“We're porting it to...,” or “It's a port of...,” whether you use it as a noun or verb the word “port” is easily one of the more infamous words in the gamer's lexicon. In either form, a wince and shudder aren't necessarily uncommon reactions to hearing its utterance; after all, the resulting product usually is a lacking parody in one way or another. Of course there are successful derivations here and there—the recent surge of putting a high-definition face on older favorites, for example—but for the most part, a port is noticeable for less-than-appreciable reasons.
BioWare aren't oblivious to this when they talk about Dragon Age: Origins. They are proud of the game they put together (as they should be), but they recognize the lacking elements resulting from taking a PC-optimized game and compressing it onto the console format. It's with this understanding they deliver Dragon Age 2, a game tailored more for controller play, focusing on visceral action and better overall visual fidelity. They accomplish this end, but in the process, seem to overlook some pieces of the puzzle.
Let's be clear, the switch to a button mashing scheme isn't the problem in Dragon Age 2, nor is the departure from the Origins setup with its multiple classes of varying roles and backstories. DA2 still lives in the lore the team created for the IP's debut, and works its way around a competent story of political, theological and personal struggles as dogmatic Templars push to pacify and ostracize mages. There are some intriguing adventures to delve into, almost all of which are accompanied by that BioWare trademark of divergent, branching interactions. They tie themselves together sometimes in the immediate and other times in the future, but no matter when their resolution occurs, they do so with only the slightest hiccup.
These adventures take place in and around Kirkwall, a former slave-trade city, where Hawke's (the hero this time around) family finds refuge and rebuilds their lives from their razed Lothering home. Giving a voice to DA2's sole player character enriches a heavy amount of dialogue with its reformatted UI. The move to a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel is an aesthetic change that's easy to accept, accompanied with paraphrases and visual cues to the choices you can make. Some of the time, these paraphrases lead you to believe you're answering one way when Hawke pipes up another, but at least there isn't any redundancy of reading the exact words he or she will be speaking.
By giving Dragon Age's hero a voice this time around, BioWare also allow the player to become better connected with not only their character, creating a personality based on reactions used (diplomatic, humorous, or stern), but to their companions as well. Embark on a companion's quests and gain their favor, then sleep with them, and in the interim, chat it up to get to know them better. It's just easier to become invested in your fellow fighters this time around, giving more impact to revelations later in the game.
Being friendly and aligning your interests with specific characters in your party also influences who becomes your friend or rival. Without being penalized for either, the friendship mechanic creates dynamic interactions while running about Kirkwall and opens up access to specialized skill trees. Under the much-touted framed narrative, as Hawke goes from Ferelden refugee to Kirkwall Champion, you might not always befriend the companion you want, due to not knowing how they'll react to some of your dialogue, but there's reward no matter how things turn out. Creating interesting characterization is a fairly well-established tradition for BioWare—now it's just done with a voice in the Dragon Age universe.
While subtle tweaks have been made to the socializing aspect of the series, the main focus this time around, almost too obviously, is in adding a more compelling action element for the console contingent. Surely, the animations are more brutal, the art direction lighter and lovingly stylized, but an underwhelming extrapolation of combinations force you to spam a singular face button for nigh 40 hours. It's more interactive than the single-input approach of the PC-ported Origins, but once the difficulty setting notches above “casual,” and pause-to-plan tactics overtake as the default approach to battles, it becomes exhaustively repetitive.
Unfortunately, the above isn't the true tedium associated with DA2 once the same locales are visited over and over again. The visuals may be far less muddled than before, and lively animations find themselves expressively attached to characters' faces, but seeing almost no change to a Kirkwall where Hawke spends years building up his or her reputation is almost antithetic to BioWare's abilities. Fetch quests have you transferring between loading screens so often in Kirkwall proper, you almost spend more time watching loading animations than completing missions—even if you download the game to your hard drive. Dungeon crawling is almost no better. Continually recycled maps, sometimes broken up into smaller sections, do little to separate one cave from the other, loaded with the same enemies year over year.
Origins may have been ugly to look at for most of the time (on the console), but at least there were a wealth of places to explore giving the world as much character as those who inhabited it.
Smaller nitpicks make up an argument calling Dragon Age 2 a less-accomplished sequel to an incredibly robust fantasy RPG, but none are as deflating as its lacking game world. The inability to micromanage your party's equipment, the overabundance of loot you're unable to use or distinguish, and glitches that steal complete assets from the game (faces, heads, texture skins): all of these further dilute an interesting story set in world navigated by menus, plagued by recurring drop-in enemies. Ultimately, opting for a second playthrough only bleeds one experience over to the other—once it's done, you've certainly been there and done that.
A much shorter development cycle shows under the Dragon Age guise, capitalizing on Origins' popularity. DA2 is certainly a well-acted and better-looking game by dropping its ported qualities, but without the thoughtful structure and fully realized world like that of Origins, it's one that exists in the hyphenated space of “action-RPG” where the first 5 hours are almost identical to last 30. The demo was a good taste of what Dragon Age 2 could have been, it's just a shame it never goes anywhere beyond that.
Button mashing or single input for RPGs? What kind of quest structure do you like to see in them? Type us a tweet on Twitter @gamers_hell