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They Changed the Dining Room: Dragon Age II Analysis

I wanted to confront a host of misgivings I had about Dragon Age II. Tracking the various discussions about Dragon Age II, I felt the only way to solve my problem was to finally play it. There are some story spoilers.

It has been eight months since Dragon Age II was released by Bioware. Although it was a sequel to Dragon Age Origins; a game that obtained commercial and critical success; Dragon Age II was not greeted as well. The game still did get generally good reviews, but further readings indicate that not all was well in Ferelden.   

Dragon Age Origins hearkened back to Bioware’s old titles such as Baldur’s Gate that I played with unnerving obsession until my hand literally got cold and tingly. It was ratcheted up as a ‘dark fantasy’ where Elves were no longer beautiful and immortal; Dwarves were isolated and put off by surface races, and Humans were more prone to show their brutality towards others. Seeing the success of other dark fantasy games such as The Witcher, it was going to be interesting to see how Bioware would do it.

It was a mix of nostalgia and anticipation for a new computer role-playing game that I locked my gaze on the title for years. When I finally got to play it, it was 200+ hours over two playthroughs, one expansion, and dlc. It was a genuine old-new title. It had all the stuff I missed: the puzzles, party based tactical combat, the top-down camera, friendly fire for example. It had a few new wrinkles in the armor penalties, more emphasis on class specialization, increased aggro management—I didn’t mind these. I accepted them knowing Bioware couldn’t just one for one clone their old games. I suspected the overwhelming success of World of Warcraft influenced them as well. But ultimately, Dragon Age Origins was what I was waiting for, a long time.

When a sequel was announced, I thought ‘Great. They are finally coming back! Those old school rpgs that I haven’t played in years were being given the green light again. And who better than Bioware right?’ I spent a lot of time going through the Elder Scrolls games, Fallout 3, Mass Effect, a lot of hack and slashes. It was time I took a break from action-rpgs. I love them, but there is such as thing as too much of good thing.

When Dragon Age II was being hyped up as the next ‘action-rpg,’ I paused.

It has taken me this long to unpause and take the time to figure this out. The developer was steadfast in their belief that non-rpgers can love rpgs. I wasn’t so convinced. I had years of fun playing video rpgs since Ultima VI and Betrayal at Krondor, but spending time getting into the heady task of calculating initiative, figuring out what dice to use, allocating character statistics was intimidating when I started playing PnP DnD. I did have help though, I played the entirety of the Baldur’s Gate games and the Black Isle DnD games so I knew the basic mechanics of what to expect. But I also knew that you didn’t need to be a rules lawyer to play any of those video games.

With that, maybe Bioware was right. If you can play shooters, rts and strategy, puzzle games, chess, dance simulations, cooking games, board games, adventure games, text adventures, fighting games, flight simulators, online Microsoft Word tests from recruiters—you can damn well play an rpg.

So I decided to put it to the test. I realized this would be a difficult task because I would have to assume I know little of rpgs. I would need to use all the possible tools a new rpg player would need. Manual reading check, online help check, reading articles about rpgs check, in-game help check. What else?

I decided to be fair; I would play two builds simultaneously. One build would be built according to the advice I gathered about playing video rpgs from the Internet. My second build would reflect how I personally play video rpgs. I wanted both to stand in contrast to each other.

Another reason is that I wanted to test the system for its ‘grognard’ factor. Yes, Dragon Age II was billed as action RPG, but from my experience a lot of them lack the statistical mayhem old school rpgs have.

Even from playing the demo, you could see there were a lot of numbers. Much more than say for example, Mass Effect 2 or X-Men Legends. But you know if the game isn’t drowning in them…

More importantly, Dragon Age II had caused me no small amount of grief. I had a really bad experience with the Dragon Age II demo. I must have played it 8 times being a mage, rogue and warrior at least twice. I tried the demo with a hack to access the inventory, character generation, and difficulty settings; I tried the demo twice on console (PS3). There was something missing, something important.

I got into a discussion with a Gamasutra poster on a game developer’s blog about the current state of video rpgs, and my really bad feelings about Bioware and their new rpg direction. After some back and forth, the poster suggested to play the game and create a number of builds testing the system. The challenge was this:

‘Play around with the mechanics, the game, the difficulty, the inventory, whatever. See if you can retain the hardcore RPGers like you and me while bringing in a few people who didn't even know they liked RPGs.’

