Try as I might, I can’t make myself love Dragon Age II the way I loved Dragon Age: Origins. Dragon Age II does almost everything right, hits almost all of its marketing bullet points, but never grabs you and refuses to let you go. Origins was buggy, sprawling, clunky; an old school paean to the glory days of Bioware and Black Isle and Infinity Engine RPGs. It suffered from the tired, played out Bioware formula of prologue, four quest hubs, and finale, yet never seemed boring or repetitive. For those of us who played the early days of computer RPGs, it was a promise to keep that style alive. Then Dragon Age II changed the formula, and as a result lost its chance to eclipse its predecessor long before it hit the market.
After the jump: Do games have a soul?
The initial marketing for Dragon Age II, much like Origins, was shamefully bad. I could have forgiven this had Bioware and Electronic Arts not already made the same mistake before. But, like many, I was left scratching my head, clueless as to what Dragon Age II would be like. If it wasn’t overly fast, almost fighting game style combat with a heavy metal soundtrack, it was confusing and frequently contradictory comments and explanations from the game’s developers. No clear message of what Dragon Age II would be ever emerged, and for months people gnashed their teeth and preemptively complained about what the game would become.
It turns out things weren’t nearly as bad as we thought they would be, but the damage was done. When previews started popping up that contained enough gameplay for us to start digging into, forum users had already written the game off completely, or consigned it to the bargain bin, or worked themselves into a frenzy about the changes. Even things that were improvements — the elimination of the stutter delay between issuing a command and execution of that command is a prime example — were harped on by fans of the first game that didn’t want anything to change. Bioware had promised us things wouldn’t change. They promised us that they were making a series inspired by old school RPGs and Dragon Age was the vehicle.
They changed their mind, and for the most part the changes don’t really hurt Dragon Age II. The game is a mostly beautiful, engaging, imaginative adventure that suffers mainly from having little variety in locations, a narrow focus, and rushed, cookie cutter dungeons and encounters. A fairly long sequel made in just 18 months could have been much worse, but Bioware is just too good to let that happen. The game is undeniably different, though: with more ‘modern’ graphics, faster, bloodier, more animated combat with wave upon wave of enemies. A dialog wheel replaced the extensive chat selection screen, party interaction changed, and inventory management was simplified, much like Mass Effect 2.
Dragon Age II had a fundamentally different design philosophy, and it might be what the series needs to continue to be successful in an era increasingly dominated by short, flashy games and consoles. But to those of us who would never uninstall Baldur’s Gate II or Planescape: Torment, it was almost a betrayal. The shame of it all is that if this game had been called Dragon Age: Champion of Kirkwall many of the people who dismissed it would have enjoyed it for what it was. But it was marketed as Dragon Age II, a sequel, and anyone who played Origins knows that if there is one thing they didn’t manage to cram into the abbreviated development cycle, it was the soul of the first game. When they changed design philosophy, they lost what was so magical to so many fans of Origins, and why Dragon Age II will never be the sequel it should have been.
Coming up next: A fond farewell to a city well traveled.
(Click here for the previous Dragon Age II game diary.)