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Aw, come on guys, don’t burn down the Chantry. What would Andraste think? Combat in Dragon Age II has most of the same tools as in Dragon Age: Origins, but that doesn’t mean the challenges are equally sophisticated.

In an earlier post, I discussed Dragon Age II’s Dialog System, and looked at what it was designed to do and how some frustrated fans interpreted it. Another common complaint about Dragon Age II is that its combat is less tactical than its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, reducing the sequel to just hack and slash, rather than the thoughtful combat tactics of its predecessor. I agree, but only partly; Dragon Age II remains a tactical action RPG, but several design decisions in Dragon Age II have noticeably degraded the depth of combat. Let’s dive right in.

Multiple Waves in Every Battle: Possibly the Single Worst Design Decision in Dragon Age II

In Dragon Age II, in almost every battle, enemies attack in waves. In some battles, having enemies attack in waves makes sense. For example, the game’s introduction involves darkspawn attacking from all sides, and they keep coming as you kill them. That’s great, and in small doses, this frantic disruption in your combat awareness is exciting. But when you’re fighting a street gang at night, having a dozen archers spawn all around the battlefield just as you think the battle is ending is absurd, and the novelty and surprise is wasted when nearly every encounter in the game does this. Having multiple waves to most battles has two severely detrimental effects on combat tactics.

First, it destroys your positioning. You might have your archer and mage standing on a hill, raining destruction on the melee below, only to have four enemies spawn on top them. Enemies often appear from multiple directions simultaneously, including sides that have no logical explanation for how the enemies got there — just because a part of the battlefield looks like it’s a safe high ground or corner against a wall doesn’t mean that your squishy characters won’t suddenly have an enemy assassin on top of them.

Second, it destroys your ability pacing and healing. Most abilities are on cooldown, and with enemies coming in waves, you can’t effectively assess when to use powerful abilities, since the full list of enemies isn’t disclosed at the start of the battle. You can’t judge whether you need to use a healing item or can just finish the enemy off, since it’s never certain if the encounter is going to end after all the visible enemies are killed, or if a bunch of ranged enemies are about to appear and rain death on your weakened tank if you don’t notice quickly enough.

Having waves of enemies is interesting for a few encounters, but having it as the staple is ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense and it just cripples your ability to judge a situation and reason about it. Tactical games that make an ever-present threat of enemy reinforcements an interesting challenge invariably give you information about where the reinforcements are likely to appear, so you can take that into account; here you just have to cross your fingers and hope the enemy doesn’t spawn two feet in front of your mages.

Five More Ways Dragon Age II Simplifies Combat

1. Reduced positional incentives for rogues. In Dragon Age: Origins, rogues gained automatic critical hits for attacking enemies from behind, with a different combat animation showing their improved attacking ability. Dragon Age II removes this special backstab bonus in favor of a general increased chance of critical hit to all classes, and unlockable abilities to give rogues automatic critical hits later on. This is nice in the sense that it gives everyone an incentive to get behind the enemy, regardless of class, and rogues still benefit most from it, since they have the highest critical hit bonuses on average. However, on the whole, rogues still benefit less from standing behind enemies than they did before, and the ratio of damage gained by moving to attacks missed while moving is so bad now that it’s rarely worthwhile to walk around an enemy instead of slicing it up from the front. Most enemies just die too fast to make strafing around them for a critical hit chance bonus worthwhile. Later on, rogues can pick up an ability to give them automatic critical hits regardless of where they stand, as long as the enemy is engaging another character.

2. No friendly fire except on the highest difficulty. In Dragon Age: Origins, standard difficulty had area of effect attacks doing half damage to your party, full to the enemy. The lowest difficulty removed friendly fire; the higher difficulties brought friendly fire to full damage. Friendly fire prevents you from spamming your best area effect spells on packs of enemies crowded around the tank, unless you’re willing to maul your tank in the process. By removing it for all but the hardest difficulties, many encounters are solved with a skeleton key tactical formula: 1) Your rogue rushes the enemy mages. 2) Your tank gathers the melee enemies. 3) Your mage spams area effect spells on the tank. 4) Everyone cleans up the archers.

3. No traps. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could lay traps in strategic positions before initiating combat. Combining this with rogues scouting ahead was often a significant tactical advantage. Traps were never a huge part of the game, and I don’t completely disagree with the decision to remove them, but it definitely contributes to an inability to control the flow of battle.

