The influence and demands of console gaming weigh heavily on Dragon Age II. For PC gamers this is not a good thing. I feel like the word “streamlining” must have appeared in every design memo. You can almost hear BioWare thinking, “These kids today, they can’t be bothered to move their rogue behind a target in order to properly execute a backstab. Let’s do all that for them!”
Part of me gets it. Positioning party members can be a little fussy, so why not just cut that stuff out in order to get right down to the combat?
The other part of me thinks: Where does that end? Party management is one of the pleasures of party-based RPG combat. Once you remove the tactical aspects, what’s left?
Not bloody much, it turns out. It ends with combat encounters that are little more than button-mashing cluster-frakking affairs sapped of any depth or nuance. It ends with the death of tactical role-playing at the hands of the company that perfected it.
But role-playing is more than combat. It’s also character and narrative, and in those categories BioWare continues to do wonderful things. The richness of the dialogue engine and the way choices shape the narrative are amazing. Dragon Age II almost becomes a kind of lavish, fully voiced, wholly animated text adventure, with real people and events emerging from decisions that matter.
The shift from the epic questing of Dragon Age: Origins to the compressed political and urban intrigue of Dragon Age II is jarring, but it also allows the designers to explore characters and choices in a more focused, fulfilling way. It’s a different kind of role-playing experience.
I’m still not sure if I like it. The combat seems to have been stripped of complexity purely to satisfy console gamers with short attention spans, not out of some high-minded decision to emphasize narrative choice. It’s as though they’re trying to create an action/RPG hybrid that appeals to a type of gamer who might not even exist.
Thomas L. McDonald is an editor at large for Games magazine and blogs at sopgaming.blogspot.com . You can follow him on Twitter at StateOfPlayBlog.