While I think the much anticipated follow up to Dragon Age: Origins is inferior in a number of ways, I’m going to pick on one in particular in this post.
The absence of compelling plot hooks.
In many ways a computer (or console) RPG is like a novel. You create the character, but the game designers drop your creation into their world, show them what needs to be done, and then give them the tools to do it.
The joys come in a variety of ways: Increasing the potency (and thereby their ability to solve the big problem) through levels, or skills, or new items and spells. Each increase in our character’s abilities generally gives them access to new areas, or the ability to fight new monsters (thus leading to even more levels and loot). And just this joy in ‘leveling up’ can take a person a long way in a computer game. Older games like Diablo were basically just click fests that kept our attention by throwing levels, powers, and limitless loot at us. I played a lot of Diablo, so I can personally attest to the sleep depriving power of “One more dungeon and I can get enough XP to max out my firebolt spell!”
But then a little game Baldur’s Gate came along and showed me that along with my leveling and looting, I might actually enjoy the story, too. By the end of Baldur’s Gate, I was not only cackling over the +3 sword I’d just found, but over the twists and turns of the plot.
Baldur’s Gate II only exceeded its predecessor in this. And for the first time, not only did I care about the loot and the plot, but about the personal lives of my NPC party members. Would Haer Dalis wind up sweet talking his way into the arms of Aerie? And how did my character, who’d been wooing Aerie up to that point plan to deal with that? Would he fight for her? Or take a cold comfort in Viconia’s dangerous embrace?
This was revolutionary stuff, and I must have played through Baldur’s Gate II and it’s various add-ons a dozen times or more, exploring all of the possibilities. Not just the possible characters *I* could make, but how each of them fit into the world and the lives of the people they interacted with. Then sadly, Black Isle, the company who’d made these revolutionary games, died.
Years later, I switched from primarily PC gaming to console gaming. I enjoyed the console games, and many of them a great deal. But I could often be heard bemoaning the loss of the truly great CRPG. Button mashers like Champions of Norrath, that replaced depth of story with a diablo-esque frenetic ‘kill and loot’ style play just weren’t the same. Ironically, a game called Baldur’s Gate came out that used this style of play, which seemed only to mock my pain.
Then I heard rumors of EA getting ready to release a revolutionary new console RPG called Dragon Age. I was intrigued. I heard they’d hired the writers from Black Isle to work on it. I began salivating with anticipation.
And man, did they not let me down. Dragon Age: Origins was everything I’d been hoping for. Rich story, lovely game play, and a varied cast of NPC characters to interact with. They had their own wants and needs, they got angry with me for doing things that violated their personal codes. They squabbled with each other, or flirted. Sometimes they fell in love with me. It was beautiful.
So, like nearly everyone else, I was pretty excited by the prospect of a Dragon Age sequel. And they got a lot right. There are a new cast of NPC characters to meet and interact with. Some of their storylines are just as rich as those in the first game. But I largely feel like I’m going through the motions as I go from quest to quest and gain my XP and loot.
“Why is that?” I kept wondering.
Plot hooks is the answer.
In the first Dragon Age, you begin the game in one of several starting areas depending on the race and class combination you chose. After a few easy missions within that area to give you a feel for the game and the control system, you are drafted by an ancient order called the Gray Wardens to go and fight an evil army called the Blight. Within just a few hours of beginning the game, the Gray Wardens have been betrayed and murdered, the throne has been usurped, and you are cast adrift in a land soon to be overrun by ancient evil.
You are tasked with building an army out of the traditional Gray Warden allies, and once strong enough, with driving back the blight and killing its leader, the Archdemon.
You are given this task literally within a few hours of starting the game. The next fifty hours or so you play will be in the service of this quest. And the game does a wonderful job of keeping the tension high. Periodic attacks from the blight. The loss of towns that were once available to you as the blight overtakes them. Periodically coming across a murdered caravan or a lot of dead soldiers. You feel a palpable sense that you’re running out of time. So much so that several of my friends skipped major chunks of side quests because they were worried that the blight would destroy the kingdom if they didn’t finish the main quest fast enough.
The game tells you what’s wrong, and what the character needs to do to fix it. You know, like a novel.
Dragon Age II, sadly, totally fails in this regard. It looks like Dragon Age, mostly. It sort of feels like it while you are playing it. I liked some of the NPC’s.
But there’s no plot. I mean, sure, when you get to the end you fight a big battle that sort of resolves a major conflict. But it was a conflict I was basically unaware of at the start of the game. The first third of the game was about getting enough money to buy my mother a house. I mean, fine, establishing myself in the city is a fine goal, but what does it have to do with anything else? The second third of the game hints at what the final conflict will be, but drops a giant red herring about an invasion in your lap. When I defeated the leader of the possibly invading forces, I honestly thought the game might be over at that point. When there was another 12-15 hours of gameplay, and a whole new problem to solve, it felt tacked on.
It was pretty disappointing, story wise. But what really bugs me is that Bioware knows it. They know the game has this flaw, and they try to fix it with a cheap framing story. Between each section, you see a knight questioning a dwarf about someone called The Champion. You get a sense that this champion did something to upset the balance of power in the world. You get a sense that the dwarf knows the champion personally. When you then run into that dwarf early on and he becomes a member of your party, you realize, “Ah, I am the champion. Check.”
But what the champion did, or why this knight is interrogating this dwarf remains nebulous as best. It’s like the game keeps jumping in to say, “I know this all just seems like some random shit at this point, but really, something important happens later.”
And it feels perfunctory. I’m going through the motions until the game decides to let me know why what I’m doing matters. And by the time it does, the games almost over.
Plot hooks. Just like in novels you need to tell your reader what the problem is, and why you should care about how the characters are going to solve it, you need to do that in this type of role playing game. And Dragon Age II doesn’t. It winds up being unsatisfying as a rich story, and it’s not good as a button masher either. It’s this sort of limp thing in between the two, but not enough of either one.
Honestly? It made me want to return it and play Origins again.