Category Archives: Observations

Hope, Hype, Disappointment – The Last Guardian and FF7

Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favourite games of all time. It’s a beautiful, haunting game with a story, atmosphere, and heartbreaking battles that have lingered with me for years. When The Last Guardian, a spiritual successor, was shown at E3 2009 I was stoked. It had a similar feel, the same beautiful lighting and magnificent architecture. Where SotC featured a man and his horse, TLG showed a relationship between a boy and his giant griffin. It looked lovely, and I was more than ready for another great experience from Team Ico.

Then, nothing. Year after year, The Last Guardian was notably absent from Sony’s press conferences and release schedules. Each year I hoped to get a brief tidbit, a hint it was still happening, but for 5 years I was disappointed. Then, last night it was back. But it was too late. Prior to this year’s E3 I had decided I didn’t care about this game anymore, and declared it vapourware. I had been strung along for far too long, disappointed too many times.

There was a brief glimmer of surprise and delight during the conference when I first realized they would actually be showing something this year, but it quickly faded. As I watched the gameplay footage I felt very little. I think annoyance at the voice of a young boy calling the birddog repeatedly was the main thing I felt, and it didn’t seem that I was seeing anything really new. Certainly not 6 years worth of new.

The Last Guardian

The constant vocalizations for the griffin in order to overcome platforming puzzles seemed to draw much more from Ico (which I was never a fan of) than Shadow of the Colossus. Worst of all, the gameplay just didn’t look very engaging. Maybe after 6 years they counted on people being so desperate for scraps of information that they’d take anything, but I was disappointed by the showing. Dull footage, barely any actual talk about the game, and a vague 2016 release date.

I think this may be a case of excitement and constant disappointment slowly turning into resentment, and I though the presentation was too little, far too late. Hopefully the game will surprise me when it’s further along in development (if it ever gets to that point).

Sony made another huge announcement last night, and that’s Final Fantasy 7 finally getting a remaster. Though this is something I’ve been hoping for for even longer than TLG, my reaction to this was one of elation. I’m so excited to be able to play one of the games that meant the most to me and really got me back into consoles back in the late 90s, and have it look nice. Those polygons just don’t age very well. Though Sony and Square Enix have made some dick moves regarding this in the past – showing a FF7 tech demo for the PS3 release, announcing a port of the original to PS4, announcing some teeny tiny FF world thing last night right before the remake reveal – they never really entertained the idea of a remake. So for the past 10 years of so I’ve felt a low key kind of hope that they’d remake it eventually, while understanding that it might never happen. But now it’s happening. I may have cried during the trailer.

The Sony presser was quite a roller coaster of emotions.

What do you think about Sony’s big announcements? Excited?

The Witcher 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (part 2)

Creating a game with a huge open world like The Witcher leaves a lot of room for error. When the world is so big, the systems are numerous and complex, and there is so much to do and see, it’s not easy to capture every issue in QA nor please everyone with the decisions made. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of issues.

The Bad

Saves

Let’s start with the big one. I’m playing on XBox One and there’s an issue where the game will just stop saving your progress. Autosave won’t trigger, trying to manually save will return a message saying you can’t save at this time. If you die during this time, the game hangs indefinitely on the load screen. I’ve run into this 3 times and each time ended up losing a couple hours of gameplay. The cause seems to be allowing your game to get suspended, either by leaving it running with no activity or using another game/application without quitting the game. A hard reset is required to fix it. Now that I know the cause I can avoid it, and the developers have said they’re working on a patch, but still – this is really bad.

Accessibility

There are a number of easily fixable accessibility issues. For such a big world, a lot of things are really small.  The font size for text is tiny. It’s likely okay on PC, but as someone who plays on console and sitting 8 feet away from the TV, I really have to strain to read things. The subtitles for speech aren’t so bad, but it’s very difficult to read anything in the menus. Thankfully, this is something that will be patched soon. There’s also a bit of an issue with the symbols on the map. Areas you haven’t completed are indicated by a white symbol, while places you’ve finished are indicated by a slightly darker kind of grey, but really still looks white, because it’s so small symbol.

