Why I Hope Dragon Age 3 Is A Lot Like Dragon Age 2

BioWare's Dragon Age franchise, like its science fiction spiritual sibling Mass Effect, creates a great deal of passion among its fans. And also like its sci-fi sib, the Dragon Age games attract an enormous amount of controversy and dissent among those same fans.

Dragon Age: Origins and its DLC, including the Awakening expansion, were a slightly modernized update on the classic sword-and-sorcery, your-party-against-the-world Western RPG. DA:O was generally very well-received on its release in 2009, and the world eagerly awaited the sequel. But when Dragon Age II made its way into the world in 2011, reactions were decidedly more... mixed. The game received a significant amount of negative feedback, and remains contentious well after its debut.

But now, we find BioWare looking forward, and in the early planning stages of Dragon Age 3. Though technically speaking no such game has yet been announced, developers from the studio have recently been sharing concept art and ideas for it, taking into account fan feedback on the first two games. DA3 may well be the most open, "nudge nudge wink wink" secret in game development right now, and so it's worth looking at what both DA:O and DA2 did well and poorly, with an eye to the future of the franchise.

So what does Dragon Age have going for it, and what does it need to change?

Strong characters, female and otherwise.

What They Did Right: I spent a big chunk of DA2 wanting to punch Anders in the damn face. The man pissed me off. He was self-righteous, manipulative and self-centred. Even after I, as Hawke, had earned his friendship and should have earned his trust, he still outright lied to me and kept secrets that shouldn't have been kept. I was furious with him.

And that is absolutely brilliant. I was thinking of Anders as a person with motivations and layers. That I was angry with him meant that as a character, I took him seriously. That I felt personally betrayed meant that I was invested in the game. DA2 also featured the best combination of women characters I've seen in a video game probably ever, bringing forward the three different kinds of strength from Isabela, Merrill, and Aveline. Isabela is the very rare character who positively demonstrates the difference between "sexy" and "sexual object," and Aveline's character arc had me cheering aloud more than once.

DA:O likewise had a number of memorable, reasonably nuanced companion characters in the game. Wynne, Leliana, Zevran, Alistair, Shale, Sten and Morrigan each bring something vital to the tale, and to the Warden's life. However, with Hawke as a voiced protagonist, character relationships — the platonic, the romantic, and the antagonistic — take on a different kind of depth in the later game.

And on the note of romantic relationships, BioWare did something very right in DA2 by making all four romance options — Fenris, Isabela, Merrill, and Anders — comfortably available to either a male or a female Hawke. Indeed, there is a plausible case to be made that a male mage Hawke, in a relationship with Anders, is the closest-to-"canon" option the game offers, based on how much story he hears. At the very least, it's not an awkward or "lesser" choice, and that's a great precedent for games.

What Needs To Change: For companions that have such life to them, they sure are static. A game's worth of conversation can be "used up" too early in DA:O, leaving the Warden's camp eerily quiet during some of the more dramatic sections of the story. And in DA2, companions never move, in a literal sense. Triggered conversations show how NPC lives are delightfully intertwined (finding Varric at Merrill's house, or Isabela deep in conversation with Fenris) but otherwise they barely even blink. Varric always sits in the same chair, Fenris always stands in the same disheveled room, and Aveline always haunts her desk. They never sit; they never wander the halls of their own homes. In comparison with vivid party banter, while grouped, it's downright eerie.

The Dragon Age series could stand to take a cue from Mass Effect 3 here and give its companions the illusion of autonomy. Finding NPCs wandering around the Normandy, bustling through their tasks and conversing among themselves, was one of the little highlights of ME3 for me (best: Garrus on the bridge, hanging with Joker). If my future companions in Thedas could, say, stand at a slightly different position around the campfire of an evening, that would help.

Complex, stratified society facing the weight of its own history.

What They Did Right: In the end, the story of DA2 is a tragedy. It's a fixed tale that, no matter how hard the player struggles, can't have its final shape changed. And that tale is the story of one man's hubris in the face of a systematically oppressive society.

