Something curious has happened with our appreciation of the original Dragon Age: Origins. We gave it a Hot Award when it came out last year, and played an awful lot of it. However, as time has tracked on, we’ve looked back on the game and come to a rather startling conclusion.
It’s not – in our opinion, anyway – really that good a game.
I know we’re reviewing its sequel here, but it’s worth briefly exploring our reasoning, as it’s going to heavily influence our reaction to Dragon Age II. Our basic issue was the game’s linearity. Sure, you can tackle missions and quest lines in pretty much any order, and yes, you have a wide choice of companions, and yes, too, the choice of origins for your character was kind of neat.
But, they’re not real choices – they’re tricks, giving the illusion of choice, or in the case of the origin stories, more or less just bookends to give you a reason to play through the game again if you’re a completion freak. In terms of the companions, there is a mess of them, but really once you settle into a good groove of the right mix (tank, healer, DPS etc), there’s very little reason to actually use the rest of your team – sure, they have sub-plots to explore, but we always feel a little... voyeuristic when we include the gay elf in the party just so we can pull out a bit more of his backstory. That’s not a choice, it’s an enticement.
At the same time, the structure of the game’s world was little more than a series of linear nodes (complete with interesting things always just beyond some arbitrary barrier on the landscape) plotted out on a map, all disconnected from one another.
The interesting thing is, and folks have said this when we’ve mentioned our disillusionment, that Mass Effect is no different – however we still feel that even Mass Effect is worlds ahead, and Mass Effect 2 is practically one of our favourite games of all time. The difference, though, is that a sci-fi setting lends itself to making the BioWare framework of an RPG actually work. Levels in cities or on space-ships can be linear without feeling so in a way that a path through rolling country-side can never be. Similarly, the node-based travel mechanic is practically made to simulate the supra-light hops of far future space travel. Even the specialties of your group are more suited to a try-them-all kind of approach.
Huh – so much for brief!
So, first things first – yes, you can change your appearance.
In fact, Dragon Age II, if anything, is much more like Mass Effect than Origins ever was. And it also shows that BioWare is becoming ever more confident in its narrative, able to take cues from more traditional avenues of storytelling, such as film and literature, and make them fit into gaming like they’ve always been here.
In this case – and, fair warning, there will be spoilers! – while you will always be Hawke, a refugee fleeing the Blight on the mainland, you can choose a different firstname, your gender, and then customise your look with just as much control as you can in Mass Effect. But not before a rather interesting game intro that sees you, as the archetypal Hawke we all know from the game’s trailers and art, and your sister fleeing Darkspawn and laying about them with great abandon, until...
Well, the game’s actually a flashback – as you’re killing all comers and things are getting rather silly, a voice interrupts, and you discover this tale is being told by a dwarf. Varric, actually, and he’s being roughly interrogated about the story of Hawke’s rise to power. His interrogator picks the story as a falsehood, and forces the real tale out of him, and that’s when the game really begins. But not before you get the feeling that whatever it is you end up doing over the game’s ten-year time-span... it’s not really ended all that well.
It’s a much stronger start to the game – it’s structured enough that the storytelling can be a lot more bold and creative, and it permeates the entire tone of the setting, and even the decisions you make – the premonition of disaster leaves you with the feeling that maybe you can do things differently, or wondering just at what point you’ve been set on the path to whatever disaster it is that unfolds.
As the game progresses, this interrogation scene consistently cuts into the action – in fact, some of the game’s lightest moments are delivered when Varric gets a little bored and inventive with his storytelling. He’s a charming, if somewhat unreliable narrator.