Fair enough—challenge accepted. But first, I had to set some ground rules about my project here.

 What I will not talk about

I created this list as I feel that the below wouldn’t matter if I were to analyze the gameplay. I realize that some of them definitely tweaked me, but I need to give this game a fair shake.

  • Removal of the top down camera as I need to work with what is there and what is not.
  • Canon lore: should be the same as I imported my save game.
  • Re-drawing of elves and qunari, overall art style direction. If Star Trek can do it, so can Bioware.
  • Re-used dungeons. I realize this is a big one but as it doesn’t affect gameplay rules, I would need to leave this one out.
  • No mention of the marketing although it frames the game in the more action-packed light.
  • The story stuff, moral choices, and Hawke as both PC and set characterization
  • Downloadable content.
  • Mechanics first; opinions later. While I am chopping at the bit to make my views known, I can’t do this yet.
  • 18 month schedule: game development is tough or so I’ve heard, but as with the top down camera—it doesn’t factor into my analysis

 What I will talk about

Now this list here consists of changes made to the gameplay system. Also I will eventually dedicate a section to Patch 1.03 as it warrants it own discussion.

  • Level scaling.
  • Ability Trees
  • Mechanics: scale of old school versus streamlining, friendly fire, difficulty re-tweaking, removal of skills.
  • What is new: more emphasis on cross class combos.
  • Patch 1.03: in addition to bug fixes, it introduced a host of balancing changes to the gameplay. One notable change is that enemies and characters now move slower.

 

 Dragon Age Rules Smackdown

Dragon Age II went under some rules changes. I have made comparisons between both games. These lists are not complete, but I wrote them from what I have experienced and gathered from the Dragon Age Wiki, the manuals, and the Bioware forums.

What DAO did

  • Injuries are statistical penalties, so you ‘break an arm’ and your strength stat goes down temporarily.
  • Skills such as Coercion, Persuade, Pickpocket, and Survival were directly affected by statistics.
  • Extra 5 points to allocate at character creation.
  • Increases to base attack and health on level up.
  • Fatigue—gives stamina/mana penalties on equipping armor. The more armor you have on, the more points are drained from the pool by using abilities.
  • There is area level scaling.
  • Threat: equipment such as massive armor increases the threat of a character in the game. Enemies are more likely to go after characters with a high threat. Warriors have abilities to draw enemies off your weaker characters such as mages so you don’t spend a lot of time taking control of the mage being chased down by mobs. Threat is increased by damage done—so mages who have the powerful spells will increase their threat levels rapidly and become easy targets.
  • Abilities had linear progression. Choose one to start the path, and then subsequently choose abilities 2, 3, and 4. For rogues, you choose Dual Weapon Training first, Dual Weapon Finesse second, Dual Weapon Expert third, and Dual Weapon Mastery.
  • Traditional inventory: you pick up a lot of loot, compare/contrast statistics to determine their worth.
  • The player must determine what to equip on companions.
  • Cross Class Combos: certain magic spells can be combined such as Grease and Fireball to create fields of fire. Players can shatter tough enemies by freezing them first and getting a critical hit. Players can stun enemies using certain abilities making them open to critical hits and backstabs
  • AI Tactics: players create a number of conditionals for companions to carry out.
  • Friendly Fire: none on casual, 50% normal, 100% on hard and nightmare
  • There is a bonus to damage and critical chance if a character ‘flanks’ another. The character must be directly behind or to the side of an enemy to get this bonus. Flanking areas take up a portion of the highlight circle—in black. According to Dragon Age wiki, if the flanking angle is 120%, the bonus is up 15 extra damage. If the flanking angle is 180%, the bonus is 20. Rogues who flank deal automatic backstabs.

