So, to put this in context, my wife is STILL playing through Dragon Age II, off and on. And now everyone’s discussing whether downloadable content can help mollify fans of the original Dragon Age who (like us) have been so irked by DA2′s design. As big fans of the original Dragon Age: Origins, we got DAII immediately after it came out, and I’ve been meaning ever since to get my thoughts down on where DAII fell short and where DA3 will have to get the formula right — assuming, of course, that they really want to. I hope they do.
My chief complaint with DAII: Obviously and overly recycled levels. This has already been well discussed, but if you’ll indulge me, I’ll make a few points of my own. Whereas DA:O certainly reused the same maps, the effect was far less grueling and monotonous, particularly because paths through these levels were constrained much more artfully than in DAII.
In DA:O, paths were limited by huge boulders, trees, high fences or other insurmountable obstacles. The look of these didn’t stand out especially from the landscape, making the fact that they were blocking a particular path almost unnoticeable. The result was that players could be place on the same maps time and time again, but because portions were cordoned off each time and the landscape seeded with new obstacles and eye candy — spiderwebs, copses of trees; stones, boulders and such; fresh corpses and battlefield detritus, and so on — each experience felt to the player like they were visiting a wholly new region.
In DAII, the outdoor paths are too often limited by a small pile of what looks like gravel: hardly a believable obstacle. This is when there’s a visual explanation at all for why a known path is suddenly off limits: In fact, on almost every outdoor map, you’d be likely to encounter an open, yet oddly inaccessible cave mouth, which of course you’d have entered only moments before during another quest, and now, without explanation, is no longer a portal to another area.
In DA:O, BioWare also got a lot of mileage out of repeatedly positioning the same level as a new experience by dint of the fact that most of these repeated maps (used chiefly for instanced combat or encounters) were small and natural-feeling: There were few paths and more open areas, and so less of a reliance on tricks to wall off sections of a level. But in the sequel, levels were far more path-intensive — with few open spaces, it became especially noticeable when a formerly accessible path would suddenly be closed off, because much of the outdoor experience consisted of following narrow paths.
DAII’s variety of levels feels even more limited when you look at the indoor spaces. Each mine, cave, cavern or dungeon is more than likely going to be the same mine, cave, cavern or dungeon you’ve been to a dozen times previously. (In Kirkwall, all underground spaces look exactly alike — built by the same contractor, perhaps?)
Consequently, you find yourself entering the same blasted mine multiple times each year you’re there. Each year, you fight the same corpses and spiders (see below). Each year, you find some passages are now walled off, others have been opened. But any thrill with finding an newly opened passage is short-lived: These doors just take you to the same areas you’ve already repeatedly revisited and re-revisited.
The net effect here is the unhappy feeling that BioWare is padding out gameplay through the most boorish mechanism possible: forcing the player to replay the same levels over and over and over.
There’s not even a concerted effort to mask such artificial attempts at reusing levels. For one thing, BioWare allows the level maps to show areas that are inaccessible, which makes the experience highly frustrating: players can see on the map that there are game areas beyond the sealed portal, but there’s never any way of reaching that area.
Speaking of the stone doors: Although they’re responsible for walling off sections of the indoor levels, they aren’t actually visible at all until — quite inconveniently — you’re just a few feet away. So the player is repeatedly tempted with the promise of a new passage, only to find that a semi-visible stone door blocking the way that hasn’t appeared until they’re standing right on it.
I feel like an idiot to have just dedicated an entire paragraph on the failings of Dragon Age II’s stone doors, but there you have it: It’s a shortcoming that made me angry (which probably says more about me than anything else). I will avoid making reference to the many, many other doors that annoy in a similar fashion: those that look like they SHOULD open and do not — at least until you visit the same dungeon later and find them suddenly working, without explanation.
Admittedly, if DAII’s level design had been far less ambitious and had sought to create the generic-feeling spaces of DA:O, it might be less obvious that BioWare was having to reuse the same levels over and over (and over). Instead, the uniqueness of the few DAII maps we get made it even harder to ignore the fact that we were repeatedly playing through the same level.
I hope I’ve given a few indications of what DA3′s development team ought to be thinking in terms of how to more deftly manage reusing the same levels. I’ll blab a bit more later on some other shortcomings of DA2 and look at what they’re doing to address these with DLC (?).