The tale of mages vs templars, as DA2 tells it, is at once no single story of actual human oppression, and all of them. Fans and detractors both have likened the mages' struggle in DA2 to real-world systems of prejudice, finding it an analogue to LGBT rights, racism, and more. The game is an imperfect metaphor for any real-world experience of injustice, but it does draw from real and raw human emotions and ideas. Whether or not Hawke is either threatened by or benefits from the system of society is up to the player. Hawke as a belligerent mage or Hawke as a kind, staunch ally to his/her apostate sister are two very different perspectives.

Likewise, Dragon Age: Origins is, well, all about the origins. The player's perspective on the game and the world in which it takes place vary greatly depending on who the Warden is. Is she a city elf, despised for her race and her gender? Is he a human noble, immersed in politics and privilege from birth? Perhaps she is a dwarf, set apart from the lives of surface-dwellers until circumstances force her to the Wardens. The huge array of available perspectives deepens the world to be found in both games, and Thedas is clearly a world that's had its cultures deeply thought through.

What Needs To Change: Sometimes, the world just doesn't hold up; BioWare needs to follow-through on their cultural promises. If Hawke is a mage, why does no one seem to notice the staff or fireballs? If the Warden is a dwarf, why does everyone suddenly stop treating her like one?

The variety of origins for a Warden or perspectives for Hawke, combined with the explicit and implicit cultural commentaries in both games, set up a rich, plausible picture of human prejudice and social stratification. As conflict between mages and templars bubbles up into all-out war for Dragon Age 3, BioWare would do well to remember how human tragedies end up happening, and reflect it in the story.

Setting and a sense of place.

What They Did Right: Kirkwall, in and of itself, was not a bad idea for Dragon Age 2. The city of Denerim, in DA:O, was likewise well-placed and well-used. High fantasy, and fantasy games, are often associated with endless woodscapes and caverns but let's face it: trees are boring. People of all kinds live in cities of all kinds, and urban environments are endlessly fascinating in all their variety. You can tell a lot about a people by their cities, and that kind of vibrance and population flux lend themselves well to all kinds of stories.

What Needs To Change: Setting DA2 in Kirkwall was not, in and of itself, a bad idea. The execution, however, was desperately flawed. I love cities because they have souls: New York has a personality in its every brick. So do Boston, and London, and San Francisco. And none of those cities is exactly like the others. Kirkwall's personality, though, was absent. The city was static where it should have grown, shrunk, or just overall changed more over the seven years of the game. DA:O's Denerim, too, suffered from a sense of Generic RPG R'Us.

But the worst offence goes to DA2's endlessly recycled maps: just one or two caverns, warehouses, and mansions repeated endlessly throughout 30 hours and seven years of game. It would be one thing for a warehouse, revisited over the years, to maintain its floorplan. But for every building in a city to be identical is implausible and boring. Surely a cavern inhabited by rogue Qunari would have different items, or different facilities, than one taken over by runaway mages or by a group of dwarves.

The lack of variety in DA2's locations hurt it very, very badly. Staying in metro Kirkwall could have been fine if the city had a tangible soul, or if the interior locations had personality and variety. DA2 featured neither, and was weaker for it.

RPG hallmarks: stats, levelling, inventory, combat

What They Did Right: DA:O and DA2 were very nearly polar opposites, in this respect. Origins appealed to a huge cohort of longtime RPG fans with its tactical, patient combat and its massive, sprawling inventory of weapons, gear, and potions.

Dragon Age 2 streamlined most aspects of DA:O, minimising gear for Hawke and effectively removing it entirely for Hawke's companions. Combat, too, moved significantly faster in the second game, with quicker auto-attack and faster animations contributing to more non-stop sense of action. For my money, I prefer the DA2 style. Sorting through endless piles of inventory, nit-picking over every companion's every stat, and agonizing my way through a party's tactics never were my favourite things to do. It took me many years to warm to party-based RPGs through what felt like an endless slog of irrelevant details. I suspect, however, that my opinion is a decidedly minority point of view.

