Saturday, March 28, 2015

#84: Dragon Age 2: Pacing and Plot Structure

Some time ago, I played Dragon Age: Origins. Back then, I expressed issues with how it was paced, citing The Fade and The Deep Roads in particular as two segments of bad filler content. Recently, I have revisited the franchise with Dragon Age 2. Despite being in the same series, the two have quite different forms of pacing. Because of their differences, I think that taking a moment to compare the two of them and their structures should be interesting.

With Origins, the plot structure was modular. After the initial tutorial missions, the player is given free reign to take on the four plot branches that compose the middle of the game in any order they choose. Each of these modules has its own plot and locations, separate from the rest aside from one or two instances. At the end of the game, the player's actions in these individual segments will be reflected back in the form of how each faction thinks of them and how much they are willing to help in the grand finale. The result is a fairly free-form gaming experience, within limits.
This structure allows Origins to give each module its own feel, but there is a drawback to this classic role-playing approach. When these sections can be so thoroughly quarantined from the others, it grants the developers freedom to make each part longer than it should be. In particular, the designers have the leeway to create overly long exploration and dungeon locations. Dragon Age: Origins had this problem in spades. Often, any single area could take several hours to complete, more-so if the player is going for total completion. Players could spend entire game sessions feeling that nothing was accomplished in that time. Obvious padding like The Fade and The Deep Roads, during the Circle Tower and Orzammar scenarios respectively, are chief examples of how this structure permitted Bioware to do this.

On the other hand, Dragon Age 2 manages to skirt that pitfall with its narrative structure, yet introduces new ones all the same. Rather than expand on Origin's modularity, DA2 takes a different approach. Players spend all of Dragon Age 2 in the city of Kirkwall, watching it develop over the course of years. Each of the game's three acts details key events of a particular year in Kirkwall's history through the eyes of Hawke, the game's customizable, yet constant, protagonist. With a distinct beginning, middle, and end, these acts serve as the way Bioware chosen to divide the story.
What is neat about this structure is that it forces a more focused plot. Since any given act has to feed into its successors, it cannot afford to tarry around with plot points that may never be touched on again in the future. Gradually, they all, by necessity, get woven together as the story progresses. Combined with the obvious signs of a limited development cycle, this focus carried on into the dungeon-crawling as well. While a single area could take hours in Origins, DA2 takes a more succinct approach. Locations will rarely, if ever, take over a half-hour to complete, which gives a much greater sense of accomplishment when checking the quest log after a long session. Individual plot elements and their handling can be debated on, but there is no denying that the plot structure for Dragon Age 2 lends to a faster pacing than its predecessor.

Having said that, pacing is in more than just a game's narrative structure. Combat also tends to have its own tempo in RPGs like Dragon Age. Origins in particular had a slower, more methodical system. Enemies tended to have a fairly high amount of health, so even fights against small parties could take some time. Unfortunately for Bioware, since skill and equipment setups mattered significantly more than tactical planning mid-battle, conflicts were often decided from the outset.
Rather than go the route of its direct predecessor, Dragon Age 2 takes inspiration from its contemporaries, most notably the likes of Mass Effect 2. As with Origins, equipment and skill setups are important to one's quality of life when going up against enemies. The difference here is that the moment-to-moment action has become equally as important, with an emphasis on faster combat. It can still be said that the player will steamroll most encounters in the game, but it feels more smooth than than of the previous game in the franchise, largely due to its accelerated pace.

Even if the overall combat's pace is improved, there is problem that adversely affects it: Foes have a strong tendency to spawn in waves. When playing Dragon Age: Origins, the types and number of enemies in a given location was usually set in stone. Because players could see what they were about to fight, they could better plan their attack. Even if a single target took some time to beat down, it was possible to guess how long it will take to win.
This is not the case in Dragon Age 2. In most engagements, players will clear out a given set of enemies only to find that another group has spawned in, ready to fight to the death. Typically, any one fight will be composed of three waves in total. Though individual foes, and sometimes enemy groups, can be felled quickly, the fact that more will inevitably appear immediately afterwards makes it more difficult to anticipate how long a given encounter will take to complete. As a result, even if a fight is not long, it can be made to feel long thanks to how many mooks participate in a single battle. Even if Dragon Age 2 is better paced than Origins, this misstep starts to agitate after playing for a long time.

In terms of both story and combat, Dragon Age 2 drastically improves on the pacing of the game that came before. Enhancing the original structure by focusing the overall plot line and streamlining the fighting resulted in a much smoother flow. Though certain elements like the ending and obvious, blatant reuse of assets can be rightfully criticized by detractors, Dragon Age 2 is certainly worth defending in how it gives the player a strong feeling of progress.

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