4. No ability to detect enemies that use stealth. In Dragon Age: Origins, characters in stealth had a chance to be detected. Now you just have to sit around after the enemy assassin vanishes and hope they try to backstab your tank instead of your mage. The only tactical consideration stealth has for you is that you should stun enemy assassins so they don’t vanish while you’re trying to focus them down. Enemies with stealth would be far more interesting if you could throw down detection fields or otherwise burn abilities trying to compensate for the fact that the enemies have stealth.

5. Low camera angle. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could pull the camera back to get a bird’s eye view of the action. In Dragon Age II, this ability has been greatly reduced, to the point where it’s difficult to quickly assess the battlefield from a high angle unless everyone is clumped up. This even makes it hard to give characters instructions to run to a raised platform unless they’re standing near it. It’s not clear to me why they chose to do this; it seems more likely that it’s a technical issue with level design or graphics, rather than a gameplay decision.

But It’s Still Pretty Fun

There are nuts and bolts reasons for combat’s tactical simplicity, but they don’t make Dragon Age II a simple hack and slash. The meat of the game’s tactical combat is still there, it’s just… hampered. If you want to play a tougher tactical game than the normal difficulty provides, you can also crank the difficulty up. I don’t do this because I find the waves of enemies completely destroy my ability to play on high difficulty levels, since I can’t plan ahead. Some people make it work.

The faster pace of Dragon Age II’s combat also doesn’t hamper the tactical complexity of combat. It has faster attack animations and rapid closing attacks that have characters literally leaping several meters across the battlefield to almost instantly close distance and slam into enemies, dealing bonus damage before they open up into rapid combos. Warriors swing their large weapons and hit multiple enemies with every blow, rogues hit several times per second, and mages get a workout as they literally dance in place, blasting their autoattack spells at the enemy with flair. It certainly has a breakneck pace that seems out of place in a tactical RPG, and most of the complaints I’ve seen cite this as the biggest flaw of combat, the one thing that ruins the game’s tactical complexity. I think that’s nonsense.

Faster combat and more exciting animations doesn’t strip out the tactics, it just streamlines the action. There’s still plenty of time to react to changing situations, and your combat performance will improve dramatically if you make use of frequent pausing to direct and coordinate your party members and their abilities. Abilities still have specific areas of effect, with lots of positional modifiers and aggression management abilities, and many higher-level abilities can make use of coordinated cross-class ability combinations to deal massive damage. All the ingredients of a tactical game are still there, and they balance the difficulty such that playing without making use of good combat tactics will make it harder, and impossible on higher difficulties. The speed of combat is exciting and interesting, and I prefer it to the measured pace of its predecessor.

Finally, even if you do agree with those dramatic fans who argue the game’s combat is just ruined, try completely altering your expectations by turning the difficulty down to casual and rocking your way through the game as a hack and slash. Maybe even drop down to two or three people in your party to balance it out a bit. You might find the game is fun when you change the pace of combat, even if it’s not the same game you were expecting. Most players shouldn’t have to do this, but if the things I outlined above drive you completely crazy, give it a shot.

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Dragon Age 2
There are a severe shortage of good dialog system screenshots on the web that aren’t photoshopped mockeries by angry fans.

BioWare has been trying to add interesting player choices into their RPGs for a long time, and each game they release has a new refinement on their systems. They’ve increasingly streamlined alignment in the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age games have abandoned it entirely in favor of your companions developing personal opinions about your hero. Dragon Age II breaks from its predecessor by implementing a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel and full voice acting for the main character. This doesn’t fundamentally change the mechanics of how its dialog work — but even so, it has angered a lot of players.

Dragon Age II’s New Dialog System

Dragon Age II stars a main character named Hawke, fully voice acted, and it keeps track of your dialog choices on Hawke’s behalf in two ways. The most visible way is that your companions gain friendship or rivalry points depending on how they approve. Different party members react differently to the same situation, so you may have difficulty pleasing both the magic-hating Fenris and the radical mage Anders at the same time. Maximizing either scale gains you bonuses to that party member’s abilities, and developing rivalry with them won’t, in and of itself, make them leave. There are gameplay and plot ramifications of your party members’ feelings.

The second way Dragon Age II tracks your dialog choices is by an invisible metric that assesses your main character’s personality over time. There are three personality types: Diplomatic, Aggressive, and Humorous. The personality type currently considered dominant in the game colors various involuntary dialog reactions the main character makes, and determines the kinds of comments your character makes in combat. A humorous character may initiate a sensitive conversation in a cut-scene with a joke to lighten the mood, while a diplomatic character will avoid implying any hostile assumptions, and an aggressive character gets right to the point. The combat voice overs work similarly, with different clips available based on the personality the player established for Hawke. The second effect this personality type has is that it unlocks different responses in some conversations. Sometimes a diplomatic solution to a particularly difficult situation isn’t available to habitually aggressive characters. This is rare, barely communicated, and the fact that all personality types get these bonuses at different times helps to avoid any incentive to power-game.

