Back with more blood, guts, mages and ogres, the Dragon Age series returns, although it’s not quite as we all fondly remember. Moving away from the chronicles of the Grey Warden of Ferelden, you take control of Hawke, a human survivor of the Blight in Origins who escapes with their family to the city of Kirkwall. Here you help build them up as they work their way from a refugee to a person of infamy and influence in the region, with your choices effecting the outcome of difference scenarios as you progress. While the game offers the ability to import save game data from Origins, Dragon Age II is not a direct continuation of the plot, although crossover points and references to your choices in Origins will pop-up as you play.
Much like the jump from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2, streamlining the experience was Bioware’s main goal with Dragon Age II, and as such it is a major theme of this review. The concern heading into my playthrough was that simplifying certain features could destroy the old-school nature of the gameplay that made Origins stand out from the competition. In addition, the focus on storytelling and shifting to a more linear path could remove the heart of what made Origins enjoyable. However, as someone who insists on giving everything a fair chance, I put the recent media hysteria and my own worries aside, installed my copy of Dragon Age II and prepared to jump into the story of the Champion of Kirkwall.
Well, I would have, had the DRM not forced me to wait 24 hours to unlock the game after my copy turned up early. And then had to wait a little longer when I realised that the DirectX 11 issues from the demo had not been fixed and the game crashed. The joys of PC gaming, eh?
The story of Hawke’s rise to glory is actually being retold by a companion, a Dwarven rogue named Varric. Elaborate and occasionally unreliable with his recollection of your adventures (which is used to great effect during a couple of missions) he provides some of the better moments of the game. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the rest of your companions, who for the most part (especially initially) fall flat in their execution. Much like the plot of Dragon Age II, there are fantastic ideas and ample opportunity to execute them well, but the hit and miss nature of delivery ensures the ride is a bumpy one. One second the voice-overs are effective in bringing the story to life, and the next second they fall flat, deflating the experience. That’s not the say the characters are completely two-dimensional, but it is clear they could have been handled better. I will admit though, the banter between characters as you travel around Kirkwall is delightful at times, with elven mage Merrill being a personal highlight with her observations.
Sadly, gone are the multiple races the player can choose from to make a character, with only humans being playable, although you are still given the choice between playing as a mage, a warrior, or a rogue. As I was somewhat disappointed with how the warrior class in Origins only seemed to be effective with a sword-and-board combo, I decided to choose the warrior for my character to see if things had been improved. In an effort to explore all the options Bioware had provided, I rejected the standard look of Hawke for my playthrough (on the grounds his pointy beard was “too smug”) and forged my own, although he ended up looking like a cross between Nathan Drake and Thom Yorke. It’s a gripe of mine with all of Bioware’s titles; their character customisation never has the ability to replicate the polished look of the main characters, and you end up looking like a mash-up of the NPC’s you encounter on your travels.
Anyway, I digress.
My first steps into Dragon Age II were not overly encouraging, but the highly linear approach that the starting area takes was never going to allow the game to shine. It does highlight one of the streamlining changes from Origins; the conversation wheel. Replacing the lines of text, you are presented with up to six options with which you can reply to those around you, and each is choice provides a graphic to illustrate the moral impact it will bring. While I’m sure it is intended to be a helpful guide for players it felt a little patronising at times (especially the romance options, the content of which quite clearly indicate their intention without a graphic.) Once you reach Kirkwall however, the game slowly starts to find its footing, although the operative word here is ‘slowly.’
When we talk about streamlining the game, the combat is perhaps the most important aspect to look over. The aim of making combat appear more involving despite the class or role you pick has in my eyes been achieved by Bioware, meaning warriors actually felt useful and enjoyable to play this time round. Mages get finishing moves as well, allowing for something more than shooting spells at your enemies, however rogues are still the driving force of delivering death to your foes they were back in Origins. The biggest change to the on-screen action is how important information is placed in front of you during a fight; if an enemy is stunned by a warrior, an icon pops up above them to indicate it, which in turn signals you to send a rogue in to take advantage. If a mage turns an enemy brittle, a different icon pops up to alert you that it’s time for your warrior to smash your way to victory. Some may find the icons a little patronising to begin with, but during some of the more chaotic fights I was glad to have the assistance.
