Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dragon Age 2 Can Only Be An Improvement

I loved Dragon Age: Origins. A lot. To this day, I regularly spend my free time in the company of my officious prick of an Arcane Warrior, fighting my way through the Deep Roads with Shale, Leliana and Morrigan in tow.

And so like every other DA:O fan in the world, I am dang excited about the just-announced sequel, Dragon Age 2. BioWare hasn't announced many details about the game (though maybe Game Informer subscribers can tell me differently); all we've got so far is a handful of screenshots and some vague details about the new protagonist, "Hawke."

(Which means we've got a lone "Shepard" and his noble and deadly bird "Hawke"... hopefully Jade Empire 2 will center around a protagonist named "Counting Sheep.")

Anyway, the upshot is that the entire populace (this proper usage of "populace" brought to you by Sparky Clarkson) of internet-town has taken these tiny info-granules and constructed a pretty convincing picture of what the final game will look like. We know that the protagonist will be human, be fully-voiced, and that dialogue will flow much more like Mass Effect. We know there's a simplified, more illustrated-looking art style and that the game will look and run much more smoothly on consoles. I think it's also a safe bet that there won't be 1:1 dialogue match-up anymore, but that's just me guessing. Sounds good, and about what I would've predicted.

But there is also quite a bit of discontent, mostly around the announcement that combat in the console versions of DA2 will be "tailored to the strengths of the PS3 and 360" rather than trying to recreate the experience of the PC version. Most folks have taken that to mean that we're going to get an overly simplified battle system that'll drop the first game's focus on strategy and depth. But I also get the sense that these guys and gals are voicing a desire to see Dragon Age's console UI and combat system remain mostly unchanged.

To these (possibly straw) people, I say: You are tripping.

Look, I "liked" the combat in DA:O as much as the next guy. Which is to say, at first I was completely baffled by it, then I grew to tolerate it and even thrive under its byzantine, unforgiving rule. Breaking out a notebook in order to successfully min/max my team, using exploits in order to pull off tactical maneuvers, hearing my dickhead of a main character say "Can I get you a ladder so you can GET OFF MY BACK" every time I ask him to do the smallest thing... I grew to at least appreciate all of those things over the course of the game.

But when all was said and done, most of DA:O's gameplay was tolerated but never loved. Let's be real - this was a PC combat system shoehorned onto a console, and only barely.

The fact that that BioWare crammed this:

