Dragon Age II
Posted 2 years ago By - Curtis McDonald
It could be argued that the RPG is the oldest and most venerable gaming genre. Mainly because it has been around since well before games were put into a video format or even computer text format. With that being said, I think it is understandable that over the years the genre could be considered to have hit a stagnant phase every now and then. Even the term “RPG” can go through a bit of a stagnation in terms of definition. What is it that defines a good RPG? Is it character customization? Is it character evolution and leveling? How about crafting, inventory and party management? Not to mention combat control and strategy! These are all major hallmarks of the RPG genre but it is certain that different developers and gamers will have differing priorities. Oh, and did I mention storytelling? Yeah...
With the above being taken into consideration, it is very likely that Dragon Age 2, the newest offering from RPG giants BioWare Corp, will be a polarising experience. I see Dragon Age 2 (DA2) as BioWare’s answer to the stagnation of the western RPG. The revolution isn’t one of more refined control over your character or more options for inventory management. No, in fact BioWare has simplified all of the normal RPG staples (just ask the Talkative Man at the Hanged Man tavern, he’s noticed!) and this simplification is going to raise the ire of many purists who will call DA2 an action-RPG. These accusations aren’t without some justification as the game has been streamlined in a number of ways that weren’t really necessary, particularly on the consoles. Though it has been stated by the development team that these refinements were needed for the consoles in order to avoid sacrifices elsewhere. Gone is your ability to choose your companion’s armor, instead you can find/buy up to four armour upgrades for each companion; and each has four specific upgrades which offer extra rune slots and protective bonuses. In some cases you can’t even choose which weapon your companion character uses. Gone is your ability to gather supplies and craft your own bombs, potions and sundries. Instead you discover crafting resources once and - depending on which resources you’ve discovered - you will have access to different items for purchase. These and other such simplifications offer both pros and cons. The streamlining of the gameplay is more than just a matter of accessibility, as the reasons behind the design changes become clearer as the game progresses.
The entirety of the DA2 experience can be said to feed into one specific purpose. The story! Though, unlike basically every other title from the developer, DA2 is not an “Epic”. Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age Origins were all epic stories, in the classical sense; you, along with your rag-tag crew, fight to save the galaxy/world from a seemingly unstoppable foe. DA2 is a far more intimate and personal story filled with intrigue and layers and plot twists and turns. If Dragon Age Origins was like a major blockbuster film, Dragon Age 2 is rather more like a finely crafted miniseries that one would find on HBO or AMC. Unfortunately this also means that the game feels slightly episodic, with a number of major concluding events which are punctuated with years of inactivity where events are not disclosed. This leaves a slightly disjointed feeling in the pace of the story. Your actions and those of the friends you meet along the way influence the events that take place in Kirkwall, the city state in which Hawke et. al. come to reside and call home, over the game’s roughly 10 year span. What happens in Kirkwall in turn will effect the larger outside world but Hawke and his compatriots are not the only forces at work and much of his influence is down to politics and personality. Now there are certainly a number of filler missions and fetch quests that are only there to provide money and experience, but unlike most filler quests, these are instigated by the finding of the lost item rather than an NPC asking you to find something for them (which, while a minor point, makes them much less tedious). All in all, after almost 40 hours of excellent storytelling, I feel justified in saying that while DA2 may not have the greatest, most epic story ever told, it may have the greatest story crafting of any game I’ve played. Ever.
The story isn’t all about Hawke either, as the allies that are made along the way have well-crafted tales to tell and be experienced. Your companions are less like camp followers this time around and actually appear to live independent lives apart from when they are accompanying you. This is naturally a product of having the game take place in a living city as each has their own home or base at which they can be found and only from those homes can companion quests be instigated. Relationships are handled in a much more subtle fashion as well and - depending on your character - the partnership can be simple or complex. The approval/disapproval system has been scrapped in favor of a friend/rival system which works in a similar fashion, but creating a rival can still be a beneficial goal or could have some significant consequences. The quests that will result from developing your relationships are much more tied into the weave of the main story arches so that these side quests move the main game forward rather than drag it off on a tangent, which can often be the the case in other RPGs. It would be unfair to not mention that this is one of the strongest crews of party characters in a BioWare RPG and that is saying something. Each one is fully imagined and remarkably unique right down to their abilities in combat (more on that later).
For those familiar with BioWare’s games, there wont be any real surprises in how DA2 plays. For character interactions, Hawke is fully-voiced and the player guides the conversation via dialogue wheel rather than choosing precisely what is said. The main dialogue advancing options are the peaceful, wise-cracking (or neutral depending on context) or aggressive options and as one option is favored over others, the way companions and NPCs react as well as Hawke’s general personality will alter slightly. For example if you constantly choose the middle, wise-cracking option, Hawke will have more smart-arsed comments, even in uncontrolled dialogue, and others will joke with him more often. Naturally there are also separate inquiry options, flirtation options and certain other context specific choices occasionally available that are denoted by a recognizable symbol in the dialogue wheel.
