The last couple of weeks have been crazy. I hung out at the Calgary Expo for one non-stop, action packed weekend (and got to meetup with the Calgary WoW crew – Vidyala, Voss, ChawaJen, Darthregis and Kelesti - some of which don’t play WoW anymore but whom I still look forward all year to seeing. Wish I didn’t live so far away.) Then I came home, worked a couple of 12 hour shifts then drove the 3 hours to the airport to catch a plane to visit my parents on the East Coast for a week.
Then when I came back, there was chaos. I swear I cannot come back from vacation in peace. Last time I was away, my then-coworker (and then-manager) spent two weeks trashing the store. I went straight to work from the airport to start cleaning up and making apology phone calls to customers.
This time. Well. The store was impeccable, but I landed into what felt like a CSI episode. (Actually, an almost identical case was apparently featured on CSI not long ago, but I don’t watch the show.) I only needed to make a statement to the police (I don’t know much about crime investigations, but from what I gather, I was some sort of witness.) but it was still shocking. In my line of work, you expect to see criminals. Mostly drug dealers. On a bad, bad day, you might face an armed robber. But a murder suspect? That threw me through the loop. My head spun for a few days. I live in a little happy bubble where murders happen only to people living risky lives in the drug or sex trade. Or on TV. (I was going to add “or to Americans” but according to rumours, the suspects and the victim are American. So maybe this stuff does just happen to our Southern neighbours.) Not among mainstream, non-drug, non-sex trading people.
Anyway, I turned to my favourite coping mechanism: escapism. The world in question: Thedas.
I started Dragon Age 2 months ago, but had only made it to Kirkwall before having to concentrate what little free time I have to WoW. But because we got somewhat of a break from the VP grind during 5.2 (and I refuse to do dailies because the horde on this server insist that I dedicate 90% of my dailies time to corpse runs), I figured that I might as well see for myself what all the hate is about.
And know what? I don’t hate DA2 at all. In fact, I really enjoyed it. I can see how some people find it to be a let down after DA:O (though putting it in the same class as the ME3 ending is totally exaggerating… And now I’ll get people saying that putting ME3’s ending in the same class as DA2 is also exaggerating, ha!) but I confess (that’s right, it’s confession day in this corner of the internet), I wasn’t a huge huge fan of DA:O.
Oh don’t get me wrong! I loved the Origins story, I loved my companions (though they often left me on my hunger, I wanted more, more companion goodness!), I loved Ferelden. In time, I even came to love my Warden. But the gameplay, for an obsessive completionist like me, was tedious and exhausting. I beat the game after 100+ of gameplay and I’m still plagued by flashbacks of how much I skipped.
You have to understand, then, that DA2, in its strengths and, even, in its weaknesses, was so liberating for me.
I had an unusual problem with Hawke. It’s a personal thing, a mere coincidence, not a fault of the game, but amusing enough to share.
See, I made my Hawke a long time ago. I just picked the default Lady Hawke because she looked better than anything I could design myself.
Default Lady Hawke
Then I didn’t play for months.
In the meanwhile, I got a new coworker in real life.
When I went to play again, the horror dawned me…
My new coworker looks almost identical to Default Lady Hawke.
While I certainly like my coworker, it’s extremely awkward to be reminded of her every time I look at my video game character. Plus, any of the adoration I usually shower my video game characters with would be uber creepy.
I was far enough along in the game to not want to start over so I bought the Black Emporium for the mirror of transformation. But giving Hawke a makeover was kind of annoying (for some reason, you can’t modify specific traits on default Hawke, you have to pick another preset and work with that) so I gave up. My coworker went for a new hair cut and colour instead.
But otherwise, I was totally ok with Hawke. I played the Amell mage in Origins, so I was excited Hawke was her cousin (or second cousin or whatever, I’m not good with family titles). I liked how the game followed her life for 7 years (and I’m torn on how she doesn’t age or put on 10 pounds or anything. /third-of-life crisis) and how she slowly becomes a local hero without following the tradition recipe of “THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END AND ONLY I CAN SAVE IT!”
