Punctuation wrangler and orthographic enforcer, feminist, atheist, glutton, geek, scatterbrain, and Seattlite.
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  • Dragonier! Agier!: My first playthrough

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    This game. What a mess. But it’s a fun mess.

    Last time, you’ll remember, I tried to come to terms with my love/hate relationship with Dragon Age: Origins, and came to admire the way it tells its story. Now I’ve finished my first playthrough of Dragon Age 2 as a warrior. I thought I would be a mage first, but I knew I wanted to play as Lady!Hawke first… and I didn’t want a warrior Bro!Hawke… thus Esme Hawke! She is awesome. My character is the best and everyone else’s are losers. Here are my thoughts on the game after my first time through. Spoilers!

    Dragon Age 2: Esme, in fancy blue heavy armor, talks srs bizns with some soldiers.

    Combat & Class
    Two things stand out at the beginning of the game: the combat is fast, punchy, and bloody and the UI is snazzy. I was very excited about this when I played the demo and when I continued into the full game. Hackin’ and slashin’ bad guys was fun, for a while. The excitement faltered as each battle became more of the same routine. There was little variety in enemies: humans, elves, dwarves (of various factions but all the same faceless henchmen); lots of the same five or six types of demon; millions of skeletons; and billions of spiders (arachnophobes may find relief with a mod that replaces them with dogs). Earning new skills and recruiting new party members would freshen things up for a while, but I found myself, as in DAO, teetering between party micromanagement being too tedious for the lack of challenge and AI tactics being unreliable and frustrating. I won’t knock it too much now because I only played on normal. I look forward to playing on hard for my next playthrough and hope to find it more engaging. Only once did I have a thrilling victory in which I was surely a goner, but managed to keep everyone alive by making thoughtful, tactful strikes and defensive moves (Go Anders! Yay!). My party died twice during this playthrough, both times due to rushing and careless positioning.

    I would have considered myself in the minority when I complained that DAO’s skills were superfluous and often redundant. I assume that many loved how DAO covered nearly every possibility of varieties within classes, and I’d guess they’d consider DA2 having been watered down and restrictive. I wouldn’t disagree, but I’m happy with it for the most part. My biggest complaint—the redundant skills—has been treated to a perfect and now-obvious solution with skill upgrades. I did find the skill trees restrictive and often wished my companions could use the one tree that wasn’t available to them (there’s a mod). My dislike for tanking has been somewhat alleviated in DA2, with so few blatant threat manipulators. I was able to avoid relying on tanking for most of the game, replacing it with shutdown from Entropy magic and Varric’s control. When Bethany was around, I ran with three mages and Hawke as a two-handed warrior, respeccing to a weapon-and-shield tank when tougher battles, like the high dragon, were ahead. But again, this was normal mode. We’ll see how hard mode changes.

    DA2: A dwarf speaks to Hawke: "I just want to get out. With my dead guards. Thanks for that." Hawke's possible answers are "Then get going." and "You're annoying. And dead."

    Setting
    The setting is where the game really suffers from wasted potential. The city state of Kirkwall is central to everything in the game and has so much promise. Yet, I can’t remember when a game has given me such extreme disillusion as when I realized that from act to act, Kirkwall doesn’t change. It was as disappointing as when I realized that I was going to be seeing the same levels over and over again. I would hope that in a story so focused and centralized on a single setting, the setting would be treated as a character in its own right. Sadly, Kirkwall is static.

    Kirkwall is also disturbingly xenophobic. So much so that I want to write about that in a separate post. Forthcoming!

    DA2: Flemeth stands near a mountaintop altar with the party behind her.

    Characters & Narrative
    Like in DAO, the characters in DA2 absolutely shine. Again, if there is one reason to play these games, this is it. And while it’s certainly the companions who really drive the story, at least the main plot, I was really pleased at how personal Esme’s story seemed.

