So Bioware released the demo for Dragon Age II on Tuesday, which I guess people have been waiting for. I’ve been rather removed from all the Dragon Age II hype. I saw the announcement trailer, laughed at the ridiculous weapon designs, and then promptly forgot about the game altogether. Which in turn meant that when I heard the demo was out I thought, “Oh, cool, I’ll check that out,” as opposed to “Thank god! I’ve been waiting forever for this thing.” Apathy to the rescue from breathless anticipation, I suppose.
I played the first Dragon Age about two-thirds of the way through, and I thought it was a decent iteration of The Bioware Game. You see, even though everyone seems to willfully ignore it and go out of their way not to mention it, the fact is that Bioware only makes one video game. Sure, they put different textures on it and place it in different settings, but every single game they have ever released (aside from MDK2 and the baffling Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood) has been exactly the same in its mechanics, combat, characters, and other pertinent features. I refer to this Ur design as The Bioware Game, because Bioware is the only company who makes this game and it’s likewise the only game Bioware makes. They just slap a new skin on it every now and then; e.g. Bioware Game + Star Wars, Bioware Game + Wushu, Bioware Game + D&D, Bioware Game + Space Opera, Bioware Game + High Fantasy. (The lone exception to this formula is Mass Effect 2, which is Gears of War + Mass Effect characters.)
Now, I’m not saying that The Bioware Game is a bad game. In fact one of the hallmarks of The Bioware Game is excellent writing (again, Mass Effect 2 excepted), complex and engaging characters, and exhaustive world building. Bioware is extraordinarily good at doing what it does – which is to be expected, because it keeps refining the same formula – so when I say that there is a singular Bioware Game, I do not say that as a criticism or a denigration, but rather a simple statement of fact.
That was a long and rambling digression to say that I played the first Dragon Age and that I thought it was a decent iteration of The Bioware Game. I did not love it, but by no means did I think it was substandard. I thought some of the nomenclature was silly (“darkspawn” being the prime offender), but that comes with the Fantasy territory. Given that impression I’ve only been casually interested in Dragon Age II, as I said way back in paragraph one. I haven’t been yearning to play it, but I have been fairly certain that I do want to play it when it comes out. So when I discovered the demo was out I downloaded it without a moment’s hesitation, and played through it twice as a warrior and a mage.
How is it? Turns out, underwhelming. And that’s being kind.
Now to be less kind.
For clarification, this category is more about aesthetics and art direction as opposed to strictly graphical quality. Nevertheless, graphics are a factor, especially in this case because the demo is butt ugly. When I first loaded the game and got into the story, I was so shocked by how dull and muddy it looked that I actually exited out and brought up the setup menu to make sure that I wasn’t running it on Apple II resolution or something. But no, the game really is just hideous.
The demo begins in a blasted wasteland that is composed of about three colors, all of which are some hue of ruddy brown. The ground is flat and mostly uniform, and the mounds of “debris” that box the player into the linear path look like they are built with no more than three polygons each.
The wasteland also boasts no distinguishing features or any detail at all. The limited color palette spreads out to the horizon like a sea of dirty clay. In a wide open game like Fallout 3 or Oblivion I can forgive a little simplicity in terrain design, because the art department has to render several square miles of landscape and they simply cannot create unique elements for every inch of real estate. But in a game that shuffles you down a linear path, as the demo does, there is absolutely no excuse not to polish the hell out of the railroad tracks. Half-Life 2 is as linear as they come, and that game is so full of minor set details that you need a Wiki page to find them all. This could have been a perfect setting for world building and storytelling without dialogue. There could be structures and remnants that show how beautiful this land was before the Blight and the coming of the darkspawn. Instead, we get a Motocross dirt track that looks like it was rendered in MS Paint.
The characters don’t fair any better. The darkspawn, which in the original were highly detailed and looked like a cross between Swamp Thing, a zombie, and an orc, now look like Skeletor if he had a bad back. Their model looks crude and unfinished. I can’t even say they look like zombies because the zombies in Resident Evil 2 had more polygons and colors. As for the human characters, well, they get their own section at the end.
Apologists may try to deflect these criticisms by saying that it’s part of Dragon Age II’s new art direction. If I recall correctly, Bioware has said that they wanted a new style for DAII, something stylized and artistic. That’s all well and good, and I love when games try to do something more than brown colored realism, but there is a significant difference between “hand drawn, painted look” and “Super Mario 64 graphics.” Simplified, stylized art direction can look beautiful; look at Team Fortress 2 or Braid. This demo looks like it was built in the Unreal Engine 1.3, and I saw nothing during my playthroughs that justified such a bland aesthetic.
