Having grown up suckling at the teat of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment, booting up Dragon Age 2 for the first time doesn’t feel like coming full circle as much as missing the end of the circle and going off into a spiral. And while you sometimes miss the deceptive simplicity of a circle, spirals are pretty awesome because they have the potential to go on forever.
Taking a whiff and a sip reveals all the familiar flavors – darkspawn, templar, apostates and dragons are all quickly ticked off the checklist before you even have time to wonder what episode of Naruto you just dropped into when Hawke’s ninja animations start kicking in.
Bioware has also taken the top off their difficulty curve and pressed it further into the sand to the point where you’d get more challenge out of your average movie trailer than the Normal variety of this game. At this point, it’s easy enough to just dismiss the whole endeavor as the final nail in the coffin of the once-mighty western RPG tradition and just pronounce it well and truly consolified.
It took me about four hours of playing, or rather watching my Hawke et al annihilate several screens’ worth of opposition with one click before the thought of changing the difficulty level struck me. One step up the ladder and there’s our missing Normal difficulty level. They mislabeled it Hard for some reason.
Make no mistake, this is a precision engineered piece of software with a purpose as clear as daylight –take the western RPG to the console masses while keeping at least the slightest pinky hold on the old and grizzled fanbase. And I know full well what they meant to do here. The only thing is, RPG players don’t think of themselves as hardcore gamers, or at least not the kind who think finishing a game on a certain difficulty level is any kind of achievement.
Once you start pouring tens of millions of dollars in a game you can’t afford to alienate potential market of five million by catering exclusively to the few vocal thousand, even if they were the ones supporting your early efforts. I’ve heard it from Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw himself, if Bioware could profitably split the franchise in hardcore and action, they would, but the truth there are a lot less of us faithful than we think and the genre needs to adapt to survive.
If that means putting up with some streamlining and having to fiddle a bit with difficulty settings, so be it, as long as the bones of the gameplay and the sharp dialogue if not the rousing narrative are intact. To my mind, Dragon Age 2 is just a bit of medicine that us old coots need to swallow down if we’d like to see the genre prosper. And it’s a very rare medicine that can more often than not be mistaken for cake.
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