Dragon Age returns next month, gracing consoles with its blood splattered faces, sexually pliable characters, and most importantly, a host of improvements in its user interface. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The last few years in the video game industry have been rife with sequels and knock-offs. With a few exceptions (Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain), the blockbusters of 2010 were all based on prior source material. This year isn’t much better. So far we have Dead Space 2, Kill Zone 3, Little Big Planet 2, and Dragon Age 2. It seems that 2011 might shape up to be year of the sequel—part 2.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against sequels. I’m in the gaming industry. I understand that a studio has to make a buck. What I object to is sequels at the expense of innovation. A sequel that copies but does not innovate is undeserving of the property to which it owes its name. Also, gamers are savvy consumers. They know when they’re being copied to, and they won’t suffer it.
This all brings me back to Dragon Age 2. I was not among the teeming throngs that hailed Dragon Age as the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. I played the game, I enjoyed it (except those damn dwarven caves!), but it was by no means my platonic ideal of an RPG video game. I was coming off a Mass Effect high, and Dragon Age lacked many of the qualities that had endeared the Mass Effect series to me: meaningful dialogue and story choices, a main character I was attached to, a quick and intuitive advancement system. All this made me a little skeptical of Dragon Age 2.
I admire Bioware, though. The company could have sat on the Dragon Age property, relying on the success of the first game to carry it into four or five more iterations (Tomb Raider, ahem). Instead, the studio learned from the lessons of Mass Effect. It revisited the game, preserving the story while allowing clunky mechanics to slough away. The result is a game that I can get behind.
At its core, Dragon Age 2 seems to provide the same basic experience. A single player has a party of adventurers who interact with the world through their abilities and back stories. Sound familiar? It’s a pretty good analog to D&D, only it’s a solo experience. What’s markedly different in Dragon Age 2 is that the choices you’re given are more meaningful. The story engaged me from the start by giving my character dialog choices that forced me to make tough choices about who my character was. Having a voiced main character (another departure from Dragon Age 1) makes a big difference in this respect. I’m given choices that make me want to play the main character. In the first Dragon Age, I always wished I could swap out my character for one of the secondary characters.
I mentioned the user interface. Bioware’s developers seem to have endeavored to clean up the system, making it more intuitive through helpful information and better organization. The advancement system explains more clearly what attributes and abilities do, and spells are formatted in a tree-like progression system that makes it easier to visualize. The interface has lots of visual cues, like colors and symbols, that make it easier to navigate. I was particularly fond of the symbols next to the dialogue options, which give hints about what a dialogue option means. (During Dragon Age 1 , more than once I picked a dialogue option, thinking it meant something and finding out it was exactly the opposite of my intent).
Dragon Age 2 has a similar graphic style as the previous one, and the soundtrack is amazing (great D&D music!). I can’t say much more to laud the game. I suppose my only lingering reservation is that the advancement system for a class is so open that I don’t identify a particular character with his or her abilities. That is, in Dragon Age 1, even though Morrigan was a shapechanger, you could ignore those abilities and advance her down an entirely different path. Dragon Age 2 maintains that tradition, making character seemingly unincentivized to follow a particular area of study. Some people might enjoy having the platitude of options. I prefer a character to have a story that speaks to the mechanics, even at the expense of options.
Will Dragon Age 2 sell me on the franchise? I’ll have to wait and see the rest of the game. For now, all signs point to yes.