" controversy, but in that it seems to be causing a marked schism between industry reviewers and fans.

To recap from the original Dragon Age - the game was mashup of promising to deliver on the old Baldur's Gate PC games of the past and Bioware's usual character driven, branching conversation, see who can sleep with, style of gameplay. It was very highly reviewed, sold like crazy, and was in general a fan favorite.

However, while I enjoyed the game for the most part - many of Tanners know that I found the game to be wildly unbalanced. I won't even bore you with the link, rather just say that in follow up discussions I found everything from people who either ran into the exact same thing to people who never ran into a problem. The two main factors seemed to be whether people were playing it on a console and if they had been consulting wiki's and online guides to structure their play.

When I played the Dragon Age II demo, I almost got the impression that BioWare had actually read my blog post and made massive design decisions based on it. Since that's statistically impossible, I'll just assume my feedback wasn't a lone crazy voice in the woods. The short version is that the entire game has been re-tailored to be more console friendly and less dependent on micromanagement details (which I still say shouldn't be confused with tactics).

But have they gone too far?

First, let's note that I don't think I've read more negative opinion about a demo in a long while. I can't tell if that is because of the core mechanics or because, to be quite honest, the demo was something of a mess. You couldn't save, you couldn't access inventory, you couldn't modify anything about the character save for gender and class, and the story jumped around ... basically meaning you had to set aside a decent amount of time to get a clearly truncated experience.

But I gotta say - the demo kinda sold me on it. It felt more like Mass Effect than Dragon Age, which was exactly what I was looking for in the sequel. For an excellent counter-example, check out this Game Critic article from Brad Gallaway or this one from Sparky Clarkson.

Because I also gotta say, I can see where he is getting nearly all of those points. Except for the crashing one, though, I've been spending a decent number of hours in the game and haven't had a single glitch.

I think there's truth in the statement that if you loved the first one, you might want to be cautious of your expectations for this one. It really is a different experience in many ways, even if it does a great job of expanding the story. The skill trees are smaller, there are fewer character choices, the combat is simpler, etc. From my own perspective, however:

The Good
While I have had to try a few boss fights over a few times, I haven't once run to a wiki post to figure out why I can't get past a certain point. The combat is by no means flawless, but it certainly feels way more balanced to me. I don't think I'm going to get trapped in the Deep Roads at some point simply because I failed to train my rogue in how to make bombs correctly.It also means I'm not spending so much time bouncing around management screens. I can focus on actually playing the game.

And let's face it - this is still a BioWare game. I don't entirely agree with the Game Critics' take that the characters are poorly written ... I've found them quite entertaining and enjoy the conversation sets quite a bit.

The writing deserves some credit for brief moments of incredible cleverness too - the scenes where you play out Varric's tall tales, like in the beginning of the demo, are quite fun and you'll wish there were more of them.

The Not So Good
There are some side effects from the design changes, though, that aren't necessarily outright bad ... but they're certainly not improvements. The missions, for instance, feel disjointed and short. If you compare the design to either Dragon Age or Mass Effect 2, you get the impression that Hawke's story is less epic and important mostly because of all the time spent doing a series of quick and completely unrelated tasks. You're also likely to have several open quests at one time, and honestly you end up chasing down mission markers on the map with little regard as to what quest the marker is attached with ... you just kinda find out when you get there.

And there's no getting around that Kirkwall feels like a cheap way to shove a lot of mission options in to very little space. You end up in the same small instance dungeons repeatedly - a stark contrast from Mass Effects 2' array of fully realized alien spaces. BioWare has gone from presenting you with the feeling of wandering a galaxy to wondering why they couldn't bother making a new four room dungeon for this particular quest.

The Bad
While I enjoy the combat in general, I agree the way that mobs respawn in the game is a bit bizarre. It's also a little frustrating when you use up the last of your mana and suddenly there's a new hoard the teleports in from behind you. And the game isn't shy about the fact that they pop in from nowhere ... it happens frequently right in front of your eyes. It's a serious distraction from immersion and combined with the reuse of maps in the game really reminds you that you're just playing a game.

And I have no idea who thought it was a good idea that only Hawke could equip armor. Your companions can get new weapons and trinkets, but you're stuck with whatever they're wearing at the time. While appreciate that this reduces the amount of team management I need to do - it gets kinda frustrating when you find this amazing suit of armor that does nothing for you. And I'm playing a mage ... so this happens quite a lot. In fact, all of the extra goodies I had stacked up prior to playing the game, by playing the Dead Space 2 and the demo, were useless to me. I can see some reasons why this might have been done, but it feels like BioWare should have added some kind of mechanic in place of it.

The Ugly
I don't have an ugly for this game. Rather, I think the negativity is being produced as a sum of all the small and medium things that are a) wrong with it and b) different from the first title. I think if you play the demo and hate the demo, you're probably right in not buying the game ... because the plays a lot like the demo with a few more annoyances tacked on.

Though I will say this: I do find it somewhat ugly that what I think is the final showdown is featured so prominently in promos, trailers and ads. Um - spoiler much?

Short version: I'm liking, but not loving the game. I wonder how much of that is because I'm playing a mage, which from some accounts is less spammy in the combat than the other two classes. I find it funny that the mage was my least favorite in the first game, and I'm quite enjoying it in the sequel. If it weren't for the disjointed mission structure, I'd consider a replay as another class to compare it with - but let's be honest ... there are too many awesome games coming out this year to have time for replays.

What's even more fascinating to me is the stark difference between some of the forum and blog posts about the game and the game. When last I looked, the metacritic review for the 360 version was 81/100. The player review average? 4 out of 10. Review sites have become too complacent with franchise titles, I think. I know I bitch and moan about it all the time, but take this quote from the 360 review of the New Vegas DLC Dead Money:

Typical of Fallout games, there are performance issues and game-breaking bugs that seriously detract from the experience.
-- Fallout: New Vegas -- Dead Money Review

The review is, in general, pretty reserved ... and only receives a 6.5/10 in the end. But, 6.5
is "Okay" by IGN standards. So IGN is saying, "Because this is Bethesda, it's OK to have game breaking bugs".

No. No it's not. It's never OK to have game breaking bugs. You know why? Because they're game breaking bugs. By definition, that means the game is broken. Until that bug is fixed, that content should never be rewarded with an above average rating. It simply defies logic. And as I've said before - if any review of Skyrim mentions lockups, crashes, or game breaking bugs ... I'll probably be done with that franchise forever. I don't care how highly rated it is...

OK, off soap box. That was a long post, and you deserve a cookie.