The Witcher 3 - map

I’m also a bit annoyed that the zone maps are so large that there are (many) times when you can’t zoom out far enough to see both your current location and your objective at the same time. The above image shows the zone map fully zoomed out, and it only shows about a quarter of the zone. Plus, if you zoom out any further, you end up on the world map and annoyingly have to reselect the zone to go back.

Combat

Combat is clunky. I know this isn’t necessarily an opinion shared by all, but I find the animations for each sword swing overly long and you need to wait until they’re completed before you can do anything else. This results in me furiously spamming my Sign button as I’m fighting, trying to finish off a sword strike with some fire to the face, and the game just not responding. It gets worse when you fight multiple enemies as they often come up and hit from behind while you’re still finishing your swing on another opponent and there’s nothing you can do about it. When things are going smoothly it’s not so noticeable but when you’re surrounded or against a tougher enemy, it seems like there’s a frustrating delay between each action.

One thing they did in this game is have Geralt automatically draw the correct sword for the opponent he’s fighting, which is great. When it works. About 5% of the time I find Geralt won’t draw any sword (especially if combat starts after a cutscene) and he’ll just start punching things. The clunky combat is really noticeable here, as if you instinctively do an attack when combat starts, you need to wait for the animation to complete before the game will respond to your command to draw a sword.

UI

The Witcher 3 - inventory screen

Most games, but huge open world RPGs in particular, really need better UI design. The Witcher 3 is no exception. Let’s start with the inventory screen. What a mess. First, there are just way too many items. I just counted and I have 183 items in my Alchemy and Crafting tab. There’s no custom sorting. There’s no search. It’s just a page full of stuff I know very little about.The huge amount of items in The Witcher doesn’t benefit the game in any way. I don’t need to pick up broken rakes or empty vials to be immersed in the world, they really just add clutter. Likewise, it would be easy enough to have fewer herbs and magical ingredients and just use the remaining in more recipes. At the moment I have 16 green mutagens in my inventory. Why? And why aren’t they all at least grouped together in my inventory? Do we really need both leather scraps and leather straps? You can craft or disassemble one into the other, so it makes me question why the need for that extra step.

When it comes to vendors one of my biggest complaints, that I’ve have for the whole series, is that the game gives you no indication if you already have a recipe or a book when you see it for sale. Reading books will often add entries to your bestiary or markers to the map, but only the first time you read it. Since there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of books in the game, it’s hard to keep track of what you’ve already read and what is worth buying. I probably waste a lot of money because of this.

A few other things

It’s nice to have an equine companion in game, but Roach sure is fussy. He listens to your commands when he feels like it, but bridges or changes in terrain will often make him come to a standstill. Also, Geralt’s verbal commands (slower, faster) often don’t even remotely correspond to my inputs.

Repairs. What a chore and a gold sink, especially at the start of the game when gold is hard to come by. Give me convenience over realism any day.

The Witcher 3 - lighting candles

And then there are the candles. So many candles and you can light, or extinguish, all of them! Sometimes the candles are right beside an object you’d like to pick up, or a person you’d like to talk to. It’s no fun having to re-position your camera until you can finally interact with the right thing, rather than playing with a stupid candle over and over again. In the above picture, the candle is laying across a book. Why would I want to light that?! Unless there’s a ‘burn the house down’ objective, don’t let me interact with this. This is going to be patched soon – “Geralt will not longer interact with candles near chests and other interactive elements.” Really, I don’t see a need to be able to interact with candles at all. Light a brazier or torch in a dark dungeon – sure. Candles in houses? No thanks.


Most of these issues aren’t huge, but put together they result in a lot of frustration. Hopefully upcoming patches will resolve a few of these but I have to say, when I buy a game on release day I expect a finished product.

