Author’s Note: This is a hard game to review as there are two very distinct ways to look at Dragon Age II. You can either view this as a stand-alone title or as a sequel to the first where you compare and contrast the differences. For the sake of fairness I will grade it under the former while making small comparisons throughout. I will be writing a comparison article in the near future going in depth with these two games.
With a large promotional campaign full of commercials and in-game pre-order items from every outlet under the sun, BioWare has definitely gone out of their way to make sure that you throw down your hard-earned cash for a copy of Dragon Age II. Given the fact that BioWare doesn’t make mistakes, it’s easy to see why many geeks have been salivating to point and click their way to victory with this next entry in the Dragon Age saga.
Dragon Age II has little ties with the original in terms of story and to make matters worse, the game only does an average job of giving any previously made choices a sense of visibility. The up side to this is that players of the original will be happy to see several random, yet purposeful cameos from several of your favorite Dragon Age Origins characters, providing they lived on your playthrough.
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Instead of playing as a silent protagonist, you are thrust into the role of Hawke, a person attempting to save his family from the Blight mentioned in Origins. Once they have fled the area, the family takes residence in the nearby kingdom of Kirkwall and from there the real story begins.
As usual, BioWare gives you a large amount of room to develop your central character with a bit of wiggle-room for your companions. They all have their own distinct personality and they will have to trust you before they will fully agree with you. While there are several likeable characters, there aren’t any truly memorable characters in this lot. A further bring down is the fact that the companion cast is much smaller than Origins.
The overall story takes place over three distinct acts. Each act is several years apart from the other, all with separate but connected storylines. This is in great contrast to the majority of BioWare’s current RPGs. Most of the time the structure has been such: an introduction, several missions to recruit your characters, optional side-quests and then endgame.
Outside of Hawke and his companions, the main story involves how the mages of Kirkwall are treated as threats to humanity due to their tremendous power and the fact that they are closely monitored (or even outright eradicated) by the Templars, a militaristic order of knights run by the Chantry (church).
What really makes this tale one worth hearing is that there is no clear-cut version of Good vs. Evil. This ‘choice versus consequence’ is a dynamic change that works out incredibly well. It creates a refreshing change of pace that will make you stop and think about your actions before blindly choosing a side. It’s an incredibly innovative feature that is lifted right out of the pages of The Witcher as your choices do not immediately manifest themselves. It may take two to four hours for the gravity of your actions to be felt. Because of this, players can no longer quick-load if they don’t like this one particular outcome of a quest.
For as good as the plot is structured the inverse is true for the design of the game. The vast majority of the game takes place in Kirkwall with seldom ventures outside the city for a quest or two. What makes this even worse is that when you DO venture out into a cave or the coastline or even the occasional haunted mansion, you will find that every single one of them is identical. They all have the exact same map with different passages open and shut for each.
There is no nice way to say this – BioWare clearly cut corners with Dragon Age II’s design. To further drive this point home, the original game took me 88 hours to complete and Dragon Age II took me 37. Disappointing, considering I went for 100% completion on both playthroughs.
The biggest difference with Dragon Age II and the original is the combat. Due to Mass Effect 2’s success, it seems the intricacies of Origins have been completely toned down to suit the average players gaming style rather than cater to the average RPG fan. The top-down view is gone and the battles are designed to the point of if you aren’t fighting a high level boss, you more than likely won’t need the pause-and-play feature as you can just mow everything down.
Don’t be discouraged by the overly simplistic combat as there is a slightly hidden play style that actually runs pretty deep. There are cross-class combos in the game that if mastered, will make your playthroughs all the more satisfying. For example, warriors like to inflict a status called ‘Staggered’ and rogues/mages absolutely love to inflict serious damage to enemies afflicted as such. On the other side, mages can make enemies ‘brittle’ and warriors can take advantage of that as well. Mastering this is by no means a necessity for victory – it simply provides a much deeper experience for those that want it.
Despite the refreshing fast-paced gameplay, BioWare really pigeon holes who you take with your on your adventure. There is one tank in the game, one healer in the game, one dual-wielding rogue, one mage, etc. Considering how every party needs a healer this means you will be seeing one character, like him or not, for about 85% of the game (unless you make Hawke any of these classes).
Another feature that was prominent in Mass Effect 2 is the dialog system. Rather than seeing all of your responses as in the original, you see a brief statement that describes the gist of what Hawke will say given the paragon/snarky/renegade responses. The downside to this is that it doesn’t always work. The brief statements don’t always match what Hawke will say and it could possibly lead to a big change with your companions.
The process of leveling up your character is another change that works for the better. In an attempt to relate to the MMO fan-base, talent trees emulate World of Warcraft more-so than the original. This helps create a more defined character as all warriors of the same class were essentially the same in the original. This coupled with a much improved crafting and inventory system show that just because it’s updated, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
However, BioWare takes a step back by removing some of the little things that RPG fans love about the genre. In Dragon Age II you are restricted to playing as a human which is a large downside considering how many fans like playing as dwarves, elves or perhaps an occasional darkspawn.
As BioWare always does, they hit a homerun with the presentation. Voice acting is top notch as almost every single voice actor plays their part perfectly – the only downside being that several returning characters don’t reprise their role from the original and the subsequent expansions.
Along with the excellent voice-work, fans can expect an orchestral soundtrack that will set the tone for every single map and encounter. This, coupled with an updated artistic style that works well for the most part will satisfy you but won’t turn any heads.
Your enjoyment of Dragon Age II will depend entirely on how well you can appreciate this as a separate game. If you are too jaded of the games large amount of simplicity, then perhaps you should wait. If you want to look at the game for what it is and the enjoyment factor that it contains, it is very hard to pass this up. When at its best, Dragon Age II gives an RPG experience that will surely entertain. At its worst, it gives you an overly simplistic and repetitive mess, but the good here far outweighs the bad.
Dragon Age 2 was released on March 8th, 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the PS3 version.