Dragon Age II has worked up a lot of frenzy this past year, after Bioware announced that the series would be going in an action oriented direction. A lot of fans were up in arms that the series had abandoned it’s die-rolling old school Baldur’s Gate roots, but others gave a warm welcome to the Mass Effect 2 style streamlining, and that the series would be better off without being so archaic.
As a huge fan of both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, I’ve been put in a rather interesting position. On one hand, I think the amount of customization of Origins is unparalleled, and the RPG experience is second to none. On the other, I find that Mass Effect 2′s “shut up and play” mechanics are also a force to be reckoned with, and the lack of RPG elements really isn’t so bad given the quality of the narrative. So how did I feel about Dragon Age II? Well, my feelings are a bit mixed.
As I loaded up my copy, I was eager to import my previous game’s save file. Just like Mass Effect 2, the very limited import feature is also there, allowing you to load up your Origins choices into your game. However, despite the fact that I had a clear file, I wasn’t able to load my Grey Warden’s history seemingly due to a glitch, so I had to select from three preset options. Luckily, I was able to choose the first option, which mirrored my choices in Origins. During the course of the game however, I barely noticed my previous heroes’ exploits except in passing conversation – the reason for this is because you are very much playing a brand new hero, and a brand new story.
You can customize your character’s appearance, gender, and class (Mage, Warrior, or Rogue), but your hero is still always referred to as “Hawke”, and he always has the same backstory. Hawke is a refugee that fled with his Mother, Brother, and Sister from one of the towns ravaged in the first game. During the course of Dragon Age II you’ll interact with your family, and they’ll play a role in the main narrative. Depending on your class, you will either develop a relationship with your brother or your sister, in addition to your Mother.
While I commend Bioware for trying the whole “family” angle, it becomes apparent that there’s a reason no one really does it: because it’s just so darn hard to pull off effectively. Simply put, your character feels a lot less heroic when he’s arguing with his little brother/sister over a petty scuffle, or he’s venting to his Mother about how much he misses his family and friends. If done properly, with better voice acting and delivery, it would add an incredibly powerful emotional angle to the game’s story: but all in all, it’s pretty generic, and mostly just detracts from your experience.
With this in mind, you may be disappointed if you expect Dragon Age II to match the grand scale that Origins had. In the first title, you scoured the entire countryside to recruit warriors, with the end-goal of destroying an Old God, and save the world. Well, forget all that, because Dragon Age II is a lot less…epic. To be blunt, you’re going to spend 90% of your time in the large city of Kirkwall, interacting and questing for the inhabitants there, from the mangy Lowtown urchins to the dainty Hightown royals. The good news is that pretty much every set piece in Dragon Age II is absolutely gorgeous, and the art direction has taken a huge leap from the first game.
Adjusting to the smaller scope was jarring to say the least, considering just how much countryside you covered in Origins, but I’m sure some gamers will enjoy the simplicity of learning one giant town. While the story is extremely slow to start (I was 15 hours in before anything really interesting happened), it ends up getting pretty exciting towards the end, but along the way, you’re presented with some very limited choices, that are a lot less exciting than Origins.
Origins excelled with choices in RPGs, because it did something most RPGs rarely have the courage to do – make everything morally grey. Just like The Witcher, Origins would present you with a number of different tough situations, and never tell you what was “right” or “wrong”. There were no visual cues as to what emotion you were invoking, and no “sliding meters” to tell you how benevolent you were. Unfortunately, Dragon Age II falls victim to a pretty familar trope found in most action RPGs like the Fable series: black and white morality. Every time you’re given a choice, the conversation wheel has an icon in it – whether it’s a peace leaf for “good”, a fist for “mean”, or a comedy mask for “lighthearted”, Dragon Age II will let you know what kind of person you are. But the simplicity doesn’t end there.
At one point in the game, you are given the option to join either “the smugglers” or “the mercenaries” in order to gain access to the town of Kirkwall. These sort of simplified choices really reminded me of GTAIV’s unfortunate “choose between two mentors” scenarios, which wasn’t a good thing, given how cheap it feels in presentation. In another altercation, a particular group of people are sick of waiting four days to gain access to the town’s gates, so they try to force their way in. Without any sort of emotional input at all from the player, you’re thrusted into combat with these NPCs, who, depending on your point of view, may be justified in their actions .