What Needs To Change: Again, like its space-age cousin Mass Effect, Dragon Age took a good idea — streamlining down some overwhelming bits — and went too far. Even I, bored by so many of the details, lamented their absence in DA2. Many players were deeply upset by the loss of equipment for Hawke's NPC companions, and BioWare has already begun to address how they plan to put that back into DA3 without completely losing the distinct "look" they hope for each character to have. Similarly, having a specific, best-in-class set of armour waiting along the way for Hawke, in every act, kept a sense of visual fidelity for the character but at the expense of, well, being interesting. With one set of gear clearly placed in the player's path as the must-have, they may as well not have bothered filling chests with anything at all. And exploration — complete with treasure hunting — is half the fun in an RPG.

As for combat, for all that I preferred the DA2 style of fighting, one thing needs to go and never be seen again: the endless waves of parachuting enemies that defined nearly every fight in the game. It's one thing for giant spiders to drop in from the ceiling of a cave. It's another thing entirely to be standing in an open city square and yet see guards, assassins, burglars, and all other manner of miscreants suddenly appear from the rooftops and skies, endlessly. Waves of mindless enemies are only fun to slaughter for the first few battles. DA2 lets the player choose among a variety of different fighting styles and powers; it would be great if more fights presented a reason for the player to choose among them. Dragon Age 3 needs to be faster with its combat than DA:O, but far smarter about it than DA2.

And in the end...?

The first time I picked up Dragon Age: Origins, I got bored with it. I played the city elf story as far as being sworn into the Wardens and the fight at Ostagar (which is to say, not very far at all), and then I wandered away, unable to make myself pick up where I'd left off. Months later, I was in the mood for something new and picked up Dragon Age 2, which drew me into the story of Thedas enough to make me backtrack to Origins and all its DLC, as well as picking up the novel Dragon Age: Asunder.

I love what BioWare is doing with their fantasy world, and despite my early disinterest and protestation, I've become an ardent fan. I'm not the only one out there who loved DA2, not by a long shot, but even those of us who most ardently defend its successes and sings its praises acknowledge that it held deep structural flaws.

In sharing feedback they've received, BioWare showed that "go back to the Warden" and "new main character" are both popular demands, as are other contradictions. The developers literally cannot please everyone. To win back all the fans who walked away after DA2, what Dragon Age 3 needs to be is perfect, which won't happen. No game ever has been, nor will one ever be.

But I do believe that BioWare can find middle ground, where the mechanics, scope, personality, and epic feel of DA:O can join the deep, heartfelt character drama and personal tragedy of DA2. At least, I certainly hope they can. Thedas, with all its rich history and cultures, is reaching a state of war. The player has shaped the world twice so far, determining the fates of many lives both large and small. I want to know how it all turns out. Hopefully, as both a story and as a video game, it will turn out well.


Comments

    If it's like Dragon Age 2 I am skipping it entirely

      Well if Jennifer Hepler could have her way you could skip dialogue and combat inserting the disc would be winning the game.

      What does that mean? If it's liek DA2 in the ways that DA2 wasn't like DA:O? If it's playable on a PC? What does it eman for it to be like DA2?

      IT will be tough, I loved DA1 and awakenings, DA2 left a sour taste in my mouth , if it does end up by DA3 .... i dont know i may still buy it cause its part of a trilogy but still its like da2 ... i may save the money, i dont know. Can't make that discussion til lthey offically annouce it and we start seeing videos/gameplay and such.

      yep, if DA3 is ANYTHING like DA2 i won't be buying it. To many problems with the gameplay. Also i loved the old rpg aspects of finding and sorting loot and using tactics and inventory for myself and my followers. The dumbing down of games is a crime and should NEVER be done.

    If it's anything like Dragon Age 2, I'm buying it. (Provided some improvements that there were mentioned in this article) Origins was as boring as watching grass grow.