    I typically stuck to the Green Twig dialog …branch… and chose the Purple Jewel Heart quite a bit too. I was happy to find that the responses’ role in the game is almost purely cosmetic; there’s no visible point system tracking how Red Fist or Blue Halo-Wing Thing you are, nor any popups telling you how many points that last remark earned you. That tracking system is there, offering you opportunities based on your previous choices, it’s just invisible. I found that this allowed me to choose based on the situation and not worry about missing out on Green Twig points. I could be Purple Mask with Varric and Isabella, Red Fist with that dummy Sebastian and when the situation is stressful, and Green Twig— KRAKEN’S BALLS WHAT THE HELL DO THESE ICONS MEAN ANYWAY?!

    The first and second acts, aimless as they were, were given life by Esme’s relationship with Bethany. In the first act (after Varric’s narration carried us through a boring ship passage and dropped us off just in time for some boring quests and coin-scrounging), she and Bethany bonded over some plotting against uncle and taunting templars. Then we were ready for the Deep Roads and frame-Varric took over again, sharing some seriously heavy foreshadowing with Cassandra. I totally bought the suspense. This led, of course, to Bethany’s tragic departure with the Grey Wardens. Esme took this pretty hard and became a little careless in the second act. She sold Feynriel’s soul to a demon. Anders, with whom Esme had a little thing going on after some flirting, dumped her ass in anger and jealously told her he hopes she can find happiness with Merrill. She did.

    DA2: Esme and Merrill lie side by side in bed, chatting during a cuddle.

    The romances were something I really didn’t care much for in DAO or the Mass Effect games. I would only pursue one if I actually felt attraction toward a character, and Garrus and Zevran had previously been the only lucky ones. Well, Merrill is Merrill and who the hell can resist that? Much more thought and effort has been put into the romances in DA2, and this was clear to me in a couple ways. I appreciate that there is somewhat inconsequential flirting without having the game commit you to a person, and the actual going to bed part happens earlier, meaning it isn’t the ultimate goal of the relationship. The sex scenes themselves, however, were ridiculous. Just absurd and embarrassing to look at. I’ve had no problem with the uncanny valley in these games, but this came close. Watching the two in-game models try to be intimate was like seeing a child mash two Barbie dolls against each other and make smoochy sounds. I fully expected Cassandra to interrupt Varric at this point, the camera cutting to him wrapping his arms around himself and wagging his tongue about with his eyes closed. But, nothing. Well, some pillow talk and Merrill being adorabibble. My thought when the frame tale didn’t cut in was that BioWare is taking these sex scenes far too seriously. Still, I’m thankful they treated the rest of the romances and the gender identity of the characters and players more seriously.

    Back to the main story: Isabella’s MacGuffin turns out to cause a power vacuum in the city, which leads to the Chekov’s Gun making the big bad’s honest but misguided political motivations irrelevant, all while Hawke continues to collect Red Herrings out of trash cans to pay for the equipment she doesn’t need. [ETA: I just realized that Anders’s Justice-B-Gon potion was a Red Herring. So we have the climax of the story reliant on a MacGuffin, a Red Herring, and a Chekov’s Gun. Love it!] The climax was exciting, but cheapened by the game’s reluctance to hold people responsible for their actions, as it writes Meredith, Bartrand, Kelder, and others off as crazy. Such weakness in the storytelling takes the place of the simplistic, tiresome trope of good vs evil that we saw in the fight against the Darkspawn in DAO. From a social justice standpoint it’s worse; what does it say to a player who struggles with our own society’s marginalization of mental disability?

    On the one hand, I admire the self reflection that was put into making DA2. Through its characters and focus on political issues for its main story, I think it effectively realizes the potential of the series. On the two hand, there’s a lot to be upset about. The setting was static and the story was at times cheap, gimmicky, frustratingly boring, and even insulting. On the three hand, this game is amazing—but a flock of pigeons couldn’t make a bigger mess.

    DA2: Esme gives an angry look, the corner of her mouth crooks up a bit.

    More to come. In the meantime, read up on all the awesomeness available at the #DA2CC tag.

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