Dragon Age II launched yesterday to the belated excitement of at least this writer. For a title in the old backlog, the original took priority over the others about a month ago in preparation for DA2.
Well, I’m far enough in Origins now to be getting stoked for the inevitable polish that will come with a DA2. But it’s the following piece of news from our friends at VGChartz that’s admittedly getting me more excited. Relating some brow-raising numbers differentiating the two games, Bioware localization rep Ian Mitchell seems to suggest a big difference in length:
Dragon Age: Origins
- 1,000,000 words
- 1,000 cinematics
- 1,000 characters
- 56,000 spoken lines
- 60 hours of gameplay
Dragon Age II
- 400,000 words
- 2,500 cinematics
- 500 characters
- 38,000 spoken lines
- 40 hours of gameplay
A million words to less than half? A thousand characters to five hundred? Sixty hours of gameplay to forty? These are stand-out figures to me—and I couldn’t be happier. I’m currently about 40 hours into Origins, and the loudest criticisms I’ve had up to this point all add up to length. Keep reading.
Like any other RPG there are towns between which one will travel, but this game favors more of a fast-travel methodology rather than linking towns with maps and dungeons or using the sandbox method of Oblivion. This works well for Bioware’s other monster franchise, Mass Effect, a planet-hopping sci-fi adventure where warping between worlds (aka fast-traveling) feels right at home with the genre. But for Dragon Age, granting the ability to fast travel before discovering a location on foot just feels off.
It seems the designers tried to veer away from the fast-traveling feel by implementing a single quasi-random encounter along the way between two points. But this feels little better than were they to just print on screen “player, you are in a town. You will enjoy NPC interaction and receive quests,” and, “player, you are leaving a central hub. You will now battle monsters in a quasi-random encounter and complete a side-quest.”
What’s worse, the animation that plays when fast-traveling—a blood streak creeping along the path between two map points—chugs and sticks while content is loaded off-screen. It all amounts to a fragmented gameplay experience—and an eyesore at that. Fast-travel is called fast-travel because, in a game like Fallout 3 or Oblivion, it greatly cuts down the time required to get from point A to point B. For what amounts to fast-travel in Dragon Age, it feels clunky and slow with the quasi-random encounter in the middle as interruptive and forced.
What’s more: the NPC interactions and narrative codecs are slow, monotonous, and largely uninteresting.
Where the boys at Bioware have near-perfected the cadence, pacing, character development, and nuance of NPC interaction in Mass Effect 2, they faltered with Dragon Age. Once the player has travelled from two central hubs a couple times, entering into a new town confounds the drearily slow pacing of the game. Exploring a new town goes from exciting and desired to sigh-inducingly laborious real quick when the player learns to expect a dozen long-winded NPCs blathering on about who-knows-what. Though the image below is an example to the contrary, the vast majority of NPC interaction is monotonous and laborious.
Unfortunately, much of the lore and narrative suffers from the sheer quantity of NPCs who all have a ton to say. As if that doesn’t already become a chore, the codecs—unlike in Mass Effect 2—are utterly meaningless to a player that hasn’t invested several hours into the game to grok the greater sense of the lore. There’s a lot to read, as there is in ME2, but unlike this other franchise, a lot of it just doesn’t stick and doesn’t feel as compelling. Only after I’d invested several hours into the game between a couple characters did I commit to memory much of the game’s people, places, and history. This was not the case in ME2. Battling, as the other pillar of gameplay, is not so much fun for its own sake as it is a welcomed diversion from learning what each of the one thousand characters have to say, and the lore surrounding it.
A third troubling issue is inventory management, the unfortunate bane of so many otherwise successful RPGs like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic before that. Where Mass Effect 2 largely fixed this, Dragon Age does not. Again, rather than embracing the system in place, I felt more compelled to simply avoid it as much as possible, both equiping loot without thought toward optimization and selling liberally without reflection. Swapping loot amongst party members for the slightest in stat boosts should be fun and satisfying in a hardcore RPG; in Dragon Age it is a chore associated with the discovery of every merchant.
All things considered, were I to recommend an RPG to someone, it would most certainly not be Dragon Age. Were I to recommend a Bioware RPG to someone, it would also most certainly not be Dragon Age—though to be fair, this would be more due to the fantastic Mass Effect franchise. I’ve written about the importance of games being shorter, tighter, and more concise before, and Dragon Age represents exactly what happens when a game doesn’t know when to take a bow and get off the stage. Check out my review of LIMBO at www.huftopia.com for more on this.
Suffice to say, the entirety of Dragon Age suffers because quantity was favored over quality, as is so often the case. Why not tighten up the game during production, cuting the length along with the game’s price? If this is what we can expect from games that push a million words, a thousand characters, and sixty hours of gameplay, I say no thank you.