I finished my last post with a rant after I completed the tutorial section of the game. I was expecting things to only go uphill from then on (wait, isn’t uphill worse than downhill?). As it turns out, bad things can get worse. But fear not, there’s always a solution. Read on to find out the extent of today’s whining.
Warning: The following post is very likely to contain Dragon Age 2 (and possible Dragon Age: Origins) spoilers. Continue at your own risk.
With Flemeth’s quest being the only thing I really remember from the tutorial section, I am deposited on a dock in Kirkwall. Apparently the city is full and the smart officials are instead of turning away refugee ships before docking, allowing them to dock and then telling the desperate arrivals that they can’t enter the city after their ships have left. Smart move. So now I have to weasel my way into Kirkwall because my uncle (it’s always the uncle isn’t it, never the aunt, grandfather or cousin twice removed) gambled away everything the once influential and wealthy family left him. I can gain entrance if I submit myself and my sister to slavery for a year (and in the game!). The prospect isn’t as bad as it sounds though, as the two groups you can associate yourself with are either mercenaries or thieves, who, as shady as they might be, don’t really have any real usage for two slaves other than mercenary dirty work. I imagine the story and the game would take quite a different turn if you were to become an ordinary slave doing manual labour for some nobleman.
No such luck though, as both groups expect you to do their dirty work for them, which means kicking names and taking ass. Same old, same old… I opted for surrendering myself to the non-thieving mercenary group because I’m not really a fan of all the sneaking and stabbing (I am fond of thieving though (and in the game! (ok I’ll stop))). So the head guy of the mercenary group, who just happened to be hanging out near the docks, tells me he needs proof that I’m good enough. I’m to scare someone to death and then report back. Ok, fair enough. Since the game is designed to be almost idiot proof I didn’t really need to listen to what the guy had to say and neither did I have to read the quest text. There was a marker on the map and that’s where I needed to go. But when I got down to the actual combat is where the problems started.
As you might recall, I was playing on nightmare difficulty. Which proved to be quite a challenge so far, but one I thought I can handle. But in this encounter I simply kept dying. I had the tanky chick ready to tank, I specced Bethany into healing and my character was there to deal damage with her enormous sword. The problem was that, even though I had some 12 abilities across the three of my characters, I only had one crowd control ability, one AoE ability and one heal. Coupling that with the fact that all of them were on really long cooldowns (the heal has some 20 seconds of a cooldown), and it was clear that even if I succeeded, I would be cutting it extremely close.
So I did exactly that. I spaced out my abilities, focused down targets, but got really weakened in the process, since Bethany drew a lot of aggro and the taunt was on such a long cooldown. Still, I probably would have made it if it weren’t for the developer’s decision to design fights not as “you fight what you see”, but as mini battle arenas. Additional enemies just appeared and seemingly backstabbed poor Bethany to death (who kept being knocked to the ground by backstabs for some reason) several times. Trying to position myself so that I had my back to a closed gate didn’t work either, as rogues jumping down from heaven ambushed the poor mage.
I almost gave up and quit. But then I remembered how much fun I had earlier at the beginning of the tutorial, when I was slaughtering everything. Obviously, DA2 isn’t really supposed to be played at the higher difficulty levels, because its idea of a difficult encounter isn’t an encounter that challenges the player, but one that frustrates him by having AoE targeting reticule default to targets on mouse over, no isometric view for better overview of the battlefield, instantly and randomly spawning enemies and ability design being centered around short, fast paced battles instead of long, strategic set-ups and prolonged fights (a lot of passive abilities, high cooldowns, small amount of abilities in general). So, in order to play the game as it was designed, I toned down the difficulty to normal. I really wanted to experience the same game I played in that awesome moment at the beginning of the tutorial and playing it on nightmare wasn’t how I was going to achieve that.
After making the adjustment I made short work of that quest and the game fast forwards a year, to the point when the debt has been repaid with Hawke and Bethany looking for work. I thought the narrative leap was quite strange, since the characters have barely developed in that one year and because seemingly they leave the mercenary guild to do even more freelance mercenary work. There really was no reason for that one year leap in the story except for making me feel stupid. Mission accomplished.
So apparently, a good way to make money is to go poking around in the Deep Roads. Incidentally, it’s also a good way to get killed. But I can’t complain, I love Dragon Age dwarfs, the Deep Roads and the Legion of the Dead (who are very similar to Warhammer’s Slayers). But I wasn’t even near travelling to the Deep Roads yet, because I needed to gather enough money to be accepted into the expedition. So off I go to make money. But not before the weird dwarf who dresses and acts like a pimp convinces me that I need him in my party (oh look, he hasn’t changed a bit from when I saw him as the narrator). Seeing as how I have an open spot and how he seems to wield a machine-crossbow, I take him in.
With the undwarfiest of dwarfs in tow I went to see the tanky chick, who became a guard captain. Typical. And then I did about a hundred of little menial tasks (called quests) in order to earn enough money for the big adventure. Nothing really stood out during that post-jump period and the only thing keeping me entertained was the fluidity of the combat and the entertainment I got out of chopping people to pieces in an appealing manner. Although the long cooldowns on abilities infuriated me and staring at the (once awesome looking) autoattack animations was starting to bore me.