 What DAII does

  • Injuries are now only health penalties, the more injuries the more your health takes a hit. Amount of injuries depends on difficulty level.
  • No skills.
  • No extra 5 points to allocate at character creation.
  • No increases to base attack and health on level up.
  • No fatigue.
  • Level scaling: enemies scale to your level so you must constantly bump up your scores to stay relevant (see Dragon Age II manual pages 10-11).
  • Threat seems to work the same way in Dragon Age II from what I’ve observed. I spent some time controlling Bethany because the mobs wouldn’t leave her alone after fireball-ing them. On a side note: I have a funny story involving aggro mechanics, my brother, his friend, and a balor in NWN.
  • Ability Trees that branch off into at least two directions and wrap around. For rogues, you automatically start in Dual Weapon down the path of Backstab or you can chose to pursue the path of Unforgiving Chain. You can also get all the way down to Twin Fangs by either route.
  • Streamlined inventory: equipment stars to help the player determine what is good and what can be sold/destroyed safely. The lower the stars, the less useful it is in comparison to your level.
  • Set companion equipment: player must purchase single use upgrades.
  • Cross Class Combos: players can brittle, stagger, or disorient depending on class. Icons float above enemy heads to reflect what state the enemy is in.
  • AI Tactics: players create a number of conditionals for companions to carry out.
  • Friendly Fire: none on casual, normal, and hard; 100% on nightmare
  • There is flanking and the manual recommends it for all. It also warns that flanking can happen to you. I attempted to find the bonus damage for flanking—I haven’t.  

 

Where I Ultimately Want To Go

Before we dive into the analysis, where I want to go with this article is to figure out how easy it is to learn an rpg. You have all these statistics and immediately, you need to figure out what to do with them. Does the game address this problem? It is one thing to upgrade a golfer in Tiger Woods PGA 12 and another to upgrade a warrior in Dragon Age. If this game was meant to be an introduction to the rpg, one must understand the stuff behind the moving parts. I have created a number of charts to help with this. It is much easier to document the observable, and make an analysis. I would like to make this a series as I play through various builds. Also I found that in doing these charts, it also helped my own understanding of gameplay rules.       

 

Analysis

I outlined a number of objectives for my first build—that of a person who is learning how to play an rpg. I decided on these:

1st Build

Class: Rogue—dual wield specialization

Game Difficulty: Hard (I wanted to see if there was a differences between DAO Normal and DAII hard—I thought DAO Normal was a good challenge especially when fighting revenants, but playing DAO: Awakening at Normal was easy for me. I also read this.)

Objectives:

  • To be a rogue with concentration on melee fighting
  • Ease of learning how to play 1: does the game take you though each main component
  • Ease of learning how to play 2: does the game’s manual provide adequate explanations
  • What do the experts say about building an RPG character

The first part of the game involves a tutorial whereby the game is ‘exaggerated.’ This allows players to experiment with a host of abilities against darkspawn. For rogues, you can experiment with the abilities backstab, evade, unforgiving chain, miasmic flask, and stealth.

Soon after, you create your character and begin the game in earnest. Hawke and company must reach Kirkwall. In this section, the player must engage in a number of fights with darkspawn bolters, grunts, and normal hurlocks—the final boss fight has one ogre. On arriving to Kirkwall, the player must find a way into the city itself and fights two battles consisting of human archers and warriors. Each group has one leader. This wraps up year 1. As a rogue, I ended up a level 4 rogue with 2 unspent abilities.

For build 1, my end statistics are:

Level 4

Attributes

Derived

Strength

10

Fortitude

0

Dexterity

18

Critical Chance

8

Magic

10

Magic Resistance

0

Cunning

16

Critical Damage

56

Willpower

11

Stamina

130

Constitution

10

Health

125

VS normal, lieutenant, boss (in %)

Damage

26DPS

14

Attack

68%

85

64 normal, 49 lieutenant, 34 boss

Defense

25%

83

25 normal, 5 lieutenant, 5 boss

Armor

9%

79

9 normal, 0 lieutenant, 0 boss

So dexterity and cunning stand out. I have not addressed all the other statistics. The rationale is that the main statistics of dexterity and cunning must be within at least two points of each other. The low scores in all other statistics should be offset by the high dexterity and cunning—meaning this character kills and runs. This follows the advice of the manual and the advice given by Game Informer. I have 2 unspent abilities—the prevailing wisdom of Game Informer also cautions against spending abilities too quickly.

The DPS table so far:

Rogue Dex

DPS

Derived

Attk%

AttkDerived

DIFF AttkDerived

Normal

Lieut

Boss

13

20

11

0.63

66

N/A

63

48

33

14

22

12

0.62

69

3

62

47

32

15

22

12

0.64

73

4

64

49

34

16

24

13

0.64

77

4

64

49

34

17

24

13

0.65

81

4

65

50

35

18

26

14

0.67

85

4

67

52

37

19

26

14

0.66

90

5

66

51

36

20

28

15

0.68

95

5

69

53

38

21

28

15

0.69

101

6

69

54

39

The bolded numbers were something I observed directly from playing the game. On Dexerity 14 and 19, allocating one point is not enough to offset the decrease—they normalize and increase after. The column, DIFF AttkDerived is the difference between Attk Derived values. So I am tracking the increases between dexterity values. So between dex 13 and 14; AttkDerived increased by a value of 3. Between dex 14 and 15; AttkDerived increases by a value of 4, and remains consistent until dex 19. I would need to play the game further to determine a connection between the two drops.

