“Dragon Age II” Demo Impressions
I couldn’t believe it, but “Dragon Age II” actually has a demo out now. This is an unusual move for AAA RPGs; how are you going to summarize the experience you’re offering in a couple of minutes? Still, Bioware has an odd fondness for this stuff (remember that “Mass Effect 2″ demo that came out light-years after the actual game?), they like to toss you demos just to prove they can. I dig that.
Plus which, “Dragon Age II” is a big change-up. We all know this. The original was the yin to “Mass Effect’s” yang, a proud dinosaur that stomped out of the museum and declared its existence in the world of cover-based shooters. The sequel, by contrast, abandons its name-sake’s proud tradition and caves to the Godless world of real-time combat. Its father would be ashamed. As such, this thing really has something to prove to its core audience. So a demo makes sense.
But the result, I fear, has serious problems. Let me tell you what they are:
-This Non-Linear Narrative Thing is Awful. I had a bad feeling about this one. DA2 is told from the perspective of some dwarf douche bag who keeps embellishing, making up stuff, and retelling the same events with different spins. That this idiot holds a death grip on my heroic journey, and has the power to redistribute facts and events willy-nilly, just bothers me. If the story is only as true as this idiot’s hyperbole, then how am I earning experience points? How can I progress through lies? The world of the RPG demands a bedrock ontological grounding, if you ask me.
-Combat. Yeah the combat is fun. But why make this into “Mass Effect”? We have “Mass Effect” already! The whole point of having these two franchises is to whet completely different appetites, and now they’re both messily diving for the same prize.
Frankly, though, without cover-based combat to give things structure, I’m not sure these free-standing, real-time conflicts work as well as they did in ME2. There’s nothing to ground the battle, you just run around in circles like an idiot trying to cast spells out of your anus. It feels ramshackle and silly. When the difficulty ramps up, as it is wont to suddenly do, it’s easy to feel like you have no gameplay resources to turn to.
-Voice Acting Still Blows. How did they not fix this? “Mass Effect” has had great voice acting for years now, why can’t “Dragon Age” get its act together? This stuff sounds like an SNL animated short crossed with a BBC mini-series from 30 years ago. Even the reverb sounds bad! This was a key problem in the original, and its persistence is a terrible omen. I don’t like to see such obvious oversights dog a venerable franchise.
-Really Unimpressive Graphics. The animations have been significantly improved, but there’s still a ton of stuttering, the facial animations are plastic, and frankly I found the environments in the demo to be flat and uninteresting. I’m going to assume this is not representative of the final game, because I’ve never known Bioware to fail on that front, but I call ‘em like I see ‘em.
Also, the in-game menus are ugly and poorly designed. ME2′s basic interface has been replaced with muddy browns, lazily implemented shadows and fog, and a half-hearted aesthetic style that steps one foot into post-modern, and one into classic. Either one could have been cool, but commit to one.
Underneath these objections, I admit “Dragon Age II” acquitted itself with Bioware’s typical adroit professionalism. I don’t think we have a bad game on our hands here, but I’m not sure we have the step forward that I expect from a developer of this caliber. I had high hopes that DAII would build on the original’s strong foundations, and now it seems like their path is more of a sideways, skewered affair; some improvements, some persistent problems, and a few brand new ones.