Combat in DA2 hasn’t been drastically changed, though there have been many refinements, especially with combat initiation and combat animation. The console versions of the game have had a nearly over-the-shoulder viewpoint set and the combat is far more active on the part of the player due to the default setting being that of manual attack. While there are no game benefits from using manual attack, there is a certain amount of fun to be had in using this mode, giving the game a much more visceral feel. This is very likely in response to the difficulty of activating talents and skill from the radial menus. Under the hood, this form of combat is still somehow in limbo between true turn-based combat, like in Knights of the Old Republic and true action combat as seen in Mass Effect 2 and unfortunately I’m still not convinced that it fully works. The options and A.I. for the tactics seem to be far more useful than those in DAO and the companion characters are much more effective combatants/healers/tanks/etc. Also, as noted before, each companion character gets their own unique skill tree geared towards their individual history or abilities. Each also gets a stats buff after enough influence is applied and is different depending on if they are a friend or a rival. There are also new cross-class combos to increase the strategy options, which allow for significantly improved damage. For example if a melee fighter attacks with a cross-class combo skill on an enemy that has been made brittle by a mage, the additional damage done can be upwards of 600%!
The combat refinements are particularly evident for melee party members as once designating an enemy to attack, they will immediately bee-line for the selected enemy, often leaping into the fray, without getting trapped by other foes or companions. The animations are also much more fluid and accurate. Be warned though, if you take issue with the messy kills-style death so often seen in RPGs, DA2 will really bother you as a single arrow can often tear an enemy in twain! The classes available are straight from RPG 101; the warrior (which can specialize with two-handed weapon or sword & shield), the rogue (specializing as either a double dagger wielding assassin or as an archer) and finally the mage (which can specialize in a rather large number of magical styles). Combat, over all, is more interesting than in DAO simply because it is much more fluid and often times less frustrating. Alas it is not completely bug free and there can be times when difficulty is clearly unbalanced as areas can be either too easy or devastatingly difficult.
The menus - while having received significant overhaul - are still somewhat tedious to navigate with a controller, especially when comparing weapons or armor. This is an area that clearly shows that the console optimization certainly had influence over the development of the game as you only need worry about Hawke’s armor. Transitions between locals isn’t as time consuming as has been the case in past BioWare titles which is to the good as you will be bouncing back and forth very frequently.
The visuals in DA2 are also improved upon quite a lot. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the environments and art assets were not reused from the original game. BioWare has managed to convey by art style, architecture and environment that you are no longer in Ferelden. Kirkwall and the surrounding environs do in fact, feel like a completely distinct geographic region. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the people of Kirkwall who offer no real dissimilarity to their southern cousins. The graphics are a decent uptick over the original, but the closer view forced upon the console versions clearly shows that many of the textures, particularly on clothing and armor, are still not as refined as they could be. Unfortunately, the environments also highlight one of the most glaring flaws in DA2: the re-use of entire areas for different quests. This issue is especially evident with the cave map, which is used for nearly every underground area and simply has variable paths available depending on the quest. There are a number of maps that are utilized in this way. All of the unique maps that aren’t refurbished are maps that you will return to constantly as the world of DA2 is shockingly small for a modern RPG. The size of the world is hard to consider a positive or negative though as this fits back into the intimacy of the story being told. Beyond environments, the graphics and animations - especially in combat - are fantastic. Playing as a mage is an absolute joy to behold!
On the audio side, BioWare continues it’s utter mastery of the auditory realm with fantastic sound effects and simply gorgeous music. One comparison of the soundtrack of the Hanged Man tavern and that of the Wounded Coast shows genius at work. You may also detect some Mass Effect inspiration in parts of the score. The music playing during the credit roll is even likely to keep you from skipping the credits. Naturally we also have the the voice cast to consider and DA2 does not disappoint. This cast is easily one of the most distinct yet and the actors truly bring their characters to life. I defy you to not fall in love with Merrill or be infected by Verric’s black humor and the fanaticism is clearly apparent in both Fenris’ and Anders’ voices.
Right from launch there was DLC available. And while not considered in this review, it should be noted that much of the additional content is free as a reward for simply owning other BioWare or EA games, for reading the Dragon Age comic or from playing the Dragon Age Legends Facebook game. Regardless of additional content, the main story for DA2 will be a huge mouthful for anyone and should please even the most seasoned RPG vets. With BioWare’s reputation for varied and solid DLC combined with the different style of gameplay each class offers, there shouldn’t be any lack of replay value from this title and I expect it will happily tide RPG fans over until Mass Effect 3 and/or Skyrim release later this year.
Dragon Age 2 is a perfect example of how a great sequel should be put together. It has improved what already worked in DA:O, fixed those things that didn’t, tried out some new concepts and generally pushed the game to the next level without totally reinventing the wheel. On the other hand BioWare has done something completely remarkable with Dragon Age 2, they have managed to turn the actual crafting of a story into something far greater than the story itself! This final point alone makes this a must own title for any RPG fan as this is new gold standard for story telling in a game.
+ Action oriented gameplay and optimisation for console gaming
+ Top shelf audio and voice acting
+ Tons of great and original content to work through
- UI is still no fun to work through using a controller
- Hybrid combat system still leaves something to be desired
- Small world and unfortunate reuse of identical maps for quests
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Release Date : 2011/03/08
System : Xbox 360
Publisher : Electronic Arts
Developer : BioWare
Category : Role Playing Game
ESRB : M
7.0 / 10
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