All is not lost, next time I’ll talk about all the things I love about The Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (pt. 1)

The Witcher 3 was one of the games I was most excited for this year. I really enjoyed both of the previous installments, and looked forward to seeing what they would do on the latest generation of consoles. The game has managed to both exceed my expectations and disappoint me. In theory, it’s a fantastic game. But in practice, there are a thousand small annoyances that add up an at times deplete any enjoyment.

Let’s start at the bottom.

The Ugly

It’s hard to mention The Witcher without bringing up the topic of sexism. Now, when I talk about sexism, I’m not talking about the sex. Witcher 1 had some problematic things and liked to hand out sex as a reward for quests as well as having those weird sex cards every time you slept with a woman, while its portrayal in Witcher 2 was immensely improved. I have no problem with sex in games, in fact, I like it. I also enjoy that The Witcher treats sex as a pastime rather than the path to, or goal of, everlasting love. Though I’d prefer if kissing was left offscreen until it can be animated in such a way that it doesn’t look like someone is jamming together the faces of a Barbie and Ken doll.

But I digress.

The Witcher features a lot of violence against women. True, it features a lot of violence against everyone, but the question that needs to be asked is: Could this violence be happening to anyone? Or is this violence happening to a woman because she’s a woman? In a number of cases, the violence we see and hear about would not likely be perpetrated against a man. One of the early quests in the game has you searching for a Baron’s missing wife and daughter. As it turns out, the Baron is a violent drunk who abused his wife which is why they ran off. The game then tries to turn things around and make him into a sympathetic character. I personally didn’t see much of this as any time he tried to explain himself to me, I told him I didn’t care, but the end of the quest line definitely seems to push the idea that he’s now a changed man and should be forgiven.

There’s also the fact that so many of the monsters in the world are twisted representations of women. Noonwraiths are women killed before their wedding days. Strigas are women transformed into monsters by a curse. Hags (water, grave, take your pick) and harpies are also specifically female monsters with obviously female forms. Many of these are women who are in their present form because of some violence against them, and now we are killing them. Again. “But, source material!” many say. Yes, The Witcher is based on a series of books and short stories, which themselves draw from Slavic and other European myths. But no one adapts material 1-to-1. Making updates and selective editing of a work that originally debuted in the 1980s is definitely not unheard of. The game’s developers have artistic licence and make deliberate decisions on what gets included or emphasized and what does not.

The Witcher 3 cinematic screencap

You barely even have to play the game to see where priorities lie. One of the game’s cinematic trailers features a woman being beaten and about to be executed by a group of 3 men, out in the wilderness. Her clothes are torn, her size is diminutive in comparison. Geralt comes along and saves her. The point is the men are monsters, but it sends a pretty clear message about who their victims are. In the launch trailer Geralt approaches an attractive young woman who quickly disrobes, in a very sexual way, then turns into a wraith and flies away. Geralt stalks her into a building, where a battle takes place and he kills her. As she dies she returns to her naked human form, the camera lingering on her pretty face as the light extinguishes from her eyes. I think it’s especially damning that these are the scenarios chosen for the purpose of marketing the game. The Witcher 3 has some great storytelling, fantastic questlines, and a dedication to showing that the world is a place of moral grey areas where there often is no right answer. But there are so many other ways to show this. Why does it have to be women being abused, sexualized, and killed that is used to get this point across?

I don’t consider the character Geralt to be sexist, but the world of The Witcher definitely is. It’s unfortunate and at times, it’s bad enough to impact my enjoyment of the game.


I went on about that for a bit longer than I planned, so I’m going to make this a 3 parter. Next post I’ll talk a bit about the gameplay annoyances, and conclude it all with the aspects of The Witcher 3 that make it great.

Lore and the Codex – How to do it Better

I’ve been playing Pillars of Eternity since it came out last week. So far, it’s a great game in one of my favourite genres, and I’m enjoying both the gameplay and the story. As with most RPGs, it’s full of lore that’s just waiting to be discovered by the player and enrich the game world. But how much lore is too much lore? And why is it always delivered via walls of text in books, journals, or codex entries?

