Dragon Age II – this time it’s pretty much the same.

Dragon Age II Boxart
Dragon Age II Boxart

Title: Dragon Age II
Format: XBox 360
Release date: 2011
Obtained: 2011
Place of purchase: Amazon
Price: £40
Completed?: Yes

The recent announcement of Dragon Age III: Inquisition (which I’m really hoping has a cameo appearance by Cardinals Biggles and/or Fang) has made me think about the previous games in the series. In a typically contrary and hey-look-at-me-aren’t-I-just-so-amazingly-unpredictable manner, I’ll look at the second game first.

Since its release in early 2011, DAII has come in for a certain amount of flak for, amongst other things, its combat system, storyline, excessive reuse of locations, and lack of companion customisation. Well, let’s have a quick look at each of those points…

The infamous quote about ‘something awesome happening every time you press a button’ kind of sums up what people think is wrong with the combat system. Fans of the original were, I think, rather annoyed by the lack of tactics involved in the fighting. My feeling is that the developers tried to make the game more action-oriented but yet still maintain the same rough basic mechanics of the original. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work all that well: what you end up with is a bit of a halfway-house that is neither purely action based enough to be exciting, and not tactical enough to provide any great depth. At the end of the day, you’ll probably find that combat for the most part consists of hitting the same action buttons over and over again until something dies, either onscreen in or inside you.

The storyline, on the other hand, I thought was actually pretty good. It uses the unreliable narrator device which is common enough in literature and in movies, but seldom seen in games. I think perhaps what disappointed people was that, unlike the original which, despite it multiple layers, is at heart a good-guys-versus-bad-guys quest to save the world, DAII has a much more narrowly-focused and political story. There are no great archdemons to destroy, and no massive plots to overthrow monarchies; what there is instead is a subtle series of story points that gradually build up to reveal the tensions that underpin the society of the fictional world. For the most part the story is quite atypical for a mainstream RPG, and pretty clever in places. Although I must point out that the bit where the main character Hawke’s mother is kidnapped and then has her head cut off and sewn onto the body of some Frankenstein’s monster-esque creature by a crazy mage is, quite possibly, the most utterly stupid bit of storytelling I’ve ever come across (and I’ve watched several episodes of Charmed).

As for reuse of locations, well, yes, it does get a bit repetitive and it would have been nice to see some other places. I actually quite like the fact that we get to see Kirkwall over a period of a number of years; what I was disappointed with is how little it changes. The characters change and the situation changes, but the market district at the end of the game is pretty much identical to the market district at the end of the game. Maybe something could have been painted in the meantime?

And finally, the companions: yeah, there isn’t an awful lot you can do with them, especially in comparison to Origins. But, on the plus side, it removes a lot of boring inventory management and does mean that your NPC partners are all pretty unique in what they do. The characters themselves are a bit of an odd bunch, and I have to admit to only really liking one or two of them, but perhaps that’s the point…

So, Dragon Age II, then: yes, it’s true, you were not as good as your predecessor in many ways but, you know what? You weren’t as bad as a lot of people made you out to be, either.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire

The other day I drove past the house at the end of the street and noticed that it had been painted white. This reminded me of Zork, probably be of the most famous text adventures in history.

The premise of Zork was a relatively straightforward one: you started off standing outside a white house with no real idea of what you should be doing other than looking for treasure and not dying (laudable aims in real life, too). Soon enough, after breaking into the seemingly abandoned property, you find an entrance to an underground world: the great empire of the game’s subtitle. From this point onwards, the game begins in earnest and you’re off exploring the wondrous – not to mention exceedingly dangerous – world of Zork.

Text adventures obviously succeeded or failed based on the strength of the writing, as well as the perceived intelligence of the parser that interpreted your commands; Zork was excellent in both respects. The world the game presented was intriguingly unique, and the narrative style was a wonderful mix of dark humour and seriousness.

There were plenty of other Zork games that came later (without bothering to look them up I think there were at least two text adventure sequels and then a couple of FMV and Myst-esque titles that came out many years later), but the original is the only one I’ve ever played.

Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m about to go off and be eaten by a grue.