onto this:
...well, it was impressive that it worked at all. But still, there is, um, room for improvement. Here's my quick breakdown of just some of the flaws in the console version's combat system:
  • To start with: the entire combat system was so fundamentally clunky that the console versions turned off friendly fire on normal difficulty, effectively breaking the game so as to give players a fighting chance. When every battle has my dudes running through an inferno cloud unscathed while the enemy burns alive, you know something's hinky.
  • AI was questionable. And by "questionable," I mean "absolutely ridiculously bad.'"  I've been in a lot of battles lately where Shale just sort of stands around until I take command of him (update: oh my, how could I have used the incorrect pronoun here? I am mortified. Of course I meant "take command of her") and make him (sigh) go tank up. And don't get me started on "Wynne the Melee Healer."
  • Tactics slots were a cool idea ("we can't program our AI, but YOU can!") but the slots were essentially unworkable in practice. Terminology was unclear - does "character" refer to the player character? Or any character? How to I reprioritize them? Why do I only get a limited number? Worse, possible tactical combinations were very hard to map out since options were nested and only revealed themselves one grouping at a time. So in order to know what was possible, players had to memorize the entire tree.
  • Hotkeys were so limited that non-spell/attack options like quick-heal and weapon-swap were by necessity exiled to the radial menus...
  • ...which were being forced to carry so much of a load that they couldn't possibly hope to keep up. Spells, potions and abilities all required navigating at least two radial menus, usually three, and there was no way to customize which spell went where. The result being that all advanced spells wound up living in a radial menu nested in a radial menu nested in a radial menu, and even when I memorized the exact motions required to get to my favorite spells, I would have to re-learn them every time I got a new spell or ability.
  • As a result of this radial menu nonsense, I literally never used balms/salves/other buffing agents, and frequently forgot to use my bombs and poisons.
  • Despite the clear need for every possible button to have a function, clicking the thumbsticks does nothing.
  • Hotkeys would often reassign themselves (at least on 360), necessitating a re-mapping mid-game. And sometimes the re-mapping wouldn't take.
  • Perhaps bugs aren't fair game, but still, the radial menu was buggy and would get its toggle flipped, pausing the game when the radial menu closed and starting it when it opened, but freezing my character.
  • It was unclear as hell what was happening to a character in a given moment in combat - statuses were updated over beneath the character portraits on the left-hand side of the screen, but in the heat of battle, I would often give a command and have it be utterly ignored. Part of that was due to the fact that by selecting the character while paused, the camera would zoom over to them but the radial menu would obfuscate my view so I couldn't tell what they were doing and whether they were mid-action or stunned. Frequently the ignored command would be to quick-heal, which would end up with my tank or healer dying mid-battle. Super.
  • Another side-effect of forcing all the spells/abilities into the radial menu was that there was no way to tell when one had recharged short of pausing, checking, unpausing, waiting, then pausing again.
  • By assigning motion to the thumbstick, it was impossible to issue re-positioning commands. If I want to reposition my mage, I need to let everyone else do their thing while I manually run her over to where she needs to be.
  • Lyrium potions were great for recharging mana, but there was no equivalent for stamina (remedied in Awakening, thank The Maker), so any non-magic class usually only got to do a handful of tricks per battle. As a result, the mana-as-stamina switch makes the Arcane Warrior the most overpowered class in the game.
  • Last but not least, combat suffered from a general overabundance of options. By midway through the game I had so many spells, abilities, traps, potions, bombs, poisons and sustained modes at my disposal that I never used half of them. Shield charge, overpower, shield battery, shield cover, precise striking... agg. Plus, getting high-level spells meant getting 2-3 lower level spells that I maybe never even wanted, further weighing down my radial menus with unwanted junk.
I could go on. So I will! Because the non-combat UI was also hellish and overmatched. I say this with the knowledge that BioWare has gotten crap in the past (sometimes in legendary fashion) for their terribly designed UIs, but to my eye, DA:O takes the cake. I mean, just off the top of my head:
  • The inventory screen maps different functionality to the left/right thumbstick and triggers in stores than it does when in party inventory.
  • There is no way to sell off equipment that my character is holding, even in his alternate slot.
  • The Junk/Destroy system is just laughably unwieldy. No way to select more than one item, no no way to just drop/destroy things in one go, yikes.
  • Comparison between items is similarly disastrous, and there is no way to know the worth of equipped gear while in a store.
  • When in inventory, the frickin' START button switches between weapon-sets. The start button! Similar to the infamous "back-button grenade-throw" of Mass Effect, this button-mapping choice is the clearest symptom yet of an overmatched, reverse-engineered UI.
  • The select button goes to a different screen depending on some bizarre computational alchemy that I still do not understand. Sometimes it's the map, sometimes codex, sometimes character sheet.
  • The Codex is bizarre and all but impossible to navigate, broken into what seems like hundreds of subcategories - "Quests" "Characters" "Places" "Notes" "Books". When looking for a history of the people in a building I just entered, there are at least five places to check. Plus, the screen sets it so that the highlighted entry is at the very bottom of the page, leaving it unclear how many entries remain. There seem to be new notes for every single item I acquire, and I have no idea where half of them are stored, and as a result miss out on a ton of well-written, fantastically interesting lore.
  • Similarly, the entirety of the character sheet isn't visible on one screen, and in order to see the second half of my sheet I need to cycle down through the first half, then scroll one item at a time. 
  • There were glaring inconsistencies in how information was represented - giving a gift would raise a follower's approval by a number, but on their character sheet, that approval was represented by a light/dark bar. What does it mean that "Morrigan Approves +10?" I get that it's a lot, but how much? Why are numbers involved at all?
  • Equipping and unequipping items is also a supreme pain in the ass. Taking off or putting on a piece of armor resets the inventory screen, so equipping a full set of armor takes at least four trips all the way down the armor list. What's more, it's unclear what was required to get the fatigue bonus from equipping a whole set - was the helmet necessary? Am I getting the boost? No way to tell other than switching a piece and comparing via mental math.
  • Worse, there is no way to tell the buffs offered by a piece of equipment without entering the "compare" screen. Would it have killed BioWare to simply put that information right after the item's name? I CAN'T KEEP ALL MY STUPID NECKLACES STRAIGHT
  • This isn't a UI issue, but all of the mage's hats make my magic-users look like court jesters. Let's go with headbands next time, guys. Wynne deserved better than the dunce cap she wore the whole game. At least hats magically disappeared during conversations.
Okay, I'll stop. My point here is that many, many console gamers (myself included!) love this game despite all of that, as well as the thirty or so things that I probably left off. And we also had to overlook cruddy textures and muddy environments, ancient-looking combat animations, static dialogue animations, chugging combat framerate...

So when they announced that the console versions of Dragon Age 2 would be optimized and streamlined, of course it made me happy! I would imagine that a more flowing, easy-to-use combat system could only serve to make the game more enjoyable to, ya know, actually play. And perhaps more importantly, it might allow me to feel like I really do have a badass character and party, not a clumsy oaf leading a team of nincompoops who can't even get it together to stop swinging for five seconds to drink a healing potion before they are killed.

I also doubt that the game will get too much shallower, and it certainly won't be Mass Effect 2-shallow. The reason for this has to do with lineage - Mass Effect was made as a console game first then ported to PC. It was born to be streamlined, and the vestiges of PC-era item-management and leveling that it bore were easily the weakest parts of the first game. Conversely, Dragon Age: Origins was made as a PC game first and ported to console, and the sequel looks to be no different. BioWare already announced that the top-down strategic combat will remain in the PC version of the game, so it's highly likely that those systems will also be active in the console version in some form or another. Hopefully, they'll just be streamlined and graced with a UI that doesn't actively fight player input.

The fact that Dragon Age: Origins is one of my favorite games of 2009 and indeed, one of my favorite RPGs of all time stands as evidence of just how far great writing, storytelling, world-building and characterization can go. If BioWare can add a smooth, empowering combat system and streamlined user interface to the equation, Dragon Age 2 really will be like Mass Effect 2, but not in the way everyone seems to think. It will simply be a more fully-realized iteration of the design philosophy laid out by its predecessor and as a result a more cohesive, enjoyable game.

Here's hoping, anyway.
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