Today, for what will be my final Dissecting DA2 installment, I want to discuss Dragon Age 2 as an RPG. Hypocritically enough, here’s what I don’t want to debate: What’s an RPG? Everyone has their own criteria and nobody’s distinctly right or wrong… unless you think Half-Life is an RPG just because you play a role and it’s a game. No. A definition that makes an RPG out of Pac Man is not valid. So let’s just all agree that they generally involve some combination of characterization and dialog, stories and adventures, numbers, loot, character advancement, and occasionally a miniature giant space hamster. Let’s agree that a game can place more emphasis on some of these elements than others, even stripping a bunch of them completely out of the mix. DA2 is an RPG. It’s just not the same kind of RPG Bioware established with Origins. To you, that either makes it way more awesome and playable or a crushing disappointment.
Let’s establish another ground rule while we’re at it. For the purposes of this post, I am not making value judgments about players here. If you like DA2 more than I did, I’m not assuming it’s because you’re dumb or because you have no appreciation for old school gameplay. Likewise, let’s be clear that although I’m disappointed in the game, it’s not because I can’t understand what Bioware was trying to do with it and it’s not (necessarily) because I’m stuck in a bygone era that deserves to be put out of its misery (although I might be).
Agreed? Cool. Let’s continue…
Before I talk specifically about Dragon Age 2, let me say something about my love of Origins to establish something of a baseline. I do not hold Origins up as the perfect game. I hold it up as a somewhat flawed, but ultimately fair compromise of modern design and “old school” gameplay. What I like best about RPGs -that I found in Origins- is that I get to create a character that, based on how I build and use him, has some kind of impact on the world he inhabits. Those choices, preferably, aren’t predicated just on combat. It’s about making decisions, decisions that are restricted by how I’ve created and evolved my character. Those decisions need to change how that world develops. (World in this case might be as big as a planet, but could also be as small as your kitchen. It depends on the nature of the story.) Oh, and I get to do it in a party-based game where I get to surround myself with an interesting and diverse cast of supporting characters whose development and usage I also control.
Origins, moreso than most recent RPGs that I’ve played, hit a sweet spot with these notions that I really appreciated. My character couldn’t just say whatever he wanted in dialog. It depended on how I built him. My character had to choose his focus in combat. (DA2 is fine on that front.) My character couldn’t make potions or traps because he lacked those skills. I had to use other members in the party to do those things. In combat, how much I could automate through the Tactics menu for each character was dependent on how I built that character. I’ll grant you the Tactics restrictions didn’t work as well in practice as they probably needed to, but I liked the idea that the number of configurable options were limited by character attributes. The point is, I made choices with my characters that changed what I could or couldn’t do in the game, both in and out of combat. And what I did in the game changed how multiple scenarios in the game played out. Throw in some dragons or a cool sword and I’ll eat that shit up almost every time.
The biggest reason I think Dragon Age 2 is a step back from Origins as an RPG is its total lack of ambition on these fronts. It didn’t always do it very well, but in a time when RPGs are made to be more and more simple, Origins was ambitious with gameplay. Dragon Age 2 is not ambitious, but not because it’s not as epic as Origins. Really, the smaller scale, the more personal story and relationships, are absolutely DA2’s best assets. In terms of how the player interacts with the game, however, it retreats in a huge way. What we have here is an RPG where you fight and talk. That’s the game. Oh, and none of how you’ve built your character affects the latter. So, although what’s left is mostly done really, really well, it’s not an ambitious RPG design by any stretch of the imagination.
What would have made Dragon Age 2 ambitious?
Let’s start with character building. Yes, in Dragon Age 2 each character class and individual character has some unique skill trees. That’s true. And, you know, some of those trees and skills are pretty bad ass, and for sure, there are more ways to specialize your party to maximize damage output. But what are those skill trees really? Every last one of them is a combat skill tree. Every single thing you click there is a combat skill. Nothing affects your ability to solve a problem outside of combat. Dragon Age 2 doesn’t want you to build a more interesting set of characters with a broad range of skills; it wants you to game the system to maximize damage output in battle. You want to show me ambition in game design for Dragon Age 2? Have the way I build Anders affect how he deals with the Justice aspect in his pysche. A more powerful Anders = one with less control over Justice. Then have how Justice affects him routinely affect how he’s able to deal with other people in the game and how they react to him. Do templars see him as an Apostate or a former Circle mage recruited to the Greywardens? Well, nobody really seems to see him at all beyond a grudging comment or two that will in no way affect the evolution of the game. Instead, what if a more powerful, out of control Anders caused templars to react much differently, opening and closing different quest lines if he’s around? In this game, whether you manage your relations to him towards friendship or rivalry, the story of Anders is going to a specific place and every other character in the game will treat him the same no matter what you do with his character over the course of playing the game.
Let’s also look the attribute model, which was just as faulty in Origins and Awakening as it is here. I think it’s important to acknowledge that old D&D (3.5 and earlier) and systems like it, did get some things right. (I’ve no exposure to D&D 4.0 and am not commenting on it one way or the other.) One of them is the sense of scale in place for attributes. There was a numerical range for something that classified someone as average, above average, heroic, or supernatural. There’s a measurable difference between a 20 in Intelligence and a 10 and it impacts in multiple ways what you can then do or not do in the game. In the Dragon Age franchise, you start with attributes around ten, get three more points to add in at each level, and occasionally a couple extra ones besides. When you level up you just throw your three points into the same couple of places you were throwing them into five levels ago. It requires no consideration and no thought. You just do it.
