This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Dragon Age II.
The opinions I've been hearing on Dragon Age II have been, like the Burger King Kid's Club, rather absurdly mixed. I've bent an ear to many who call it a vastly improved epic perfectly spiced with all the gay sex that cut out of Mass Effect 2 and an equal number who call it a rushed out cash-in with more loading time than a truckful of giant sea turtles. But even before we begin, I can tell you this: there are two kinds of games in this putrid world of ours, those who are made mainly because developers thought it would be a lovely thing for everyone to play and those who are made mainly because the developers thought it would be lovely to add another ballroom to their golden money palace. And Dragon Age II is almost certainly in the second camp. How do I know? Because it's called Dragon Age II. Original thought was apparently at such a premium that they couldn't even think of a subtitle. I can think of a few: Dragon Age: Intermission, Dragon Age: Loading..., or perhaps just Dragon Age: Bhluur.
Actually, this is harder than I thought, because before a subtitle can be thought up we need to determine exactly what Dragon Age II is about. Much like the first one, it's all about the representative messages and can't go five minutes without someone being really heavy-handedly racist against mages, elves, dwarves, goldfish, et cetera, which is why I find it somewhat ironic that you're only allowed to play as a human this time around, when the first game let you pick from an entire... Burger King Kid's Club of races and backstories. Here you're always a human with the surname Hawke, so to compensate for the lack of choice other characters can actually address you by name. Whoop di fucking doo. And I'd just like to point out that this is quite a long game, so being a male character with the first name Ethan is going to stop being funny very fast.
During the events of the first game, Hawke and his or her family were driven out of their homeland to a city across the sea, a place with such a huge intolerance for immigrant refugees that you will spend your entire existence there being set upon by gangs of identical dudes every thirty fucking seconds.
But this is just the setup. Who's the villain? What's the overarching threat? Wherefore begins the grand adventure? What, in a nutshell, is Dragon Age II about? Well, it's about seeing how long you stretch a game with a total of about seven rooms. With nothing so harrowing as an engine change on the cards, every character is still assembled from the rather lacking Dragon Age 1 asset pool, including the shiny haircuts made from varnished wood and the universally identical bodies that leave Hawke's elderly mother with the same massive, curvaceous bosoms as a table dancer, Freud Freud.
What is new is that several cues have been taken from Mass Effect, and not just the fixed surname, mono-species protagonist of unrecorded gender and profession. The conversation system now uses a radial Mass Ect-sy interface, with every choice between between the nice response, the nasty response, and the open quotes "witty" response that never fails to make me want to cave in Hawke's smug fucking face with a book of after-dinner speeches. Also, the whole game favors a Mass Effect hub-based mission system over Dragon Age 1 's adventure from place to place model, never actually leaving the one city. Now, you could say this was a stylistic choice rather than a cynical attempt to do as little work as possible, but so many questing environments are reused without a single alteration you'd think the dungeons had started opening franchises.
There's also been a bit of a tweaking in the combat, and when I say tweaking I mean in a crystal meth sense. The idea that your character targets whatever enemy they happen to be looking at would be really intuitive if we were fighting in fucking narrow corridor, so any intention you might have to play with a skillful strategy will swiftly descend into wailing in and mashing attack like there's a really fat spider on the end of your sword. The fights seem so token and unreal, like they needed to throw in fifty percent more combat at the last minute to appease the violent shithead marketing board. It doesn't seem to matter where you are; every fifty paces another group of murderers with some contrived grievance teleport in and fight you to the death. You could be strolling through the park on a summer's day and get savaged by a bunch of art students upset that you walked in on their life drawing class. And they always, always spawn in a few more when you think they're done, like the game revels in the awkwardness of its controls:
"Hey, Dragon Age II, I can't even see who I'm fighting because the camera doesn't have the courtesy to look where I'm looking!"
"We know! That's why we just spawned ten guys directly behind you, and now they've killed all your mages. Ha ha hady, ha ha!"
Mind you, my mages died less often after I'd gone through all their tactical menus and added the request that they drink a potion if they fall below ten percent health, because otherwise potions are like After Eight mints and everyone's too polite to take one.
Commanding your allies on the fly is as big a nightmare as ever, especially if Hawke dies and suddenly you have to control someone directly with a completely different array of skills, so it's like your nice, familiar hatchback has spontaneously transformed into a submarine. It's hard to dislike them, though, because the extensive dialogues between party members is one of the few areas that haven't been skimped on. For the record, I ended up hooking up with the gay mage fellow and everyone else spent the rest of the game subtlely asking him about the size of my turgid warrior cock. This was the only relationship that made sense to me. My version of Hawke had a floppy hairdo and a self-deprecating Hugh Granty sort of face and tended to favor the glib remarks, so my interpretation of the character was that he took it up the arse like a champ.
But where Dragon Age II falls hardest for me is that I'd almost say it doesn't have a plot at all. I don't get an overall sense of what I'm supposed to be working towards. At first you're questing to raise money for a treasure-hunting expedition which has "UNEXPECTED BAD SHIT WILL GO DOWN" written all over it in Christmas lights, but then it gets pulled off without a hitch, and you return to the city and live rich and comfortable for several years. There's still two-thirds of the game to go. Then you're called in to deal with an uprising, which was sort of hinted at in the previous section, so you start to think maybe this is the overarching story. But then all gets sorted out and the time skips ahead another few years before the remaining third of the game. The only point anything resembling a world-threatening fantasy adventure story occurs is right at the end for the sequel hook.
It's a holding pattern, that's what it is. It's someone being kicked out onto the stage to nervously tell stalling anecdotes while they desperately put the play together, no so much "a hero's journey" as "a hero piddles around for a while gobbing off his handsome friend."
- Occasionally just prefers to snuggle: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- There's only like three dragons in the whole game anyway, they should have called it Racism Age
- So how about calling it Dragon Age: Gobbing Off