I am by no means a designer of video games. But I would consider myself a fairly experienced player of video games—at least of the RPG variety. Admittedly, most of my experience in this area comes from Bioware games—starting with Knights of the Old Republic. But I feel that this actually adds to my ‘credibility’ in what I am about to talk about.
I would like to start by saying that I think Bioware is an excellent company. They’ve given me hours of fun- hell.. days and weeks of fun, even. But they aren’t perfect. One needs to look no further than Dragon Age 2 to see that. As much as I would defend the game to others, I have also come to realize that the ‘little faults’ of the game have finally added up to an overall disappointment for me.
I mean, I didn’t mind the recycled environments or the ever-present ‘second wave’ of enemies spawning in after every fight, or the fact that the kinds of enemies you fought started to become very repetitive by the end of the game (wow. More demons. Really?). Taken individually, these things can be forgiven (by me) if there is a good story to tell. And for the most part, there was. But that’s the problem- it was just a ‘good’ story, not a GREAT one. That’s the problem for a company like Bioware. If ‘excellent’ is the norm, then anything ‘average’ stands out like a sore thumb. And compared to most every other game they have produced, Dragon Age 2 was just ‘average’ for me.
Now, I do NOT have a lot of the problems with it that other folks do. I liked the faster-paced combat. I liked the streamlined inventory and skill system. I didn’t care that my companions dressed themselves and chose their own unique fighting styles. In fact, I liked that. Overall, I didn’t ‘have a problem’ with the story, either- except that it was less focused than Dragon Age: Origins. But when you combine that with the aforementioned ‘little’ problems, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For me, DA2 fell apart not from some single game-breaking item, but rather a collection of little things “I wished they’d done differently”.
And that trend seems to have continued (for me at least) in one of their Downloadable Content packages- namely the “Legacy” add on. Overall, it was a fun-enough sideline. I especially enjoyed the fact that you get to know your character’s father- and it was nice that if you brought your sibling along, they were impacted by it as well. In fact, I was really LOVING the content right up until the final act.
Here, you have to face an incredibly powerful enemy who makes you run through an increasingly lethal maze in order to finally confront him. Essentially, you’re running in circles, constantly destroying ‘power sources’ that your enemy is using, all the while dodging spawned in creatures and a maze of obstacles. It is a very difficult fight- and it seemed to me to be set up especially for PC gamers- in that in order to successfully get through the maze, you had to constantly tell your NPC companions EXACTLY where to go in order to keep them from being destroyed by the wall of fire that was constantly chasing you through the maze. Now, on the PC you can ‘zoom out’ from the action more than you can in the console. Likewise, you can select your team as a group and have them all move together. On the console, neither of these options seemed to be available (if they were, I sure as heck couldn’t find them). This meant that I had to try and run this gauntlet by constantly pausing the game, switching from one character to the next and telling them where to go. I literally played this battle for HOURS and finally had to RAGE QUIT for a while to calm down- Because every time you died in this final fight, you had to start all the way from the beginning- including a cut scene and the SAME dialogue over and over.
That marks the first time I have EVER had to RAGE QUIT a Bioware game. Ever. And that says something.
To me, this end battle was just a huge FU by whoever designed it. The game gave me helpful hints like “If you’re having a hard time, switch to a lower difficulty level”. Unfortunately, I had already SWITCHED to the lowest difficulty setting and still, after hours of playing, could not get through it. Things were made worse by the fact that without direction, your NPC companions would die within five seconds.
Ultimately, I beat the battle by buffing my main character and allowing all my companions to die (within five seconds). I was just BARELY able to beat the main bad guy. For this, I got the Achievement ‘Conductor’. Evidently a joke on the fact that in order to beat this particular battle, you have to be able to ‘conduct’ (orchestrate) your entire team. Well, if that was the goal, I failed horribly. And when I was done with this DLC I was in the strange position of NEVER wanting to play it again. Sure, the story line was interesting enough, but the thought of having to go through that battle again just makes me ill.
Yes, you could make fun of me for not being as good a gamer as most folks- and I don’t claim to be. But the end result was, that even on the lowest difficulty, I was having no fun. And that is the worst result you can get from any game design choice.
In the end, this really tainted my view of DA2 overall. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This failing was made all the more noticeable by the fact that I was simultaneously playing Mass Effect 2 and its downloadable content. I am currently in the process of trying to beat that game on its highest difficulty level (Insanity). It is tough. Very tough. Very challenging. It is occasionally frustrating and sometimes scares the crap out of me (i.e. the ‘threats’ presented really are that). But the design is such that I have (so far) not had to quit the game in a rage because of a design choice. The challenges are VERY hard, but I can find my own way through them- apply tactics and strategies that work for me in that particular situation. I am not simply a rat running through a maze in the ONE particular way that the designer intended or I will die.
In short, I feel that ME2 was much better designed than DA2. And that seems to be a function of time- in that DA2 felt rushed- which is really a shame.