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Dragon Age 2, and what Terminator 2 can teach RPGs

How does Dragon Age 2's combat blend with the RPG content? And alluding to the answer, why do we so often find ourselves moving down anonymous redshirts in games, instead of meaningful enemies? Answers attempted within.

Christopher Aaby, Blogger

April 4, 2011

6 Min Read

When the first Dragon Age came out, I was extatic. I’m not one to jump on the hype-wagon, but this was a triple-A title from Bioware, set in a really interesting and original universe… plus the visuals were cool.
When I actually played it however, I had a number of disappointments. The combat mechanics were so bad that I tested my succes if I just put the controller down instead of actively playing – which regularly proved more effective than playing the game! There were glitches, blind spots in the story, very poor overview on console (which didn’t have the top-down view of the PC version)… a generally good, but flawed experience.

Then DA2 was announced, with promises of better, more responsive combat, no major discrepancy between PC and console versions, and great visuals. This really looked like a strong title, which had done away with a lot of bad stuff, and replaced it with 100% pure homegrown awesome. But it didn’t turn out that way did it? No, it did not.

Hack and slash. And hack some more.

Usually in a big RPG, you expect to spend around 20 minutes creating your character and watching tons of cinematics, setting you up for an epic story. I was pleasantly surprised that DA2 does not dilly-dally, and instead throws you right into the action. Short cinematic, no tutorial, an endless stream of darkspawn, a character with a big sword… and limbs. Flying. Everywhere. Well done.

After playing the game for hours though, it became apparent that this is really all there is to it. Combat has been reduced to mashing a button and throwing in whatever special attacks your character has stamina or mana to support. Other than that you can command your companions to do the same (which they do automatically anyway), you set up your gear in a cumbersome inventory, use potions, the usual stuff. It does take a bit of planning to execute a combo-attack between characters, but it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth, and has about the game mechanical depth of tic-tac-toe.
Ultimately, combat is very responsive, and fairly rewarding all the way through, but the tactical element is almost completely gone.

I don’t necessarily have a big problem with the more action-based style of combat, after all, Mass Effect is a great rpg and follows a similar system. The problem with DA2 is that it just didn’t go the distance. It’s a 50-50 between RPG expectations and action game sensibilities. If combat had been as satisfying as Devil May Cry, or God of War, that would actually be fun, and not merely enough to keep you playing between the story parts. Because that’s what really matters in an RPG, right? The story. Seems to me that DA2 (and a lot of other RPG’s) need to get their priorities straight about what combat really means in these kinds of games.

Combat storytelling

I think RPG’s could learn a lot from Terminator 2 (the movie). On the surface it’s all explosions and handguns, but if you look a little beyond, it’s actually a quite touching family drama (except mom is mentally unstable and dad is a killer robot from the future). A lot of the exposition is actually done within the action scenes, where nostalgic tales and stirring confessions are pulled off seamlessly as bullets and debris fly across the screen.
Where is this in games though? GTA4 had some of it, by letting characters talk during getaways or transport scenes to the next area of interest. But the RPG side is not really getting into this. How come? It seems perfect!
Characters could start developing their relationships in combat, when they are really saving each other’s lives, stakes are high, and everyone is emotionally on edge… not the weird “out-of-nothing” conflicts that arise in cozy bars or the empty god-forsaken middles of nowheres. I seem to remember that one of the Fire Emblem titles for the DS did this pretty succesfully too.
It would also go a long way to alleviate the “combat -> story -> combat -> story” game structure that we are all too familiar with. This structure often makes me feel like I am grudgingly consenting to the combat sequences so I can get to the good story parts. I sometimes find myself lowering the difficulty of the game just so I can get by faster – it’s just not fun.

Conflicts of story and gameplay

It’s been argued that there is an inherent conflict between the story of games and the action of games, for instance in the sense that the player is partially in control of the events, and thus the story can’t follow a traditional linear structure (though many games certainly do their best to stay within these boundaries).
I for one don’t buy this. I don’t think there is a bigger problem here than, say, a movie experiences when there is a “pure” action scene, but the story is not really being moved along simultaneously. So how can this be remedied?

Well, for one I don’t think that action and story need to be separate. Characters can talk and fight at the same time. *Stuff can happen* during fights, which can make them more interesting than just simple reduction of enemy numbers until you can finally move on.

I also feel that a lot (and I mean a LOT) of games fall into the trap of “mass producing” enemies. Imagine that you’re walking through the city at night in DA2, it’s kind of spooky, and a bandit attack right now would not be out of place. Sure enough, a number of black-clad thieves jump out at you, and the hacking commences. A few minutes later, you loot the corpses and move on. Where was the meaning in that? Cutting down anonymous enemies is not meaningful!
Now, if you knew that this would get you in trouble with a certain faction, or that these people had a political agenda against you which they voiced as they attack you, if there was some meaningful choice to make in killing them or not killing them, if killing these people had *any consequence what-so-ever* for your journey through the game (beyond the purely mechanical), then the dispatching of said enemies would be meaningful in some way. Usually though, I find myself gunning down red-shirts for no particular reason.

Who are the virtual people being used as cannon fodder? What about their lives, hopes, dreams and the families left behind? I propose that we stop the madness, and start taking these people (and monsters, let’s not forget those) seriously, for the improvement of hacking and / or slashing everywhere.

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