Dragon Age II may be the black sheep of the Dragon Age family, but someone appreciates it. Stay a while and listen as Nick D. explains why Dragon Age II wasn’t the misstep it’s often accused of being.
BioWare is one of those companies that launch games that really hit cords with gamers. Perhaps it’s the player-centric, choice-based approach that truly makes the gamer feel like they are making a difference in a wide fantasy world, or at least more so than Bethesda’s comparatively consequence free worlds. Then again, it could be the romantic options, which are still rather novel in video games.
Whatever the reason, a BioWare game is one that attracts a fanbase right off the bat. Dragon Age Origins was no exception. Being developed at the same time as the sprawling space epic Mass Effect, Dragon Age Origins was a high fantasy take on the predictable, but effective BioWare formula. Then came Dragon Age II, a game that was not received particularly well by the fanbase of the original. It wasn’t reviled the same way as overhyped games such as Destiny or Watch Dogs, but there was a distinct sigh heard among gamers. It was lazy – too rushed, not enough content. These were common complaints. Well, internet, I’m here to tell you that I thought Dragon Age II was the superior Dragon Age, and I’ll tell you why.
Let’s get the blindingly obvious problems with Dragon Age Ii out of the way first and foremost. The biggest problem with the game is the reused dungeons. You’ll travel through the same tiny handful of dungeons over and over again through the game. The purpose of this was because you’re playing in a central location over a period of years. However, the areas didn’t really change, and that reason is a copout anyway. There was no reason you couldn’t have gone to new places surrounding your hub town.
The second major problem was with regards to the game’s final act. It simply didn’t connect well to the rest of the game, and the entire affair seemed rushed, especially since extremely important characters were introduced and disposed of in very short order. This made the game feel rushed, and the dungeons made the game feel lazy. Add the two together, and you had a niggling voice in the back of your head screaming ‘cash grab’.
But, ignoring those glaring flaws, if you will, Dragon Age II had a lot more to offer than Dragon Age Origins ever did. The plot is one of those factors. Dragon Age Origins had a plot so generic, I’m certain it must have been beaten as a child with the generic stick. Every one of the possible origin stories was its own cliche, and every place you visited was bathing in the most overt ripoff of Tolkien’s works I’ve seen, including in Lord of the Rings video games.
Dragon Age II, however, offered something different. Playing as a character as they rise to prominence over the course of many years in a single city – that’s something new. Watching as new political events come and boil over as you try to keep everything together is worth the price of admission for me. The three act structure, while jarring to some, was brilliant for me. It allowed you to see the passage of time, see the real consequences of your actions. And it accomplished it in a single game instead of needing three like with the Mass Effect trilogy. More importantly, sometimes there’s nothing anyone can do to stop the flow of time and destruction. In Dragon Age II, you work hard to solve so many problems, but the core corruption with society is beyond your control.
Then there were the characters. I’ve played a lot of BioWare games, and I’ve never played one of their games with as much of a forgettable/boring cast as Dragon Age Origins. With the singular exception of the amazing Claudia Black’s Morrigan, every one of them was boring, or totally generic. I glanced over them for this article, and I had forgotten some of them even existed at all (there was a dwarf party member?). The characters in Dragon Age II were far more interesting to me. Instead of the nearly brain-dead Leliana talking about shoes non-stop, we had the troubled outcast Merrill.
Instead of the utterly generic warrior race representative Sten, we had Fenris, an elf with a chip on his shoulder after being tortured with magics. Instead of Mr. Forgettable Dwarf, we had Varric, a dwarf, who played brilliantly against tropes. Even Aveline, the no-nonsense guardsman, was something we hadn’t seen often due to her gender and lack of overt sexuality. Sure, Isabella was utterly generic and your sibling was a waste, but there were far more standouts this time around. That’s not even mentioning changing the ugly, pumpkin-headed Qunari into really cool creatures.
Of course, like every BioWare game, both Dragon Age games focused on your main character almost entirely. This is another place where Dragon Age Origins falls utterly flat. You get to pick an origin story for your character, which amounts to a different prologue and a few tweaked dialogue choices through the game. In theory, this should go far to develop your character. In practice, it doesn’t. Why? Because you have no character in Dragon Age Origins. That’s right, completely blank slate mute protagonist. It’s hard to see emotion when your character has none. I know some people like to pretend and imbue their blank slate character with his or own role-playing personality. This is fine, but it doesn’t mean that Dragon Age Origin’s Warden was any less of a complete rock.
Hawke, conversely, was a character. Like Commander Shepard showed in the Mass Effect series, it is possible to have all of BioWare’s customary choices and still have a real character people can get attached to. Hawke was just as malleable as the Warden, but she could actually react to the situations around her. The problem with mute protagonists is that they are dead-eyed puppets. They will never be able to interact with the world in a way a real character can, no matter how much role-playing you’re doing. Hawke could talk back. She could feel anxiety as the events around her spiralled out of control. The Warden couldn’t.
Gameplay-wise, Dragon Age II was no slouch either. In my opinion, the only class that was actually fun to play as in Dragon Age Origins was the Mage. As a person who platinumed both games, I can say that I hated every minute of my Warrior run of Dragon Age Origins. It was quite simply duller than an elf who uses a bow and communes with nature. Dragon Age II eschewed some of the tactical gameplay of the original for a more action-oriented approach.
The Mage suffered a little bit in the exchange, but the Rogue and Warrior benefitted wildly (as an aside – please, BioWare, think of less boring classes than Warrior, Rogue, and Mage). Suddenly, combat was quick and fun, while the upgrades and cross class abilities added some much needed depth to the game. Sure you were traversing the same cave five hundred times, but at least every combat round wasn’t a chore.
Dragon Age II was most assuredly a flawed game, devoid of some of the polish the original had. Nevertheless, sometimes, the best games are the ones that try something a bit too big for them, even if they fail. While I understand I’m in the minority here, Dragon Age II was a breath of fresh air. Dragon Age Origins was a good game too, just a game that I’d played before, with characters that didn’t quite pop by comparison. I played the hell out of both of them, and I intend to play quite a bit of Inquisition, but, if I had to choose between the first two Dragon Age games, I wouldn’t hesitate to point at Dragon Age II.