Dialog options in Dragon Age II are provided using a dialog wheel, adapted from Mass Effect. As in Mass Effect, you select a thought, and the character says something along those lines, but never exactly what you chose. Unlike Mass Effect, the dialog options aren’t just implicitly ordered based on their position in the wheel, they’re also given an associated icon. The icons communicate to the player what the tone of the chosen thought is. For example, a laurel represents a diplomatic response, and a gemstone represents a charming reply. These icons are color-coded according to what personality type they align with. A few icons are special, like crossed swords to represent cutting the conversation off to kill the person you’re talking to or initiate combat, and diverging arrows to represent a substantive choice with more serious ramifications than just picking how the character delivers the line. Overall, the system is pretty intuitive.

…And Those That Hate It

Early reviews tend to like the direction BioWare has taken the dialog, but some players deplore it. I’ve seen many frustrated players complain that the dialog in the game is dumbed down, simplified, bad. Most concerning to me from a design perspective is that a huge proportion of players see the dialog options as “good/evil/funny”. They get that the middle option is meant to be humorous, but they don’t get that the top and bottom aren’t good and evil. Part of this stems from the fact that we like nice people more than aggressive people, and good people are traditionally shown as nice and trying to find a peaceful solution to everything. However, the “evil” choices aren’t evil, they’re mostly just angry, which is a time-honored response to slavery and blood magic. Then, in Dragon Age 2, when you get to substantive moral choices, they pull out the diplomatic/aggressive/humorous choices entirely and assign everything the same diverging arrows icon. Your choices about what to do, who to side with, who to kill and who to let live, these have no impact on your personality and don’t use the personality icons.

Despite all this, some players think that their dialog choices are boiled down to essentially choosing a character class, picking from a trinary good/evil/doofus choice, and executing on that strategy through the whole game. This is how games with bad alignment systems do it, like Knights of the Old Republic and InFAMOUS, but BioWare has been trying to avoid that since they made Mass Effect, and Dragon Age abandoned it entirely by lacking an alignment system. BioWare has gotten extremely sophisticated in trying to build compelling choices into their games, and Dragon Age II is loaded with situations where the humorous and aggressive choices are situationally better responses than the diplomatic option.

When alignment systems were relatively uncommon in electronic RPGs, they were great, because they showed the game was responsive to your choices. As player tastes matured, alignment systems became too simple, too obvious, for discerning role-players. With Dragon Age, BioWare abandoned alignment entirely, trying to give meaningful outcomes of your actions without relying on a global judgment. Dragon Age II continues that tradition, while trying to merge the best of Mass Effect’s dialog into it. Personally, I love it. But for some players, these almost cosmetic changes are enough to bring the delicate role-playing immersion tumbling down. It’s amazing to see how easy it is to make the game look like the dialog has been simplified, and crush any sense of freedom.

There’s a way to fix this, and make everyone happy without moving backward. As Dragon Age II shows, we haven’t found it yet. Of course, once the problem is solved, then they’ll complain about something else instead of dialog choices. But that’s a good thing — game designers would get bored if we were always solving the same problems!

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The guy on the right has a daughter too, Sam. Did you ever think about that?

For me, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was about being Sam Fisher, Modern American Ninja, and fighting the battle for his soul as he walked the line between hero and monster. The game kept careful records of how you dealt with guards; you could sneak by, incapacitate them, or kill them, but violence reduced your score. Most enemies could be interrogated for more information by grabbing them from behind and making vague threats. You had separate buttons for lethal and non-lethal melee attacks, extremely limited ammo (you could have up to three clips for your assault rifle on each mission), and a wide variety of less-lethal projectiles to experiment with.

I felt like a real hero. I could work hard to avoid killing people as I achieved my objectives, and the game not only enabled that, it supported it. You’re the kind of person who prevents wars, stops trouble, and does so with the lightest touch possible. You could be an unstoppable assassin, but you aren’t. You’re better than that. You know you’re a hero because you go out of your way to do no evil. I would kill in self-defense, and then feel regret afterwards, wondering if Sam’s surrender would have been more ethical than killing innocent soldiers and grunts. I was given the luxury of thinking like that, whether I was up against naive South American revolutionaries, conscripted North Korean soldiers, or US veterans turned civilian contractors.

