The Dragon Age II  DLC, “Mark of the Assassin” does a great job of highlighting everything right and everything wrong with the series. It’s especially good at subtly showing how excellent the new take on narrative in the game was. But before I get into eloquent criticism of the narrative style of Dragon Age 2 let’s talk about the bad that way all the fanboys can run to the comments and call me an idiot and I can feel morally superior because I know I still love the game despite it’s flaws.

So what’s bad? The combat system. It just isn’t very good. It’s trying to be a hack and slash for the action oriented gamer and an in-depth RPG/Strategy system for the nerdiest gamer and it fails at both. It has more in common with the Fable series’ combat system then with previous Bioware games like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate 2. It’s not the first RPG/Strategy combat system “dumbed down” for the more lucrative action game market. The Mass Effect  series has seen a similar move towards action, but the Mass Effect series with its cover based shooting lends itself more easily to the style and feels more natural.

Dragon Age II just feels hackneyed in that department. And I suspect the real problem comes from its insistence on a class-based party system. Every fight requires a tank, two dps and a healer. You can’t ignore that like you could in Mass Effect. As the player you’re quite limited in your choices largely because the game only provides you with one and a half tanks (Aveline and Fenris) and a single healer (Anders you bastard). If you don’t like dragging those characters to every fight it’s up to you to take on the roles they inhabit. (If you’re playing as a rogue just get used to the Anders/Aveline banter now).

It also requires that any DPS you use be ranged for efficiency’s sake. Varric, Merrill and Sebastian excel at DPS while Isabela, Fenris, and now Tallis fail. The latter three require constant watch for AOE effects and because they have a tendency to play a hero and charge into a group of mobs like they’re the second coming of Leroy Jenkins. You CAN manage them, and I’ve no doubt they’re pretty fabulous on a PC, but the Xbox 360’s control scheme is limited and makes switching and managing the characters a chore. A boss in “Mark” really highlights the combat system’s limitations on the 360 forcing you to make a heavy use of the “Wait” function and hoping that Tallis doesn’t get it in her head she can ignore that function and solo the Sky Horror by herself. (Sidenote: if you get fed up and put Tallis on “Passive” she’ll hang out with the ranged and twirl her little blades like an asshole for no reason. It’s hysterical).

Once you get past the less than stellar combat system you’ll find what makes the Dragon Age series so fantastic. Solid storytelling backed up by fantastic characterizations. The characters in Dragon Age 2 feel like they’ve spun out of an especially dense novel. They all have desires and personalities apart from the player character and they all feel genuine and consistent. Aveline is always a law and order sort of woman. She defends the downtrodden no matter their race or creed. Fenris will always hate mages even if the Templars want to whole scale slaughter them all. Merrill will always be governed by her pride and Isabela will always walk the line between scoundrel and hero. The characters don’t see a sudden personality shift just because of how you play the game. If they do change–if Merrill does give up blood magic or Isabela does do the right thing–it’s an organic change.

Tallis, the sardonic little elf voiced by Felicia Day, is a great example of the game’s wonderful handling of characters. She operates by her own code independent of the player–kind of like a real person–and the dialogue she glibly spews is actually funny and oftentimes quite good. The story Tallis is a part of is a one-off with no relation to the overarching plot. It’s as pure a side plot as there ever was, but it’s still solid storytelling and features a really beautiful animation that riffs on the heist film genre.

It brings to mind Bioware’s other heist film riff DLC, “Stolen Memory.” That side plot to Mass Effect 2 is only tangentially related to the overarching story and it demands that we immediately like and even root for the suddenly introduced character (in this case the thief Kasumi). But “Stolen Memory” also felt much more divorced from the proceedings. Mass Effect 2 for all it’s open world trappings, is very much a point A to point B to point C narrative relying on immediacy to develop tension. Any SECOND now the reapers are going to eat the universe. HURRY HURRY HURRY.

