I hate the holidays.
Anyways, I finished Dragon Age II. For some reason I have been under the impression that people liked DA II less than its predecessor, Dragon Age Origins. As it had been very long since I last played Origins, the reason for this was somewhat unclear. Was Origins truly superior? It was certainly longer, that’s for sure. And I remembered vaguely that the combat was a bit more… expansive. But I remembered nothing beyond that. So I installed Origins and took another look at it, creating a mage character and playing some of the tutorial. While memories didn’t exactly come rushing back, seeing the interface, some of the events and dialogue, I started to form a more informed opinion on the differences of the two games.
First of all, the overall tone. Origins feels a lot more gritty and grimy. In the intro, darkspawn pour over helpless townsfolk, killing and maiming. The whole world is on the brink of destruction. And only the Grey Wardens, free men and women strong enough to survive the process of becoming one, can match the darkspawn onslaught.
Dragon Age II is a story, told by Varric Tethras, a beardless rogue dwarf with an automatic crossbow called Bianca. At the intro, the Hawke family is fleeing the darkspawn invasion, cutting them down by the dozens in the process and even defeating a mighty ogre. The main character himself is wielding a greatsword as big as he is.
So Dragon Age II is not exactly a gritty and serious. This shift in tone might be one of the key points that divided opinions. After touting Origins as dark fantasy, I guess fans went into the sequel with the same mindset. I’m not sure if this was a smart move, but it certainly was an interesting one.
Storywise most of Dragon Age II takes place after the events of Origins. DA II is divided into three chapters, with three years between each. Whereas Origins’ story was about defeating the darkspawn horde that was poised to send whole of Ferelden, and maybe even the world, into chaos and ruin, DA II was about Hawke fleeing to Kirkwall as a refugee and then making his place in his new home. Again, I liked the sequel better. It had a more personal feeling. While most of the time the world is not at stake, I was invested in the troubles of Hawke and his companions. Sure there are some world-shaking events happening in the game, but they (spoiler alert) are mostly just ripples of the choices Hawke makes while defending his home city from the conflict between the Templars and the Mage Circle.
The length. Oh, the length. According to Steam, I played Dragon Age Origins for 80+ hours. It was a bloody long game. And truth to be told, I remember three things about it: When you become a Grey Warden, killing the non-essential dragons and killing the final boss. Everything else is a kind of blur. All those side quests, all those characters, I have forgotten. Meanwhile, DA II took about 30 hours. There were only about 10-20 important characters in the game, including Hawke’s party. There were three main storylines in the game, all of which I remember. In short, DA II was a lot more compact and easier to process. Origins was simply too long and massive. Although, to be fair, it had a lot more on its plate. It had to describe the world and the mythos in addition to delivering its own story.
One of the things that immidiately annoyed me when I started to play Origins again was that the Warden’s dialogue was not voice acted. I have a sneaking suspicion that I might actually not replay the game for that single reason. This is a two-bladed sword: On the other hand, the lack of voice acting gives the option to add a lot more dialogue, since only half of them has to be voice acted. But having only one side talk makes the dialogue sound silly. Especially after having been used to full (and good) voice acting. (Side note: In Mass Effect, female Shephard sounded a lot better than male Shephard, while in Dragon Age II it is the complete opposite. Male Hawke does not have the typical gruff action hero voice, but a pleasant one, capable of being both soft and hard as necessary.)
Hawke in Dragon Age II has a lot less lines than Warden in Origins, but since they must be both brief and sound good when voiced, the things Hawke has to say feel a lot more interesting and memorable.
And finally, the mechanics. Dragon Age Origins is a mess. Every stat influences something, there are both combat traits and noncombat traits, and some of the things even influence dialogue choices. There are such jewels as Pickpocketing, and if I remember correctly, Trapmaking. When has Pickpocketing ever been a skill worthy of developing in a computer roleplaying game? I could elaborate on my dislike for Pickpocketing and Trapmaking, but I think I’ll save that for later. In any case, I never got a good hold on Origins’ system. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it breaks extremely easily. I have never liked video games that have the same skill points divided between dialogue and combat skills. DA II just has a simple attribute system and a manageable amount of traits per character. And there are no levels when you don’t get to choose new traits. While DA II keeps combat and everything else separated by a solid brick wall, the system is clear and intuitive, unlike Origins’.
Combat in Origins was reminiscent of roleplaying games of old. Enemies came in all shapes and sizes and there was truly a lot of variance. Nearly every combat was different. The player had to know pretty much every trick there was. This meant that the difficulty curve was generally quite horrible. Some fights were easy as pie: Just toss the fighter and few fireballs and voila. But then there was the occational well-armoured guy with a fire immunity. These fights were hair-tearingly annoying. I remember one random wolf attack, which was pretty much the most difficult fight in the game. After a while I switched to Easy, as I got tired of the god damn boring hit point chipping contests.
Dragon Age II, however, is extremely streamlined. There are minions that fall in just a couple of hits, normal guys that take a longer time to kill, but are generally suspectible to special attacks, special guys like rogues and mages that can wreak havoc unless dealt with, Lieutenants that require the whole party to defeat, and bosses who generally require both the whole party and a strategy. Because of this quite rigid definition, nearly every fight is essentially the same: Kill the minions with sweeping attacks, identify rogues and mages and kill them, tie the normal guys with the fighter in melee and finally kill the lieutenant/boss.
One thing I like in Dragon Age II is the cross-class combo system. The characters have special attacks that leave the enemies with a class-specific status for a few moments. Warriors Stagger, Rogues Disorient and Mages leave the enemies Brittle. Every class also has some attacks that deal extra damage to enemies with statuses from other classes. For example, Mighty Blow from Warrior deals four times as much damage to Brittle enemies as against normal enemies. These abilities are the highlights of fights. Getting a tough enemy Brittle so you can finish him with a single blow is fun. Identifying when to use the abilities is a key part of fighting at the harder difficulties.
In the end, I turned Dragon Age II’s difficulty up when I got bored of the repetitive combat. As enemies dealt more damage and took more punishment, the fights became a lot more interesting. While the basic flow of the combat is always the same, it feels more like a puzzle. And they are a nice break to the dialogue. While not a perfect solution, I feel that it is better than Origins’ frustrating mess.
So there. Dragon Age II is better than its predecessor in almost every way. I hope the eventual sequel will make the combat more reasonable (walking down the street at night nets you about 30 to 40 dead bandits), and keeps on streamlining.