At the end of the game you’ll be in the 40s, 50s, or even higher depending on which DA game you’re talking about. Yes, continuously bumping up my willpower feeds back into my stamina/mana pool, but what does the number really mean? Am I really to believe having a 40 for strength and constitution is such a huge difference from having a 20 that I can go from set of plate X to set of plate Y? They’re both still plate, right? It’s not a role playing system. Role playing systems are meant to apply a series of rules to a game that logically reflect how something might work in a “real-world” environment. When you get an attribute point in a game like D&D (at least, pre-4.0) you have to think about where you’re going to put it. It’s special and you know you’re not going to get a lot of them. No, you’re probably not going to put a point into a mage’s strength, but there’s no, “I’ll just throw these points into attribute B and next time around I’ll get to Attribute C.” There’s no, “I have a rogue and I want to keep equipping better armor and daggers so I better focus on just his dexterity and cunning.”
In a more D&D-like game you have to make choices and although you make a sort of educated guess as to what impact those choices will have, ultimately those choices have unforeseen consequences for what your character will be able to do later in the game. In DA 2 it’s a number pumping system to be spammed without limit. That’s it. My strength doesn’t affect my ability to bash down a door or intimidate a character. It’s purely a reflection of damage for fighters and a limiter on how good a suit of armor I can wear. That sort of system does have it’s place, but not here. DA2 is a role playing game in which leveling up is repetitive and boring. Somehow I don’t think that’s the effect Bioware was going for.
With all that said, let’s approach from a different angle. Maybe Bioware wanted to be ambitious with Dragon Age 2, but they didn’t want to do so by including a ton of old, fiddly RPG concepts and mechanics. This is a character-driven story in a relatively small box, right? Well, if that’s the case, and you’re going to use that reason to dump a bunch of those aforementioned fiddly bits over the side because they’re not germane to your design goals, that’s cool. Maybe it’s not important to restrict crafting potions and runes to characters with that ability. Let everybody do it! Maybe I shouldn’t be obsessed with playing dress up with my party (even though that dress up affected how I used characters in combat). Maybe more open environments that allow exploration aren’t necessary for this particular game. Maybe the combat in the last game was too sedate and needed to be amped up. Fine and dandy. I don’t necessarily buy into any of that, but I’m willing to trade them if what I get back in return balances out what’s lost. You want this to be about character and personal relationships? Why aren’t the dialog and interaction systems more interesting instead of less so? Why don’t the character interactions provide the player with far more consequential choices, limitations based on how you build your character, more success and failure points, meaningfully different outcomes based on bringing the right NPC into the proper situation?
Some of you may be thinking, “Todd, Dragon Age 2 does have some of that stuff!” No, it doesn’t. It wants you think it does, but it doesn’t. The circular dialog in this game is the size of a quarter. Bioware did not expand the horizon for small interactions in a small story; not one little bit. It created a smaller story with even more tightly controlled and consequence-free interaction than Origins had. You listen, you scan the icon list, which 80% of the time is restricted to the same four icons, and you click. That’s it. As the player that’s what you do. And it’s almost completely without restriction. None of what you’ve done in the past really matters, aside from some tonal changes to your character’s speech. None of how you’ve built your character matters. The story doesn’t go into particularly different directions based on what you click nor is anything made harder or simpler. Sure, having Merill in your party during an encounter might unlock a specific line of dialog, but only rarely will that change the nature of, or the fallout from, the encounter. There are a few smaller bits where you affect the outcome, but they’re every bit as isolated from the rest of the game as the different corners of Ferelden were from each other in Origins. And don’t mistake my meaning. I know the kind of expansion in choice I’m talking about would not be easy, but that’s my point about ambition. Bioware sacrificed a lot of game elements from Origins to tell a smaller story without really taking advantage of, and being ambitious with, the potential that telling a smaller story affords you.
In recent years Bioware has evolved and refined their games across the board to fit a very specific action RPG game design. It’s a production line, perfected with Mass Effect 2, that as soon as it spits out a game, can get to work on the next one using the same methodology that was already in place. That’s why we’re playing this sequel so soon after Origins. Dragon Age 2 does offer different elements than Mass Effect, but if you really look at their styles of gameplay, the overlap is pretty hard to ignore. The core gameplay is exactly the same between the two games and really dates all the way back to Knights of the Old Republic:
1. Take a quest/assignment
2. Pick your squad/party
3. Follow a very narrow path from point A to point B
4. Shoot or hack to bits everything in your way
5. Return to your home base, talk to your NPC buddies, take on the next assignment.
6. Repeat steps 1-5 until the end game.
It’s not an inherently bad formula, but the longer Bioware runs with it and less they do to mix up the fine details, the more stagnant it’s going to get. That was what was so refreshing about Origins. Sure, it had a lot of these elements, but it varied up the experience more and threw more of those fiddly bits into the mix. I felt like my choices had a greater impact on the world and the story. I had a broader range of ways to build and manage my character. I had more ways to build and manage my party. Is my mage silver-tongued and able to talk his way out of many sticky situations, or did he focus on learning to make potions by identifying herbs and poisons that would make surviving battles a little easier? If I found a kick ass set of plate armor that didn’t fit my player character’s build, I could pass it off to Alistair or Sten instead of selling it. For a lot of people these are important parts of a party-based RPG.
An ambitious design for Dragon Age 2, successfully or no, would not have retreated to the safe confines of what Bioware already knows how to do. It would have added new systems and ideas to augment systems and mechanics that were cut out. It would have taken some chances and really experimented with what you could do with an RPG in the confines of a smaller sandbox. It’s fine for Bioware to focus on the things they do well, but even in that arena there was plenty more room for growth than they showed here. The only real growth came out of a series of particularly well done character interactions and plot twists amidst far too many inconsequential and some outright cliche subquests and dialog, not to mention hideously repetitive gameplay. It’s not remotely a bad game, but I’ll always consider it a disappointing one from a developer that sets a high bar and failed to reach it.