Her personality was interesting too, though I wonder if anyone ever plays their first Hawke as anything but sarcastic. I mean, you choices are: goody-goody (diplomatic), assface (aggressive) and entertaining. I think there were maybe a dozen times I picked something other than a joke? The best, though, is that the game kind of remembers your choices. While the mechanics setting Hawke’s tone aren’t secret, I sort of wonder if it’s more complex then that. In situations where I couldn’t bring myself to joke (usually around Hawke’s mother) and picked goody-goody choices, the game seemed to understand and Hawke started acting goody-goody in those circumstances without input from me. Maybe it was just an illusion, but whatever, I liked it. It made me very happy that the game “got” my Hawke. It’s always satisfying when you feel the game understands your characters.
I’ll have squishy tomatoes thrown at me for this, but in Origins, I really, really disliked the combat. You have no idea. I enjoy strategy as much as the next person, but every time I opened that tactics window, all I could think of is “I WANT STORY NOW DAMMIT!!!”. In a short game, I’ll break my head over strategy (I did play The Golems of Amgarrak on the hardest level – except for the last boss who forced me to give up after like 6 hours of wiping – and loved it), but in a game that takes me over 100 hours to beat? Please! Give me some challenge to pace the story, but don’t have the normal mode make me cry.
Origin really only had like 10 spells too. They just each had 20 different names. Toward the end, I was getting very tired of sifting through my crowded spell bar, jammed packed with dozens of spells that all do the same thing.
So DA2’s “dumbed down” combat was sweet, sweet relief.
DA2 Bar: NOT CROWDED!
I didn’t open the tactics window at all!
I lied – I opened it once to take this screenshot.
My companions were a little stupid about standing in crap (seriously companion! I just moved you OUT of the purple, why are you running back into it?) but otherwise they took care of themselves pretty good. During fights, I’d often directly control Anders (I had him specced similarly to Hawke), I’d nudge Merrill and the rogues if I wanted them to do something specific and I ignored the warriors. I don’t even understand the warriors. Even so, very few fights gave me any challenge on normal mode. AND I LIKED IT.
Maybe next time I’ll scale up the difficulty for a more strategic game (and maybe learn how those confusing warriors work), but for a first time around, I was quite happy to not waste my time with pointlessly complicated combat.
And I was very happy with the spell/ability trees. Less toolbar invading, more passive abilities and upgrades. As it should be.
I’ll be fair. The story didn’t have the grandiose feel of Origins or Mass Effect. I admit that. But, surprisingly maybe, I liked it that way. After how tired I was after Origins, and how emotionally drained I was after Mass Effect, I’m okay with a game that lets me rest a little while giving me a story that I still care about.
It did seem to me that the writing wasn’t where it could be. There were lots of occasions where I wished I could go deeper into a character’s backstory, or a quest’s circumstances, or even Kirkwall’s existence. DA2’s setting and structure would have been perfect for such indulgences. There were a few times too where I winced, feeling that the dialogue didn’t quite fit. But “not where it could be” isn’t bad. The dialogue, the characters, the story, the lore, Kirkwall, were still interesting and engaging (to me, at least). It hit the target, just not, you know, the bullseye.
Act III was a little weird. I know I lose some of the story when I play games or read books, but I had been following everything very well up until then. Then in Act III, I kept wondering “why are we fighting these guys again?”, “why are these guys fighting each other?”, “wait, did these guys just change their mind?”. It does all make sense in the final battle (or almost), but still, “we’re all fucked because our already over-ambitious leader has an ancient trinket that makes her make us hate everyone” seems like a cheap excuse for some of the things that happen.
Now don’t get me wrong. I had a good laugh when I saw said trinket at the end. Someone who is really into figuring out plots would see it coming, but I was just going with the flow of the game and not overthinking (that’s the key to enjoying DA2, I think, not overthinking), so I totally had an “ah ha” moment before the final battle. It tied Act I and III together in a believable way (after ME3’s ending, “believable way” is something I’ve come to appreciate in stories), and let Act II serve as a distraction from what’s really happening to Meredith.
It works for me.
As a side note though, I must say that the very end of Act II was a little…um… Isabela came back with the relic and one of my options was to let the Arishok take her and his book and just leave. Just leave. After massacring half the city and committing regicide (killing the city viscount counts as regicide, right?), I could just let him go? What? As forgiving as I may be sometimes in games, this seemed a little over the top.
