Why Dragon Age 2 is Great and What Inquisition Can Learn From It
Warning: All the Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 spoilers within.
The backlash was immediate from fans who were upset about the small scale of the game world and the abuse of a pair of dungeon templates copied and pasted to stand in for a couple dozen different places. Dragon Age: Origins had you travel around a large chunk of earth, visiting a few very different places and participating in a quest to save the world from an evil orc-ish menace. By contrast, Dragon Age 2 takes place entirely in one city and the woods nearby, and includes a lot of dungeons that looked similar because they were exactly the same.
But on revisiting both games recently, I’ve found that I prefer Dragon Age 2 to Origins, to the extent that I honestly believe it to be the better game. This surprised me, but once I looked past the obviously quickly and shoddily assemble world — almost certainly the result of the game’s 18-month turnaround after Origins — I realized that DA2 is a unique and exhilarating experience in the fantasy genre, and one that feels quite at home in this post-Game of Thrones world.
It turns out that Dragon Age 2 manages to be great despite some technical flaws and shortcuts, and we can only hope that Bioware held on to some of the game’s key principles in building this year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition.
A world you can give a shit about
What makes Dragon Age 2 so good is that it’s set in one city and never strays far from it. Fantasy stories about a grand journey across a sprawling landscape are fun and all, but there are lots of those in the genre already, and not so many that allow the player character (or the player, for that matter) to invest emotionally in one location simply by having you spend a lot of time in it.
When I look back at Origins, I remember a lot of places I’d go to for a few hours and do quests in, and maybe come back to later in a few cases. BioWare games are very structured by nature, and so in Origins, once you finish a quest in an area you generally just move along.
In Dragon Age 2, your character calls Lothering home at the start, but Hawke and his family are run out of town by the events of Origins and end up in a city called Kirkwall, beyond that first game’s world map. It’s a new, strange place; Hawke and his sibling become mercenaries in order to get in, and then the game cuts to a year later.
Then a funny thing happens: As you walk around Kirkwall talking to NPCs with exclamation points over their heads, Hawke greets them with familiarity. Because, you know, they’re his pals. Other people request his help because they’ve heard he’s handy with a blade, and these people stick around.
A city that changes with you
At this point, Hawke is free of his mercenary contract and wants to get in on a quest for treasure into the Deep Roads — tunnels built under the mountains by ancient dwarves. But in order to be included, he has to become an investor, and to be an investor he needs gold. So in this first act of the game, Hawke rolls around the city doing whatever people need help with, meeting a lot of folks along the way and becoming an unwitting part of local politics. The quest for cash, you see, involves meeting a lot of rich, important people.
Fantasy stories about a grand journey across a sprawling landscape are fun and all, but there are lots of those in the genre already, and not so many that allow the player to invest emotionally in one location.
It also involves meeting a dwarf merchant named Javaris, who wants to get his hands on some exploding powder (“blackpowder”) that a race called the qunari have allegedly crafted. Making a deal with Javaris, Hawke meets the local leader, or Arishok, of a band of qunari that was shipwrecked and stranded in Kirkwall. Javaris ends up eventually getting no powder and Hawke has a new “pal” in the Arishok.
So Hawke makes his money and goes off on this quest and then comes back wealthy and buys a mansion for the family. As a sort of noble who’s helped out a lot of people who matter, Hawke is important, and ends up doing work with Kirkwall’s mayor (viscount) as they try to keep the rather antagonistic qunari from doing anything weird or violent.
In dealing with the Arishok once more, Hawke learns a thief has stolen a barrel of poison powder that makes people crazy when lit — said thief was looking for blackpowder, and Hawke and the Arishok reflexively think it’s their old friend Javaris, who has skipped town. It wasn’t, though; when Hawke catches up to the squirrelly dwarf we learn it was a setup.