      I agree, I loved the second game. I headed into the first game based on the hype 'its like baldurs gate!' etc what I found was a boring game with a world I couldn't give a shite to save, luckily the game characters were largely awesome and it got me through it. The second game was a way more focused tale, with great characters and combat on hard was excellent. My major complaint was the lack of different settings and like the article says, the inability to change the outcome of the game was somewhat annoying. If DA3 is like DA2, I will be picking it up for sure.

        Agree with this. DA2, for me was a much better game in terms story and combat. Only a few things were questionable eg the same dungeon templates being used, but other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it more than DA:O. It's a shame the masses gave it a thumbs down.

        Will definately buy DA3 if it's like DA2.

        What, exactly, was focused about it? DA2 was a rambling mess.

    I enjoyed DA2 but i agree with a lot of the criticisms especially the recycled environments. I tend to think that it shouldn't have been called Dragon Age 2 and portrayed more as a side story, like Brotherhood and Revelations were for Assassin's Creed.

      I agree with this. DA2 felt overly padded for what it was, and the scope was not nearly as epic.

    NO NO NO NO! Holy crap.. did you even play DA2? It had shitty writing, it was dumbed down and was designed for consoles.

    I'm sorry but you ma'am are a douche.

      Nice measured, civil response there.

        There was a lot about DA2 that was shitty, but the story was not one of them.. Playing it felt like a chore due to the poorly implemented everything, sure, but don't confuse bad design with bad writing.

        Sorry, that was a response to the comment above you.

        in some form of older news about ME2, wich is quite a disapointing I'm buntisrg for more stuff about ME2, even small bits of bones to the fans like screenshots or concept art I just love Mass Effect. Ray and Greg are the titans delivering the divine goods.

    DA2, while it had its flawed, was a much better game then DA:O. Although I do feel like it was more of a side-story then a sequel.

    I got more angry at how the game functioned in Origins then I did in 2. While some battles in DA2 got really frustratingly hard, at least I could work my way around eventually beating them. In Origins I used a lot of tricks and glitches to get past unbalanced fights. Including turning invisible and running away until my teammates think the enemies are dead, "wake up" and track me down, then we attempt that fight again, except that I've already killed some of the enemies.

    I quite liked how our character wasn't voiced in the first game, It just made it feel like I was having a conversation with the characters instead of watching some smug bastard.

    I played a male hawk and there were so many times he would say something and just come across as a complete tosser. It didn't help how vague the conversation wheel was compared to DA:O where you saw exactly what was about to be said.

    "BioWare did something very right in DA2 by making all four romance options — Fenris, Isabela, Merrill, and Anders — comfortably available to either a male or a female Hawke."

    You see that's just plain out weird to me. Everybody is bisexual in DA 2?

      That's what it seems like at first, but the characters sexuality is based on the individuel player making their own choices. For example, Yahtzee considers his "Hawke" to be gay and having a homosexual romance with Anders who is gay to "his world" of Dragon Age 2. When he sees someone else playing DA2 he viewed it as a completely different game.

        Except that Anders kept hitting on me despite making obvious I wasn't interested, aaaannnnnd he didn't come across as anything other the hetero in Awakening. Even if it's good in theory Bioware are far from being capable in implementing it in a decent way.
        Honestly I can see the appeal in your choices determining sexuality, but ultimately as a narrative, it's only going to hurt, the more you develop a character in your writing the more attached and immersed your audience becomes, if you can't write a character a certain way in a certain scene 'just in case the player made him bisexual' then it's detrimental to the storytelling.

      I see video game bisexuality as no different to controlling a character to do paragon or renegade actions would you call that weird? in the end it's all a choice.

        Controlling your own character is fair enough, but controlling NCP story actions through such transparent manipulation never quite sits right with me. It turns romance into a game mechanic term like experience. It takes a romantic sub-plot and renders it as viewing a 'romance' with your choice of cast members.
        The whole thing ends up feeling really hollow because the character doesn't look like they have their own feelings for your character. Half their dialogue ends up being written/used for both romantic and non-romantic feelings because it's just friendship up until you hit a [Flirt] option, which ruins the illusion even further. You just talk as friends, get to a point where you can advance the romance bar, select the option and then go back to talking as friends until you hit another romance marker.

