If there is anyone who knows how to make an epic RPG experience, it’s BioWare. With the release of Dragon Age II, BioWare has yet again delivered a gem of a game for fans. Dragon Age II isn’t a perfect diamond, per se, but it does manage to improve upon nearly everything the previous title, Dragon Age: Origins, set out to do. Unfortunately, the satisfying combat, focused narrative, and fresh art style have come at the cost of the vast world found in Dragon Age: Origins. This doesn’t spell doom and gloom, though. It simply means this is a great game with just a few issues keeping it from perfection.
Dragon Age II definitely sets itself apart from its lineage. In fact, Dragon Age II stands apart from Origins, allowing new players to hop in on the sequel – only to miss a few memorable, but unneeded, references. While Dragon Age: Origins set out to make an experience unique to every player, the newest iteration is far more focused. This time around, players are no longer able to create their own unique character, with their own unique origin story. Some may be upset by this, but with a more focused narrative all its own, the game has turned the player into a character as opposed to an avatar. The protagonist, Hawke, is escaping with his or her family to Kirkwall. The now squelched blight has overrun their home in Ferelden, and the Hawke family seeks refuge in the town where they were once held in high estates.
With the story pretty much set in stone, returning players should brace for change. The story is foreboding from beginning to end. The Chantry’s Seeker has taken one of Hawke’s party members in hopes of ascertaining information about Hawke, auspiciously referred to as “the Champion.” Varric, Hawke’s dwarven accomplice, tells the game’s story through a framed narrative, bringing the past to the present. It’s through the player’s actions that the details are filled in. Many will feel as though the story restricts them in its linear nature, but just as many will find the more focused approach to be less overwhelming. It’s simply a matter of preference. For me, the nature of the story allowed me to connect more intimately with my character and her struggles.
Players will be able to choose between a male or female Hawke and three different returning classes: warrior, rogue, and mage. Hawke is human this time, and now features a voice that really fleshes out his or her designated personality. Both male and female voice actors pull off the character and their wide array of emotions quite well, but the female Hawke is probably the most interesting of the two. Dragon Age II sports a dialogue wheel this time around, much like Mass Effect’s. However, the wheel is more advanced, with options like sarcasm, charm, peace, hostility, and the standard angelic/harsh persuasions. Better yet, Hawke will often take it upon his or herself to start acting the way the player chooses to present themselves as Hawke speaks candidly with others. Relationships that Hawke builds are less than predictable, and getting to know the characters is amazing.
Like many of BioWare’s titles, the game’s story is extremely well-developed, but the best part is the characters. Many of Dragon Age’s characters are quite endearing – especially the sarcastic ones. The game also does a fantastic job of balancing positives and negatives so that no one character is too archetypal; characters are perfectly flawed. Every character is unique, and that means that every character has a unique approach in liking or disliking Hawke. While certain characters may find Hawke charming for his or her sarcastic quips – if that’s how the player chooses to roll – others may find it distasteful. Maybe the best part of every individual experience is the idea of cookie cutter good and evil is thrown out the window.
While the story of any RPG is often the most important to seasoned players, it certainly helps to have satisfying gameplay as well. If there was any one issue with the first title, it was the combat. The first title’s gameplay often felt like a chore for the sake of earning the player’s way through the narrative. Rejoice, fans: the combat is actually extremely satisfying this time around. The combat functions similarly, but combos and skills are a ton of fun to pull off. Everything moves very fluid as Hawke attacks the nearest enemy with swift combos and lovely battle animations. There are few things in this world as pleasing as stabbing a darkspawn, jumping away evasively, and then blinking behind another enemy to stab them in the back; exploding their corpse, leaving just their legs in place.
Hit-to-hit combat comes down to a single button and clever positioning, but the real satisfaction comes in the revamped skill sets. The warrior’s abilities are mostly passive or continuous, while having some actual attacks to vary things up. However, the two most satisfying classes are rogues and mages. Rogues provide the most kinetic experience and allow the player to bounce from spot to spot, cart-wheeling around the battlefield with dual blades – or a bow – executing a slew of devastating attacks and trickery. Just as great, and with much needed improvement, is the mage. Mages now have elemental weapons that do a decent amount of damage hit by hit. They’ve also got the upper-hand as they function well as both melee and ranged attackers with the same staff. Their skill tree is loaded with elemental, spirit, creation, mind spells, and all sorts of magicks.