It hasn’t stayed that way. With Splinter Cell: Conviction, some people have talked about the inability to move bodies as indicative of the series’ turn toward action over stealth; personally, I’m more disturbed by the inability to complete the game without a huge body count. You can sneak through some areas, but others are unabashed action sequences in which you must systematically kill everyone in the room. Or a whole series of rooms. Or basically kill everyone in a multistory office building. They don’t count your kills and deduct them from your score anymore; quite on the contrary, they give you special tools so you can kill more people faster.

In Splinter Cell: Conviction, I wade through the corpses of my fallen enemies, and interrogate people by smashing their faces into concrete. I don’t feel like a good person. I’m not Batman, Dark Knight, doing what has to be done to protect the people from evil. I’m John Rambo, the empty male power fantasy. It’s kind of sad; like Rambo before him, Sam Fisher has been transformed over time into an empty, unstoppable killing machine.

The battle over Sam’s soul used to be mine to fight. But this time, the writers decided the outcome for me. He lost. He slid down the slippery slope and became a butcher.

So much for conviction.

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Farmville

Soren Johnson on “Fear and Loathing in Farmville”

I didn’t attend GDC this year, and I was glad to be able to see this post. I found it most useful to explore why, aside from the business angle, so many developers are enthusiastic about social media games. The “dinosaur panel” sounds like it’s something I should like to have seen. The four points at the end that describe things social media games have that are genuinely exciting — true friends list, free-to-play business model, persistent asynchronous play, and metrics-based iteration — very true, I admire those things in social media games. However, I also agree with virtually every criticism given of social media games in the post, comments, and links.

In my Freshman year at DigiPen, Christopher Erhardt said something to the effect that everyone in the room (all programmers) would have a choice between those who will consume player’s lives with additive games like MMOs, or settle for less money with less intrusive games. Since then the choice seems to have become more stark.

I didn’t choose to become a programmer, or game designer, to make things that customers would spend time playing. I chose this career because I wanted to make things that would improve people’s lives and give them something that they would take joy in. As much as I like that social media games engage players in games against their real world friends and have the potential to be low-impact and enjoyable diversions, the inclusion of mechanics like crop rot are the result of what seems like a perverse incentive system for designers. AAA may be a clunky and high risk business model by comparison, but at least it doesn’t involve compromising the principles that drew me into game development.

I have two further take-aways from reflecting on this debate. First, I’m heartened to see the moral backlash against Zynga and social media games in general building in intensity. I have strong feelings about this and I’m glad I’m not alone here. Second, through this lens my respect for Blizzard’s new Battlenet 2.0 system (to be fully introduced with Starcraft 2) is increased: They are combining real friends and social space tools, persistent asynchronous play through meaningful scores and ladders, and metrics-based iteration as demonstrated through their current closed beta process. The beta is also free-to-play, for now, and they’re helping players to invite friends to the beta so they will be able to play with others they know. They’re cracking a lot of the benefits that Soren Johnson ascribes to social media games in a AAA title, without selling their souls in the process.

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Yes. Mass Effect 2 may be the greatest RPG I have ever played.

My last post was a now fairly dated investigation of the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 pre-release review scores on Metacritic. The updated information is that Mass Effect 2 didn’t have its average go down when post-release reviews were taken into account, as I speculated; instead, it actually increased from 95 to 96. Perhaps this disproves the hypothesis that pre-release exclusive reviews are biased in aggregate. A competing explanation would be that Mass Effect 2 so good a game that no inflation was necessary.

I liked the first Mass Effect game. It was buggy and frustrating for the PC, but I still admired it. I liked the Paragon/Renegade system because I was able to largely ignore it and play my character the way I wanted, though I know many people found it distracting. I liked the many choices they included, and some even had sufficiently ambiguous morality that they caused players to deviate from their chosen alignment. I also liked the depth and creativity in some of their lore. When I played Mass Effect, I wanted to see sequels and spinoffs, and explore this universe more. Mass Effect 2 was one of the games I was looking forward to most.

I haven’t been disappointed. Though I crave the opportunity to play the game with a character that saved the council in the first game (I did not, and the ME2’s default history didn’t either), I can’t bear to replay the original when I could just play this one again. The combat in ME2 is more streamlined and satisfying, almost completely abandoning traditional RPG combat in favor of action. It’s still an RPG because you are roleplaying and make meaningful choices about your character and his or her interaction with the world. But, the combat resolution mechanics are now almost pure tactical third person shooter, eschewing traditional RPG strategy mechanics.

