Difficulty balancing is non-existent. It is becoming increasingly clear that BioWare cannot balance combat systems in its games. Origins had issues with difficulty spikes, but combat was mostly enjoyable until the game’s final boss. This was an exercise in utter frustration that seemed to stem more out of a poorly designed battle system than an intentional choice to make the final battle that hard. Curiously enough, the standalone expansion pack Awakening went the opposite direction – combat was so easy that even the highest difficulty level frequently became boring.
Things have gotten worse with Dragon Age 2. Retained are the game’s four discrete difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Nightmare. Every player has a different experience, of course, but my own experience finds standard encounters quite easy on Normal yet boss fights are nigh-impossible on Hard. Consequently, I find myself constantly going into the menu to adjust settings so that I can get the most out of the game. Some of this can be attributed to very ‘cheap’ boss battles (replete with attacks than can literally kill 3 of 4 party members in one hit) but a setting just about halfway between Normal and Hard would be perfect (for me). Why not take a page from a game like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and use a sliding difficulty scale?
Cooldown or stamina/mana – but both? Special abilities outside of a default attack drain mana (mages) or stamina (rogues and warriors) but also have a ‘cooldown’ period before they can be used again. To be fair, Origins used a similar system that I had very little problem with, but it is not suited to the faster-paced combat of Dragon Age 2. Nowhere is this more apparent than the excruciatingly slow cooldowns on healing items and spells – which make dealing with the swarms of enemies this game throws at the player quite difficult. It is very easy for your party to get overwhelmed and not be able to heal themselves, simply because the game won’t let you.
If a player likes a certain ability, why not let her use it at will until mana or stamina drops to zero? I’ve previously sung the praises of the rogue class, whose best abilities (thankfully) have a relatively quick cooldown, but I frequently need a certain attack when it is still in cooldown (despite having the stamina to use it). Alternatively, do away with stamina meters altogether and focus on cooldown timers that make sense for the given ability. Having two semi-conflicting limits on ability usage must have made it very difficult to polish the game in its rushed development schedule – which was no doubt a key factor in the game’s poor balancing discussed above.
Recycled dungeons get stale very quickly. During one of my last game sessions, I did two quests in the same hour that had me – literally – going through the same exact dungeon. The second time differed only in the fact that I traversed the dungeon in reverse. BioWare is all about ‘hand crafted’ dungeons, including the daring amount of level design for their upcoming MMO The Old Republic, but in the clearly rushed development cycle they recycled a lot of area maps.
Given that battles frequently feel like the game’s enemies are zombies by a different name (enemies will constantly spawn invisibly behind your lines, swarming you on all sides), a procedurally generated dungeon system would fit really well. It doesn’t really matter what the dungeon looks like, as long as it has some corridors and a few big rooms, and the few locations important to the central storyline can get the extra special treatment. Knowing that every dungeon will play out differently – especially in a second playthrough – would really spice up the combat system. It would even make playing on an easier difficulty level more enjoyable, since there’s no memorization of enemy positions, simply reacting to a given tactical situation – making even swarms of easy enemies interesting to fight.
An honorable mention would be the fixed skill trees of party members. Want to make Varric a swordsman, or at least give him a melee weapon option (e.g. Origins’ system of two weapon loadouts)? So sorry, but he can only use ranged weapons! This is a major pity because he is one of my favorite characters (in terms of dialogue) so far, but the ‘zombie’ battles so frequent in the game make a ranged character other than a mage essentially useless in combat.
Do you have other frustrations with Dragon Age 2? Do you disagree with my complaints? Share in the comments!