Last week there was an article on Paste.com about 5 narrative devices games should stop using. I’d like to throw in my 2 cents and say that overly long journal entries have got to go as well. I usually go into games with the intention of reading all the available lore, stories, and histories but it generally takes all of half an hour before I’m overwhelmed with text and start skimming. An hour or two later, I’m skipping them completely. And in-game libraries? Well those just instill me with feelings of guilt and malaise as I know I’m not going to sit around reading for half an hour. And there’s always a library in fantasy games.

Pillars of Eternity - library books

I started Dragon Age: Inquisition planning to read all the lore. But within a very short timeframe of being at Haven, I was quickly overloaded with codex entries. Probably 30 of them opened up after just a brief run through the area, and a look at the Dragon Age wiki shows there are 558 codex entries in the game. Even assuming a modest length of 250 words an entry, that’s almost 140,000 words of text. I just don’t have the inclination to read through all that. I want to play the game, not read a novel.

Unfortunately in DA:I, my aversion to codex entries meant I had no idea what the very end of the game meant. So I was basically punished for not wanting to read them all. Also I have to say that Bioware games, at least on console, have a poor UI for finding your unread codex entries, making me even less likely to want to track them down and read them.

I do think this is more of a problem in Action RPGs such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or The Witcher. In a game like Pillars of Eternity or Torment, you know you’re going to be doing a lot of reading – they are text-heavy games. If you don’t want to read lines and lines of dialogue then that particular category of RPGs is probably not for you. But with ARPGs there’s a huge disconnect between running around shooting things or smashing them with a sword and standing, unmoving, reading page after page of stories, songs, and histories. A lot of these codex entries open up in the middle of a conversation or even a fight, making them awkward to get back to.

Obviously, I’m not against lore-rich worlds, or reading in general, but there has to be a better way. There are a few ways I think codex entries could be more accessible and interesting to players.

First – editing. Edit, edit, edit, cut, cut, cut. Let’s be real here – 558 codex entries in a single game is ridiculous. Focus on what’s most important or interesting. Once the number of entries has been brought down to a manageable size, also edit for length.

DAI loading page

DA:I showed codex entries on the loading pages. Great idea, terrible execution. Unless you have the longest loading screens ever, no one will be able to read through this when it’s presented. And each loading screen has 3 entries! Yes, put lore info on loading screens to give the player something to read, but limit the entry presented to 50, maybe 75 words. And make the text bigger.

Second – organize. Make a clear distinction between text information that may have an impact on your game – whether it’s a map that’s pointing you somewhere, an enemy’s weakness, or who the hell that guy at the end of the game is supposed to be – and the stuff that’s mostly just flavour. UIs can also be vastly improved by things like adding a ‘show unread entries’ button, customizable sorting, or flagging entries so you can easily reference them later.

Third – read to me and let me multitask. I don’t share a dislike of audio logs with the author of the Paste piece. If you can’t convey information to me in any other way, then please, read it to me. Diablo 3 does this well. When you pick up a journal the author pops up in a little window and reads it to you, leaving you free to go about your grindy business as you’re learning something about the world.

Mass Effect codex entriesIn Mass Effect, the codex entries are read aloud (good!) but you have to stay on the codex page in order to hear the whole thing (bad). If I could select an entry, or even a whole category, and have it read to me as I run around The Normandy or shoot Geth, I would be 99% more likely to experience those codex entries. I’m trying to save the galaxy here, I don’t have time to sit in the menu screens for an hour.

What do you think about lore told via codex entries and in-game books? Do you read them all? Is it too much, or do you appreciate having access to everything? Can it be done better?

Under the Covers

I’ve been playing the remaster of Saints Row 4 on XBox One and thoroughly enjoying it. Besides engaging gameplay, zany antics, and ridiculously juvenile yet hilarious jokes, Saints Row boasts one of the best character creators I’ve seen in a game. When you create The Boss you have a ton of options. Aside from choosing your sex, you can choose your race and your skin colour. You can choose from multiple different voice actors with different accents to voice your character, and further customize the pitch of your voice. You can make your character appear young or old, and choose a body build that you like. Then there are a thousand different clothing options. And if you ever want to change things up, you can do so at any point in the game.