Dragon Age 2 is like the modern novel. It meanders. It takes it’s time. So a four-hour side trip to battle an Orlesian lord riding a motherfucking WYVERN ain’t no thang.

It’s a slow burn. It’s about intolerance and the philosophy of power where as most games are about killing dragons or saving the world. It is, by no means, subtle in its thematic pursuit. It often times hits you over the head with them, but it is a departure from most games because it actually chooses theme over traditional plot. If video games really want to be a new artistic medium, if they want to meet Steven Spielberg’s challenge and tell big emotionally resonant stories, then Dragon Age 2‘s gamble has to happen. Theme has to be considered. Characters had to be of the utmost importance.

Is “Mark of the Assassin,” essentially a short story tacked on to the back of Dragon Age 2‘s novel, worth the time or money? That’s entirely dependent on how invested you are in the world and the characters. Much like with any short story set in a novel’s universe.

Notes

  • Replaying Dragon Age 2 in preparation for “Mark of the Assassin” and because I wanted to collect more achievements I noticed something pretty major. Gwen Cooper herself plays Merrill. Realizing that Eve Myles voiced Merrill immediately changed my feelings on the character. She is now my favorite. THANKS GWEN.
  • Loved the character design for the main boss. Bright and colorful. Also loved seeing new character models for the Qunari. Each new Dragon Age story seems to expand on the character models and designs. So now I have inordinately high expectations for Dragon Age 3.
  • As I was primarily familiar with Felicia Day because of early seasons of The Guild I was pleasantly surprised to find her playing such a believable sardonic bad ass. I’ll admit I was worried before things started.
  • But Tallis can still be goofy. She does a dance half way through that had me giggling.
  • Tallis gets dangerously close to Mary Sue-ville a number of times. Much like Kasumi did in “Stolen Memories.” I suspect that’s the fault of their stories being told in DLC form. They enter the narrative in a very unnatural way. Tallis is a bit worse because she leaves once her story is told…also because of her spoilerific upbringing. I might have rolled my eyes.
  • Leliana baby! That woman has been busy since she and my Warden from Dragon Age ran away together after forcing Alistair to bone a lady and become king (my Warden was a raging asshole). It makes me miss her…and her relationship with the Warden.
  • There’s an incredibly transphobic and bizarre incident at the same party where Leliana makes a cameo. I don’t know what possessed them to include that one-off joke. Let’s refrain from transphobia in the future okay Bioware?
  • Dragon Age II was a classic example of EA overreaching into the developers’ arena and most Bioware fans have clearly had a while to rage about that. (speaking of rage, I’m still raging about Rage. It makes DAII look like Citizen Kane)

    • Man I have been skipping Rage for fear of being sad. I’ll keep my Quake memories and carry on.

      While I don’t think the choice to tell a story a slow burn story of racism in the Marches was entirely on purpose (it really does feel like a story pulled out of someone’s ass) I do think it’s hella different from what we’ve seen before. Theme and characterization ahead of plot? It’s not perfect but it’s heading in the right direction.

      Here’s hoping Dragon Age 3 manages to actually use the lessons learned from 1 and 2 instead of just CLAIMING to learn the lessons.

  • I expect DA3 to be a sandbox game to set up the inevitable MMO as they sacrifice the IP to fully monetize it.  I’d hoped Skyrim might make the year brighter, but the game’s not even released and all they seem to talk about is DLC plans.

    I guess that just means there’s an opportunity for another studio to put the game before the marketing and release something better than either of them.  Then they can release a DLC-reliant sequel and the cycle will continue.

  • I liked the game overall and loved the new enviornments, but I thought Day was pretty terrible as far as voice-acting went. The mary sue levels really were through the roof. I wouldn’t have minded having her as a fifth wheel, but I hated giving up one of my companions for someone I found annoying. If you don’t like Tallis, the game is going to grate pretty quickly. 

  • Anonymous

    Great article, and I think you hit on a lot of the things I love about DAII. It was sad to see so much hate for the game when it came out, but I suppose it isn’t for everyone.