Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Epic Fail

It seems thematically fitting to follow up on my Evil April Fool’s gag with a review of an actual video game. Although make no mistake, the Evil game will happen – but when it does, I hope it will be a much more rewarding experience than Dragon Age II.

I suppose the clue should have been in the II. It’s a sequel, so it stands a fair chance of being a disappointment. Still, in my (admittedly limited) experience, the law of diminishing returns doesn’t apply as frequently in the game industry as it seems to in the movie biz. What you tend to get more often than not is more of the same - with improvements. And, for those games where it’s about more than the shoot-em-ups or the beat-em-ups, a new story. Which is great, because that is precisely what you’re looking for.

Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 is a great example of this, managing to pare down or expunge the more laborious aspects of the space-exploration experience, while retaining so much of the feel of the original game. Heck, if it hadn’t made the unfortunate error of omitting the lesbian sex it might have scored 10 out of 10.

The previous Dragon Age output (Dragon Age: Origins and the Dragon Age: Awakenings expansion) scored high on the interpersonal interaction front, quite a remarkable feat considering your character was mute, his or her words left implicit from the text dialogue choices at the base of the screen. Primitive, but it did mean you had a wide range of characters to choose from, with no worries about whether the voice talent fit the appearance. Similarly your relationship choices were broad, accommodating pretty much all tastes and (non-bestial) proclivities. The mechanics of interaction were quite straightforward and part of me still hankers for a game where the handling is subtler. (Where, for example, the hostility-friendship scale is hidden from the player and AI responses are not purely player-prompted – I mean, wouldn’t it be great if an AI unexpectedly propositioned you for a change?) But there was no denying the freedom of choice and the supporting cast of characters (in Origins at least) were a terrific bunch of misfits. (The lot in Awakenings were for the most part so lame that you’d be more likely to keep the Ring and hurl the Fellowship into the cracks of Mount Doom.)

Alas I can’t tell you whether the same freedom of choice is available in Dragon Age II, because – in contrast to the original - a second play-through just wasn’t something I wanted to contemplate. In Dragon Age: Origins your choice of hero(ine) really did alter the experience. In this next-gen version, I didn’t get that impression. I could be wrong, but frankly I’m not going to invest another 40-plus hours to find out.

40 hours. Wow. I used to think of video RPGs as interactive movies, but that’s getting on for three seasons of a US TV show. Time cheerfully invested if you’re finding it gripping and entertaining and if the main characters appeal and if it delivers with each season finale.

An especially useful analogy here, since at its heart Dragon Age II has a promising central concept: three separate years picked out from the history of one city and a hero(ine). Okay, great, because each segment can work towards a climax and developments over the years can build into a compelling overall arc.

Storywise though it’s all a bit Babylon 5. Since the war against the Blight (read Shadow War) is over, we’re mostly left with the political-economic fallout and the growing tensions between mages and templars (read Telepaths and Psi Cops). There are clear pointers that there are greater menaces to come (in Dragon Age III, I’ll warrant) but for the time being it leaves this instalment feeling a lot like filler. It doesn’t help (at all) that the big final battle in this arises from the singularly twattish actions of one character – who happens to be one of those lame chumps from Awakenings. Seriously, when it came to that point, even my noble-hearted heroine had to kill that idiot for what he does. He reminded me in fact of that complete dufus who leads the Telepaths in Babylon 5 and if B5 had been interactive he would have met a similar end at my hand, much earlier on in the fifth-season arc.

Anyway, Blandalf (as we shall call him) plunges you (and the city) into disaster and it seems that no matter which side you choose you will end up having to fight both mages and templars anyway. Call me picky, but I’d like to feel my choices made a difference. But that aside, there are two key facets of the climactic battle that make for a significant letdown from a story POV.

Imagine you have reached the last episode of the third season of that hypothetical show. Imagine that the last episode is such an immense struggle to get through you have to restart it I-don’t-know-how-many times. And then imagine that once you finally get to the end there’s no actual closure. No reward, no chance to bask, just a cryptic epilogue that appears to have more to do with leading into Dragon Age III and close to precious little to do with your story.