        I think BioWare's failure on the romance front comes from three things; bad/clunky 'romance' dialogue peppered into normal 'friend' conversations you were having anyway, not being able to register your intent and being able to override the NPCs personality to get what you want (ie, they don't fall for you, you tell them to fall for you).
        Every single time I play through Mass Effect 2 I lead Tali on. I did the same thing with Cortez. I found myself in a position to try (and fail) to sleep with Sam Traynor. It isn't so much that I almost accidentally banged a dude, it's that trying to get to know my crew results in my Shepard falling in love and ruining the subplot.
        I want a system in place so that after meeting a character, regardless of gender/sexual preference, I can choose whether I want to attempt to pursue a romantic relationship with them (and likewise they chose their default stance on romance with me). If my female Shepard wants to score with Miranda I'm welcome to try but Miranda must ALWAYS react like Miranda. If she's not open to the idea of space lesbianism then I'll spend the entire game sleazing onto someone who just isn't into me. If she does decide to give it a shot it needs to be because female Shepard (the character) convinced Miranda, not because I (the player) chose to change Miranda's sexual preference like it was Shepards hair colour.
        Imagine a female Shepard could just walk up to Cortez and go 'yeah, I'm choosing you so you like boobs now, specifically mine'. It'd ruin a large portion of the character and make the 'romance' pointless. Yet if the option was there to spend the entire game falling in love with him even though he doesn't feel that way. Or maybe he does eventually decide that even though he's still gay he does love female Shepard and wants to see where it goes.

        If Tali still falls in love with me because she's into badass soldiers that's fine. I just don't want to feel like I'm retconing a games worth of dialogue options when I select 'no thanks' or like my dialogue is just a passcode to a sex scene.

          You got everything I was getting at man. Basically I don't think enough game have characters that can reject us.

      I thought the Cortez stuff in Mass Effect 3 was done about ten times better and a whole lot more intuitive than DA2, so they're learning. Wasn't a bad idea at all just implemented oddly.

    I find myself actually agreeing with all of the above in the article.

    Although I tend to view DA:O and DA2 as not part of the same series even though Dragon Age is right there in both titles and the Warden's companions show up and chill with Hawke for awhile even if it's just for a drink.
    'Cause if I view DA2 as the sequel to Origins then I find myself disappointed with it and I don't want to do that 'cause, on its own, DA2 is a fun game.

    Although Carver is a twerp. :)

    As per alot of other opinions here, if its more like DA2 than DA:O, then I'm not buying it.

    My thoughts: "one thing needs to go and never be seen again: the endless waves of parachuting enemies that defined nearly every fight in the game".

    A thousand times yes. This made it impossible to strategize, and every fight became a button mash of skills.

    "And that is absolutely brilliant. I was thinking of Anders as a person with motivations and layers."

    I can't agree with this. Anders (and Merrill) had some of the worst cases of Deus Ex Machina I've ever seen. I just kept thinking, why did he do this. The only reason I could come up with was that Bioware needed a climax.

    "The tale of mages vs templars, as DA2 tells it, is at once no single story of actual human oppression, and all of them."

    I can't agree with this. This is a Yahtzee point, but there is nothing worse when gameplay contradicts the story. Every cave I went into had a cabal of blood mages at work. The original game handled things much better - mages were oppressed due to fear, not because they were actually turning to evil in large numbers.

    My biggest complaint with the game though was the lack of meaningful choices: you didn't get to make any. Every choice was arbitrary, had little impact on the game world and/or was so obviously coming that in real life I would have made it years earlier.

