Saturday, 2 April 2011

Dragon Age II: Impressions Part 3

This is the third part of a series of posts about Dragon Age II, in which I elaborate upon the combat system the game utilizes. As a few of the characters' skill sets draw naming and inspiration from their background stories, I have included a spoiler warning as usual. You have been warned.

Note the simple interface, doing a
good job of keeping things plain.
If you follow this series of posts, you have no doubt figured that my impressions of Dragon Age II's story and level design have been mediocre at best, with a handful of locations recycled constantly between the game's three acts, which in turn feel largely unconnected to one another. I feel this was the inevitable outcome of BioWare's determination to streamline the game, possibly to appease a less RPG-centric fan base, which I suspect they attempted to facilitate by focusing heavily on the combat system.

Said combat system works remarkably better than it's predecessor's, with a much more frantic pace, an easy to learn (and thankfully, minimal) interface, a combo function which promotes teamwork, intelligently designed skill sets with no (apparent) game-breaking abilities, and some of the best battle flow I've seen in a recent game. Unfortunately, it seems that even in this area, BioWare has obscured some otherwise excellent ideas beneath run-of-the-mill techniques designed to pad out the game experience far longer than they should.

Battlemaster skill group.
First, the good; each character has a pool of available skills which can be acquired via levelling, with progressively more powerful ones unlocking at higher levels. These are grouped into categories per class, so that (for example) a warrior might have a grouping under "Weapon and Shield", another under "Two-handed Weapons" and three or four more that define his role in the group, such as "Vanguard" (for damage-dealing) or "Battlemaster" (general party utility). As with most games of the genre, focus in two or three of these trees provides the best results, as certain combinations thereof can provide an effect that is greater than the sum of it's parts (as an example, Taunt will focus enemy attention to the character, while Turn the Blade with ensure that said character can evade incoming attacks from the aforementioned enemies). There is also the option to instead improve upon a previously acquired skill instead of learning a new one, which in most cases directly translates into higher damage output; less often, said skill will instead acquire a secondary function, such as being able to "stagger" or "disorient" opponents (leading into the game's combo system).

A "brittle" enemy, identified
by an overhead icon.
Special mention merits to the NPC party members' skill sets, as they're usually meant to guide the player into what amounts to "archetypes" for each NPC, specific functions within the group; a good example is Anders, a mage NPC who's exclusive skill set contains Revive and Aid Allies, the former allowing any fallen party members to resume fighting and the latter a party-wide healing spell, both of which are otherwise only available if the player chose a mage Hawke. This, while limiting party choices to two or three valid party setups (especially for higher difficulties), also allows for less mistakes during levelling; thus providing a more enjoyable later-game experience and a high degree of character specialization and, therefore, consistency.

The actual battles themselves are also quite enjoyable for the most part, with attack combinations smoothly meshing with one another, flowing animations that (usually) convey the intensity of the moment accurately and, for the most part, a visceral feeling as your characters hack, slash and maim their way to victory. The combo system itself is simple, yet efficient: each class has a special type of status it can inflict on an enemy - warriors can "stagger" an opponent, rogues can "disorient" and mages can render a foe "brittle". While these effects are in themselves beneficial to an attacker (a "staggered" foe, for example, suffers reduced attack and defense scores), they really come into play as cross-class combinations; for example, a warrior can inflict up to 300% of their base damage with certain abilities when using them on "brittle" targets. This lends the battles a slight depth, as often (again, especially on higher difficulties), you are required to take advantage of as many factors as possible to emerge victorious in combat.

Screenshot with a good example of
player-to-enemy ratios in the game.
All these positives are, however, sometimes overshadowed by what is essentially a series of bad design choices which I can only assume are put in place to emphasize on the action segments of the experience. The game seems positively delighted to swarm the player with hordes of weak, yet annoying foes and (in 80% of the cases) is in the habit of spawning "reinforcements" once the original threat is dealt with, most often than not with a badly-implemented "drop from above" animation, which might work in the city environments, and even the cave environments (of which at least three quarters of the game is composed). It seems like bad design, though, to have enemies appear in that manner in the game's  outdoors areas (for example the Bone Pit area and High Dragon fight, in which newly-hatched, *wingless* drakes spawn as reinforcements during the fight by literally dropping from the sky).

As for the diversity of the foes encountered, while it is by no means limited, there seems to be an inexplicable focus on the more "human" adversaries (which, again, may just be a side-effect of the game's insistence in large groups of enemies), which strikes me as odd in a game set and marketed as fantasy.

Ultimately, the combat system is functional and in places feels refined and well-thought out (achieving at points the "easy to learn, hard to master" design creed); sadly it is obscured often by what I can only assume to be a weak attempt to escalate the game's scope - overusing enemy encounters, inappropriately used on most occasions at best, deliberately attempting to lengthen game play at worst.

The final post will attempt to give insights  into the party members' characterization, along with some minor thoughts on the game's audio - mainly character dialogues and soundtrack.

As a point of interest, I played as a male warrior Hawke that favoured Diplomatic/Helpful dialogue options, romanced Isabela (and defended her in a duel with the Qunari Arishok), sided with the mages in the finale, tried to complete as many side missions as possible and spared Anders after his betrayal.

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