Sure, part of that is down to game mechanics. This is one area in which the developers elected to make ‘improvements’.

Now to be fair, where they did succeed was in borrowing from the Mass Effect series and – despite the resulting limitations on character choice – the decision to apply some voice talent to the hero(ine) does work in terms of lending the dialogue sequences a much more cimematic non-static quality. (Complete with the signature blood-spattered faces in post-battle talks.) And it’s good voice acting – which, believe me, can make or break a game – even if the female rogue does sound a bit posh. Also it’s worth mentioning that among the supporting cast, the character of Merrill, as voiced by Torchwood’s Eve Myles, is a wonderful creation. Her passing observations on the Dragon Age world are a beautifully scripted and exquisitely delivered treat. And I didn’t even like her in Torchwood. She should do more voice acting. Likewise, Kate Mulgrew makes a much better witch than she ever did a starship captain. Anyway, about half the members of the adventuring party are great characters, with plenty of appeal and I’ve no doubt any player would grow attached to at least one or two of them.

The graphics have evolved too and, with the removal of the little rings around each active combatant the fighting feels more immersive and dynamic and less tactical. The few programming glitches I encountered were of only minor irkdom level – e.g. at one point one of your team gets abducted and, very sensibly, you can’t include him in your party – but you can still go visit him for a chat over a pint in the local tavern. The music, as ever with these Bioware mega-productions, is gorgeous. Movie-soundtrack quality. And there’s still girl-on-girl action on offer.

So much for the pluses. Because the main ‘improvements’, put simply, aren’t. For one thing, that more dynamic battle feature makes it awkward to target different enemies quickly. Many’s the time I couldn’t activate a special ability because my character wasn’t lined up just-so on the screen. To exacerbate matters, your party members are driven by an artificial intelligence with a very small i and not very much ntelligence. Which means if you want to get them using their best abilities, you have to keep pausing the game and telling them what to do and point them at the desired target. Which, er, is not very dynamic. Then some weird let’s-make-it-stupidly-tough mentality appears to have crept into some of the battles.

Me, I am up for a challenge. Especially in those climactic confrontations. Bring it on. But when you’re swamped and totally overwhelmed and dying repeatedly when the game’s been notched down to casual difficulty, that’s the point at which you can stop bringing it. Game suggests to me it’s meant to be fun. Not hard bloody work. (Bloody is okay – there are swords involved, after all.)

It’s not only the final battle that’s stupidly over-egged in this way. The best (ie. worst) example comes earlier on with an encounter with a ferocious dragon. Great, because the battles with dragons in the original were something not to be taken on lightly, but they were nonetheless a challenge to be relished. They were enormous, ferocious beasts and tackling one would test your party’s abilities and if you defeated it you’d get a nice sense of satisfaction. In this, apparently the majestic mighty dragon was not enough. No, for this, what was needed was a dragon plus repeated waves of smaller dragons thrown in at intervals throughout the confrontation. Totally overdone. The game’s climactic battle felt even more never-ending and, like I said, isn’t even followed up with a chance to bask in your immense sense of relief once you’ve finally scraped your way through. It’s as though the game is finished with you, rather than the other way around.

The middle-year finale is better-judged by far, with a one-on-one duel against a tough-bastard opponent (watch this trailer for a falsely representative - but impressive - impression) and you get some time to enjoy the results of your endeavours.

Fantasy tales of yore have been replaced by a tale of chore. Epic struggles are part of adventure, tis true, but thankless toil against overwhelming odds feels too much like my day job when what I’d prefer is a dash of challenging escapism.

Dragon Age II is by no means a total failure. But the level of disappointment is proportionate to how much I enjoyed the original game. Turnabout is fair play, as they say, so now Bioware have to face overwhelming odds in convincing me to buy a third game in this series. Good luck, guys.

Not that they need worry too much. They’ll be getting my money for Mass Effect 3 later this year. The swines.


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