You have no ability to “avoid the situation”, or “try and talk your way out of it”, like one very similar instance in Dragon Age: Origins involving Elvish slave traders. It’s a bit disappointing to pick up a Role Playing Game, and be forced to play, well, someone else’s role. In fact, I ended up pressing “X”, to skip Hawke’s dialogue after I chose an option quite often, and just imagining I was using Origin’s mute hero (try it!).
Another one of Dragon Age II’s biggest vices is that a lot of questing elements feel the same. A number of dungeons and caves are shamefully 100% copy and pasted from others (not just in design, but with their layout), and you’ll find that a large number of non-story quests are “go find this person”, or “go get this” fetch and courier quests. Of course, given all those complaints, that isn’t to say that Dragon Age II doesn’t succeed on it’s own merits, as an action game.
Combat is also basically a hack and slash affair in, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. While you will barely ever find yourself pausing the action KOTOR and Origins style, it’s an absolute blast to use some spells to completely trip up enemies, and send them flying across the screen in the blink of an eye. There are also cross-class combos, allowing you to have fun mixing it up, and imploring you to explore all the nooks and crannies of your talent trees. Casting is basically instant, and your spell’s effects are more visible on your enemies, making combat more of a visceral experience.
Keep in mind, my tactical PC brethern, that the game hardly ever requires you to pause the game and issue commands (if at all). Not only is the difficulty of the game fairly simple, but all of your abilities never cause friendly fire unless you’re on Nightmare difficulty, and the abilities are streamlined where you don’t really have to aim them. The end result is a very different game that feels less like it’s die-rolling KOTOR and Baldur’s Gate-esque predecessors, and more like Mass Effect 2 or Fable. While the market is over-saturated with enough Action RPGs as it is, Dragon Age II still manages to trump most of it’s competition regardless.
In addition to the lack of required strategy, you won’t really be spending much time gearing up your party either, because most of them have pre-set weapons and armor that they can’t change out, that scales with their level. Instead of the “do whatever you want with whomever you want” style of Origins, where every Mage could be a healer, for instance, characters in DAII have preset class restrictions and spell trees. It makes them a bit more unique in terms of combat prowess, but it also definitely cuts down on the customization of your party. However, similar to the lack of customization when moving from Mass Effect 1 to 2, most gamers will get over it, as it lets you spend less time in menus, and more time in the game, which for most people, is a good thing.
Also, you’ll find that the world map is much more simple this time around – you don’t need to slowly get from one area to the next following a blood trail – you can simply select an area, and go (there are three areas – Kirkwall Day, Kirkwall Night, and the Wilderness). Even more inituitive than the actual travel system is the fact that all of your quests are conveniently laid out for each area’s summary. In a nutshell, even people who hate RPGs will find an easy time adapting to Dragon Age II.
At the end of the day, it’s best to completely divorce Dragon Age II from Origins: it really shares very little with it’s predecessor. While many elements from Origins were lost, the Dragon Age series gained an extremely competent battle system, and superior art direction. If Bioware really takes the shortcomings of Dragon Age II to heart, I have no doubt their next Dragon Age will be a surefire hit with critics and fans alike.
This review was written based on the Signature Edition of the Xbox 360 version
Dragon Age II, on consoles, is a bit rough around the edges (and most of the character designs are pretty bland), but overall, the set pieces are extremely well done, and feature some of the best the gaming world has ever seen. If you pick up the 1GB texture pack on PC, your visuals will significantly improve.
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Dragon Age II features a "pick up and play" action system that's extremely streamlined and rewarding, but the lack of true "role playing" is extremely disappointing, given the series' old school roots.
The voice acting in DAII is pretty flat - a lot of the female characters sound the same, and Male Hawke feels like he's reading his paycheck. Musically, the score fits the game's theme, but isn't spectacular. The only real character that stands out is Isabella - make sure you take her on your travels for the added jokes and banter.
Although Dragon Age II isn't nearly as replayable as Origins (given that there are no Origin stories to tinker with, and very little actual choice), many gamers will want to complete this giant 30-40 hour (with multiple playthroughs)) RPG at least twice.
While Dragon Age II doesn't quite measure up to it's predecessor, the streamlined approach was a solid effort - if Bioware can somehow marry the best parts of Origins and Dragon Age II, it will produce one of the best RPGs the world has ever seen.