Also, unresolved mystery – the multiplying mages. The game is pretty clear about magic being genetic, and most likely recessive (given their genetics work kind of like ours). And while I’m sure Circles have soap-opera-like atmospheres, I doubt reproduction is something most mages are keen on. Not to mention how many mages get killed by demons, templars and playable characters before having a chance to perpetuate their bloodline. So how the heck are there so many mages? Where do they all come from?
My favorite introduction to a character ever, in any story I’ve escaped into, was Anders in Awakenings. I decided at that moment he was going to be Hawke’s boyfriend when I got around to DA2.
He was a little hard to recognize (despite looking almost the same) in his second game, though. Such a shame. I do like my tormented guys in video games. (As a real life rescueholic, I’ve learned the hard way to stay away from lost little boys and save my attention for well-adjusted, terribly boring men, but, you know, all the more reason to indulge in messed up cute guys from make-belief worlds.) I like my tormented guys, but I hate losing my favorite characters. There were some hints of the old Anders (particularly when around Varric – those two play well off each other) but I would have preferred those hints to be more like… suggestions. Nothing too out line – I get it, he’s got a Mr NoFun stuck inside him – but (note that it’s been a long time since I’ve played Awakenings) it seemed to me that his original joking nature was a coping mechanism both to distract him from his loneliness and self loathing and to help him initiate quick, superficial but pleasant interactions with others. At the beginning of DA2, he’s still lonely and self loathing, and seems like he would appreciate a quick, superficial but pleasant interaction, so his old coping mechanisms could have still been used. His down-spiral into panic and obsession would have probably been more obvious too, had his personality really changed throughout of the game, instead of just going from paranoid to more paranoid.
I enjoyed the romance (and could write many fanfictions about the crate scene, with Hawke standing behind him, her hand wrapped firmly around the hilt of her dagger), but the transition from “I can’t do this” to “I’ve been waking up at night aching for you for three years” went waaay too fast for me. Was a tad creepy too. Is it just me? I mean, it’s great he has the hots for Hawke, but does he have to be so…forthcoming? Going a liiiiitle bit slower and perhaps emphasizing more on those deliciously dramatic conflicting feelings he has around Hawke (and sounding less like a pervert) would have been more satisfying. I do hear Fenris puts up more of a chase. Hmm. That playthough will be a goody.
As a side note, before I played DA2 (or Origins, for that matter), I kept hearing how offended people (and by people, we probably mean “straight guys with ego problems”) were by Anders’ gay advances. I kind of scratch my head. Getting hit on by guys you aren’t attracted to is something that happens, like, daily, in the real world when you’re a girl. Are guy gamers really unable to put up with a fictional version of that happening to them? (I’m not a hardcore feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes I wonder how many guys would be able to survive an hour of a woman’s life.) If the flirting itself is similar to the flirting (if you can call it that) in the actual romance, it’s not the suavest move ever made by a character, but it’s not the end of the world. (Also, while I was really amused by this comic, the complaints about getting Rivalty points if you reject Anders are silly. I pissed Merrill and Aveline off constantly and still reached 100% friendship with them long before the end of the game.)
Wait! I have other companions, right?
I really liked how connected to the story and to the world most of them (and by most of them, I mean Aveline, Isabela and Varric) were. While on a personal level, I didn’t feel any connection to Aveline, I felt that having a companion in the city guard (who doesn’t give up her job to follow Hawke the way companions do in other games I’ve played) did add a lot to Hawke’s experience as a meddling resident of Kirkwall.
The ME2-style loyalty quests were excellent. I can see that formula getting really old really fast, but for two games, it’s perfect. Fenris’ and Merrill’s in particular left me thinking “holy crap, that was awesome”. The only complaint I can have about companion presence is that I want more. More. MORE MORE MORE MORE. I’m sure it’s possible to have too many character-based cutscenes, but it would take a lot of cutscenes for that to happen. Especially if those cutscenes were relevant to plot. (Or better yet, there should be a DLC, kind of like Citadel but that doesn’t unlock everything at once, that adds optional companion indulgence. I understand that not everyone is really into characters, but me, I would pay extra to have more juicy content.)
