Monday 14 March, 2011 20:51
Released in late 2009, the initial instalment in Bioware’s “Dragon Age” series, DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, was a welcome callback to their old Dungeons & Dragons BALDUR’S GATE series from earlier in the decade, focusing more on questing, character development and dialogue than the wave of more action-inspired role-playing games that had appeared in the interim. At least in its PC incarnation, which featured the ability to pull the camera back to a top-down, quasi-isometric viewpoint (reminiscent of BALDUR’S GATE), the game’s combat proved to be an enjoyably tactical affair, and the limp voice acting, stilted animation and generally derivative nature of the game’s world were to an extent forgiveable given the sheer amount of content and player choice that was packed on to the game DVD. (For more information, see my original review.)
When DRAGON AGE II was announced so soon after the release of the first game, many people - myself included - were a little sceptical. Rushing out a follow-up less than 18 months later screamed “cash-in”, and news that the game was going to appropriate certain aspects from Bioware’s sci-fi MASS EFFECT series did little to assuage players’ concerns. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I think the MASS EFFECT series is excellent, with MASS EFFECT 2 in particular achieving near-masterpiece status and being one of the few games I’ve ever come across for which the description “cinematic” was actually justified (review here). Concern about the move from a silent, user-nameable protagonist hailing from one of three races and one of six different back-stories to a MASS EFFECT-esque fully voiced hero whose only adjustable characteristics were his/her gender and appearance didn’t even worry me unduly, and indeed last summer I wrote about the potential benefits of having a more rigidly defined protagonist to work with. To put it simply, I was more than willing to accept change in DRAGON AGE II if it led to genuine improvement.
Unfortunately, having completed my first playthrough of the new game, it’s hard to shake the feeling that more has been lost than gained. While the original was a PC game through and through, wearing its BALDUR’S GATE/ICEWIND DALE pedigree on its sleeve, the sequel seems to have been designed with consoles in mind first and foremost. Gone is the overhead camera in favour of an over-the-shoulder viewpoint that makes tactical gameplay frustrating if not near-impossible. Combat is sped up to the point that it feels as if it’s running in fast-forward and threatens to degenerate into mere button-mashing. Inventory management has been streamlined to the extent that you can no longer choose which armour or, in some cases, weapons your companions wear. The game is much smaller in scale, with the bulk of the plot unfolding within the confines of a single city and three or four locations beyond its walls. Whereas some particularly dedicated players took upwards of 100 hours to complete the original, I finished the sequel in just over 26 hours, having made sure to complete every single quest I came across (with the exception of a few so-called “side quests”, essentially fetch-and-carry missions with no real purpose other than to serve as filler and an easy means of earning a few additional experience points). Perhaps worst of all, the designers lazily regurgitate the same dungeon layouts multiple times, adding a rockfall here and opening up a door there in a cynical attempt to trick the player into believing they’re in a different area.
None of this does anything to counter the notion that the game was rushed out to make a quick buck and capitalise on the success of the MASS EFFECT games (despite the fact that ORIGINS actually outsold MASS EFFECT 2). It’s not all bad, though. In fact, it’s often rather good, and the fact that I blazed through it so quickly (it was released on Friday in Europe, a few days later than its North American launch) should be testament to its strengths. The plot, while less grand in its scope than that of its predecessor, is engaging, the characters are memorable and often a great deal of fun just to talk to, and the gameplay mechanics, while unquestionably dumbed down, remain enjoyable, even if scarcely a single combat encounter would pass without me wishing I could pull the camera back to a more sensible viewpoint. And the move from an anonymous protagonist to one with a fixed back-story and an actual voice does work wonders in making them come alive. The character art and animation, while still not a patch on that of MASS EFFECT 2, is a step up from ORIGINS, and this, coupled by some decent voice acting that injects genuine emotion into these at times crude-looking bundles of polygons (Eve Myles as elven mage Merrill, Victoria Kruger as saucy pirate Isabela and Gideon Emery as former slave Fenris are particularly impressive), means that you do actually end up caring about the various people who end up joining your party. As with Bioware’s previous games, various romance options are included and, in an impressive blow for equality in the video gaming world, can be embarked upon regardless of gender. (My randy protagonist ended up shagging three of her party members - two female and one male.)
That said, while the characters have certainly improved, the environments seem to have taken a step back. While the architecture of the city of Kirkwall, in which most of the game takes place, is impressive, the textures tend to be fairly blurry (even after installing the optional high resolution texture pack made available for PC and Mac users to download at the time of the game’s release), the colour palette is comprised mostly of grey and brown, and the lack of variety in terms of environments makes it all feel very repetitive. You do come across the occasional striking vista…
…but on the whole the game looks inferior to its predecessor, which offered far more variety and colour. It doesn’t help that, at the two highest graphical settings, the game runs like a dog, even on a Core i7 with a Radeon 5850 video card (not state of the art, I know, but way beyond the game’s recommended specifications). To be fair, the higher settings don’t add any additional detail - they instead concentrate on things like real-time lighting and depth of field blur - so I didn’t feel I was missing out on anything by playing with the slider at Medium, at which I was able to maintain a constant 60 fps with 4x anti-aliasing. It’s not a visually stunning game by any stretch of the imagination, and at times looks positively dated in terms of its presentation. Even the user interface looks like it was thrown together as a placeholder and never replaced - which is bizarre, because they could easily have reused the perfectly serviceable ORIGINS interface art.
There’s something annoyingly, well, slight about DRAGON AGE II. While the more personal, less grandiose nature of the storyline is not necessarily a bad thing this, coupled with the lack of environments and significantly shorter campaign than ORIGINS, plus the removal of gameplay mechanics and (for lack of a less pejorative word) consolisation of a series that previously wore its PC pedigree on its sleeve, makes it feel less like a full-blown sequel and more of a minor spin-off - albeit one sold at full price (around £30 for PCs and a truly shocking £50 for Xbox 360 and PS3 owners). It’s fun while it lasts, but it left me feeling a trifle short-changed and hoping that, if and when Bioware gets round to DRAGON AGE III, they’ll take more time to get it right and be less eager to reject their roots.