This is the table I use to track the level scaling in the game. As noted, on leveling up in the game, the player takes a small drop in Attack, Defense, and Armor numbers so the player must actively prop up the statistics that affect these scores. I’m thinking that the more the player doesn’t do this, the more underpowered the character could become. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem as the manual directly tells players to concentrate on these statistics during leveling.

On leveling from # to # without any allocations

norm

lieut

boss

Level 1

Damage

DPS

20

11

Attack

0.63

66

63

48

33

Defense

0.23

64

23

5

5

Armor

0.24

79

24

14

4

Level 2 (no alloc)

Damage

DPS

20

11

 

 

 

Attack

 

0.61

66

 

61

46

31

 

Defense

 

0.2

64

 

20

5

5

 

Armor

 

0.17

79

 

17

7

0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DIFF (btw 1 and 2)

Damage

DPS

0

0

 

 

 

Attack

 

0.02

0

 

2

2

2

 

Defense

 

0.03

0

 

3

0

0

 

Armor

 

0.07

0

 

7

7

4

Level 2 (after alloc)

Damage

DPS

22

12

Attack

0.64

73

64

49

34

Defense

0.23

68

20

5

5

Armor

0.17

79

17

7

0

Level 3 (no alloc)

Damage

DPS

22

12

 

 

 

Attack

 

0.62

73

 

62

47

32

 

Defense

 

0.2

68

 

20

5

5

 

Armor

 

0.12

79

 

12

2

0

DIFF (btw 2 and 3)

Damage

DPS

0

0

 

2

2

2

 

Attack

0.02

0

 

0

0

0

 

Defense

0.03

0

 

5

5

0

 

Armor

0.05

0

 

0

0

0

Level 3 (after alloc)

Damage

DPS

26

14

Attack

0.67

85

67

52

37

Defense

0.2

68

20

5

5

Armor

0.12

79

12

2

0

Level 4(no alloc)

Damage

DPS

26

14

 

 

 

 

 

Attack

 

0.64

85

 

64

49

34

 

Defense

 

0.15

68

 

15

5

5

 

Armor

 

0.09

79

 

9

0

0

DIFF (btw 3 and 4)

Damage

DPS

0

0

 

Attack

 

0.03

0

 

3

3

3

 

Defense

 

0.05

0

 

5

0

0

 

Armor

 

0.03

0

 

3

2

0

Level 4 (after alloc)

Damage

DPS

26

14

Attack

0.68

85

64

49

34

Defense

0.25

83

25

5

5

Armor

0.09

79

9

0

0

My Alternate Build

I have a labeled game called Self-Build. This is to act in contrast to the above build by allowing me to build a character in whatever way I choose. This is based on the way I built my Dragon Age Origins character—which was to create a balanced character and cut down on the meta-gaming. It is also to prove that you don’t need to follow the advice of the min/maxers to be successful. In fact, creating a well rounded character was a goal of the Dragon Age II gameplay team.

My statistics so far:

Level 4

Attributes

Derived

Strength

10

Fortitude

0

Dexterity

16

Critical Chance

6

Magic

10

Magic Resistance

0

Cunning

14

Critical Damage

54

Willpower

12

Stamina

135

Constitution

13

Health

140

VS normal, lieutenant, boss (in %)

Damage

24DPS

13

Attack

61

77

61 normal, 46 lieutenant, 31 boss

Defense

20

73

20 normal, 5 lieutenant, 3 boss

Armor

9

79

9 normal, 0 lieutenant, 0 boss

I have tried to keep my statistics fairly even—there is still the emphasis on dexterity and cunning (something you learn in DAO about class specialization), but I have increased my willpower and constitution knowing I like to go full on offensive in combat and will take direct damage.

