Dragon Age 2: many dead things

I finished Dragon Age 2 about an hour ago.  (Took a sick day today; feeling gross.)  Took about 33 hours, and that’s with me finishing every quest that was made available to me; my warrior, Hermano Hawke*, ended up at level 23.  (Here’s a link to my Achievements.)

I must admit that my initial enthusiasm for the game has been tempered somewhat by some pretty serious flaws in the game’s construction.  The game world feels incredibly small, but that would be OK if the world was at least richly detailed and varied. The biggest problem with the game is that the designers are constantly recycling the same environments, which only make an already small world feel smaller.  And considering how many times I traipsed back and forth over the same ground, it’s remarkable how many wrong turns I ended up making – the city of Kirkwall, where you spend at least 80% of your adventure, is surprisingly devoid of character or personality.  Each area of the city has its own look – you wouldn’t get Hightown confused with Lowtown – but all the architecture of each area feels interchangeable, so it can feel like you’re in a house of mirrors.  There are only 2 or 3 “dungeons” – depending on the mission you’re on, certain areas of the dungeon might be walled off, but they still appear on the map, and it gets awfully confusing.

The dialogue and character development are still top notch, and among the best work Bioware has put out; and yet the story got somewhat muddled towards the end, and I didn’t really care about the conclusion as much as I’d hoped.  And there are some serious issues with red herrings, which I suspect may end up being addressed with DLC, but still – what the hell?  You meet a mythical dragon/woman in the first 20 minutes of the game, and then you never see her again (except for one brief, somewhat inexplicable cameo, which isn’t part of a mandatory quest).  That’s not a spoiler – the dragon/woman was in the demo.

And I guess another thing that kinda got to me is that there’s not a tremendous amount of variety in your activities.  You talk to people, you kill creatures, you walk from place to place.  That’s it.  It is a tremendous credit to Bioware that I played this game for 33 hours and didn’t really get bored with either of those 3 things, but I certainly wouldn’t have minded a bit more… anything, really.

So I’m going to back off of my initial hyperbole; DA2 is certainly very good, but not truly great.  It’s a huge improvement over the 360 version of DA:O, but you know what?  At this pont, I kinda wish they’d remake DA:O with DA2’s combat and controls.

*A nod to Arrested Development, of course.  All my male game characters are called Hermano, except for the sports games who feature Jervo McNervo, #27.  All my pets are named Lolily.  I don’t necessarily have any set go-to names when I play as females; I don’t really play females that often, although it should be noted that my Shepard in Mass Effect is female.

new digs / dragon age 2

So here we are.   I think one of the reasons why I haven’t been posting lately at the old site is because, well, Blogger feels like ancient technology.  I’ve been keeping a personal blog here at WordPress for a while now, and frankly it’s just easier to write here.  I am hopeful that this will translate into more SFTC posts, especially because 2011 is starting to get serious.

Case in point:  Dragon Age 2.

I took a sick day yesterday, and as a result I’m now about 12 hours into the campaign.  I can’t speak for the larger structure of the game, but from my experience with Bioware RPGs, I’m guessing I’ve finished the first “act.” *

My spending 12 hours with it already should tell you everything you need to know, frankly; I managed barely two hours or so with the 360 version of Origins, and maybe only an hour on the PC.

I knew from previews that Origins was meant to be a PC experience – which is fine, as I was a big fan of Neverwinter Nights – but the 360 port was ugly in every sense of the word.  It presented itself as an action RPG, but the combat was turn-based, or something – it was a loose translation of KOTOR‘s combat, I think, except not fun.  The controls weren’t intuitive and combat didn’t really make any sense.  And for a graphics whore like me, it was just awful.

I didn’t fare much better with the PC version, which I picked up during one of Steam’s insane holiday sales.  It certainly looked a lot better, and it certainly made sense on the PC, but… well… it’s been a long time since I’ve used a mouse and keyboard to play games, and I kept getting lost with the controls.

I’ve heard a lot of bitching about DA2 being “dumbed down” for consoles, but look – if this is the level of quality we can expect when Bioware dumbs something down, then I’m all for it.  Combat is fluid and responsive and FUN.  Conversation trees now use the Mass Effect system, which is intuitive and informative.  It looks… well, maybe it isn’t jaw-droppingly amazing, but it certainly looks quite good.

If I have one piece of hyperbole to dole out, though, it’s that the choices in DA2 that I’ve had to make so far are, without question, the most difficult choices I’ve ever had to make in a videogame.  And I’m only at the end of the first real quest!  ***(Slight, vague spoiler, just so that you know where I am:  I’ve finished the Deep Roads, and am currently exploring my estate in Hightown.)*** The choices I’ve been faced with have been so tough, in fact, that it virtually guarantees that I’ll be doing another playthrough; I need to see what happens if I do x instead of y.  And I’m sure that it’ll be just as agonizing the second time around.