    I enjoyed the mechanics and controls of DA2 however, the story-line left much to be desired. I missed the customization aspects of DAO. I absolutely did not like what happened with Anders. In Awakening, he was the best companion in the game and I looked forward to him being in DA2. I also missed the aspect of getting to know your characters--in the method it was done in DAO. I liked the idea that I could stop anywhere in the game, and have a chat with anyone--having to wait to specific points in the game to converse with your companions was disappointing.

    despite the drawback of recycled graphs and etc...
    liked the story writing

    after reading the Asunder novel, im anticipating more for DA3
    I just know it would be big...potentially bigger than ME3 abysmall ending (unless the indoctrination theory is true)

    Have owned both DA:O and DA2 for a few months now, and they are due to be played with a few other games.... good to know im not rushed by the 3rd to get their just yet.

    Great piece, agree with a lot of the suggested improvements.

    DA1 was so boooooriiiiiiiiing... I loved DA2.

    If you like choice (RPG) DA:O, if you like the illusion of choice (RPG:Post 2008) DA:2.

    I hated DA2. And I don't need choice in a game, Baldurs Gate II is a way better RPG with barely any choices through it. You can do some quests differently but you don't impact the ending that much. AND THAT'S FINE.

    How about using MORE THAN ONE CAVE MAP FOR OVER FIFTY CAVES! All the caves, sewers and dungeons are identical! It was ridiculous.

      to play the first 15 minutes of this game, which is ptrety much exactly the beginning of the demo. VioletZombie talked about it while we were in Seattle and at first I didn't think there was much more I wanted to add. But, I've played the

    Why would you want to play anything like dragon age 2. It is outright terrible both in gameplay and it's role playing aspect. Get some standards.

    I love how half of the people are missing the point of this article. I'm wondering if they are basing their opinions purely off the title.

    I liked DA2. I liked the combat, much faster and more fluid than DAO, but I liked the stats options and gearing options in DAO. I felt they dumbed it all down way too much in DA2. And I agree about the waves of thigns to attack - to me it felt like they all had portable transporters and would transport in wave after wave.
    And yes the areas were overused in DA2 which was the other disappointing aspect of the game.
    Apart from that I enjoyed the game, and liked how semi realistic the characters are with their relationship to you.
    I'm hoping that DA3 will be similar to DA0 being quite a large game (DA2 was rather short), but they keep the faster/fluid combat (even though I love turn based combat, I'm very thankful for the Pause option! please don't ever remove that Bioware!!!) but more detailed leveling up options (still provide quick level up for people who don't care about stats) and gear management for party members.
    I kinda get impression that Bioware may make something that may have a touch of Skyrim to it. I hope so :)

    I enjoyed the ending to Mass Effect 3 dammit!

    Wait... what article am I in again?

    I'm sorry, but if you consider DA2 even close to the quality of DA:O, you should turn in your gamer card.

    I dont understand the streamlining makes a game better argument. There are hundreds of games on the shelf that fit this characteristic, yet few that offer the customisation of a DA: O. Origins was far from perfect, but generated a massive fan base largely because it was unique for a modern day RPG. If you want fast combat and melodramitic voice overs there are many titles available to cater to your needs. Fans of Origins generally have to play games from 10 years ago to get a similar experience. In short, not every game has to be mass Effect.

      The streamlining of the game makes it appeal better to the mainstream audience which means more sales for Bioware/EA!! Not every player wants to customise their gear/weapons/etc down to the nth degree.

      Having said that, I definitely enjoyed DA:O way more than DA2 but what they done that pissed everyone off was that the fan base that played DA:O expected an similar experience but instead got something completely opposite.

      I just hope Bioware/EA have the balls to make games that cater for their original fan base rather than what they perceive will sell the most by dumbing down all the mechanics to cater for the average player.

    I guess bigger game studios aren't going to make 80's - 90's kind of CRPGs anymore. Fortunately that's why we have Kickstarter.

    Dragon Age 2 had a fantastic story and the characters were brilliant. It was a good game, only let down by repetitive environments and a somewhat radical departure from it's core combat mechanics which left many fans feeling betrayed.

    I can appreciate them being upset, but they should try being a little more open minded and objective.

      EA should have tried naming it something else you mean.

      Like Dragon Age Warriors 6 Extreme Legends.

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