Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A late look at Dragon Age 2, part 1: Gameplay, first impressions

Another month without opening the toolset has passed, and I still can't be bothered. All ideas I had for Middleforest during the past months are so different from what I've done last year that I could as well start building from scratch. But I can't find the energy to do anything NWN2-related lately, not even playing.

Instead I decided to finally give Dragon Age 2 a go. Prices for it fell rapidly and it has now reached the sweet spot where it might not be a complete waste of money anymore (EA seems to think different, they still want €54.99 for it in their Origin store... well, the box is available for below €20 nowadays). Same as with Mass Effect 2 for me really, I didn't expect much from it (still more than from DA2 though), but when it fell below 20 Euros I considered it a fair deal.

So, after all the heat around it's release and my hate-driven review of the demo, has anything changed? Well, for those who don't like my long ramblings and want a short answer... no, not much, my expectations were mostly met. But, I have to admit there were some surprises, even good things, and at one or two points I was even wrong. They won't change much of the conclusion I'm afraid, but maybe they are still noteworthy. Anyway, expect a long, chaotic rant again - even though I made 3 letter-sized pages of notes I'm just blabbering away now. Let's start again with the first impressions and the beginning of the game.

The game and the first bad impression starts, of course, with our default Mr/Ms. Hawke.
Have I already mentioned I hate Hawke? And I mean, really everything about Hawke. For me this person stands for Bioware Mass-Effecting everything, for bad taste and bad name choices, for heroes I can't identify with, bad art design (why the f... would I smear a red dash in my face every morning? It does not look cool, really not!) , bad marketing, I could go on and on. Good, fine, we know all that already, so let's get our medieval Shepard going.

So, we find ourselves in the demo again, been there already. But now I must really ask, why does the character creation come after this intro? That Varric exaggerated the breast size in his story, that joke I got by now (it's not that funny really), but using the same excuse for giving me the default Bioware appearance of Hawke in this first part of the game is a bit far off, don't you think? Anyway, knowing myself and that I probably get bored of a male character after level 3 and start over, I chose a female rogue right away.  Shortly after the intro finally the character creation (isn't that the best part of any RPG really?) and I create some Jeanne-D'Arc-style redhead using the new hairstyles I actually like a lot. In fact, I ended up with a Hawke I consider quite an improvement over Dragon Age Origin's looks when it comes to realism, a small positive surprise.

 Then comes the attributes and skill trees and.. well. I'm not really sure about it. First off, the classes are a lot more limited than before, and that's a really really bad thing. Why the hell can't a warrior use a bow anymore? Where are the crossbows anyway? Why can't a rogue use a shield? Right... because Bioware has a very clear idea on how these classes should play and don't want you, the player, to experiment. Fine, moving on. The skill trees might be considered an improvement by some, but I kinda liked the old system as well and don't think it's a real improvement, it's just different. What I miss terribly though is rogue skills, conversation skills, the usual Roleplay skills that are probably not of any interest in an action game anymore. WTF happened to lockpick, traps etc? Oh, just raise your Cunning attributes... really.... fascinating.

No, during the first 15 minutes you learn pretty much everything about DA2's new direction, which is clearly, undeniably streamlined action. It's what I expected, yes, and I still hate it, but maybe I'll also find some positive things? First off, I installed that Highres-Texture patch immediately and must say it does make an impressive difference to the very shabby Demo. Impressive does not mean I stare at the screen in awe and drool t the graphics, but at least the game looks much better now. With this patch, the difference between DA2 and Origins is really clear to see and this patch is a must for everyone who cares a bit about atmosphere, really. Why (and if) it requires a graphics card with 1GB memory while other games get the same thing done on much older cards I cannot say, but you definitely don't need DirectX11 to see it. My card doesn't support it.

The next thing is something I only discovered after a little while... how the look of your family depends on your customization of Hawke. Now that's a neat detail! If you look up at the pic, you can see I ended up with a short-haired sister, and if my Hawke was tanned or black, my family would match that look too. Also, the facial structure changes depending on your choices etc. Why they invested that much into realism here and ditched it totally again at other points in the game is beyond me, but at least this little detail I really like.

Anyway, a small detail, but the big first and lasting impression is the really bad general art design. I know I'm repeating myself, but some things can't be said often enough. I really really wonder who the target audience of this game is, because everything I see is all but a "gritty, mature RPG". Origins was neither, but DA 2 makes it worse, last but not least by taking a few of the more interesting characters from Origins and ruining them completely.

Next, of course, the combat animations. "button-awesome" might have that tiny little advantage that your character really react on click, instead of thinking for the long while that usually decides between life and death. But this... this is just cheesy, come on Bioware. Mages might enjoy their characters moving a little more, but how my rogue flies over the battlefield is just not funny anymore. This is for hyperactive kids and as mature as Ronald McDonald, really.

Or how about weapon design? Origins wasn't a prime example of good weapon design already, but this really isn't funny anymore. I'm feeling like playing some Free2Play kiddie JRPG, but clearly not a mature game. At the latest when Fenris with his two-handers comes into play it's time to hit your forehead on the desk, but my rogue daggers are already bad enough. Most of the time in the game I had to search for weapons that don't look totally ridiculous on my character. The standard daggers were okay, I never got to use any unique weapons because I simply couldn't stand their look.
So, for you, Bioware (I know you're not listening, but anyway). Look at the pic below, there's a a really cool badass sword from a mature RPG, and a really cool badass sword from a kiddie game. Where does Dragon Age 2 fit in?

