Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
March 2011

The Evolution (For Better or Worse) of Dragon Age

There is little in this world more cathartic for me than buying a new game. Unless it's purchased on a whim, chances are I'll have been following its development for months, even years. I'll have read countless previews, participated in myriad discussions and in general just hyped myself up to a state of almost childlike excitement.

In the run up to Dragon Age 2 much of the discussion wasn't about how great it was going to be, but rather how its developers were screwing it up. A product of RPG savants Bioware, the theme of its development was by and large change. They wanted to do something different, to refine what they'd created in its predecessor and more importantly expand on RPGs in new and unique ways.

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It was a gutsy move. The original game, Dragon Age: Origins, is something of a modern day masterpiece. It was a deep and multifaceted role-playing experience built around an emotional story with well-written characters. Bioware could have easily repackaged what they already had and sold millions of copies with minimal effort. Instead they opted to overhaul the entire experience; chipping away at the rough edges of the original and coupling it with a brand new story, characters, and an unfamiliar setting.

To an extent it paid off. Dragon Age 2 features what is probably my favorite combat system in an RPG to date. The gameplay in Origins could at times be a bit sluggish. Dragon Age 2 is fast paced and intense while still requiring the player to be tactical and intelligent on the harder difficulties. They did simplify some things unnecessarily. I liked customizing the equipment of my party members in Origins, and I was disappointed to see that they had limited that. That said, the majority of what they trimmed was genuine fat and the gameplay is better for the changes they made.

But for all the rough edges Dragon Age 2 polished away, it created some new ones of its own. The game was clearly rushed. Where Dragon Age: Origins was made over the course of five years, Dragon Age 2 was made in less than two. When you've recycled your environments so heavily that I visit the same cave a dozen times over the course of the game, it becomes clear you were under pressure to hurry things along.

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The game also suffers from a story that's oft times inconsistent in its pacing. I won't say it's bad because it isn't. The writers at Bioware are some of the best in the industry and there are moments in Dragon Age 2 that I would count as some of the best I've experienced in a video game - several which handily outclass the best of its predecessor, which was fraught with emotional and moral depth.

That said, Bioware was clearly stepping out of their comfort zone. For close to a decade most of their games have followed a structure of "gather allies, fight big bad guy." Dragon Age 2 comparatively is a framed narrative following your character's actions and their resultant consequences over the course of ten years. It's a story structure rarely seen in video games, and one entirely new to Bioware. This inexperience shows; the story has many good moments, but it frequently stumbles and lacks the focus and build up of their more typical fare.

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This may sound like a dismissal, but I actually admire Dragon Age 2 for the chances it took with its story. Dragon Age: Origins is great, but in the end it boiled down to a quest to slay a dragon. There is only so much you can do with that. The most engaging moments of Origins were the one's grounded in human issues: moral, political and religious conflict and debate. Whereas the original made these somewhat ancillary, Dragon Age 2 sets them front and center and I find it to be more interesting as a result.

In the years to come, Dragon Age 2 may become something of a black sheep in the Bioware library. That said, I can't help but feel that it will be a personal favorite simply because it took risks it didn't have to and tried to move forward. Stagnancy is one of the worst things that can happen to a franchise. You can see it testing the patience of Call of Duty fans and Nintendo devotees tiring of the constant rehashing of properties that used to be revolutionary. Dragon Age 2 may be a black sheep, but it could also be the sacrificial lamb that saves its franchise from becoming a mere footnote in the record of the progress.

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