Dragon Age II: Tactical combat, or combat with tactics

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When you get past the discussion of graphics and texture size, when you get over lamenting the inevitable plot holes, when you’re done praising or damning the dialog and structure, and when you’ve had your fill of grousing about the UI, one thing makes or breaks whether you play an RPG: the combat.

After the jump, I’m talking about every game that isn’t called Planescape: Torment

Dragon Age: Origins used a combination of pausable real-time battles with elements of turn-based mechanics under the hood and a tactics system that stressed using strings of commands you could customize to control the behavior of the party. It seemed directed at console users as a way to ameliorate the difficulty of controlling multiple party members. The system had worked near flawlessly several years before with Final Fantasy XII on the Playstation 2, but the implementation in Dragon Age: Origins was nowhere near as good. The real-time pausable combat gave away the turn-based mechanics under the hood after nearly every command. A noticeable delay occurred where the player character would shuffle into positions when pressing the button to attack, or selecting a spell or special move. Even with the clunky mechanics, Origins on the PC was a continuation of the classic Bioware top-down tactical combat system. Facing was important, friendly fire had to be accounted for, and battles moved at a pace slow enough that you could think out your tactics and plan accordingly.

I think most people were surprised that Dragon Age 2 doesn’t play like Dragon Age: Origins. The superficial mechanics are all similar, the UI is different but easy to understand, and the same pausable real-time system with AI tactic routines forms the background of the combat system. It’s different in many glaring ways and many more subtle ways. I think it’s the reason why the combat has polarized the player base.
The most important difference in Dragon Age 2 is that the shuffle-pause after issuing orders to your party members is gone, and as a result the combat feels much faster. Everything moves more fluidly, and to my taste, much better. Many people found the change jarring, suggesting that it didn’t allow for the same precision of movement.

There are also fundamental changes to the cooldown system, with nearly every power taking considerably longer than similar skills in Origins. Defensive warriors complain about the paucity of skills, and the agonizingly long cooldown of taunt (so long that it makes it difficult to keep crowd control in large encounters). Two-handed specialists lament running in circles waiting for their sweeping blow to refresh. Mages have their own complaint, mostly centering on the paucity of direct damage spells and the absurdly long cooldown of the heal spell. Rogues suffer the same cooldown issues, but on average seem to have more active combat abilities and better battlefield mobility, which alleviated the issue for me.

In many ways, combat in Dragon Age: Origins was about tactical placement and planning ahead for a battle where you usually knew all of the combatants ahead of time, while Dragon Age 2 is an exercise in attrition, resource management, and wading through two or more waves of enemies. One of the most popular complaints about Dragon Age 2 is that second and third waves of enemies spawn in such a way that your party goes from being carefully placed and tactically sound to surrounded, cut-off, and vulnerable. Whether this was an intentional design decision or not, the problem is also easily alleviated by grouping your party up as soon as each wave is defeated, and then moving them again as the next round of combat begins. It does make each scenario feel hectic, filled with tight spots where a character is overwhelmed by hordes of enemies (likely the reason why there is no friendly-fire option), or a caster is cut-off without hope of rescue. This is where I believe people are getting hung up on the combat.

It’s sloppy. Yes, it’s sloppy and messy in the “hero is covered head to toe in blood”, but it’s also sloppy because it’s nearly impossible to plan ahead for the entire battle. Your well laid plans are going to come undone, perhaps as soon as you come into contact with the enemy, or perhaps when a third wave finally exhausts your reserves. It’s frustrating, frantic, sloppy, and oddly exhilarating all in a few minutes of keyboard shortcuts and left-mouse clicks. For those of us who want a slower, measured approach, it’s a sad state of affairs for a series that began with the promise of a return to the roots of old-school RPGs. For those who want combat that feels faster, more interactive, and less planned, Dragon Age II is probably a breath of fresh air. Count me in the latter category, but as someone who has played every single one of those old-school RPGs, there are times when I shake my head in frustration realizing how a little bit of compromise in the two combat philosophies could have made for something truly special.

Coming up next: No mom, I don’t drive a delivery wagon for a living
(Click here for the previous Dragon Age II game diary.)