Dragon Age II Definitely Not As 'Dumbed Down' As Mass Effect

Older gamers worry, with years of justification, that the games they can play today are less complex than the games they played yesterday. Another person's streamlining is their selling out. They see a game developer saying "simplification", they hear "oversimplification".

They don't want their games dumbed down.

That river of anxiety is flowing past Dragon Age II, the massive role-playing game from BioWare that's coming out in March for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and Mac. The Dragon Age series is a dark fantasy epic that puts players in control of a small band of warriors and mages, enabling them to fight, talk and romance across a land of war, spells and dragons. Dragon Age was also supposed to be development studio BioWare's bulwark against the the modern role-playing game, a monument to the tougher, more tactical games of old, the Dragon Age series.

Back in November, though, I was writing about how fans anticipating the sequel should worry less. They'd grown concerned that the slow pace and high strategy of the original game, a throwback to classic RPGs of a decade ago had been abandoned. Yes, the camera view was lowered, the overhead PC-only tactical camera option junked in favour of lower console-style camera work. The new game had fewer races to choose, simpler tech trees, faster combat. It sounded less and less like an RPG to its fans, more like BioWare's other big series, Mass Effect, an RPG series that is easily mistaken for an action game (a sci-fi shooter, in that case). The tech tree is still deep in Dragon Age II, I reported. Combat can still be paused and played in turns.

"It sounds like a dumbing down cloaked in PR speak to me," a reader wrote to me back in November.

Two days ago, after watching some fast combat in Dragon Age II, I found myself staring at a menu screen in Dragon Age II. What I saw was not simple and certainly not over-simplified. What I saw was something that might stress a Mass Effect player, that might sail over their head.

If what I saw in Dragon Age II was dumbed down then the game's still got a high IQ.

The screen I'm going to describe is the game's Tactics menu. It's beneath the game's hood and can be ignored by those sword-swinging, button-mashing new fans BioWare might gain with its streamlined, faster-fighting sequel. The Tactics menu isn't there for those new gamers. It's for the old-school, for the kind of person in this world who knows keyboard shortcuts and has at least once fixed a TV for a relative simply by properly using the machine's menus.

The Dragon Age II Tactics menu is a variation on what was included in the first game, a circuit board of words and numbers that lets the player program basic scripts for its characters.

For example, from the player-configured Tactics menu for one of the members in the Dragon Age II fighting party:

-If the character is clustered with at least three enemies —> character will fire hail of arrows.

-If the character is clustered with at least two enemies —> character will fire bursting arrow.

-If the enemy's health is over 50% —> character will use a pinning shot.

-If the enemy's rank is normal or higher —> character will use a rhyming triplet.

Those are four of the seven configurable, prioritised if/then statements that could be set for one character's powers. Another seven could be set for each of the other four members of the hero's party.

By configuring these settings, the player is automating their allies' actions. They're ensuring that, instead of having to quickly switch from manual control of one to another during a 4-on-4 skirmish of heroes against demons, they can trust that the allies will fight smartly.

Both halves of the Tactics statements can be tweaked. There can be different "ifs" and a whole lot of "thens", the latter tied to powers and items. Characters can be scripted to automatically heal each others if party health reaches a certain level, use certain items if other conditions occur. The characters can also, in a more general sense, be set to behave aggressively, be more cautious… those tendencies being about the deepest you can set in a Mass Effect. Dragon Age's system, which also appeared in a slightly different form in Final Fantasy XII, is deeper and, frankly, unusual for modern role-playing games.

The Dragon Age II tactics can set up combos. One character, for example, might dole out 4x damage to enemies who are made "brittle". Another character might be able to make characters brittle with a certain attack. You can figure this one out: set one character to emphasise the brittle move; set the other to spot that and swoop in.

