Dragon Age II: Adventures on Sh*t Mountain
I liked the last generation of consoles.
It was a time when it was okay for mid-budget shooters to exist. When every small indie game on the Xbox 360 had a mandatory demo, which lead me to purchase more of them. When studios could actually finish a quality game every 18 months or so thanks to the balance between market expectations, budgets, and console power.
And it’s also when BioWare released Dragon Age II, an oft-loathed sequel that I think is one of their most enjoyable games.
Dragon Age II was a profound departure from its predecessor, and its quick development schedule meant it had to be.
The original Dragon Age had the luxury of a six-plus year development cycle, and launched BioWare’s new Eclipse engine. Designed originally to push the limits of PC hardware, by the time the game finally came out it merely looked “Good.”
So much material was made for Dragon Age: Origins that some of it was spun-off into a full-length retail standalone expansion called Awakening. ( A similar thing happened with Final Fantasy XIII, but that’s a tale for another time).
When fully bundled together, the first Dragon Age is easily one of BioWare’s largest single player games.
Dragon Age II had no such budget or ambition. It was a quick project, designed to get some more use out of their internal engine and capitalize on the fact that Dragon Age was their best-selling game to date.
It released a mere year and a half after the original game, and was a radical shift in both scope and design for the studio. It featured a tighter pace, a framed narrative structure, and had to re-purpose a more limited number of locations in clever ways in order to tell its story.
It also amped up the combat, turning it into something much faster and more akin to character action games like Devil May Cry or Dynasty Warriors.
At the time the decision to speed up the combat and require a button press for every attack by default on consoles was shunned by long-time BioWare fans. How dare they turn this strategic RPG into an action game!
But I loved it at the time. And playing it again now, it compares favorably to other more modern and popular games, with a pacing and a frenetic energy that you can also find in GreedFall, The Witcher 3, and others.
I get it though. Dragon Age II was a big change. It told a more linear story, separated not by different locations but by time passing in the same city. You got to see the same places over a ten year span and you got to see characters evolve. This didn’t have the feel of usual BioWare games, which follow a rigid structure of “Opening Place, Three More Places, Plot Twist, Final Place,” and I loved the change.
Dragon Age II also looks better overall than its predecessor…it just left a bad first impression with a lot of folks.
The opening area takes place in a brown expanse that’s supposed to be an important location from Origins, but the entire aesthetic is different. The enemies have had an overhaul and look less like the Peter Jackson Orcs from the first entry and more like Power Rangers villains.
But other than those enemies its brown brown brown everywhere. This lead some gamers to call the opening area Shit Mountain, which made me laugh at the time and still makes me laugh now.
It doesn’t help that BioWare released this area as a free demo of the game.
While it shows off the combat very well, it doesn’t adequately demonstrate the range of visuals you’ll see in the game’s environments later on.
Dragon Age II isn’t a super long game by genre standards, but it still takes around 30 hours to beat the base campaign. A totally respectable length in my opinion, and amazing for the short development cycle.
It’s a brisk 30 hours, too. The pacing of the game is non-stop. You’re never far from a quest objective, a conversation with an interesting character, or a battle, thanks to the game’s smaller areas and intense combat. It’s breakneck in a way I wish more “large” games were.
I was nervous to revisit this one. I played it obsessively in 2011, completing it on multiple platforms, but I haven’t been back in a while. Fortunately, I’m still really enjoying it in spite of that darn Shit Mountain.
I’ll have more to say when I finish it again. And then maybe I’ll finally finish GreedFall. That’s the only game in recent memory that has given me the “DA II feel.”
BioWare switched away from their own technology starting with Dragon Age Inquisition, following an EA mandate that all internal studios must start using Frostbite. While their visuals improved, this also coincides the slow decline of the studio leading to the wet thump that is this year’s Anthem.
I know Frostbite isn’t totally to blame for that, but forcing an RPG studio to use an elaborate engine designed mainly for shooters instead of the technology they’d spent years working on and intimately crafting couldn’t have helped.