Surprisingly, my most recent blog article was by far the most viewed since I started this exercise. While my stated purpose for this space was to improve my writing skills and not amass page views, it did spark an interesting conversation with coworkers during our lunch break. I suppose it is one of the perks of working in IT. Talking about video games in a public setting doesn’t draw criticism for being a “man-child”.
To begin, I would like to express my major impression of Civilization: Beyond Earth. I would not categorize it as a terrible game but rather an underwhelming one. Some of the mechanics were indeed broken at launch but later fixed with some patching by Firaxis. My main issue was the experience was sub-par to my expectations. These expectations were somewhat tainted by two previous entries in the Civilization franchise which on a whole did a far better job. As most conversations are prone to do, this led us on a tangent to a different game…
I recall the controversy shortly after the game came out. Expectations were through the roof following the success of the first game in the series. This being the sequel, everything was going to be bigger, better, and “more epic” right? Well, let’s first examine the origins of the franchise before delving into Dragon Age II proper. And yes, I do feel proud of tying that pun in nicely :).
Dragon Age: Origins
The internet video game reviewer Yahtzee describes three pillars to gaming. Before delving into these, I’d like to take some time to discuss my thoughts on Origins both past and present. I will be delving into spoilers from this point onward. The game came out several years ago so there’s no excuse not to play it or go read the plot on Wikipedia.
When the game first launched, I was looking forward to the release. Several years had gone by without any major trends of role playing game releases; the CRPG genre seemed to be teetering on the edge or irrelevancy. This was the same situation Bioware originally launched the great Baldur’s Gate back when I was still in high school. Today, the internet is filled with marketing towards the nostalgia market, Origins was the first real mainstream call back to the Bioware/Interplay games after a hiatus of a few years. The isometric view and graphics certainly hearkened back to these older games. Where it improved was on voice over written dialogue to better convey tone and more fleshed out secondary characters. This wasn’t entirely a new concept. Final Fantasy X had broken that barrier before. Except well, the voice acting was actually… not terrible:
However, the main story was mostly generic fodder. Terrible threat looms over the world, only a reluctant hero from a dying order can save the world, etc. Even Loghain’s betrayal was foreshadowed early on in the game. It’s not to say it was poorly done, in fact it was competently written but nothing more. Where the writers excelled was setting up the context of the world. I found the situation of the elves and dwarves to be relatively refreshing compared to the standard fantasy fare in the genre. Bioware could have followed the example of other games or fiction writers and include those races in the same mold as Lord of the Rings and no one would have complained. They went and put an extra effort to help flesh these new versions and many gamers along with critics praised the game for this.
The ending of the game turns out to be a climactic battle atop a castle fighting a dragon which I found to be somewhat underwhelming. Much like the Batman: Arkham Asylum final boss fight against the Joker. However, as the saying goes: “it’s the journey that matters and not the destination.”
Naturally, after saving the kingdom and the world from the big bad threat of a single-minded enemy bent on destruction, expectations were high for the next game. Some of you will already be wondering why I skipped Dragon Age: Awakening. The expansion was more or less a side tale which had interesting elements like introducing us to a few characters but did little to advance the story in the remainder of the series.
Instead, the writers took a step back. The story of the game follows a family of refugees who flee the catastrophe of the start of the first game and try to make a new life for themselves in a foreign land. As my parents were immigrants to Canada, I can certainly sympathize with elements of this story. Unfortunately, I was not trained to fight with a claymore or hurl fireballs conjured from the ether. With many of the elements of the world (or lore) already established in the previous game and expansion, this was much more of a character study. This wasn’t so much the Lord of the Rings movies but more like Silent Hill 2. Unlike the first game, we had a non-silent protagonist. The context was Hawke’s relationships with those in his entourage and how time and events impacted him (or her) and his companions throughout the decade. Suffice it to say, it was a breath of fresh air in a mostly staid format. For a triple A game, it broke certain elements of convention and delivered a tight, focused story. It also delivered some great characters and certain memorable scenes:
The fandom revolted. I won’t go and quote every specific complaint about the story, but will paraphrase the main ones.
The story wasn’t epic enough!