My character is what I’d like to look like in a video game. She has purple hair, some meat on her bones, and some major eyeliner and brow game. She’s voiced by the wonderful Laura Bailey who I wish I sounded like. But every time I load up the game, I’m greeted with this guy.

Saints Row 4 cover and loading screen art

Who the fuck is this guy?

He’s certainly not me. He’s not in my crew. I’ve never seen him in my game.

I love playing the game but every time I’m met with this image, which is also the art on the game box, there’s a moment of cognitive dissonance. The canon protagonist (at least in marketing materials) has nothing to do with my experience of playing the game. It seems so incongruous to offer up this great character creator that lets people create the kind of protagonist they want to play, but then show us a design that’s likely completely different anytime there’s a chance.

Saints Row is obviously not the only game that has done this.

Covers for Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, Sunset Overdrive all showing a white male main character

Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, and Sunset Overdrive also all portray the protagonist as a white male despite offering other options to the player.

The Mass Effect series boasts a decent character creator (though it’s not as robust as Saints Row’s), but all of the artwork around the first 2 games still features a default white male Shepard. Incidentally, he kind of looks like the guy from the Saints Row cover with a buzz cut.

Mass Effect 1 and 2 cover art

For Mass Effect 3 Bioware’s marketing department realized some people had recognized the superiority of Jennifer Hale’s Shepard (I refuse to use the term femShep, because she. is. Shepard.) In a puzzling move (or not so puzzling if you want to absolve yourself of all responsibility), Bioware put the decision on how she would look to a fan vote. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Caucasian Shepard won the popular vote in what could be boiled down to a beauty contest. Then there was a second vote to decide her hair colour. Yep, hard-ass, space Commander, first human Spectre Shepard had her skin colour, features, and hair style voted on by the public. Now that there was a canon design for both the male and female Shepard, Mass Effect 3 had a reversible box cover (of which maleShep was still the default).

Mass Effect 3 covers

I’m afraid that marketing departments just can’t win with me. Though I can (and have) flipped the cover of my Mass Effect 3 box for 360 to show the version of Shepard that’s closer to my own, it’s still not my Shepard. My Shepard is an N7 Marine and she sure as hell would never have a haircut that allowed bangs to obstruct her eyes. That’s really not safe for combat. While having an option for female box art is something, it still doesn’t take into account how people have created their own version of Shepard. Why does she have to be white? Why does she need to have delicate, conventionally attractive features? Why does she have a design that you can’t really even replicate in-game while box art maleShep and in-game maleShep can look pretty much identical? These are the great mysteries of the Mass Effect world.

I think the best way to market games that allow you to customize your character is to not show the protagonist in the artwork. It’s the only way to avoid that sense of dissonance and the feeling that if you’re not playing as scruffy white male #42, you’re not playing the character as it was designed. A number of games have done this, and I don’t think any have suffered from not putting a face on the box art.

Dragon Age Inquisition box art

The box art for Dragon Age: Inquisition has an enticing design that shows something of the story, without committing to a specific character design. This should work for most characters. Unless you play a dwarf, then you’re out of luck.

Dragon Age Origins box cover

Dragon Age: Origins has artwork that doesn’t give any indication of a canon Warden, while still being quite effective.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas box art

The newer Fallout games both feature heavily armored figures which don’t give away sex, race, or appearance, but tell you a lot about the game world. Though I’m sad to admit I always assumed the figure on the cover of New Vegas was male just because of lack of sculpted boob plate. But when I force that stereotype out of my head, it could really be a man or a woman.

Why spend so much time and effort giving players robust character customization only to default to the standard scruffy white male protagonist in all the marketing materials?

 

Game.Stop, a short fiction

“Did you know you can trade in your old games for credit towards your purchases?”