I know this is a matter of taste and artistic style, but in a serious, mature game I expect one, in a kiddie hack&slay game the other version. And now I present you Bioware's own version of the most badass sword in the game!

 Nuff said.

At least, and I'm thankful for that, you hid some items for us elderly players deeply, and after I found some normal looking daggers (actually swords, look at the size) and an actually really good looking armor, I was seeing things a little bit milder for the next.. well, one or two levels until the stuff got so old and outdated I couldn't survive with it anymore.

Which brings me to the topic of loot... partly a technical, partly an artistic matter. Technical side: Stuff outdates so fast that unique weapons are really not worth keeping or upgrading anymore. That cool thing you found in the deeproads an hour ago is useless junk now. And speaking of junk... you know, before calling every loot that isn't equipable "Junk", just leave it out right away. This is such an immersion killer, I'd rather have no loot at all than an item with a trashcan icon. Give me coins right away.
You know, I hate excessive looting, but in some of the better games it can be really fun to find out what loot is useful and what not. Maybe it has some secret meaning? Maybe it's a gift? This is one of those "minigames" in a good RPG, think of the flowers or shawls in the Witcher for example that you first toss away as junk until you realize you can finally get a nice lass to do you a favor, or such.
And please, the meaningless gifts that are marked as plot items for companion X right away... I actually liked to see the different reactions by different companions in Origins and finding out who likes what most. I know, that's details you might not care about, but it gives the game dept.

Moving on in the art design, let me show you a few random faces from the endless Hall of Shame:

Is this... an... artistical choice, really? To create such freaks? And what have you done to pretty much everyone's eyes anyway? Replaced with candy? And don't get me wrong, I don't mean the new appearance of elves per se - I'm fine with what you did there, make them less "cute human" and more like a really different species. As long as they look like in that pic below and not like those Playmobil figures up there.... *headdesk*

Oh, oh, oh.... and... what the hell is this?

Yes, that's your low-poly default NPC that simply shouldn't be in this game at all. Really not. Origins didn't have those, do you call that an improvement?

As you can see, I'm getting into a rage again when it comes to Bioware's "artistic choices". But seriously, until now I must've missed that part that makes this game "mature" in it's art design. Oh wait, wait, I got it...

Don't worry about Hawke there, it's just a little scratch and she still kicked those Qunari asses.

Then of course there's the matter of the legendary waves.
Now, the initial idea is not so bad because it can, potentially, add a lot of surprises and variation to combat. Not that I like combat that much, I usually play for the story and combat is an annoyance between the cutscenes. But there can be interesting combat, and Origins had some interesting and very challenging combat scenes at times.... between the tedious long hacking through miles and miles of darkspawn of course.
But as interesting as the potential of waves might be, as poor is the execution. Laidlaw and Co. stated multiple times that they wanted to improve combat because one fan somewhere long ago called Origins' combat boring. Now the improvement is the most tedious clickfest I've had in a long time, maybe comparable to the horribly boring combat in Venetica. It wasn't fun, it was even much more less fun than in Origins because I always knew exactly the next parachutes would come for sure. And boy were they immersion-killing.

 Finally, to end this first post about the... what could I call it, main problems, first impressions, overarching issues... the Copy&Paste areas.

Now, when I first read about them I had no idea how bad it actually was, that there was really absolutely no variation at all, that you visited the exact(!) same place a dozen of times and were told "hey, you're wrong, you're in a totally different place now".
Mister Laidlaw said at the Bioware forums that every individual cave or house would take away resources from writing or whatever, but... call me stupid, maybe I'm a n00b to game design and I really only played in NWN2's toolset for a longer time (I tried Bethesda's Eden-thingy briefly and only looked at DA's toolset long enough to figure I hate it), but.... aren't interiors still tilesets, kinda? Can't you click a few tunnels together? How long does it take me to make a simple interior for NWN2? An hour? If it's not that easy, how hard can it be to change at least the lighting, drop a few placeables to change the look, whatever? But reusing the exact same area... There's no excuse. It only proves, just like a lot of other things in DA2, that whatever Bioware says they had NOT enough time, or were lazy as hell. And they can't sell me on the argument that a simple cave would've taken too much effort. Clicking together a basic cave from your existing tiles or prefabs is the easiest thing, and if it's not, then your game base has serious issues and you should consider a new Engine or whatever.

Enough nerdrage. In the next part I'll look at the story, companions and all that and see if I can dig out some of the nicer details. But one thing before I go - a proof that Dragon Age can look quite okay at times. The few exteriors aren't so bad. They have decent texturing, a sky that outshines Origins easily and I would've liked to see that quality standard throughout the game really.

1 comment:

kanaak666 said...

I can second every argument stated here. This game is a pain. You finish it, because you started it and it's hard to find any other motivation for continuing this tasteless game. I am not sure if you made a statistics in your notes, but personally I spent 40% on running from A to B, 50% on boring combat and remaining on other things. If this game would not have "Dragon Age" in title the sales would drop by 90%. Thank you for attention.