The Bioware Game.
You need more? Come on. Big Threat. The Hero. Party with diverse talents and backstories. “Moral” choices.
Seriously, The Bioware Game.
Design / Mechanics
The Bioware Game.
I’ve read other demo write-ups that say combat feels more fast paced and hack-and-slashy. This is not actually the case, but rather is a product of Bioware’s clever animation and sound direction. The nuts and bolts of combat are the old reliable: click on an enemy, your character auto-attacks that enemy, press a hotkey to use a special attack or magic spell. It’s the classic formula, with the dice rolls and number crunching going on behind the scenes. The feeling of more active combat is because every auto-attack has an exaggerated animation and is accompanied by a loud sound effect. This gives the impression that the attacks have serious weight behind them, and coupled with the fact that auto-attacks are now continuous as opposed to every couple of seconds it all combines to definitely feel more hectic. But it’s not like, say, Bayonetta or The Witcher, where the player manually inputs every attack. It’s still the combat of The Bioware Game.
And again, I do not say that as a negative criticism. I like the Bioware combat system and the other mechanics, such as the “RPG lite” leveling and progression. It’s just the right amount of customization for you to match your character to your play style, but no so much to bog you down with tedious min-maxing and stat allocation. I also really like the ability to pause the game in combat and issue orders to all of the party members. I do pine for the ability to queue up multiple orders for each character like in KOTOR, but I can live without that.
One note about the conversation trees. In this game there is a circle in the middle of the dialogue tree, and when you hover over the different options a picture appears in the circle that reflects the tone of that choice. This is pretty cool, but it has the side effect of highlighting the fact that every dialogue tree has the same three options: good, neutral, and jerkass.
I dislike giving a definitive opinion on this aspect, because fun is subjective and people have widely varying tastes. I will say that I was not particularly engaged in either playthrough of the demo. The whole thing just felt “same old, same old” to me. I’ve played KOTOR, and Mass Effect, and the first Dragon Age. I’ve done all this before, and this demo adds nothing new to the formula. Perhaps the lack of novelty in the setting hurts the demo more than it should. The world in the first Dragon Age was new, and I enjoyed learning about the lore and the cultures and the world itself. That explorative drive carried me in the game for a long time, (but couldn’t carry me all the way, since I lost interest before the end). This demo has nothing new. It’s set in a featureless wasteland, and involves people running away from an event from the first game. They are saved by a deus ex machina that is both blatant and stupid, and then you’re off to another part of the game, now helping a character with something or other for some reason or other.
One glimmer of hope is the framing device for the story. The setup is that Varric, one of the party members you acquire in the game, has been detained by the Chantry (a fanatical law enforcement organization that regulates magic use and polices sorcerers), and is being interrogated by a Chantry official. The officer demands that Varric tell her what he knows about the “Champion,” and the actual “meat” of the game is the narrative he spins for her about his former exploits with the party. So the whole game is something of a flashback, expressed through an unreliable narrator.
Given that premise, the game has amazing potential. Imagine a game with the narrative freedom to inflate or exaggerate the action at any time. A small skirmish all of a sudden escalates into a full scale battle with a Dragon God followed by a daring escape. With a simple turn of phrase a simple night at an inn could become an encounter with feisty wenches, grizzled adventurers, and shadowy sorcerers. Entire plot points could contradict each other and later be dismissed as narrator insertions. The player’s perception of the game’s events would be a mix of half-truths and invented memories, filtered through the eyes and imagination of a snarky dwarf with only a passing interest in accuracy.
Alas, I have a feeling that the game will not make full use of that potential. I fear the idea will be used to provide an introduction, and after that will only appear as a bridge when the story jumps ahead in the timeline. A pity; if the game embraced the unreliable narrator trope, it could really be something special.
Addendum: Character Design
I could try to explain it, but it’s better to just show you these.
I’m not really sure what to say to all this. “God damn…” comes to mind. I know that DDs are a staple of the fantasy genre, but this… Gratuitous isn’t really strong enough. Frankly, I’m surprised the male characters aren’t sporting sweater kittens straining to escape chainmail wonder bras.