Why Dragon Age 2 is Great and What Inquisition Can Learn From It
Broad conflicts with personal meaning
Dragon Age 2 goes on like that all the way to the end. Disparate quests draw on characters Hawke and you know, including, for example, a serial killer plot that lasts several years and ends up involving Hawke’s family directly.
And along the way Hawke has a ton of dealings with mages and templars; imagine if in Star Wars, all the Jedi were treated by the government as if falling to the Dark Side is inevitable — that’s how mages are treated in Dragon Age, with the templars around to basically keep them locked up.
In Kirkwall this conflict between mages who want some semblance of freedom and everyone else who is scared of them escalates over the course of the game, and it’s personal because Hawke knows all the key players and gets a good look at the stakes. On top of that, whichever of Hawke’s siblings survives the prologue (this depends on which class you choose to play) will be on one of these sides by default, as Bethany is a born mage living outside the system and Carver becomes a templar in Kirkwall.
This is in opposition to Origins, which has you travel the world to various places in which you have to acclimate yourself to a new situation every few hours. Okay, now we’re at the Circle of Magi tower and need to figure out what’s going on and how to fix whatever the problem is before we move on to that dwarven city over there where we’ll repeat that process before we go visit the dalish elves and… you get the picture. That’s not even a bad template, but it is a typical one. We roam fantasy worlds and spend time learning about new places in lots of games.
We don’t play a lot of fantasy games in which we really get to know one place. Dragon Age 2 does that, and it’s a breath of fresh air. But it also addresses another major recurring complaint I have about fantasy RPGs.
Doing side quests finally makes sense
Like we’d expect from a fantasy RPG, Dragon Age 2 is full of quests that you can play in parallel: some are side story quests, others main story quests, and still others collectible quests. So much is going on at any given time, and having the game stay in this one place throughout finally provides a context in which straying from the main path is fully justifiable with zero qualms about distractions from whiny ol’ me.
First, very few of the main quests in Dragon Age 2 are time-sensitive, which is another way it diverts from the usual fantasy RPG path. And with Hawke staying in Kirkwall and the nearby wilderness, none of the quests are in-universe time-consuming the way they would be if doing them involved traveling a hundred miles. If Hawke needs to take care of business at the Wounded Coast, that’s an afternoon.
To put it another way, Hawke doing one quest doesn’t usually necessitate, from a role-playing standpoint, putting aside all other business to take care of it, unless, like, the qunari decide to rampage.
He’s not going to ever walk halfway across the continent to meet a questgiver, and some quests need to be executed at night, so you can role-play doing other business in the meantime (night begins when you trigger it). A typical workday for Hawke is not really too structurally different from a typical workday for any real person who works outside of an uber-strict schedule. As a freelance writer, I prioritize my own tasks each day the way I want, and Hawke does the same as a freelance merc. The point is, all of this grounds the experience into something more relatable than what we typically get from fantasy, as Hawke strikes things off his to-do list.
And once the endgame arrives, and the templars and magi go to war in Kirkwall and you have to pick a side as you watch this city that has been your home for 25-plus hours burn, the conflict is personal and has consequences that matter to Hawke.
In Origins, expediency is a valid tactic because you and your Warden have no meaningful attachment to most of the places you visit. You really just need to make problems go away so you can have folks at your back when you deal with that idiot Loghain and the marauding Blight. In Dragon Age 2, there’s a whole lot more personal context.
It is a fantasy gaming experience that actually stands out from the muck of sameness, and that’s something we should celebrate rather than ignore.
Through it all, you’ve seen not only the danger of the mages and the injustice hefted onto them by the templars, but you know the actual people involved very well. The city is at stake, and that matters, and also at stake are the fates of many specific people you know who are stuck on opposite sides of a dividing line.
When the time comes for Hawke to make his choice, not one bit of this situation is abstract. Through all of those hours spent in this city, talking to people and doing sidequests, running around getting a feel for this place and its inhabitants, and just living in it because it is your home, the scope of the game always stays perfectly tangible and concrete. That’s not something you see too often in any type of game, much less a fantasy RPG.
And that’s what Dragon Age 2 got oh so very right. Sure, the constant reuse of the same two dungeons is annoying, but when we look beyond that, we can see that with the core of this game, BioWare did exactly what it’s known for, and in a fresh way. It is a fantasy gaming experience that actually stands out from the muck of sameness, and that’s something we should celebrate rather than ignore, simply because some corners were cut on design because of a rushed development cycle.
After all, we’re not playing Bioware games for the level design. Or at least we shouldn’t be. Hopefully BioWare remembered what really matters to its identity in building Inquisition.
Phil Owen is a freelance critic and journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @philrowen.