Another Argument for Mechanic Transparency: Dragon Age II Edition

Warning: Semi spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II.


Enemy waves are no new concept to video games.  They have been around for years and will probably remain for as long as they offer value to players.  While from my experience their existence can be a bit polarizing, it’s hard to discount them completely given the numerous amounts of players that like the challenge.  That being said, there are cases in which its execution is flawed at best.  One such instance that I wish to discuss today appears in Dragon Age II, where a lack of transparency makes the experience somewhat infuriating.

Before I delve into the brief discussion, let’s first define what I mean by waves of enemies.  In this case, I am talking about games that have their enemies appear in large groups or “waves.”  Regardless of whether the initial wave is visible at the start, enemies will continue to show up in a group at specified intervals.  These intervals can be dependent on time, amount of enemies left, or other factors, as long as a clear, identifiable separator between groups can be determined with observation.  The size of the groups is also irrelevant for the sake of this discussion; all that matters is the game’s enemy mechanics are based on several groups/waves of enemies showing up before full completion of a combat sequence (whether for a temporary sequence or the entire game).


With that established, let us turn to Dragon Age II.  Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, where most of the combat has all enemies on the screen, Dragon Age II relies on waves of enemies to save on processing power amongst other things.  The various waves show up usually dependent on health and amount of enemies left on screen.  While in some cases the player can escape and get out of the combat sequence (though generally this requires a lot of stubbornness to achieve), in most cases the player is stuck in the combat sequence until all waves are defeated.

Of course, this sounds fairly standard for a “waves of enemies” mechanic, so at what point do I think the game went astray?  As I stated, this has a lot to do with a lack of transparency.  In a lot of games, when it implements waves of enemies, it will have information on the screen for the player.  Generally, this is information such as number of waves that the player will have to face, number of enemies the player has to defeat, or a combination of both.  In either case, these sorts of games make it clear to the player how long they will be fighting.  As such, the player can strategize appropriately.  Especially in games where inventory may be limited, this allows players to choose appropriate moments to use items, or to know when their best opportunity to prepare a trap is.  There are numerous instances where such information can be handy, and for players it makes the experience more satisfying.  Additionally, if a player fails, they know better at what point, and can appropriately adjust their strategy for the next try.  In the end, this results in a more fulfilling experience, since the game is delivering enough information to allow the players to apply their skills appropriately.

Unfortunately, Dragon Age II does not feature this simple information.  Rather, the player is left in a void of uncertainty on how many waves they will face.  While some can be guessed because of certain questlines having consistency, more often than not the player will have to have played the game before to know.  This makes good strategizing near impossible, sadly.  You could be struggling to save a mana potion, only to find out you were on the last wave and could’ve ended the fight quicker if you had taken it.  Another scenario: you went through most of your health potions, used the last one thinking you’re at the end, only to discover there are two more waves.  Numerous situations like this come about, all because the game chooses not to inform the player more clearly about what situations they will be facing.  While some would argue that this makes it so players have to be prepared, there is a point where preparation and strategy must work in conjunction.  Unfortunately, Dragon Age II’s transparency issue makes it so the preparation and strategy are not able to work together.

This lack of transparency results in one simple thing: the combat becomes tedious and somewhat unenjoyable.  The end goal is fairly undefined outside of kill everyone and don’t die.  By consequence, once the player wins there is almost of a sense of anti-climax, since there was no way to identify that would be the end point.  In similar fashion, when the player fails, they feel less like it was their fault; the game feels like it is unfairly throwing enemy after enemy at you, so it was more the fault of a badly designed game than the skill of the player.  Whether that is true or not, players who come away from combat feeling that will not be inspired to continue playing the game.  In the end, a lot of fun is ruined in Dragon Age II, simply from choosing not to be transparent about its game mechanics.

While I do like Dragon Age II just fine, I can identify its combat has this fairly noticeable flaw.  Though many others would point out the terrible, over-used level designs, I think the very nature of its combat exasperates that problem as well.  Had the developers chosen to be clearer about the enemies faced, whether it be by wave number, enemy number, or something else, the game may have had a more robust feeling combat that was skill based.  As it stands, though, the experience can be frustrating.

Overall, I hope this analysis serves as a cautionary tale to indie developers.  Even if the information seems minuscule, sometimes it is better to mention than not mention a piece of information, lest you wind up damaging the player’s experience by leaving out too much.


Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II promotional game screen.  Obtained from PC Gamer.