Speaking of which, I’m also really impressed with the game’s writing.  Whenever I play a game with a moral system, I invariably play as good and morally upstanding as possible; I don’t ruffle any feathers, I don’t get overly aggressive, and I certainly don’t sass.   But in DA2, for whatever reason, I’ve been feeling a lot freer to actually speak my mind; the dialog options are smart and well-written, and for the most part there’s usually a speech option that reflects how I, Jervo, actually feel about the current situation.

If I have to find fault with the game, I guess it’s that it can adhere a bit too tightly to the standard Bioware template.  For example, if you ask a character a question, there will always be 3 dialog screens that follow before you respond.  It’s a pattern I’ve noticed for a while, now, and it kinda took me out of the moment a few times once I became aware of it.  Similarly, there are quite a few side quests that you’re given in the beginning of the game, and if you ask why something needs to be done, you invariably get some variation of “Why does it matter?  I’m paying you, just do it.”  Which is maybe a little lazy on the part of the writers, although it’s nothing egregious.

In short: it’s everything that DA:O wasn’t.  And so far, it’s one of the best Bioware games I’ve ever played.


* Bioware RPGs generally follow the same pattern – a gigantic opening chapter with a big main quest and lots of sub-quests, as well as lots of random side quests and various errands to run, and then, after the conclusion of that first main quest, the momentum picks up dramatically.

>shootin’ stuff

>The floodgates are starting to open; good games are starting to trickle forth.  Let’s pick up where I left off.

1.  I finished Stacking.  I’m not 100% finished with it – I still have a bunch of hi-jinks to do and a few special dolls to collect – and I hope that if the release calendar dries up a bit, I’ll find the time to go back and do those things.  It was wonderful and charming and unique and clever and everything I’d hope it would be.

2.  We had company at one point over the 3-day weekend, and so we got in some 4-player You Don’t Know Jack, which is really the way that game should be played.  The game can be played with the buzzer controllers from Scene It! (another fine trivia game), so if you’re short on regular controllers (or if your buzzers are collecting dust), break ’em out.

3.  I’m starting to get very excited for Dragon Age 2, so I decided to dive back into my PC’s version of Dragon Age: Origins, which I hadn’t picked up in months.  I’d tried to play the first game on the 360, but the game was ugly and the controls were weird – it was as if the game wanted you to believe it was an action RPG, but it wasn’t at all an action RPG – and gave up.  And then, of course, Steam had the PC version on sale, which I quickly bought… and then didn’t play, either.  Anyway, whatever; I finally finished the prologue and now I recognize where I am from my first playthrough.  The game definitely feels better on the PC, but it’s still not quite what I want.

4.  What I want, really, is much closer to what the Dragon Age 2 demo appears to portend.  I played it last night, and, lo and behold – it actually is an action RPG, where button presses correspond to real-time actions, and it looks great and plays great and borrows just enough from the Mass Effect 2 playbook to pretty much guarantee that I’m going to love the hell out of it, assuming I have time to play it.

5.  I ordered both Bulletstorm and Killzone 3 from Amazon, because I am an idiot and figured that the $20 credits I’d get for ordering them would come in handy for all the must-have titles I’m going to be ordering later, conveniently forgetting that these two games were still full price.  Which to play first?  Well, the 360 was already warmed up from the DA2 demo, so I figured I’d give Bulletstorm a go.  And it went pretty well, until the game locked up on me in the second chapter.  So then I switched over to Killzone, which is jaw-droppingly beautiful – it can seem like you’re playing a first person Final Fantasy game, with guns – and that was fun, although the PS3 controller can feel like an alien artifact when it comes to shooters, for me.  And so I got up to a certain point where I kept dying, and I decided to switch back to Bulletstorm.  And as it turned out, the game had locked up for me at the exact moment before the game starts becoming… the game, with the scoring system and the craziness.  And once I started I couldn’t look back.  It took a few minutes to get used to the controls again – KZ3 and the PS3 controller had messed me up – but all I can say is, Wowee Zowee.  Fun as hell.

6.  Finally, because I am an addict, I bought Bejeweled Blitz for XBLA this morning before I left for work.  I’ve been playing Bejeweled in some form for at least 10 years now, maybe longer, and I’m pretty good at it.  Let me rephrase that:  I’m fucking awesome at it.  I’m an average gamer in most things, but when it comes to Bejeweled I am a genius.  I generally score in the 200K-300K without boosts without really trying, I generally end a week’s tournament in the mid-500Ks, and my all-time high is in the 900Ks.  So, please consider my expert opinion when I advise you to KEEP your 800 points in your virtual wallet and DON’T BUY BEJEWELED BLITZ FOR XBLA.  It SUCKS.  The control scheme is totally fucked up and unintuitive and there’s no option to change it back to the original, vanilla scheme that was featured in Bejeweled 2.  I understand that playing Bejeweled with a gamepad isn’t as elegant as it is with a mouse, and I further understand that Blitz places a special emphasis on speed, and as such I can at least conceptually appreciate that they were trying to make the control scheme quicker.  But it doesn’t make any intuitive sense, and as someone who has played more games and sunk more time into Bejeweled than probably every other game combined, ever, I shouldn’t have to feel like a goddamned novice when I’m playing a game I’ve already played a thousand times. 

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