My eyes glance around the store. A 5-foot tall poster tells me to Go Green Save Money by trading in my old games for someone else’s old games. Empty game cases line the walls, each one’s cover art marred with a bright green Trade Me sticker. I look down to my left, then right. On each side of me is a bin that shouts Recycled and is filled with more games, more green stickers. Finally I look down at the counter, covered in flyers promising me the best value if I trade in the most wanted titles. I could get up to $30 if I trade in The Order, a game I paid $70 for when it came out 9 days ago.

“Yes” I say flatly.

She continues, undeterred. “Right now we’re having a promotion where if you bring in 5 of your old games that are worth $8 or more we’ll give you $100 towards…”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her go through this speech. In fact, I had just heard her recite it to the two customers in front of me. The glint in her eyes seems to dim with each repetition. While the words fall out of her mouth in the way only things so rehearsed and meaningless can do, I wonder what she’s really thinking.

“…we’re also currently taking pre-orders on the new Amiibos that are coming out…”

I imagine she was initially really excited to get this job. The money probably sucks and I doubt customer service was her first choice, but the love of games made up for it. Who could complain about getting paid to be around and talk about games all day? I bet it was fun for a while. Thumbing through the shelves each day she probably discovered all kinds of new games she wanted to play. Her first few paychecks likely went right back to into the store. The employee discount was small, but at least it was something.

“…there’s still a bonus if you trade in your old 3DS for the New 3DS, which is compatible with the Amiibos…”

I wonder how quickly it started going downhill. When was the first time her manager took her aside and admonished her for chatting about games too much and touting the amazing trade-in deals too little? Told her it was mandatory to recite at least 5 of the current offers to any customer she cashed out or spoke to on the phone. Reinforced that she should always ALWAYS sell used copies of the games over new.

“Would you like to guarantee your game for only $2?”

How many times has she been told to get those guarantee sales up? How often is she compared to her obnoxiously overeager coworker who always has a smile plastered onto his face and is unphased by the dirty looks he gets as he goes on, and on, and on.

“No thank you.” I smile in a vague attempt to offer my sympathy for having to ask this question..

“Are you sure? In case of any damage or scratching we’d replace the disc…”

As much as this overly long sales pitch makes me want to scream, I stay quiet. It’s not her fault this is what her job requires of her. She knows this is a racket, that her place of employment is basically picking the pockets of the game companies, a number of whom make games she loves (and some of whom she couldn’t care less about). That fact is probably easy enough to put at the back of her mind though, while me telling her what I really think of her sales pitch would not be so easy to ignore.

I shake my head.

“Do you have an Edge card?”

I’m sure she’s seen her fair share of customers who are less concerned with being polite. Seeing people’s eyes glaze over as she begins the checkout process is probably the best she has to look forward to. Outright verbal abuse hopefully doesn’t happen often but she’s a sales associate, so I’m sure it does happen.

As I hand her my loyalty card and payment I hear her coworker haranguing a couple browsing through the XBox One games behind me.

“Did you know you can trade in your old games for credit towards this purchase?” he asks eagerly.

“We don’t have any games to trade with us.”

“That’s okay, if you bring them in with your receipt later on I can reimburse you for the value of the games.” I glance over my shoulder and see that he’s standing very close to the couple, nodding as he talks.

“Well, I’m not sure our son has anything he’d be willing to part with,” the woman responds, glancing at her husband.

It’s not hard to tell that the couple is uncomfortable and just want to pick out a game.

“Well, you can bring in anything, even if the discs are scratched…” he just keeps going.

I think back to when I was a teenager and I used to like visiting Electronics Boutique. The walls were lined with shiny new copies of Playstation, Nintendo, and big box computer games. Now the PC games are all but gone. If there was ever a valid argument for the merits of PC gaming it’s that game stores don’t harass you about recycling them.

I quickly take back my cards and the bag the woman at the cash hands me and start rushing out of the store.

“Don’t forget to bring your games back to us when you’re done with them.”

I promise myself I won’t go back there. Again.

