Monday, March 7, 2011

Dragon Age 2 demo impressions

Here's a rather stream-of-consciousness review of the demo for Dragon Age 2.

The darkspawn are...hmm...not as well designed as the Origins versions. I hope this won't matter, since the game is not about a Grey Warden, so hopefully darkspawn won't play much of a role in this game.

The beginning area is a turn-off. I don't know why I keep seeing this sort of thing so often in games. Why start players out in an ugly, barren starting area? Is it just extreme confidence that we'll be inspired enough to push on ahead to hopefully end up in a much better-looking area? Are they underestimating the importance of first impressions? I have to say, the beginning was extremely dull, boring, and repetitive, with the narrow, winding pathway and yet another wave of indistinguishable darkspawn every few meters. I got very tired of hearing "Another wave!" This is what they chose to show me as an example of what the game will be like?

As it happens, once you get past the miniboss at the end of the annoying blightland corridor gauntlet, the story fast-forwards to give you a taste of a questline with Isabela in the city (of Kirkwall?) Things look much, much better here. This city seems to be the polar opposite of the cities in DA:O. No more muddy streets at all. This place goes all out and has every courseway paved in stone. The colours are rich, and the textures are lovely.

The cart looks better, for sure. People from the forums shortly after the release of DA:O should remember the cart/wagon, which was brought up as a frequent example of some of the surprisingly low-rez and ugly textures in the game. Another thing I noticed, but which I never saw anyone comment on, was that DA:O's textures were often inappropriately specular, giving things a dull plastic sheen (like the piles of rubble). By contrast, this new cart serves as an example of the very nice textures in DA2. There are still some textures that are lower resolution than they should be (especially clothing and armour when seen in cutscenes), but it's largely an improvement, and the specularity issues seem to have been corrected. Only things that looked like they should be shiny (like polished metals) were shiny.

The interior of the Chantry was very nice, with the stucco-like walls with tiny cracks along the seams. They may have gone a bit overboard with the giant clusters of candles, but all in all this city area was a very positive impression for me.

Unfortunately, the graphics are the only thing I can praise. The rest is either "good enough" compared to DA:O, or an annoyance.

I hated the restrictiveness of the camera. Can't zoom far enough out anymore.

They've remapped or removed the party selection keys. I'm used to hitting the = key to select my whole party, like it was in DA:O and in all the Infinity Engine games. Now, it causes the currently selected party member to chug a potion. There may be a way to remap these keys, but it's hard to tell since so much of this demo was locked from edits. Like the character creation process. Locked, locked, locked, along with the entire inventory and many of the skill/spell trees. Why the hell? Were they afraid we wouldn't like what they did with it? The first game had a free downloadable standalone character creator to let people play around with it and create their character(s) before the game was released. This is the exact opposite!

The quick bar/toolbar is way too big. There's no reason for it to be taking up that much space, especially at 1920x1080 resolution.

The spell and talent trees are now split up into separate screens for each discipline. Many of these trees were locked for the demo, and could not be explored. What was there showed that most mage spells appear to be nerfed, and require "upgrades" to make them almost as good as the original spells were in DA:O. Perhaps this might make mages more challenging to play? It's impossible to tell from the demo, since it was locked in easy mode (regardless of what they called it, it was easy mode), impossible to play in any challenging difficulty. Hard to really judge tactics when fireballs are wimpy little things that do no knockdowns and have no friendly fire.

They've dispensed with the numbered dialogue choices. Some can still be selected by hitting a number key, but not ones that have options on either side of the circle. I prefer selecting by number key, as I did in DA:O and pretty much every other Bioware game I've played yet (except for Mass Effect, which pioneered this completely superfluous "wheel" interface that has no advantage at all with a mouse and keyboard setup). And the wheel, with its superbrief paraphrasing of your dialogue response choices, along with the voiced protagonist, has brought with it exactly what I did not want to see. An unsatisfying dialogue experience, which amounts to clicking on statements not because they're what you would really have your character say, but to see what the character on screen (who is less than my own) will actually say, and how. I'm especially displeased with the "joking" responses, as they are delivered in a class-clown manner, whereas if they were not voiced, I could at least imagine them said as I would have said them -- in a dry, mildly ironic tone. In other words, the dialogue sequences are no longer a welcome bit of interactive story, but are now more like a movie which requires me to keep clicking something to advance.

As expected, I've seen many people knee-jerking the fallacious "people who don't like the changes must fear/hate change as a rule." Again I must point out that even within the span of this very blog, a reader can observe that I embrace change. I've completely changed my gaming preferences, after all, and it's a shame that my preferences have evolved toward what Bioware and other companies are trying to evolve their games away from. A shame that they're doing that, that is -- not a shame that my preferences have become what they are. Because, while I do embrace change, I do not embrace any random change simply for the sake of change. That's what we call chaos. Rather, I embrace change when that change is superior to the old ways.

Dragon Age: Origins was a preorder for me. This is not. In fact, the demo has convinced me to wait until I see an excellent, Steam-crazy discount before buying this game. They've "streamlined" almost all the Dragon Age out of it, really (at least the parts I liked). Marketing Director David Silverman was certainly telling the truth when he said, "It's a different game." That's correct. It's a different game. There are a lot of "different games" out there, which I never bothered to play, because they didn't look like what I was looking for, and this appears to be one like that. Let me know when they make another game like the ones I did like, or at least when it drops in price to what I would be willing to pay for an action shooter with RPG elements. In the meantime, I have other, more appealing games to play (not to mention a good number of quest mods for DA:O).