I didn’t like the first Dragon Age. I’m a die hard Mass Effect fan and I really wanted to like Dragon Age: Origins, but overall I thought the game fell flat. Some cool ideas, certainly, but it never really gripped me. I went into the Dragon Age II demo with extremely low expectations, prepared for more of the same — even the reviews and previews on major gaming outlets didn’t do much to sell me on the changes to the series in DA2.
The demo is fun. I didn’t expect fun, but fun I got. The combat is more enjoyable than Dragon Age: Origins (in my opinion, obviously), the Mass Effect-ization of the main character Hawke helped pull me into what little story there was in the demo sequences, and it was overall a more engaging experience. My brief experience with the demo was above and beyond my experience with Dragon Age: Origins, and it very well may have reversed my decision to not buy Dragon Age II.
I still have gripes, however. Allow me to detail them!
Combat was faster and felt more fluid. The animations were all beautifully done. However, it almost felt too loose. You stab the hell out of an enemy, and they never really react to it unless you inflict a stun or a knockback. Special attacks destroy your enemies in a spray of demon giblets, but with your basic attacks, opponents have no reaction to your enormous two-handed sword sweeping through them, or you sinking two sharpened blades into their back. Rogue Hawke flailing his daggers around is extremely impressive, but it loses its luster when your opponent is entirely unaffected by it. If there wasn’t a red health bar floating over everybody’s head, you would think you weren’t doing anything at all. Even in far more primitive games, the mooks you’re slaughtering have the decency to flinch or grunt some vague “ow” sentiment. Hell, even in Pokemon the opponent’s sprite will flash in response to a Tackle attack.
Things are happening on the screen in Dragon Age II, and often those things will be very pretty and aesthetically impressive, but its all strangely disconnected.
The Darkspawn are ugly
For the most part, I support BioWare’s new aesthetic vision in Dragon Age II. Mass Effect is fanciful and jam packed full of science fiction goodness, but it goes to great lengths to keep some level of realism involved with its character design, especially in places like a character’s eyes. The eyes are very true-to-life, organic colors. Dragon Age II is brighter, more striking. Hawke’s eyes are a piercing, icy blue. You nearly get the impression that they’d glow in the dark.
When applying these new aesthetics to the darkspawn, it didn’t go very well. They’re all angles. Looking at the Darkspawn in motion reminds me of the Nintendo 64. Obviously they’re not nearly that dated, but the fact that the darkspawn are all jagged lines and triangles doesn’t give you the best impression. They’re not terrifying creatures. They’re not a rampaging horde. They’re late-90s FPS mook rejects.
Women in Thedas have enormous breasts
When the demo begins, you are first in an exaggerated version of Hawke’s story, as told by dwarven storyteller Varric. This exaggerated version is a legend told in the style of a lecherous dwarf — Hawke’s sister has enormous breasts in this version of the story, representing the absurdity of it all. Her breasts are smaller when Varric tells the real story … but everyone’s breasts are still huge (just not quite as huge), and then you meet Isabela (the olive-skinned pirate who is a white girl for the promotional material because we’re all racists apparently). Isabela is more curvaceous than the exaggerated version of Hawke’s dear sister.
Look, I like breasts. I love breasts. I look at breasts every day. But not all women have huge breasts and it’s quite silly that the default breast size in Dragon Age II would be considered very busty in real life. Isabela would have difficulty finding a bra that fits her in a modern department store. When I showed a screenshot of one of the characters to one of my Twitter followers, he likened her to Denise Milani, a model specifically known for being slim with a huge rack. And that’s your average female denizen of Thedas.
Honestly, I’m all for characters with big boobs, but there’s a point where it just enters the realm of the absurd.
The demo takes place in a barren wasteland
See Dragon Age‘s new aesthetic style! Behold our striking visuals! … by the way, the game begins in an uninteresting, brown wasteland. In Dragon Age: Origins, Lothering was one of the least interesting locales in the game. It was a shopping mall for party members and that was it. You’re fleeing Lothering at the beginning of Dragon Age II, and Lothering is already a torched, barren wasteland. That does not make the locale any more exciting. Brown, brown and brown is not a great way to grip players. It gets better the moment you move beyond Lothering, so I really hope that region’s boring nothingness is the exception and not the rule.
Flemeth is now Maleficent with cleavage
Old hag’s face on an 18-year-old’s body? … yeah, okay. She is Morrigan’s mother though, so why not? Between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II Flemeth transformed from a generic swamp witch to a Disney villain, which is admittedly pretty cool. I like the overall design. My only real problem with it is the fact that they sexualized everything below the neck. She’s the Witch of the Wilds, a self-described hag. Why is her head wrinkly, but the rest of her tight, toned and hot to trot?
No character customization in the demo
One of the most enjoyable parts of BioWare games to me is character customization. Quite honestly, the characters I make generally don’t look too different from the defaults. My Shepard in Mass Effect is pretty close to the stock female Shepard, but she’s blonde with a few other minor edits. Still, that bit of customization makes it my Shepard. The Dragon Age II demo has the customization features locked, so you get the stock Hawke and nothing else. I’m sure they have their reasons for locking the feature — preventing Something Awful from creating a grotesque hellbeast prior to the game’s release, maybe — but it seems a strange decision to me. It would have been nice to see the game in action with my Hawke before I decide to make the purchase.
The Dragon Age II demo, to me, feels much better than Dragon Age: Origins. After playing the demo, I am seriously contemplating pre-ordering the game, and prior to the demo I had no intention whatsoever of ever touching the game. To me, it is a massive improvement. The combat feels better, the talent system has been streamlined, the dialogue system is a modified version of Mass Effect‘s conversation wheel, it’s all a much better experience. I’ve heard many people criticizing Dragon Age II for its “consolization” — removing PC gaming elements to make it more console friendly — the same thing that people who prefer Mass Effect 1 over Mass Effect 2 say about that sequel. I’m fairly certain that stupid, boring, superfluous bullshit is not a defining trait of PC gaming. If it is, I eagerly welcome the consolization of PC games.
Still, as I’ve laid out in this post, it is a flawed series and it’s not just because of gameplay. Dragon Age II is taking a big leap away from its predecessor and there’s certainly going to be some missteps in that process. Here’s hoping the series continues to improve and doesn’t backslide into its deathly boring ways. Never again, the Deep Roads times.