Dragon Age 2: Money shot

Just get 3D glasses already

All I hear is people complaining about Dragon Age 2. It’s linear. It isn’t as good as Dragon Age: Origins. Blah blah blah. But you know what’s different — and better — about Dragon Age 2 vs Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age: Awakenings?

In DA2, you have to decide where you stand on certain fictional issues. In DA:O, the Templar/Chantry/Mage trinity was set up in its most ideal way as the three pillars of a supernatural triangle, each checking the power of the others.

In DA2, though, the mages have gone insane. Almost any time a mage is involved, they are involved in the worst possible way, taking any situation and making it hellworthy. It would be easy to just draw a line in the sand and say no more, mages must be dealt with. Many will ask you to do exactly that.

But your sister is a mage. YOU may be a mage. And the only healer I have come across is not only a mage, but an insane murderer who is possessed by a demon. You’re forced to admit that, while essentially making a deal with demons is BAD and all, you sure could use a heal right about now.

You’re not going to win with your companions all the time, either. All of them tend towards a particular point on the Templar/Chantry/Mage triangle, and will resent your efforts to stay neutral (or much worse, take sides).

Thing is, all your NPCs are MISSING THE POINT. But don’t think that lets you off the hook.

I like Dragon Age 2 because it defines several sets of values and forces you to look past how smart, endearing, cute or funny someone is to what their values are, and if they gibe with yours.

Also, dragons. Dragons dragons dragons I love killing dragons.

I have lost against the High Dragon above twice… but I think I have come up with a new strat.

Dragon Age 2: A Kinder, Gentler Dragon Age

Finally, we get to kill the dragon.

It’s more than a little frustrating that the very first dragon we see in Dragon Age 2, we’re not allowed to kill. Turns out to be Flemeth (note: not a spoiler, happens in the intro and we see it in all the pre-release footage) whom we left alive in Dragon Age Origins. She’s gotten a better ‘do and filled out a bit. Life in the Wilds has been good to her.

Back up to the beginning, which is valid as the whole adventure is a tale told by a possibly unreliable narrator, a dwarf rogue who is among the first to join you on your journey. You are Yourfirstname boygirl Hawke, a warriorroguemage refugee from Lothering. With your well-connected mother and apostate mage sister in tow, you flee from the Darkspawn to Kirkwall, your ancestral home, gathering companions along the way.

Since I was adventuring with my family, I changed my look at a stall in an underground bazaar that came with the signature edition of the game so that I would look more like my mother and sister. At least the game sets the skin tone of your family to match yours so that there weren’t any really uncomfortable questions about my parentage. Though as it turns out, our family history is a little clouded…

Dragon Age 2 has been streamlined and simplified from the first game. All the same elements exist in some form; even your faithful hound remains, though as a summoned pet rather than a full-fledged companion. The skill book has been replaced with an icon chart that looks like a subway map; on it are clearly explained the combo skills that either set up or key off of a special state on the enemy — for example, a warrior can stun an enemy while a rogue or mage uses that opportunity to unleash a devastating attack.

On normal difficulty, the fights (so far) have been fairly brainless. I think the difficulty of the game has gone down at least one stop; I used to have to be at least a little strategic in normal difficulty fights in DA:O, now I can just wade in, confident the tactics screens (essentially unchanged from the first game) will keep my group mates doing something useful while I direct the flow of battle with my character. I’ll be switching up to hard mode. I haven’t even used any heal pots yet. They’re taking up space.

Crafting has become curiously indirect. Instead of tossing things together yourself, you hire NPC crafters to make things for you — you order potions, poisons and stuff. You still need the recipes and you need to have discovered the ingredients, but you don’t need to have them in quantity. Just having one is good enough.

So far, about two hours in to the story, the main fun has been tracing back the connections to my saved game on DA:O. In my most recent playthrough, I’d done all the “bad” things — killed the elves and allied with the werewolves; allowed the creation of more golems from the souls of outcast dwarfs; saved Flemeth; made Alistair hate me while also placing him on the throne; befriending Loghain the Kingslayer and so on. I was pleased to see Alistair remains king and that the werewolves now need my help.

In the first game, mages were all-powerful. They were the crowd control, the damage, the healing and once you unlocked the Arcane Warrior specialization, the tanks as well. Playing anything other than a mage was a quaint but pointless choice, since you’d soon be inhabiting Wynne or Morrigan anyway if you didn’t roll your own.

I haven’t seen any sign so far that specializations exist in DA2. Warriors and rogues can learn abilities that control the battlefield, so while mages have not been nerfed in any way, the other classes have received a bit of a buff. No more do warriors need to straggle behind the battle while the mages do the killing. Both warriors and rogues have abilities that let them zoom from encounter to encounter.

I’m very happy to see that rogues have some decent-looking armor choices, at least for player rogues. Most of the better stuff that drops is tagged for your character only, which is weird, but I imagine makes sense when you remember the whole game is one enormous flashback. This is the stuff you did have, this is where you got it, as the game jumps through time (having at this point already jumped forward a year) your companions may shift and change and where’s the stuff you gave them? Aside from that, some of your companion’s gear grows with their level, so there’s lesser need for them to upgrade.