Of course, I’m sure some of you have concerns that the streamlining has affected the need to use tactics during your epic fights; I can state right now that is not the case. Pausing the action is just as important this time round as it was in Origins, and playing the game on anything other than normal will ensure you fight with tactics in mind. Hell, there were certain boss battles (such as a particular clobbering machine at the end of Act I) that forces you to plan your approach carefully, even on easier settings. The sight of your mage freezing a group of enemies in place at a choke point as your warrior swings away to take advantage, during which your rogue fires a rain of arrows on the trapped victims as the blood and guts explode over the screen, is a wonderful image to behold. The action as it unfolds is also visually well done, a particular highlight being when an enemy rogue executed what looked like a flashkick on me and disappeared. I probably should have been worried, but I was too distracted with how cool it looked.
As you level up you are awarded the usual handful of character points to upgrade your attributes, as well as points to unlock or upgrade various abilities from the talent trees available. It is here that one of the better changes has taken place, as the player isn’t forced to pick up abilities they may not necessarily use in order to acquire moves that they actually wish to use. This is because the game uses more of a web-like setup instead of a straight line, and as such allows you a bit more freedom with what you want to pick and choose. Another welcome change the streamlining has brought with it appears with the crafting element of the game. No longer are you forced to carry every last bit of elfroot around with you, instead you are tasked with finding ‘resource nodes’ which unlock the use of recipes you find on your travels, charging you an amount of gold for the creation of any items you wish.
Much like in Mass Effect 2, you are no longer able to customise the armour of your companions, although you have the ability to upgrade their equipment by doing their side quests or picking up / buying specific items. You can however equip different weapons and trinkets that you come across, so some level of customisation remains. However, this new approach does not necessarily make things easier on the player. Because each character has a “home base” in Kirkwall to which they return when they are not in your group, there is no way to organise all your team at once like you could back in Origins. This forces you to switch characters in and out of your team if you wish to ensure everyone has the best of the copious amounts of loot in your possession equipped on their person, and then switch back to the setup you actually want to play with again.
But enough on the mechanics and onto the important question; does the streamlining make it an enjoyable game and allow for cinematic experience? As I’ve stated throughout the review, everything in Dragon Age II is hit and miss. In Origins the side quests were placed well enough that you could do a large portion of the game whilst following the main plot line and not feel like you were diverting yourself, however this time around the placement forces the player to constantly travel between areas that outside of Kirkwall look completely the same. Dungeons and caves are even reused time and time again with blocked doorways used to mix things up, and it makes the design appear rushed. In addition, the random dropped items that turn into delivery quests prove that there could have been so much more content included in the game, but were forced in to keep things balanced with what was already there.
I could go into the reasons why I feel the plot was also rushed, but I feel that would be best for another time further in the future (that’s right folks, be on the lookout for a follow-up feature!)
Don’t get me wrong, Dragon Age II isn’t a bad game by any shot of the imagination, it just isn’t the great sequel we were waiting for. It’s not as short a game as I had feared either, with my playthrough clocking in at around 40+ hours after doing almost all of the side quests (which actually put it 5-10 hours shorter than my Origins playthough, which isn’t too bad) but the problem here is that it felt like a smaller adventure, and when you do make big decisions with the plot their effects on Kirkwall are not as prominent as you may hope. There are flashes are what made Origins a great game dotted throughout (and when it does get it right it is wonderful) but is never truly captures and keeps the feeling going. You could even compare this outing to how Knight of the Old Republic II or Neverwinter Nights II suffered from similar problems, which makes it all the more curious when consider how it was developed by its creators at Bioware, and not another studio.
- The combat is fluid, looks great, and is as bloody as ever.
- With all the content, there’s plenty to keep you busy.
- When it gets it right, DA II is wonderfully entertaining…
- … but this is balanced out by missing the mark at other key moments.
- The linear nature of the game reduces the feeling of freedom.
- Traditionalist RPG-ers may find the streamlining changes border on patronising
The Short Version: It's Dragon Age, but not quite as we remember it. It has the makings of a great game but falls short when it truly counts. The streamlining of certain features will either help your experience or hinder your enjoyment, but overall it's worthwhile return to Thedas for fans of the franchise. It's just a shame, because with a bit more time to develop it we could have had something great.