As a huge fan of Bioware's now ancient Knights of the Old Republic games and their more recent offerings (Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect), I was willing to believe that - when it came to RPGs - Bioware could do no wrong. But that was before I'd played Dragon Age 2.
Having now played that game all the way through several times, I have to admit this is probably going to take the prize for Most Disappointing Game of the Year.
Don't get me wrong - there were far worse fantasy RPGs out this year. Venetica and even D&D's Daggerdale spring to mind. But with such a strong pedigree behind it, expectations for Dragon Age 2 were high. And, whilst those expectations may have been impossible to live up to in every respect, it seemed inconceivable that Bioware could miss the mark in quite so many crucial ways and by such a huge margin as it did with DA2.
One commenter online said it seemed as if it had been put together by Bioware's B-Team and it's hard to argue with that assessment. Compared to DA:O, it has to be said, the game was ... lacklustre. Uninspired. Pedestrian. It was as if Bioware had forgotten everything they knew about what made DA:O successful.
So what exactly was wrong?
Well, there were three major factors that stood out for me: the characters, the story they were taking part in, and the setting in which that story took place. There were other niggles and many online critics have already moaned about the lack of costume options for your companions, for example, but - for me - these were the three areas in which the game failed so miserably that it would have still been a disappointment even if everything else had been addressed. Let's take them one at a time - (WARNING: some fairly detailed spoilers follow!)
In a game like this there are two things that give characters personality: the quality of the scripted dialogue and the quality of the voice acting that delivers it.
Mass Effect was universally (and rightly) lauded for giving a voice to all its characters, including the player-controlled hero. Clearly inspired by the success of ME, Dragon Age 2 tried to do the same. Unfortunately, its script writers just weren't up to the task and the voice actors were decidedly second rate. If your choice of hero (Hawke) was male, he sounded as if he'd been lobotomised (or, in the parlance of the game, made Tranquil). If you played as a female Hawke, your character had the prim, perfectly accent-less delivery of a BBC newsreader. The effect, in either case, was a character without personality.
Sadly, the supporting cast of companions fared little better. Some were just so unpleasant (notably Fenris and Carver) that you'd never willingly choose them to join your party unless their skills were absolutely essential for the completion of a quest. Others, like the female soldier Aveline or the buxom pirate wench Isabela, also suffered from BBC-announcer syndrome. The only characters to display genuine and endearing personalities of their own were the dwarf Varric (who also narrates the story) and the elven blood mage Merrill (superbly voiced by Torchwood's Eve Myles).
How could Bioware have seemingly not realised that it was the characters' individual personalities which had made DA:O so much fun to play? Where was the playful banter which had given Morrigan her sneering air of superiority? Or Shale's condescending disdain? Where was a character with a fraction of Wynne's matronly warmth? Or Leliana's coquettish French lisp? Or Zevran's libidinous Spanish charm? Hell, I even found myself feeling nostalgic for Oghren's drunken buffoonery and Alistair's pitiful whining - at least they had personalities of some description!
Given the apparent "scrimping" that seems to characterise almost every aspect of this game, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Bioware had tried to save on cost by using British voice actors instead of their more expensive US counterparts. If this is the case, they got what they paid for. A collection of indistinguishable, RADA-trained, middle-class nondescripts, more preoccupied with pronouncing every vowel and consonant with precision than they were with breathing life and individuality into the characters.
The story divides into three chapters. In the first, you must undertake a succession of minor quests in order to earn enough gold to be able to join an expedition to the Deep Roads. These quests all take place in and around the city of Kirkwall, an ancient fortress-city ruled with a rod of iron by a certain Knight-Commander Meredith. In the third and final chapter, you'll perform some more quests (again, in Kirkwall) before coming face-to-face with Meredith herself for a final showdown.
So far, so good. Just about. The problem with the story is that, in between those opening and closing chapters, the middle section of the game also requires you to undertake a succession of minor quests (again in Kirkwall!) before having to defeat one of the game's big, bad bosses: a Qunari chieftain.
Now, not only is this particular Qunari ridiculously difficult to defeat given the level you've reached by this point, but he's totally irrelevant to the plot. This of course means that the whole of this second chapter has no relevance to the main story either. It's padding.
Maybe it will have some bearing on DA3 but, as far as this game is concerned, the whole second chapter serves no narrative purpose whatsoever. It's there purely to make the game longer. Admittedly, there is a connection between the Qunari and one of your companions, but no attempt is made to tie this development into the main plot. The whole of the middle section of the game could be removed and no one would be any the wiser. It's the kind of episodic story-telling you'd expect from a twelve year old.
Did you notice we referred to Kirkwall three times in that discussion of the story? Yes? Well, that's because you never get to go anywhere else! Okay, so there is a mountain path just outside the city (but it is only the one mountain path!) and there is a coast road nearby (but it is only the one coast road!) and that's it. The whole game is played pretty much inside Kirkwall and along those two roads. Does that sound boring? Well, yeah ... it is!
There are some quests that can only be undertaken at night time and some which can only be carried out during the day. Bioware have described this ability to toggle between night and day as an "innovation". In reality, though, it's all still Kirkwall and, given the shoddy production elsewhere, it really does seem like a feeble attempt to persuade we poor players that we're not really playing every quest in the same three or four streets ... Except, of course, we are!
Remember the variety on offer in Dragon Age: Origins? Some quests in the Brecilian forest, others in towers and dungeons; some in the dwarven city of Orzammar, others in the human stronghold of Denerim? Remember the surreal environments of the Fade? The labyrinthine tunnels of the Deep Roads? The dozen different landscapes in which random encounters and side quests could take place? Apparently oblivious of everything that made DA: Origins so absorbing, Bioware have jettisoned that entire world and trapped you inside a single city for the whole of the game.
It's another example of the total lack of imagination which pervades every important aspect of DA2. Whether that stunted development is due to short-sighted management cost-saving or the development team having simply exhausted its reserves of creativity, I have no idea. Either way, it reduces much of the game to a repetitive slog.
Let's be honest, most computer games are built around a number of combat sequences. During the course of a game you might upgrade weapons or acquire new skills, but most quests will still consist mainly of trying to kill a slew of enemies in a relatively enclosed space. Giving the player a variety of different environments in which to battle those enemies is one of the key ways in which a games developer can make each battle seem different to the one before. Did Bioware somehow forget that?
Now, to end on as positive a note as I can, if you've never played a Bioware RPG before and you haven't experienced the highs of Dragon Age: Origins, you may still get some enjoyment out of DA2. It's certainly better than many other RPGs out there just now. But that, I'm afraid, is about as positive as I can get. In fact, if you really haven't played DA:O before, I'd have to recommend you get hold of a copy of that instead. It's looking a little dated now, but it's cheap at the moment and it's a far superior gaming experience in almost every respect.
Post script: I understand there's an expansion pack due to be released about now - Dragon Age 2: Legacy. Apparently, it will take you outside Kirkwall (gasp!). I suspect it will be too little to make much difference to the overall enjoyment of the game and, for me at least, it's already far too late. I have no intention of paying for an expansion that, by introducing a degree of variety, is effectively little more than a patch for one of the game's fundamental design flaws.