The Full Smash

Tracked levels from 1 to 4

Level 1

Attributes

Derived

Strength

10

Fortitude

0

Dexterity

13

Critical Chance

0.03

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Magic

10

Magic Resistance

0

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Cunning

12

Critical Damage

0.52

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Willpower

11

Stamina

130

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Constitution

10

Health

125

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Damage

20DPS

11

Attack

0.63

66

.63 normal, .48 lieutenant, .33 boss

Defense

0.23

64

.23 normal, .05 lieutenant, .05 boss

Armor

0.24

79

.24 normal, .14 lieutenant, .04 boss

Level 2

Attributes

Derived

Strength

10

Fortitude

0

Dexterity

15

Critical Chance

0.05

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Magic

10

Magic Resistance

0

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Cunning

13

Critical Damage

0.53

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Willpower

11

Stamina

130

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Constitution

10

Health

125

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Damage

22DPS

12

Attack

0.64

73

.64, .49, .34

Defense

0.23

68

.23, .05, .05

Armor

0.17

79

.17, .07, 0

Level 3

Attributes

Derived

Strength

10

Fortitude

0

Dexterity

18

Critical Chance

0.08

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Magic

10

Magic Resistance

0

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Cunning

13

Critical Damage

0.53

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Willpower

11

Stamina

130

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Constitution

10

Health

125

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Damage

26DPS

14

Attack

0.67

85

.67, .52, .37

Defense

0.2

68

.20, .05, .05

Armor

0.12

79

.12, .02, 0

Level 4

Attributes

Derived

Strength

10

Fortitude

0

Dexterity

18

Critical Chance

8

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Magic

10

Magic Resistance

0

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Cunning

16

Critical Damage

56

for every point above 10, allocate 1 percent

Willpower

11

Stamina

130

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Constitution

10

Health

125

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Damage

26DPS

14

Attack

0.68

85

.64, .49, 34

Defense

0.25

83

Willpower

12

Stamina

135

for every point above 10, allocate 5

Constitution

13

Health

140

Damage

24DPS

13

Attack

0.61

77

.61n, .46l, .31b

Defense

0.2

73

.20n, .05l, .03b

Armor

0.09

79

.09n, 0l, 0b

The Story So Far

From playing through the introduction, the game does a reasonable job by using tool-tips and frequent pop-ups to ensure that players understand the basic mechanics of the game. One thing that I was curious about was that there was no mention of the ability to pause the combat. While it is in the manual, the in-game help doesn’t mention it—or I might have missed it. Not a critical misstep, but something worth noting regardless.   

As I do not have the required abilities, I have not been able to test the usefulness of cross class combos.

One notable change came with Patch 1.03. This is something I noticed immediately after patching the game in comparison to playing the demo.

  • In many fights, enemies now move less quickly at the start of combat. This slower initial pace makes tactical positioning more useful and important.

One thing that stood out about the demo was the ‘lighting pace’ the characters and the enemies moved at. I was very used to the ‘methodical’ pace of Origins. The pace, at which the enemies and characters move with the patch, is noticeably slower to me.

Patch 1.03 also tweaked enemies in the following ways:

  • Enemies now gain more health as the game progresses.
  • Enemy assassins now have less health.
  • Lieutenant-rank and boss-rank enemies now have less health.
  • Lieutenant-rank enemies can no longer lose more than 40% of their health from a single hit, and boss-rank enemies cannot lose more than 20%.
  • Enemy commanders now occasionally throw stun grenades while encouraging their troops to concentrate attacks against a single party member. Previously, this behavior was limited to nightmare difficulty.

Concerning companions, I decided to base their leveling on what would be useful for them. As I previously played the demo, I knew Carver was going to eat it so I didn’t create a build strategy for him. For Bethany, I am concentrating on increasing her magic/willpower statistics. Being a mage, every other level I increase her constitution to increase her longevity. For Aveline, I am working on strength and constitution for now as she is a warrior class. It is not too different from my previous companion build strategy I used in DAO.

At this point, I have had no difficulty in combat with my builds. I died once or twice due to initial bad setup and not paying attention to health. I managed to trigger a bunch of Kirkwall guards into helping me defeat a bunch of enemies by leading them all out into the open area to where the guards were standing. I also use long ranged weapons—while I am not pursuing any of the associated long range abilities, increased flexibility is what I’m after in terms of the personal tactics I found useful in similar games. I also flank when as often when I can.

Hopefully this article would help others gain insight into Dragon Age II on a novice level. I might not be able to explain every mechanic in the game, but I can at least show what is observable. I would like to be able to keep as objective as possible—keeping my opinions until the very end.

Questions, comments, or suggestions are welcome.

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