I didn't use these scripts this week, at a showcase for the game in New York, when I pitted four heroes against one giant rock wraith. The battle I was thrown into by a Dragon Age rep occurs near the end of the game's first act. I was playing on "casual," the game's lowest difficulty. I'd configured no tactics. I wasn't even carefully managing my allies' health. These were stupid moves. The wraith killed all my guys, then killed me.

That was dumb. Dragon Age II is not.

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Comments

    You realise that is by far a bigger reflection on you and your abilities than the game right? The devs have already detailed how watered down the difficulty levels in DA2 are compared to DA1. Nightmare in DA2 is pretty much what Normal was in DA1. So the fact that you got wiped in Casual in DA2 pretty much means you have no idea how to play the game.

    Considering that, maybe you can see how those people who thought Nightmare in DA1 was a cakewalk might still have some legitimate concerns? Especially after seeing the demo footage. Seriously, if you can look at that and still say DA2 isn't a watered down consolified travesty while keeping a straight face, you have no place writing articles about the game.

      I don't think Stephen mentioned whether difficulty levels had been altered at all. This article was explaining that there are more complex ways to play DA2 than simply mashing buttons.

    tactics were in the first game, so nothing new here

    This sounds exactly like the scripting system used in the first game - it's hardly groundbreaking if they just re-use a successful idea.

    I'm not saying DA2 won't be a successful RPG, but it's apparent that concessions have been made to attract a wider audience. Not quite 'Mass Effect with swords', but most likely some more accessible, faster-paced combat mechanics.

    Considering DA1 was roughly on a par with the post-dumbed down ME2, I sure hope so.

    Ok, so, I'm going to buy DA2 and it will probably be great. I trust Bioware to make a game I will enjoy. However, I am one of those people the first paragraph is talking about and I'm here to tell you, even DA1 was dumbed down and over simplified.

    Talent progression was entirely linear and required almost no thought, just as the most glaring example. I think you are entirely misunderstanding what we mean when we talk about these issues.

    The type of games we loved will probably never be made again, they just don't have a big enough market and video games are big business now. Dragon Age is about as good as it gets, but by no means is it what we are really looking for.

    That tactics system sounds more or less EXACTLY the same as FFXII's gambit system haha

      It's not quite, if Dragon Age 1 is anything to judge by, it doesn't work nearly as well as FF XII Gambits and is much more restrictive for options. Also, the features of things like "aggressive" are incredibly irritating because you don't find out until after you turn them on what that actually makes a character do which makes planning tricky.

    This is good to hear and was a deciding factor in my purchase.

    Not sure what your point is, DA1 had tactics, the problem a lot of RPGers had with DA1 was what greeted them at character creation... not much, and with DA2 it's even simpler.

    No offence intended here, but if your losing the game on casual, then really you have no place to be talking about if its been dumbed down or not

    You wouldnt be able to tell if you play that badly honestly

    I still sense it will be button mashing. Having Tactics is nothing new. I have almost lost faith in bioWare because of this. I just hope SW:TOR and ME3 can redeem them.

    Combat is the same on PC. This has been confirmed multiple times.

    And don't base your opinions on the limited Demo footage shown. The first part of the demo apparently is over-exaggerated because the dwarf is telling the story, hence the super fast combat with no challenge, the big boobs on the mage etc lol.

    Quite funny when you think about it really. Apparently after he gets told off and told to tell the story properly, the entire combat mechanics change and its more realistic like in DA1.

    Personally I disagree that detailed instructions for your non-main characters makes it less 'dumbed down'.

    I would call 3 minutes of programming allies responses before a dungeon, then letting them loose while you focus on yourself to require less of me than a battle where I need to control and instruct all units step by step.

    I can see the appeal of the former, but honestly I think bioware would be avoiding a lot of complaints if they just left in the isometric view and allowed us to be more battle by battle strategic.

    I wouldn't be so perturbed if the story actually sounded interesting, but what I saw in the demo makes me think there'll be more soaft-core porn than character progression.

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