After eighteen games and several justifiable masterpieces, Bioware would be forgiven for thinking it had earned the benefit of the doubt. Only Blizzard and Valve have maintained similar standards of quality over a similar period, but neither studio comes close to Bioware’s productivity. The greatest development studio in videogames? There’s certainly a strong case for it, but the suspicion surrounding Dragon Age II tells a very different story.
The game’s marketing spoke of dynamic combat, conversation wheels, and streamlined inventory systems, and the Bioware faithful recoiled as if slapped rudely in the face. There were accusations of ‘dumbing down’ and ‘selling out’, as if 15 years of defining and redefining an entire genre meant virtually nothing at all. I feel differently.
The fact is that Bioware knows more about making RPGs than you, me, and almost the entire development community. If the decision was reached that changes needed to be made, I have confidence that it’s for the right reasons. Bioware is interested in progress, gamers want what they already know; for the record, the former is far more important than the latter.
The changes in Dragon Age II are less evidence of Bioware selling out than a clear indication that the old-school tropes of Origins are now a thing of the past. Turn-based combat, inventory micro-management, stat min-maxing; these aspects of RPG gameplay weren’t created with videogames in mind. They are a hangover from the days when adventures were conducted on tabletops with paper and dice, when playing a role was translated into rudimentary mathematics by necessity. Times have changed.
Dragon Age II adopts a combat system based around consistent button presses, which is far more immersive than Origins’ traditional stop-start approach, and becomes considerably more rewarding as you improve your repertoire of moves. The strategy is still there if you want it – combat can still be paused, you can still switch between party members and assign tactics – but Dragon Age II makes it fun for those who’d rather exist in the moment.
Inventory management has also been streamlined. For example, items that can’t be used by your party due to class restrictions are placed directly in a ‘Junk’ section, which can be sold in its entirety at the push of a button. Weapons and armour now have a star rating based on your level, removing the need to decipher and compare lists of stats. And there’s more, but anyone who sees this as proof that Bioware only cares about the lowest common denominator is suspiciously wide of the mark. Dragon Age II offers a truer definition of role-playing, and Bioware understands that numbers have little or nothing to do with it.
This is borne out by the story. You occupy the chainmail boots of Hawke, who fled his home in Lothering for the city of Kirkwall during the Blight, and over the course of ten years becomes a great hero. This is Dragon Age II’s most compelling idea: when the game begins Hawke is already a hero, and the narrative unspools in flashback as you fill in the details of his rise to power and prominence. Bioware uses this framing device brilliantly, allowing you to take a defined character and make him/her entirely your own, while deftly playing with the concept of the unreliable narrator.
The knock-on effect of this approach is that Dragon Age II takes place in time rather than space. Traditionally, RPGs present you with a sprawling world to explore, but Bioware confines the action to the city of Kirkwall to emphasise the changes wrought by your decisions and the passing years. This is novel not just for RPGs, but for videogames in general, and it’s the kind of bold decision that will be criticised by those used to thinking in terms of square feet rather than form and structure. For me, it brought the world of Dragon Age II to life in alien and exciting ways; for others, repeated visits to the same locations will be reason enough to ignore the game altogether, and in fairness, repetition is the game’s one obvious flaw.
Whether any of these changes are to your taste is difficult to predict, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Bioware’s thinking. Dragon Age II is different from its predecessor by design, but the constant is the characterisation and writing, which remains on another level to just about everything else out there. Unlike Origins, I had no single favourite character or preferred party set-up, but that’s because there are less false notes this time around.
The same could be said of the entire game. Dragon Age: Origins displayed mastery of a very tired formula, and I for one simply couldn’t get past the stilted combat, reams of text and cascading stats. Dragon Age II heads roughly towards Mass Effect and stops halfway, sweetening the compromise with an inventive structure and quite brilliant finale. If this is Bioware selling out, I’m first in the queue to buy.
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