The skill tree, and really every interface, is much more intuitive this time around. The redesign is more or less a streamlining. Each character gets six skill sets with just a few skills on each set – some skills can be upgraded. Attribute points are very well-explained and easy to level up, as well.
The biggest redesign is the inventory. The loot players come upon includes weapons, armor, trinkets, or junk. Junk all goes into one pile with only the purpose of selling, leaving the rest of the inventory to be managed much more easily. Also, peripheral characters can only use specialized armor, meaning that the managing of individual armor pieces is purely reserved for the player’s main character. The tactics screen is much more intuitive and becomes more complex as the game progresses, but the combat is still much more easily managed by the player.
Tactics managing does indeed help the player’s companions to auto-pilot more effectively, but the AI isn’t quite there yet. Setting up the tactics can still be a bit overwhelming. The game becomes quite difficult at parts, so using the tactical pausing mechanic is more than necessary – especially on the PC. The controls across the board are fairly simple, allowing player’s only true obstacle to be utilizing good strategy. Both the console and the PC version function well and feature intuitive controls, but the PC version feels better controlled, while the console version relies more on maintaining the pace of combat.
As is often the case, the PC version looks much better than the console version. The PS3 version has been reported to be a bit buggy with crashes, and both console iterations have seen drops in frame rate and screen tearing. However, the game does look beautiful, no matter on which system it’s played. This time around, Bioware opted for a more unique art style all its own. While Origins sometimes got lost in the shuffle that is typical fantasy RPGs, Dragon Age II does all it can to make sure everyone knows exactly what game it is when they look at it. However, it sure makes it a lot easier to design when there is a ton of the same assets being used throughout the game.
While it’s clear that some real love was put into this game, it’s also clear that Dragon Age II was indeed the rush job that some feared it to be. Dungeons come down to one of maybe 10 preset maps. Literally every cave, every warehouse, every nobleman’s house is the same exact map – not just in layouts, but with the same exact assets. The first time I ran into this situation, I was stumped as to why I was in the same exact place I was 20 minutes before. BioWare did a very sloppy job in forcing the player to play through the same dozen maps over and over for 40 hours. The most one could hope for is that a door or two might be closed in one map with different door or two the next dungeon. Having a repeat in scenery is not something Dragon Age can afford with the game taking place mostly in the same town.
The scope of Dragon Age is much smaller than that of Origins. Sure, it’s refreshing, but it makes sacrifices: the game is shorter than the first, it takes place mostly in one city, and some parts feel rushed and choppy. The game’s method of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ is often clumsy. At one point in the game, a character says, “This is going to be rough… probably about a week of travel.” The game then fades to black and, in less than 5 seconds, a week has gone by and the story trips over a major plot twist that should feel important, but is rushed and inelegant – all in 5 minutes. This part is of particular disappointment, as it’s one of the few moments that takes the player away from Kirkwall for a healthy amount of time.
Oddly enough, Dragon Age makes quite a few mistakes that BioWare has claimed to have rectified. However, it’s clear that they’ve also learned a few things since the previous title. Throughout my experience, I kept finding things to nitpick at, but I enjoyed myself much more than I found myself disappointed. I asked myself why repeated assets, awkward pacing, and a narrower scope didn’t bother me all too much, and I realized that it’s because the improvements greatly outweigh the losses. Letting go of the mouse/controller proves very difficult as Hawke’s uprising in Kirkwall is that of engrossing proportions. At the end of it all, Origins was a testament to great narrative with ideas bigger than a single disc can contain, but the execution just wasn’t there; but it’s there in Dragon Age 2, folks.
Dragon Age II is less a sequel and more a quick turn on a road that has yet to be fully paved. Perhaps BioWare wanted different things for Dragon Age, and that’s why II was thrown out there as is – before anyone had set expectations for the series. Yes, changing things up comes at a price, but the payoff is more than worth it. With Dragon Age II, players can expect to play through a story with characters worth caring about, combat that is satisfying, and an RPG experience that is streamlined. Thank the Maker (or, erm… BioWare) for this amazing title. Dragon Age II definitely does feel like Dragon Age, but also feels like a great new game entirely.
4.5 out of 5