Dragon Age 2 is a Better Game than Dragon Age: Origins

After playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, I had the urge to replay through the Dragon Age series. I started with Dragon Age: Origins and I have to admit, it was a little rough going. I think part of the problem was my choice of class. 2H warrior combat consists of pressing an ability button about 3x per minute, it’s really dull. Then I started Dragon Age 2 and I have to say, it’s a much better game.

Oddly, many people don’t agree with this. From a critical perspective (at least a metacritic perspective), DA:O has an average review score that’s a bit higher (8-9% depending on platform) than DA2. As far as user reviews go though, DA2 received a deluge of really bad review scores and has an average score of 44% compared to DA:O’s 86%. Because gamers are spiteful creatures, a little like Hurlocks.

That’s not to say DA:O is bad. It’s a good game and I like it but DA2 does almost everything better. Like…

Dialogue is better

  • Going back to DAO’s voiceless protagonist is very strange. The Warden doesn’t feel like an actual character, she’s an empty vessel. This is a huge downside to DAO.
  • The dialogue wheel is much more interesting and effective than static response options.
  • In DAO the mean/negative/renegade? conversation options just make your character sound like an asshole, while in DA2 the conversation options are more snarky or direct. Playing through the Dwarf Noble origin story, most of the “bad” dialogue options basically amounted to “Get away from me you lowly peasant.”
  • In DAO, despite women being present in all the major battles, and in positions of power and leadership throughout Thedas, female Wardens are still subjected to “What? You’re a woman? How shocking!” reactions all the time.

Relationships with your party members are better

  • No trading random gifts for sex or acceptance.
  • Each of your party members has their own life, it’s not 100% about the player character. You can visit them in their homes, they can visit you at yours. They can have relationships with other party members or NPCs which can grow over time.
  • Other characters can disagree with you, but still stick around.
  • In DAO it’s really easy to miss or even kill possible party members. If you didn’t know Zevran was supposed to be a party member, all you need to do is make one choice and you kill him and miss a lot. Likewise with Wynne – agree with Cullen in the Tower? She attacks you, you kill her, no healer for you this playthrough.

Combat is 700x better (I did the math)

  • From an animation standpoint, everything is faster and slicker.
  • You can move around the battlefield much quicker, rather than feeling like you’re wading through quicksand.
  • Talent trees are bigger, more interesting, and allow you to customize your character much more.
  • By the end of DAO you pretty much have every talent you can use so your choices meant very little.
  • Your companions get enough tactic slots for all of their abilities.
  • You can take your dog into fights with you without having them take a spot in your party.
  • When you tell a character to take a potion, they take the damn potion.

Story is better

  • I enjoyed the story from DAO, especially the first time around, but it’s a fairly generic fantasy.
  • DA2 has a lot more depth. There are more politics, there’s more nuance. Elements from other parts of Thedas get incorporated into quests or character back-stories rather than just referred to in one of the 7 billion codex entries.
  • Since the story takes place over a number of years, you can see how Hawke is making a difference in Kirkwall and in the lives of its people. The scope of the location is small, but the scope of the story and timeline is much bigger.

UI, inventory and controls are better

  • Having your party members have a single set of armor that can be upgraded, makes inventory management much less tedious. You can still customize their weapons and accessories but don’t need to worry about armor, boots, helms, and gloves. It’s also easier to tell when something is an upgrade.
  • Besides gear, there’s less junk to manage. At once point in DAO I had 20 gift items taking up space in my inventory, there’s none of that anymore. Also, quest items you pick up can’t be accidentally junked or sold.
  • Runes are much simpler to manage. Their effectiveness depends on the level of gear you’re adding them to so you don’t have to worry about different rune levels like journeyman, master, etc.
  • It’s much easier to tell your other party members to stay put, or move as a group. They get in your way a lot less often.
  • There’s more useful stuff to find, like items that start side-quests, recipes, or armor upgrades. This makes looting everything much more useful – you have a chance to pick up something other than yet another damn Darkspawn Dagger.

So that’s that. I know the big complaint is that DA2 recycled dungeon areas which, I’ll admit, isn’t good but in the grand scheme of things is rather minor.