This was the elephant in the room. A lot of players wanted this to be the continuation of the story of the character from the first game despite the marketing explicitly stated it would be a new protagonist, in a new region of the world. This wasn’t going to be the same struggle but rather a new one. Even the trailers showed fights involving the new protagonist and a new villain. Unfortunately, writers feel obligated to “raise the stakes” in subsequent iterations of a story in order for the audience to return to visit a character or story. Except, stakes are always viewed from an external perspective. Why can’t a character not face stakes of a personal nature? The Sopranos had Tony Soprano face off his uncle for control over their family right from season 1. Subsequent seasons often had internal conflicts Tony had to deal with. Yet, no one diminishes the show for not upping the ante.
Rather, the story aimed for a logical progression over time. When your character arrives in Kirkwall at the start of a game as a refuge turned mercenary, you are nearly begging people for jobs. After you hit it rich, the populace recognizes you as someone who “gets stuff done”. You are approached by citizens and even some of the power brokers of the city’s elite. By the time you get to the third act, the tone is one of deference and you are a factor in politics and the area. People look up and respect (or envy and loathe) Hawke.
EA pushed the game out early!
In fairness’ sake, I included a legitimate argument. Yes, the maps were recycled to cut time and costs. The textures were mostly the same within some areas too. I don’t brush this aside either from a design perspective. It takes you out of the immersion of the game. Personally, I value plot over gameplay to determine my enjoyment of a game. You can perfect the best game mechanics ever designed but I’ll quickly lose interest if there’s nothing there to make me give a damn about the characters or plot. Some people like COD. I am not one of them. To each their own.
We couldn’t play the Warden! or We couldn’t design our own character background.
The designers chose to write a specific story which allowed some deviation on the choices the players make during the course of the game. Giving the players a blank slate very rarely gives any payoff in game for what you picked other than maybe the occasional throw away line of dialogue. Even Origins, which was lauded for giving you 6 origin stories, had very few tie-ins outside the initial tutorial. Besides, the mage story was by far the best one. Another game series, Final Fantasy, was almost predicated on completely making a different universe, set of characters, and challenges with each game. Why can one be accepted and not the other?
What most seem to fail to realize was the Warden’s story was more or less told during the first game (including DLC and the expansion). Yes, the Warden does appear in Dragon Age: Inquisition, it’s as a side character who is not the protagonist but rather the ally of the Inquisitor (the main character of the 3rd installment).
Other games will go with the silent protagonist and allow you the player to project yourself into the role as you mindlessly mow down enemies to make Charles Manson look tame.
The gameplay is not the same!
I’m all for innovation and pushing the game genre further. DA2 was a bit too action oriented for me but the concept of tactics in DA: O was not really a challenge. The only difficult fights were due to the party AI or involved being ambushed. I do admit it was somewhat of a mistep, I felt DA: I hit the right mix of tactical gameplay and action oriented combat. Inquisition was my game of the year for 2014 and I will stick by it.
Anders was a whiny bitch!
Anders acts as the surrogate of the plight of the mages in the game. Although like many causes, he not only radicalizes but goes to extreme lengths:
Who’d of thought blowing up a Church would start a Holy war…
The complaint here is unless your character is a wizard himself/herself, you are more or less obliged to have Anders act as a mainstay in your group as the only healer. Thus, his preaching gets very irritating unless you decide to pursue a romantic relationship with the character. As is Bioware’s inclusiveness, he swings both ways.
Yet, the game portrayed strained relationships with your fellow companions well too. You could have a rivalry with some of them but maintain enough of a reason to hang out together. Or you could just ignore the character altogether!
Note: I am STUNNED I could not find a meme of emo Fenris to mock.
The larger a cast of characters, the harder it is to please everyone. You will always find characters who might not appeal to everyone. What’s important is you are interested enough to listen and follow the story itself and not just for the gameplay benefits. Overall, Oghren was a weak character in the first game. I felt Cole was a difficult character to like in the third.
Anders’ role in the story is to help get you invested in the third act. In a way, it can get irritating but it keeps the focus on the main plot. That said, I do feel a reunion with Bethany or Carver might have been a deft hand. The former is widely loved among the fandom and is genuinely a fun character unless you purposefully decide to act like an asshole to her. Carver’s envy of you might be played as either an irritant to make you as a character dislike the templars or perhaps a positive relationship between the two of you allow him to show growth and present the case of the order in a good light.
Based on expectations, Dragon Age 2 was an underwhelming game as hype was through the roof. But it was far from a bad game. The writing is not the issue and it does play a much larger role in setting up the 3rd game which is by far the best. It has its flaws but if you’re willing to overlook or at least live with them, you will find a gem of a game. Afterall, few games, if any, are perfect.