[22 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
When it comes to Dragon Age II, my reputation precedes me. I believe this to be a game that puts characterization first and everything else at a distant second. Legacy, the game’s first major DLC pack following its release back in March, accordingly continues this emphasis on character while addressing some of the mainstream criticisms about the game—though not necessarily to great effect.
I maintain that as a character-driven narrative that goes places other games choose to avoid, Dragon Age II is as quality as they come, where “quality” means the premium cable TV genre to which shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad belong. Quality, as a genre, is about idiosyncratic characters and relationships far before cheap thrills and paint-by-numbers drama. You simply cannot ask this game to be a Mass Effect or some kind of third-person medieval Call of Duty, which if you read the BioWare social forums long enough seems to be what a vocal contingent of players were looking for. (It was also apparently not heteronormative enough for some people, but there’s no reasoning with that sort of entitlement. Lead writer David Gaider tried.).
On this front, Legacy underwhelms. There is no way around it. Oh, it surely will satisfy some contingent of the playerbase, the ones that insist everything is made better by more darkspawn, more original environments, more dakka, etc. In tone, the sidequest is a mixture of Sebastian’s DLC, the “All That Remains” arc concerning Leandra Amell, and shades of Dragon Age: Awakening. Actually, if one of your party members has to go as far as hanging a lampshade on the latter reference, you’re probably retreading a little too much familiar territory.
As usual, Dragon Age II shines brightest when it stays understated. There are no cinematic tricks on display that didn’t make their first appearance in the main game and as always, the best writing comes from the incidental dialogue with your party members. My mage Hawke and Anders (who is effectively his common-law husband at this point) muse on why it always has to be about blood with these creepy dark mages: “Do you really want to meet a spit mage?” Merrill and Isabela, who are in a weird sort of open, polyamorous relationship with my warrior Hawke, giggle about her having “something on her nose,” referencing the trademark blood smear on the Hawke default models. “How long has that been there?!” my Lady Hawke complains. Seven years, sweetie.
So, it’s charming, it’s cute, it’s familiar. If this were fanfiction, it’d get a more than satisfactory rating for its characterization, but there’s still something a little stale about it. These little dialogue moments are all on point, but what really happens to push characters in a new direction?
Some instances come close. Anders and Varric both have cutscenes that concern the dungeon itself; others may respond in particular ways based on the decisions Hawke make. But again, it doesn’t really push anything. And that is the ultimate dilemma with Legacy: it is sequestered away from the main story, spatially as well as temporally. We don’t see it on a map; we don’t walk there. We have a few cues to its time placement, but they’re hardly meaningful. For all that it bears upon the main thrust of the narrative, it could all be some fanciful hallucination in which Hawke gains a customizable weapon and reminisces about dear old dad.
And that is another thing. For a DLC pitched as casting a shadow on the Hawke family line, the revelation doesn’t really tarnish anyone’s reputation. Malcolm Hawke’s morally suspect actions are accomplished for the good of his family—of course—and it’s a bit too easy to forgive him, unless you’ve chosen to play as staunchly anti-magic. (Which my warrior Lady Hawke was. Yes, that makes her courtship with Merrill the height of hypocrisy, but could you say no to that face?). And with the Hawke family reputation off the table and the episode having no bearing on the actual resolution of the game, there is precious little to actually care about. The rest is all . . . gameplay-related. Ew. Who plays Dragon Age II for the gameplay?
I am interested in hearing what players more adept than I in discussing popular perception of mental illness think about Anders’s actions in the course of Legacy. Mental illness is one feature of Dragon Age II that has received mixed to negative attention even from those otherwise praising its inclusivity, like The Border House’s Denis Farr. For my part I hardly know enough about Dissociative Identity Disorder, far less about cases brought on by spirit possession, to say with confidence how well (or poorly) the writing treats Anders’s episode here, but I did like that my mage Hawke’s relationship with him seemed to affect how he came down from it afterwards.
In fairness to the developers, the quest’s final boss is indeed excellent, but for reasons of backstory, not gameplay. As usual, the most interesting aspects of Bioware’s richly developed fantasy world reside along the periphery, stitched together from codex entries and journal pages. While this makes a certain amount of narrative sense—people don’t stand around explaining the dominant religion to each other—it makes the whole interaction practically impenetrable for the casual player or for someone coming back to the game after a prolonged absence. For that reason, I’d recommend Legacy primarily for dedicated players as part of their next complete campaign, not to engage with after a long break from the story.
While my score will seem low for game journalists’ usual 7-10 point scale, I find it as accurate an assessment of the DLC’s merits as the score that I gave to the core game. Dragon Age II has non-negligible strengths, and its character writing in particular is something to adore. But while Legacy hits plenty of the right notes, it’s more of the same undeserved Hawke family abuse and false choices that helped mar the original. It doesn’t satisfy, and I am perhaps more forgiving than most when it comes to this game’s flaws. I’ll keep waiting for the real expansion instead.