Perhaps the most noteworthy is the encounter with the Dalish, where I was trying to complete the quest I was tasked with by Flemeth. I was surprised, nay shocked, to hear the Dalish elves speak with a thick accent. And I say thick not because I couldn’t understand them, but because I’ve never really encountered such a situation in games before. A whole fictional race or nation speaking with a strong accent? It would make some sense if you could draw parallels between the real nation and the fictional one, like between Orlesians and the French or between dwarfs and the Scottish (both drink a lot and dig underground?), but the Dalish being Welsh? Really? In addition, what happened to the nice sturdy-looking trailers that the Dalish used in their caravans? They seem to have been replaced with some sort of sand buggies with wind sails. I have to say I’m not a fan of the redesign at all.
About the quest itself, while it might sound like an interesting adventure on paper, it turned into running down completely linear corridors either up on the mountain or in a cave. I felt like I was playing one of the crappier Tomb Raider games. The foray didn’t even advance the story, as the answers given by Flemeth were extremely cryptic, which makes me suspect that she really doesn’t have a clue about what she’s doing and is simply a demented old woman who can turn into a dragon.
The only remarkable thing about the whole ordeal was perhaps one of the first well-designed NPCs in DA2 I’ve encountered – Merrill. She’s not as one-dimensional as the rest of the cast because of the duality of her character. On one hand she is obviously a very powerful blood mage, who, by nature, have to be consequentialists (the end justifies the means), making sacrifices to wield the frightful blood magic, but on the other she is very emphatical, self-conscious (in contrast with the power she wields) and seems unwilling to make sacrifices in the name of greater good. But since I’ve decided to be an asshat everywhere I can and because conversations with Merrill are a few of those rare opportunities, I’ve pretty much mercilessly abused her. Which makes me very sad (I’m not sad for the abuse that stuck-up tankybitch gets, though!).
Speaking about choices and options, I still feel like nothing I do significantly affects the gameplay. Even if you tell a potential companion you don’t want him in your party you still have the option to choose him for your lineup at any time. As I’m desperately trying to offend anyone I can, and desperately failing I might add, I get a feeling BioWare didn’t want the player to screw up the story they set up for them to play through. I’m pretty sure that I could call the mother of the Kirkwall’s mayor a darkspawn whore and get away with it. And it seems that you can let the relationship with your companions deteriorate completely with the only consequence being that you can now choose the “bad” ability in their ability trees. So far, the choice and consequence system seems really lackluster to me. I’ll have to see if it picks up later in the game.
I’ve also ran into Anders, although I didn’t recognise him at first. He seems to have turned from a cheerful and funny, kitten-loving mage into a depressed and cynical fade spirit-possesed mage. I really don’t appreciate the transformation. I acknowledge the need to have characters with depth in the game (as ironical as talking about depth of character in DA2 might be), but that can be achieved in many ways. As far as I’m concerned, the Anders from Dragon Age: Awakening was a well-rounded character and this version is nothing but a failed attempt at creating one. Emo mages or martyrs just don’t cut it for me. Even his appearance has changed for the worse. Sigh.
And finally, let me explain the idea behind the title of the post. Kirkwall is an example of city design with fundamentally good but misguided intentions. The streets are very symmetrical, barren and generally feel sterile and artificial. They are also quite narrow which might begin to feel a bit claustrophobic in some sections of the game. A city teeming with natives and fugitives should be packed full of people, yet when walking down the streets of Kirkwall you get the feeling that it’s nearly abandoned. Its layout makes hardly any sense and if I were asked in what order do the city districts follow from top to bottom, or even some of their names, I wouldn’t be able to remember. The city is also seemingly completely surrounded by sea, with almost as many docks as there are houses and yet there are almost no ships docked. It only has one tavern/pub and there are no indoor stores, it’s all stalls. Also, it seems to be lacking a smithy, a hospital and only has one religious structure, the chantry. You’d think that in a big trade port like Kirkwall, there would be a clash of cultures and religions. And yet, the only non-natives seem to be the Qunari and the occasional Fereldan.
Even though some of the art and design is great, the city on the whole feels extremely sterile and as lively as a rock. Ironically, as far as I gather the city used to be a mining/quarrying outpost and was partially built by the dwarfs. Which might explain it all, but I think that slapping a bit of lore background to go along with failed city design doesn’t do much to rectify the situation. The player will still feel awkward or at least feel like something is missing. The lore can’t plug every hole (as Blizzard has learned in the past).
It’s a shame that the day/night cycle is fully controlled by the player and can be switched at will. It destroys any feeling of the passage of time inside the game and doesn’t really help the immersion. Also, does it ever rain in DA2?
That will be one of the answers I’ll be pursuing in the next edition of “Blaq whines about Dragon Age 2”. I’ll be doing much more of the latter in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.