There’s an old saying about pleasing some of the people some of the time…
The highly anticipated – and highly advertised – sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, was released on March 8th, 2011…much to the dismay of some of its “fans.” Apparently, a sect of the more vocal constituents of the preceding game have cried out to the Maker in agony, struck by despair at their sense of betrayal for receiving a game so horrible, it cannot be played. At least, if Metacritic.com’s own user-created reviews are to be regarded as a fair and balanced response to the sequel. Yes, the internet is always an excellent source for objective criticism.
But what’s strange is the vast difference in response from the critics’ reviews and the user reviews on Metacritic. Surely, the occasional fan will take umbrage at a game in a way that differs from the popular critical response, or even the majority view of other users, but Dragon Age 2 plays an unusual role here. The critical Metascore for the game is an 80/82/83 (360/PS3/PC), while the user scores are 4.3/3.8/4.3; it would be enough if only a handful of people reviewed the game, but there are a total of over 5,000 user reviews for this title alone! This kind of response for videogames is actually more common on Metacritic than you might think – for example, Call of Duty: Black Ops has an equivalent critic-to-user difference of an average of 30 points (using Metacritic’s critic-based scoring). But for a title like DA2 to receive this kind of blog-flogging from its prior supporters seems strange considering developer BioWare’s commitment to producing games with its fans in mind.
So, why all the hate? Is this game so terrible? Apparently, in this case, it does depend on who you ask. The venom that has been spewed forth – especially on BioWare’s own messageboards – about feelings of the title being “garbage,” “a failure,” and even the “death of the series” are extreme, to say the least. But this seems to be more the case of those vocal few who view the internet as an outlet for extreme opinions, rather than those who have assessed the game on its own merit. Considering the majority of these opinions surfaced in short time after the launch of the game, one wonders just how much critical attention the outspoken “fans” truly devoted to this title.
Perhaps some (if not most) of this is due to the antagonistic relationship outspoken gamers have with sequels. Some resent publishers for producing sequels, claiming that they are produced simply to capitalize on the success of their predecessors. While this is true (after all, why make a game you intend to make no money on?), these same individuals fail to recognize that many games now have the capacity to tell an interactive story far beyond the scope of games of yore. And these same games – and their corresponding stories – develop and grow with time. Sequels (and DLC, to an extent) are the extension of that philosophy.
To be fair, the game is not without its share of shortcomings. I wonder who the architect of Kirkwall was, and his obsessive compulsion to design each cave, warehouse, or Hightown mansion in a uniform way, much less the interior decorators, who furnish each home with frighteningly similar paintings, chairs, et cetera. Or, perhaps, the unusual amount of dropped equipment that the player will likely never use, especially with regards to armor. And I still chuckle when I visit the Viscount’s manor and hear the canned background speech from one poor soul who apparently has been forced to wait to see the ruler of the city for over three years, if the game’s chronology is to be believed.
But for all its idiosyncrasies, the game is a triumph of episodic gameplay, in its own way. The massive collection of quests gives the player a variety of different residents of Kirkwall to interact with – and sometimes kill and loot. Moral choices and lasting consequences are still as ubiquitous in Dragon Age 2 as they are in many BioWare games, but now the end results of your actions are more clearly defined in many cases, giving the player the freedom to direct the story better than its predecessor did. The combat system is fast and dynamic, the tactics portion of combat is more accessible and meaningful (with the addition of cross-class combos), and attributes and abilities are more balanced and multi-functional than before. And not once did I have to backtrack to a shop before completing a quest to sell loot, simply because I was “too encumbered” (take that, Fallout 3!).
One of the best moments you can appreciate how much detail has gone into the “streamlined” art direction of the game comes when you compare the detail between the different races and characters in both games. Elves and dwarves especially look more distinct from their predecessors’ counterparts, giving them a visual personality. But no other race has undergone such drastic alteration as the Qunari. Now endowed with horns, and a stone-like fleshtone, they remind me of what design choices went into the Klingons of Star Trek after their first appearances on the television series. But to truly see the difference, you will have to encounter one of your former companions. After I met up with one from the first game (no spoilers), I was amazed how much more animation and detail went into his (okay, little spoiler) appearance this go around.
Where DA2 shines the most is in its intricate story. According to lead designer Mike Laidlaw in the foreword for the strategy guide (beautifully designed by Piggyback Interactive), the development team “jokingly used to pitch [Dragon Age 2] as ‘two archdemons stapled together to lead a super Blight!’ Perhaps you can see why [they] wanted something different.” While this is apparently lost on some so-called “fans” of Dragon Age: Origins, the story is the beginning of an exciting epic, much as the Assassin’s Creed series has bravely adopted.
This game explores a rare place in the fiction of any game, one where politics and intrigue play out around the Champion of Kirkwall’s heroics. Quests and interactions with the major players in Kirkwall are some of the most fascinating moments in any role-playing game. Between the ruling Viscount Dumar, the Fereldan refugees (of which Hawke, the protagonist, is a member), Knight-Commander Meredith, and the Arishok – a figure who leads his people through the harsh tenets of the Qun – DA2 is stuffed full with moments of tension and believable characters with identifiable motives. The underlying parallels between conflicts of religion, race, and government in the game are almost painfully recognizable in our own modern world, only previously hinted at in Origins, now explosively relevant in the context of its sequel. To see these comparisons made in the fantasy world of Thedas makes for some intelligent storytelling that requires its audience to draw their own conclusions.
In the end, Dragon Age 2 is, in many ways, much like the entertaining supporting characters that ally themselves with Hawke. Like the saucy pirate vixen Isabella, it is a tarnished beauty; already in its short life, it has endured wildly varied support and extreme – and unfair – condemnation. Like Fenris, former Tevinter Imperium slave and fugitive, it has fought against the trappings of its former life, and been attacked for daring to live in a way different than the unfair expectations posited upon it by its users. And, maybe like Anders (imagine Malcolm X as a mage), I, too, rally to defend this enjoyable title from unfair persecution, and enjoy DA2 for what it is – a fun game.