The Signature edition of the game contains a lot of perks that will give you a significant boost once you come to your first home base in Kirkwall — some of this can be bought as DLC from the Bioware store. You can unlock more stuff in the Facebook game Dragon Age Legends. All this has been useful.

Replayability? Every play of the game starts out the same, with your family fleeing Lothering. Tere are definite branching plot paths, as in Kirkwall where you are given the choice to spend a year with mercenaries or smugglers. I chose smugglers, and that now has changed how people react to me in the city. That said, even in DA:O, no matter what path you chose, you still found yourself on top of a tower in Denerim, slaying the archdemon. But really, after the first playthrough, it was the differing origins I really enjoyed most. That will be absent in DA2.

I’m liking the game so far and expect to have a lot of fun with it. Will it inspire three or four playthroughs like the first game? I doubt it — but I reserve the right to change my mind as I get deeper into the story.

Oh Flemeth — you ARE a clever girl, aren’t you?

Dragon Age goes social (codes included)

Dragon Age Legends character creator

Ahead of Dragon Age Origin’s release in the fall of 2009, Electronic Arts’ web games division, EA2D, came out with a teaser game, Dragon Age Journeys. DA:J gave a taste of the Dragon Age milieu, introducing several of the locations you’d explore in game (such as Ozrammar and the Deep Roads), the creatures you’d kill, and the classes you’d be playing. Completing goals in Journeys led to rewards for your characters in the game.

Now, leading to next month’s Dragon Age II, EA2D has gone social with a Facebook-based entry to the series, Dragon Age Legends. A year and a half ago, Facebook was just beginning to emerge as a force in online gaming. Now it’s a phenomenon. DA Legends rides the wave with adventures that require friends to complete.

Castle Aaaaaaaaaaargh

As in DA Journeys and DA: Origins, in Legends you choose from one of three classes — warrior, rogue and mage. Unlike the earlier games, you do not get to choose a story for your character. This reflects the lack of individual backgrounds for your Dragon Age II character, all of whom share the same background, a refugee from a town early overrun by the Darkspawn. I can’t see how this won’t hurt replayability, as playing through the different origins was such a large part of the first game.

While Journeys featured a hex grid, tactical combat with NPCs as companions, Legends has characters facing off against the enemy in rows and performing actions from an initiative list, a technique that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a console RPG. The social twist is, though the game provides you with low level NPC companions, if you want to really progress in the game, you’re going to have to have active friends playing the game that you can hire as your own companions.

Legends also gives you a home base of sorts, a castle that you can furnish and expand to provide you with items you’ll need on your adventures. I’ve got an alchemy lab making bombs, next to a worker’s quarters providing workers. You can buy taverns, a forge and so on, making your castle into a bit of a city.

Like Journeys, progress in Legends will lead to rewards in the live game. Even if you’re not planning on picking up DA2 right away, there’s no reason you can’t play the social version for nothing (caveat: There IS a cash shop).

Wouldn’t be much of a social game without the help of friends, and the game just started its closed beta so the usual crowd of Facebook RPG fanatics hasn’t descended upon the game yet.

However, EA has sent along five exclusive closed beta keys for Dragon Age Legends. First come, first serve; use the key, get on Facebook, make a character and friend me (if we aren’t friends yet). My Facebook account is under the clever pseudonym “Brenda Holloway”, and if you’re friending me, include the message “Dragon Age” so I know who’s a fellow darkspawn slayer.




Note: Apparently all the keys have been redeemed, but you can still go ahead and friend me if you like!

Dragon Age: Awakening. Good, but Bioware-good?

There’s this thing I will always remember about Dragon Age: Awakening. Without explicitly putting the pieces together, there were plenty of hints that the new classes in Dragon Age: Origins’ expansion could connect with the old classes in exciting ways. Turning on the mage ability that drains mana from the corpses of the dead, plus the arcane warrior ability that turns you nearly invulnerable, combined with the battle mage ability that surrounds you with a swirling wind that does every kind of AE elemental damage, and you have someone that can just walk into a room and watch things die, being in fact powered by dying monsters, while the monsters just wish they could hurt you.

Yeah. That felt good.

Dragon Age: Awakening is set six months after the events in Origins. The archdemon was killed either by you (if you’re importing your character) or some other Grey Warden Commander whose post you are taking (if you are creating a new character), but though the Blight is over, the Darkspawn still walk the land, showing signs of a disturbing intelligence.

The story in Awakening is extremely scaled back. Instead of many origin stories, there is only the one. Instead of four arcs to finish, there are only three. Instead of a vast array of potential companions, here you have only a half dozen, and not all of them will make it to the end of the game. Instead of continual decisions that affect the way the game plays out, there is only one decision, right at the end, that will change the plot.