I also liked how the companions interacted with each other and would have enjoyed seeing more of that. I was very happy for Fenris and Isabela finding comfort in each other (though they deny anything deep). If not for Varric’s ability to bring out the best in Anders during long walks, I probably would have ended up with an extra dead mage (I don’t care that my Hawke loves him and that he’s my best dps AND healer, I can only put up with so much complaining!).
There’s something charming about watching how these characters you come to feel strongly (good or bad) about react to, or behave with other characters you feel strongly about. It’s a side of the story that gets touched in Bioware games (my favorite memory of SW:TOR is fueling the fire as all my companions bitched about each other! And Mass Effect fans speak with delight on how they walked in on Tali and Garrus. Not that I would approve if that happened to me. Sexy Garrus belongs to MY SHEPARD.) but that could be used so much more. The concept of party banter is excellent, but in Dragon Age 2, it eventually broke down to various ways Anders rambles about mages and Fenris tells him to eff off. Or maybe that’s just the game telling me I should stop using Anders and Fenris in my party for every quest.
As for not being able to customize your companions’ gear, well, I was sad at first too. I’m obsessive when it comes to gearing my characters. I probably put more effort into that than into any other aspect of the game. In the end, though, it was a blessing. Even with just 5-6 customizable slots, I spent hours sorting out gear. Hours. I didn’t even reach the required 50 gold by the end of Act I because I kept upgrading my characters’ gear in shops. I think I had like 6 gold left or something. Adding shirts, hats, boots and gloves would have killed me!
So, I, for one, am totally ok with non-customizable gear for companions. It might be nice to change their appearance a little bit, but I’d rather that be done through cosmetic-only means because I don’t think my sanity could handle more gear slots.
So much hate on the small, recycled dungeons!
I can definitely empathize with that and recognize how it takes away from game epicness.
But, me, I’m not a fan of dungeons. So small dungeons were a plus, and I didn’t mind the recycling. Recycling even made it faster for me to get through and out of dungeons, so it may have even been a good thing.
I was fine with the small world as well. I thought that having a story about a city and some of its residents was a refreshing change from the stale “hero has newbie zone, then journeys as far away as possible in search of a distant uber baddy“. So I enjoyed going to these familiar places and have different things happen there. It’s not for everyone, but it worked for me.
It’s small world after all. (Yes, I know this screenshot is exaggerating.)
And onto Dragon Age 3: Inquisition
I think this may be the first time I’m genuinely excited about an unreleased game.
The bits of news sound really good so far. And it seems that not many Dragon Age fans agree with me, but I felt DA2 (and its ending) really set the stage for a fantastic tale in Inquisition. We have a flurry of dear former companions to weave the games together, we have a deep rooted, complex social issue that just exploded, there’s hints of an exciting mysterious power behind our two favorite heroes disappearing and there has been a lot of observing of fan reactions on Bioware’s part. How can this not be amazing?
If I compare Mass Effect to Dragon Age on a personal level, Mass Effect is much closer to my heart than Dragon Age. But what made the trilogy so wonderful to me is also what will probably ruin every future game set in that universe. The heart and soul of Mass Effect was Shepard and her relationship with her crew. The world without Shepard is pretty boring. The world before Shepard was kind of boring (humans had only recently taken a spot in the galaxy) and the world after Shepard is broken, not matter what you choose. It would take a miracle to pull off another earthshattering (to me) game in the Mass Effect universe.
But Dragon Age! Using a different main character for each story, exploring corners of the gigantic Thedas at a time, leaving threads hanging and stones unturned at the end of each game and having characters interesting and diverse enough to ensure cameos to make the world feel homey when starting a new chapter… The recipe gets you attached to the world rather than to just one character, a big, big world that could take 6, 8, 10 games before getting stale. I fully expect the game creators to give up before the possibilities run dry.
Hopefully, too, there was a purpose to ME3’s ending breaking my heart and to the odd hate DA2 received: to make it clear that us story game fans like our stories. And our details. And our ethical dilemmas. And our characters. And our characters’ companions. A lot.
I so can’t wait for Dragon Age 3!