Dragon Age II review (PS3) ½

I think there’s a reason why this game bores me so much, why it just doesn’t let me play it and why it has no value in my life, along with zero entertainment value. Over the course of time, I have played horrible, horrible video games, from Superman 64 to (the worst) Conflict: Denied Ops. They didn’t have a reason they failed, but they were safe. If you have a reason for failing then it’s either a development issue or just poor vision. Well, Dragon Age II had neither of those, it had something beyond poor vision... it was a lack of understanding. To put it quite bluntly, the developers and writers did not make a video game.

How do I know for certain? Take a look at this interview on Killer Betties, in which a writer for Dragon Age II (Jennifer Hepler) says this:

Q: What is your least favorite thing about working in the industry?

A: Playing the games. This is probably a terrible thing to admit, but it has definitely been the single most difficult thing for me. I came into the job out of a love of writing, not a love of playing games...

See, it’s fine if you’re bad at games. I’m bad at video games sometimes, but what I don’t understand is one giant problem with video game writing and with Dragon Age II. Video games are interactive: you cannot approach “the writing” in the same way you do with a film (non-interactive). If you’ve come into this job out of the love of writing, good for you, but if you just don’t care on how to facilitate interactivity or to at least have a degree of empathy with the player, then that’s not a video game.

This is why Dragon Age II sucks. It’s not the stupid good/’funny’/bad dialogue tree options, it’s not the sticky combat that makes me feel like I’m playing Final Fantasy XIII by just pressing a button for my character to do 20 things on-screen. It’s not the relationships I have with characters which feel just outright disconnecting at times when my avatar happily loves someone who I absolutely detest.

Dragon Age II isn’t a sequel to the original, Origins, it has a number on the box but it really isn’t of the same narrative series. In the original game, some explosive action went down with a Necromancer’s army of Darkspawn squaring off against the Grey Wardens. Blah blah blah, Dragon Age II ignores all of that juicy, deep fantasy lore I could sink into and goes straight for Hollywood’s throat and sets the ENTIRE game inside one city. Think about that, over 60 hours of play set inside recycled environments.

You play as Hawke, or rather forced on to Hawke, as you’re billed as one of the greatest people to have ever lived and you have absolutely no choice of not being the greatest person who ever lived. It’s okay, though, because, remember, this isn’t a video game. I really, really hate it when a game takes away my reins of control for stupid reasons. Here it’s just to shove this horrible plot thing down my throat. Nothing happens, not in the Mass Effect 2 sense where it’s one giant The Empire Strikes Back character development epic, but in the sense that literally nothing happens. At the end of the game, there’s a cliffhanger for Dragon Age III and you’re generally left with a sour taste in your mouth. I like how I hate the game’s design and narrative but I haven’t even gone on to the mechanics yet. After playing this game for six hours, I watched a few playthroughs and knew that I just couldn’t take any more of this horrible, horrible experience. There are video games and then there are video games that live in the shadow of cinema. Some of them do it perfectly well sitting in that shadow, such as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and others just disregard the fact that they’re still video games.

Combat in the first game was rather tactical and, if anything, a ghost of an RTS combat system. It was really beautiful in a weird way to go back over 20 years ago to some proper, thoughtful combat. Here, however, everything is ‘streamlined’ in that you press one button in one direction and your character does 20 moves. If you do it in the wrong direction you have to wait for the animation to finish before you can press the button again and wait five seconds to move on to the next enemy.

The dialogue system works, but horribly. Alpha Protocol, as bad as it was, showed off how damn good a dialogue system can be and this is BioWare we’re talking about. Dragon Age II’s good/’funny’/bad system comes from the same studio franchise that made Mass Effect 2. In that game you had your reasons for being evil rather than “I wanna be evil”. In Dragon Age II, all of that is thrown out of the window thanks to a certain little thing called ‘characters’... or lack thereof.

The characters of the game just have a reckless disregard for the player, instead focusing on Hawke and nothing but Hawke. In BioWare’s other games, such as Mass Effect 2, the player is essentially the lead character and all of the decisions, relationships and reasoning are on both sides of the spectrum - player and player character - but in this game there is only a massive dissonance. Hawke may, for example, outright love a character who I hate. Whenever I want to say “I hate you, shut up and let me talk to someone else”, Hawke will instead just reply with “I’m sorry, truly I am” or something along those lines. It doesn’t help that all of the voice acting utterly falls on its knees.

At the end of the day, Dragon Age II sucks because it’s not Dragon Age. It’s something else entirely. In my mind, the Star Wars prequels are not canon and they never, ever happened. I think I’d like to apply the same thinking to this horrible mess of a not-video-game.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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