Since the sequel, Dragon Age 2, will not continue the stories of your Dragon Age characters, Awakening seems oddly disconnected, more of a large DLC than a full expansion. It’s about a third the size of the main game, maybe less if you were a completist in Origins. Substantially less if you played through a few of the different origins or made different decisions in the plot.

In the aftermath of the Blight and the widespread destruction it caused in Ferelden combined with the vast political unrest it and Loghain’s betrayal engendered, the nation is falling apart. The war was won, but the battle may still be lost. As if the rebellious lords and roving gangs weren’t bad enough, the Darkspawn refuse to be good little hell-critters and return to the Deep Roads and become the dwarfs’ problem for another few hundred years.

You will soon discover that there exist factions even among the Darkspawn. Can these mindless parodies of humanity ever rise to stand equal with their inadvertent creators? Or should they be wiped out, to a one, no matter their possible future?

On your way to answer this question, you will explore the city of Amaranthine, the abandoned dwarf city of Kal’Hirol, the Elvish Wending Wood and the demon-infested Blackmarsh. Ever since Moria, you can’t think of a dwarven city without mentally adding “abandoned, monster-infested” before it.

Awakening finally has some love for the non-heavy/massive armor wearers, though for them it has the evil Sentinel armor. Mages get a variety of new robes, while rogues get a sharp black chain suit which I would LOVE to bring back into Origins!

Your companions this time around include a good selection of tanks — Oghren (chaotic good) returns from Origins, the only companion to do so. Warden candidate Mhairi (alignment unknown) and accidentally embodied spirit Justice (lawful good, obviously) round out the tank talent. Anders (chaotic neutral), a human spirit healer who looks and sounds a lot like Alistair, will handle the heals while the elf Velanna (chaotic evil) will pump the dps, though you can train either of them for either or both roles. You meet archer Nathanial (lawful neutral) near the beginning of the expansion, but must wait awhile to get the chirpy dwarf rogue Sigrun (chaotic neutral) into your group. The wordplay between her and Oghren — or Anders and pretty much anyone — is as good as the best from Origins.

In my play through, I was the extreme damage mage, so Velanna was left at the keep and Anders went with the group. I mostly used Nathanial for the rogue slot because I just like having an archer in the party. Oghren was tank throughout, though I used Justice at what seemed to be plot-appropriate moments. He definitely looked best in the Sentinel armor, which I was sad to find was too fatiguing to wear, even as a battle mage with severely high intelligence (which counts toward strength for arcane warriors). Luckily, I had Cailan’s armor from the Return to Ostagar DLC to keep me warm — the Warden Commander’s armor I favored in Origins didn’t get imported to Awakening.

The banter between Oghren and Sigrun was so cute, that as soon as I finished Awakening, I went and started my third playthrough of Origins, this time as a dwarf noble warrior.

Best. Origin. EVER. Seriously, I was blown away. I’d decided this time to make the opposite of the decisions I’d made in my first couple playthroughs — taking the “good” path when I knew what that was. Being the pompous, pampered middle child to the Ozrammar king made me feel entitled. Being introduced to the rabid political machinations of the Assembly was great fun. The Blight? The Blight is a surfacer problem! Let me stay in Ozrammar and play my brothers against each other!

And then the tragedy and betrayal and exile and joining the Wardens and all that. As soon as I got the first few plot bits out of the way and I could do so, I headed back to Ozrammar to get my revenge. And the game accommodated me! I got my revenge. I was kinda hoping I could take the crown for my own, rule Ozrammar, but that wasn’t to be.

Still, in my opposite-day version of events, I killed the creator of the golems AND Shale, the DLC golem who I’d brought with me for kicks. Mad Branka will bind more innocent souls into her infernal creations, and they will be my army at the end.

Next stop: Arl Eamon’s lands, where I will teach Morrigan the power of blood magic, then off to defile Andraste’s ashes and gain the Reaper profession for myself, and after, a trip to the Dalish elves to kill them all and bind the werewolves to my will, and then the Circle of the Magi to trap them all and gain the support of the Templars. Then Denerim to fill out my army with elvish slaves.

It’s good to be bad. I’m not a jerk about it. I’ll give a beggar ten silver. I won’t kill folks just for fun. I’m just following a different path while still carefully plotting to keep the companions I’ll need with the party.

With so many excellent tanks among the companions, I felt no desire to take that role myself. I decided to go dual wield for max damage. (Check out picture above — she wields both Starfang AND Mharic’s Sword, talk about greedy!) The focus on dexterity and cunning (dual wield being traditionally a rogue talent) has crippled me slightly in my armor selection — I can’t wear Cailan’s armor for several more levels of intense focus on strength. But, none of my warrior companions — Oghren, Sten, Alistair — can wear it either, so I guess it’s not a huge tragedy. My tank this playthrough is Dog, anyway. Morrigan reluctantly takes heals, and Leliana is, once again, the rogue. I’m going to try and keep her even after I defile the remains of her god.