I love strategy games very much, but RPG combat systems are often interesting only because you have a stake in the character. This new action combat works and I love it; I restarted the game after beating it in part because I wanted to play through the battles again on a harder difficulty, with new skills. What if I have that cloaking ability and use sniper rifles? What if I start controlling my ally powers? As I discovered, it becomes much more tactical as the difficulty increases. Amazing how the game slides seamlessly between action and tactics.

Many RPGs fall into the trap of having combat be a tool to pace out your consumption of content by slowing you down. Ideally, the fights in a great RPG should be just as interesting as the characters and story. Mass Effect 2 fulfills that goal. I consistently look forward to the combat, and am drawn to play through sequences I’ve already beaten because the battles are just that good. I absolutely love roleplaying. I love it even more when the gameplay that supports it is so enjoyable.

Let me step back from my praise, however. My biggest disappointment is that BioWare continued the pattern established in the first Mass Effect of only allowing same sex relationships for a female Shepherd. I respect that they do at least that much, and I further respect that BioWare designed the game with the intent of including M/M love interests, but this was simply cut for time on grounds that the audience interested in this is small, and I find that very disappointing given that there are no less that three potential F/F love interests. This isn’t just some idle fancy. It is a huge difference in my sense of identification, agency, and ownership of the world.

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Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer writes about early exclusive reviews of Mass Effect 2, and questions the integrity of early exclusive reviews in general, since they tend to skew higher than average, and may have (and in this case do have) significant restrictions placed on the content of the review. Spurred by these questions, I pulled up Metacritic and recorded the scores each reviewer so far has given Mass Effect 2, then those reviewers’ corresponding scores for the original Mass Effect, and how those compare to the average reviews among all reviewers, including those who have not yet had the opportunity to review Mass Effect 2.

ME2 Score (ME1 Score) – Reviewer
100 (90) – games(TM)
100 (100) – X360 Magazine UK
96 (94) – IGN
95 (100) – Official Xbox Magazine
93 (n/a) – IGN AU
90 (90) – Xbox World 360 Magazine UK

Metacritic average among critics given an exclusive early review of Mass Effect 2:

ME2: 96
ME1: 95

Metacritic average among ALL critics:

ME2: ??
ME1: 91

Evidence here does not contradict the theory that the reviewers granted early reviews have been filtered to ensure and reward good reviews. On the other hand, those same reviewers gave Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare’s most recent release, an average of 85 for the same console, which is actually one point lower than the final average.

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Batman and Joker
“You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

Batman doesn’t kill people. It’s too easy: Once he does, he wouldn’t be able to go back to never killing. He’d do it again, and again, because it’s easier to solve problems that way. And where does it stop? He kills a killer, a rapist, then a drug dealer, a robber. A corrupt cop or politician. Bruce Wayne is a dangerous man, and Batman is just a vigilante. He can only justify his own existence by not killing people.

In most games, the player doesn’t have that freedom. They trivialize life: That businessman was funding terrorists, therefore, he deserved to die. This criminal was mugging someone, therefore, you can cut him down in a fight. If it’s just pixels on the screen to him or her, mass murder is meaningless, leading to the mindless and endless body count of most games. The player sits on their computer and kills dozens, hundreds, even thousands of simulated people, without a second thought. Even games with alignment systems and complex moral choices rarely give the player the simple choice to not murder by the truckload. It’s just not exciting otherwise!

In my plays of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I’ve been torn in many situations. You get a higher stealth score for avoiding a body count, but aside from that, there is no penalty on most missions for killing the bad guys. Several even have no penalty beyond score and severe chastisement from your superiors for killing civilians or allied soldiers. There are various less than lethal tools at your disposal for dealing with enemies, but often the easiest and most efficient solution to a problem is a bullet to the head. If you choose to ignore your score (and it doesn’t matter much to me), then the choice to kill or not to kill becomes one for you to decide for yourself. I like that choice — a lot.

The freedom to embrace a Batman morality to your heroism, declining to kill those you run across simply because they’re your enemy, is a freedom I crave in many games. I wanted it in Far Cry 2, and railed against the simulation boundary when it deprived me of the opportunity to play a character I could believe in. I want the freedom to play the fantasy of a badass hero who has the sense of mind not to become a heartless butcher of men — and the freedom to fall short of that ideal, to fail in its pursuit. In many games where I can’t do this, I’m shaken from the game, and lose some of my sense of immersion. Not everybody wants to enter a fantasy where the only answer to evil is to kill everyone. Sure, it’s easy to solve the problem by killing them. Batman would say it’s too easy.

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