Dragon Age 2 is a stagnant, fragmented experience perhaps best described as the Two-Star Tapas Restaurant of Role Playing Games. My time with it felt akin to attending a dinner party and being fed unsatisfying side dish after unsatisfying side dish while awaiting a main course that never arrives. And then realizing that I have been handcuffed to my chair.
"Maybe I miss the journey," I said to myself, trying to put my finger on why I was so thoroughly disenchanted with this game. Compared with its epic, far-ranging predecessor Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 is a bit of a homebody—the narrative concerns itself entirely with the city of Kirkwall, and so players are rarely given the opportunity to leave the city's cramped and dusty alleyways.
I have played games that relied on recycled locations before, but rarely has one felt as half-baked and haphazard as DA2. Over the course of the 35 hours it took me to complete the main campaign, I lost count of how many times I trundled through Hightown, Lowtown, Darktown, Daytown and In-Betweentown. (Only two of those are made up.) And as if the hunched, straightjacked feel of Kirkwall weren't restrictive enough, any adventure outside its walls takes place upon either a single set of cliffside trails or within one of a couple of identical caves.
But although DA2's claustrophobically unchanging backdrop is a mark against it, that alone didn't seem entirely responsible for my distaste. And really, I'm not ready to say that I necessarily prefer the sweeping, Lord of the Rings-esque narrative of Origins. If David Simon's HBO masterpiece The Wire taught us anything, it is that when told properly, the story of a single place can be as compelling, complex and satisfying as even the most globe-trotting of epics.
So clearly there must be other problems with this game. Okay then. To start with, navigation is a bungled mess. Kirkwall is a splintered, fragmented city, and each of its districts is separated from the others by a map and a loading screen. These maps are divided into three unchanging sections: City Day, City Night, and the aforementioned Trails Outside Of The City. Quest goals are so explicitly highlighted that they kill any desire players might have had to wander, not that the design of each area allows for much wandering anyway. By midway through the first act, I had accumulated so many sidequests (or in the game's parlance, "quests") that they had blurred together into a disorienting brown stew of vague objectives. Someone needs me to help a kidnapped mage
and someone else needs help kidnapping a mage
and... something about a merchant
I go to a cave or a warehouse not because I know where it is, but because it has a glowing arrow hanging over it on the map. I have a conversation, kill some dudes, and go back to where I started, only loosely aware of what it is that I just accomplished. My rewards feel hollow—item management has been scaled back so dramatically as to be borderline insulting, and the approval and disapproval of my compatriots feels transparent and inconsequential. Party members' outfits cannot be altered, and hundreds of items are automatically marked as "loot" and unceremoniously sorted into a junkpile. In a weird sort of way it feels like I'm playing an up-res'd version of Dragon Age: Legends, the Facebook tie-in game for Dragon Age 2.
Surprisingly, the script is another area where Dragon Age 2 falters. Writing has often been one of BioWare's greatest strengths, particularly the work of DA2's head scribe David Gaider. But the overarching story here has some profound pacing problems; the first act is scattered and unpleasant, the second act feels like a third act, and the actual third act sits in a sort of limbo between being thematically interesting and structurally unnecessary.
While dialogue in Origins could become fairly ponderous, it at least had a welcomely dark sense of humor and frequently delved into topics of surprising philosophical depth. Comparatively, dialogue in DA2 is all flash and no substance; most of the jokes stem from self-aware mockery and pop culture references, and with a few notable exceptions, the main characters' inner conflicts are pretty thin gruel. The script simply lacks the chewiness of Origins' wandering digressions, and feels like a streamlined, tribute-band version of the original.
Worse, Dragon Age 2's jargon and lore manages to feel ridiculous even by fantasy RPG standards. Much of the narrative concerns itself with a conflict between the shackled mages of the Kirkwall Circle and their occasionally overzealous Templar captors. And yet several of my party members were unabashed renegade mages, spraying blood magic about while fighting
alongside Templars. The Qunari, a race of emotionless half-giants who serve as one of the story's primary antagonists, speak in such a hobbled mire of orcish gobbledygook that it's all but impossible to take anything they say seriously. And as was so often the case in Origins, weighty conversations are frequently undertaken whilst their participants are covered in comical gouts of enemy blood. Sometimes it gets all over everyone's lips. Yikes.
Codex entries are pretty egregious too, and feel inserted into the game half-seriously, more out of a sense dutiful necessity than any real passion for the broader mythology of Thedas and the Dragon Age universe. "The foul miasma known as chokedamp clogs and swells in every corner of the Darktown." Wow, guys. You couldn't have simply copied in the codex from the first game?
Characters are similarly undercooked, with a few noteworthy exceptions. The lionhearted guardswoman Aveline, wonderfully voiced by British television actress Joanna Roth, stealthily became my favorite character and the only person in Kirkwall with an arc that felt genuine and earned. Torchwood's Eve Myles lends a good deal of humor to her performance as the elf-witch Merrill, though in the end it's a bit of a thankless role.
None of the other characters are particularly offensive, though none really stand out, either. But past BioWare games have always had that "one" character; the guy or gal we love, the one we quote to our friends, the one we must have in our party come hell or high water. In Dragon Age 2 there is nary a Shale to be found, nor an HK-47, an Urdnot Wrex or a Mordin Solis.
At least the pacey new combat is fun. It's a marked upshift from the pause-heavy CRPG battles of Origins, and while it lacks the strategic depth of its predecessor it is punchy and satisfying enough to remain engaging for the duration of the game. Interestingly, I played DA2 on both 360 and PC and found combat to be significantly better suited to the 360 controller, particularly when playing as a Rogue. Probably a matter of personal preference, but still noteworthy.
On Normal difficulty, battles quickly devolve into bloody, blasting melees that are over almost as quickly as they begin. Switching to Hard certainly made things more engaging, but also highlighted a number of design flaws in the combat system. In particular, the amount of attention each character attracts from enemies feels a bit off, and the Taunt ability is far less effective than it was in in Origins. As a result, combat in DA2 feels much more chaotic and difficult to manage than in Origins, though for better or worse that does appear to be by design.
And it's a good thing that combat is fundamentally enjoyable, because the extreme lack of enemy and battleground variety leaves every fight feeling the same. With the exception of a few boss encounters, almost every single encounter is structured and paced identically, and boss battles would often end with my mage leading the boss in circles, whittling down its health as it gave brainless pursuit. Not exactly the stuff of legendary bard's tales.
When it comes down to it, Dragon Age 2 simply feels flat, unfinished and short on soul. In many ways it combines the advanced graphics of a current-generation videogame with the tedious inconsequentiality a casual Facebook title, and it seems expressly designed both to be accessible to newcomers and to easily accommodate post-release downloadable content. Its main storyline is a sloppily scripted tease for a grander tale that has yet to be told, and its side stories feel empty and pointless.
Time and again it forced me down a series of narrow paths with only the illusion of choice about how I would proceed. As I fumblingly made my way forward, I was shocked to find myself wondering if BioWare had simply made a misstep here, or if we had finally reached the sad, neutered destination towards which we've been heading for some time. Maybe I do miss the journey, after all.
Dragon Age 2 was developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts. It is available for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.
Kirk Hamilton is Paste's Games Editor. He is a musician and writer in San Francisco and can be found at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton. Email him at Kirk [at] PasteMagazine [dot] com.
Watch the trailer for Dragon Age 2: