It's Thursday, the weekend is within sight but just out of reach, the weather is bouncing between grim and optimistic and, having a col,d I've just sneezed all over my computer screen. On top of that, a development studio I thought would never let me down has wasted 30 hours of my life. Carl gave BioWare's Dragon Age II a nice round seven in his review and, for the most part, it is a perfectly solid game. We arguably have to review what is in front of us, not what we want a game to be, but review criteria shifts as the landscape of gaming shifts. Judging the worth of a game is much like judging the worth of a legal case - opinions and reasoning are based on precedent.
Precedent suggests that BioWare could have (should have) done better, all fingers pointing to a scenario that suggests there was something of a sprint to the finish. We have been spoiled, in essence, by the surging splendour of the western RPG, helped in no small way by BioWare themselves. Games that offer choice and freedom, action and story, customisation and character.
God, Dragon Age II was a disappointment...
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour's Loot
RPGs have always had a thievery element to them; some, like Diablo and Torchlight, make the carrot the largest reason for us gamer donkeys to continue onwards. But not Dragon Age II. No, as Hawke you find that items really don't matter that much. You can't change your companions' clothes (you can't even really check their status), you can't fiddle about with any of the things you could in the first game.
You can change Hawke's armour, of course, and swap out your characters' weapons and trinkets. But with so much of what you pick up being utterly worthless junk, not to mention the complete lack of exploration opportunities offered in the game, you'll barely touch the inventory.
Being Kirkwall's Bitch
The first game cast you as 'The Hero of Ferelden', saving the land - the only one who really could - from the plague of the darkspawn Blight. It was you, choosing class, creed and species, making your mark on the land. The whole land. Now I have no problem with a game spending ten years in a single place, in one city, as Dragon Age II does. But you'd expect that city to change and shift over those ten years. A lot can happen in ten days let alone ten years.
But no. The city barely changes, not visually anyway. Your companions don't really evolve as such. You change house, but you don't really feel the change at all. It just skips forward, with no real nod to the journey undertaken. Gone is the epic adventure of the first game, and in comes city politics and race relations.
Well...after twenty hours or so. First of all you have to spend an inordinate amount of time being a general dogsbody and doing odd jobs for everyone. This wouldn't be so bad only you're constantly accosted by the same bandits, the same assassins, the same mercenaries, the same shades and abominations. Dispatching the different enemies in the game is exactly the same every single time until you find yourself face to face with a dragon or a rock wraith or varterral. Which brings me on to my next point...
Violence Is The Only Option
There used to be so many options in BioWare games. Go back to KOTOR and before and you find that you can talk your way out of things, reprogramme droids, hack computers, pick locks and sneak around. There are non-violent dialogue options in Dragon Age II but they're pretty meagre at best, the game constantly funnelling you into combat.
That's not to say that the combat is bad, but once you've played it for half an hour, you've pretty much seen it all. Playing as a mage expands the game a little - the breadth of your abilities determining how tactical you can be as you order your warrior companions forward, not that you really need to. The tactics slots work well, you rarely need to pause the game. But the combat fatigue sets in after half an hour. There's no variety, no change in dynamics, it's just the same thing, in the same setting, with the same lack of alternatives, time and time again.
Cut and Paste
This extends to the level design. They all look quite nice, fairly detailed. But they're all exactly the same. If I ever have to see that stretch of the goddamn Wounded Coast, or traipse up Sundermount ever again or have to look at the inside of a guild's hideout (all of which are strikingly similar) one more time, I might cry.
When BioWare took on Mass Effect 2 one of the biggest criticisms was the cookie-cutter nature of the side missions. So they sorted them out, and each one was unique and vibrant and actually pretty damn awesome. True, there were some who missed the Mako, but making each side mission noticeably different took time and effort. ut the critics and public alike appreciated and applauded.
Not so here. Too much to do, too little time. Whether under pressure from the publisher or a target they set themselves, there was clearly not enough time spent here. Copy and paste doesn't work in any line of serious work and, whether through laziness (I hope not) or time constraints, Dragon Age II is much poorer for it.
Frankly My Dear, I Just Don't Give A Damn
My apathy regarding Dragon Age II could be down to the relative lack of interaction between the characters, the uninspiring quests or the absence of any particular reward. But the painfully average nature of the game's mechanics - the console battle system let down by any kind of diversity in terms of the creatures you fight - only serves to draw more and more attention to the storyline.
And that's not great either.
BioWare have experimented with different ways of telling a narrative with this one - the Varric mechanic an interesting, if underused, variation on the unreliable narrator theme - but the story's just not that interesting. There are reasons most RPGs don't have you running errands as a relative nobody for the first half of a game. There's plenty of high drama, but none of the fine narrative setpieces of the first game. Certainly nothing in there to rival Mass Effect's Virmire level or KOTOR's twist. The difference? I just don't care, and the game never tries to really make me. BioWare and EA were able to get away with some of the worst DLC EVER on the strength of people really wanting, needing to see what happened to Morrigan. I can't say the same particularly about anyone in this game.
I had only excitement for Mass Effect 3. Now I'm worried that it's going to be big, shiny and (dear god please let me be wrong) on the strength of this, really, really boring.