Dragon Age II was not the most well-received game in Bioware’s catalog. The game was infamously thrown together in less than sixteen months to cash in on its predecessor’s unexpected success. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when publishers are allowed too much influence over the studios under them.
With that in mind, mining it for good ideas sounds a little like looking for diamonds in your local dumpster. Still, Dragon Age II showed a lot of potential that could have led to a great game if the developers had the time. Here are three design decisions form Dragon Age II that might work in Dragon Age 4, or any other game for that matter.
Dragon Age II was set exclusively in the city-state of Kirkwall, and it’s surrounding territory. That’s a pretty big step down from traveling an entire country in Dragon Age: Origins.
This was a relatively common complaint when the game was released. Still, the more severe problem was the lack of variety. Dragon Age II divided itself into four districts, Hightown, Lowtown, Darktown, and the docks. Each one was characterized by high walls and large empty spaces, none of which felt like a place people might actually live.
Part of that was the lack of non-player characters; Kirkwall’s streets seemed deserted for a city with thousands of people. The bigger problem was the visual design. There were a lot of large structures in Kirkwall, but very few were recognizable as houses, or shops, or anywhere else people can be found.
Developers hoping to learn from these mistakes need to remember the main advantage of a smaller area in greater detail. Each building should be unique, and its function obvious. There’s no reason that a foundry should have the same exterior as a private home or the local pub.
The poorer districts should be dirtier and more crowded. Squares and marketplace should be packed with numerous and varied people and stalls, not empty courtyards with one or two NPC vendors. Not every person needs to be fully interactive. It can be mostly set dressing, just don’t underestimate the importance of set dressing when it comes to believability.
#2: Night and Day
Lots of games have a night and day cycle. Dragon Age II did something unusual. The night and day versions of each region are treated as entirely separate zones. There was no in-game clock. Instead, the player would select from the fast travel menu whether they wanted to go there during the day or night.
During the day, the streets were mostly safe except for the occasional quest-related scuffle. Go there at night, and the player must fight their way through a frankly absurd number of bandits.
Dragon Age II isn’t the only RPG to make the street dangerous at night, but that’s not the main issue. While the nighttime brawls were tedious and unrewarding, the most significant wasted opportunity was in the day/night system itself.
In Dragon Age II, this a pretty blatant attempt to use the same maps and assets in what, for the purpose of gameplay, are separate areas. But think of what else could be done with that approach. How could the layout of the regions be changed to reflect the time of day?
Presumably, all the stalls and carts I mentioned in the first entry would have been packed up and moved elsewhere during the night. This would turn the crowded markets into wide-open spaces. Some streets might be passable during the day while locked gates limit access for nighttime visitors. Other areas might only be accessible at night.
And naturally, all sorts of shady individuals would be lurking around in the dark. This could include enemies, but friendly NPCs as well. Disreputable merchants might offer unique wares of questionable origin. Suspicious quest givers could offer quick gold for anyone willing to get their hands dirty. And if we’re talking about Dragon Age in particular, you know these shady characters would include a few illegal mages offering illicit magical services.
#3: Time Jumps
Dragon Age II divides itself into three acts, each separated by a period of three years. This could have been a great system if used to its full potential.
The thing about Dragon Age II is that little changes during the jumps in time. The supporting cast is pretty much exactly where you left them, not having made any significant progress in their respective storylines. The same is true of the city, which changes not at all during the intervening years.
And that’s a little weird, right? Nothing catches fire or becomes abanded. No new buildings get built, or shops opened. It’s particularly strange during the jump between Acts 2 and 3. The Qunari attacked Kirkwall, killing hundreds and setting half the city on fire in the process. Yet, despite what is supposed to be a massive crisis, the city undergoes almost no noticeable changes. There’s a new statue near the docks in act 3, the Qunari compound is gone, and there are more Templars in the castle. That is all.
Compare this to Fable II, which has two significant time jumps throughout the game. In Fable II, quests you completed before a time jump could have huge effects on the game world. Some areas might become almost completely depopulated or grow tremendously depending on the player’s actions.
That is how you use time skips effectively. Say, for example, you helped protect Kirkwalls elves from a gang of slavers that were preying on them. Three years later, the player might return to find the houses in better condition and more people out and about. There might even be a new merchant or two with a special discount for the human who did them a solid. On the other hand, a player who ignored the quest or helped the bandits might find Kirkwall’s Alienage in an even worst state than it was initially.
Now, I don’t expect Bioware to redo Dragon Age II. As much as I’d like to see someone fix all the mistakes and glue all those cut corners back on, I don’t see that happening any time soon. I’m also under no illusions that anyone at Bioware or EA will know or care about my opinion.
My only desire it that someone remembers the good ideas this game had to offer.