Summary: Dragon Age II is the latest installment in BioWare's series of fantasy RPGs, promising an all-new epic adventure as you rise to power and become the Champion of Kirkwall. A lot of critics say it's even better than the original, but many fans aren't so glowing in their praise. Here's your chance to read a brutally honest review of the PC version from the guy that named Dragon Age: Origins FiringSquad's Game of the Year 2009.
It’s been only 16 months since BioWare introduced us to the magical world of Thedas. It’s a wonderful place, at least for aspiring heroes, as there’s no shortage of menacing beasts to slay or corrupt figureheads to overthrow. 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins showed us that a proper cRPG can still melt our faces with dozens of hours of unadulterated epic adventure, but that took place in but one of many regions of the mythical realm. As it happens, the Blight had somewhat of a ripple effect on the areas surrounding Ferelden, despite its having been halted before spreading beyond those shores. Thousands of refugees poured into adjacent territories, including the Free Marches, where this Dragon Age sequel takes place. Does it deliver the same fantastic role-playing experience that made the first Game of the Year? I know you’re just dying to find out, so read on!
I could spend all day describing every aspect of Dragon Age II’s gameplay, but instead I’ll focus on the differences between it and its predecessor. The two are quite similar for the most part, which means DA2 is inherently enjoyable. However, as I’m sure you’ve heard before reading this, BioWare has made several significant changes. Some are good and others are not so good, but either way, discussion of them will make up the bulk of this review. It’s probably a safe bet that if you’re interested in this game, you’ve already played Origins anyway, but if not, you can refer to my review of that, as well.
If you played the demo, you’ve experienced most of the game’s prologue. It’s focused on introducing you to your character, Hawke, and his family, as well as the combat. Despite outward appearances, everything about the latter is basically the same as in Origins. In fact, the biggest change was only on the surface, as BioWare specifically designed combat to appear more “responsive” and “exciting.” They definitely succeeded in that, though as much as I like bloody violence, the gore is a bit overkill (bodies explode whenever a critical hit or ability deals the final blow). Console versions require plenty of button mashing since there is no auto-attack, but even on the PC, melee characters will likely learn to love the ‘R’ key, the default bind for “select nearest enemy and auto-attack.” It’s much easier than right-clicking, which you would have to do often because your character won’t pursue enemies when they get knocked back or otherwise move away. If you want to avoid that, you could use ranged combat; it’s actually a lot more viable to play as an archer now, with vastly increased damage and physical force behind each shot that may knock back enemies.
While the degree of tactical control from Origins is preserved (less the overhead camera angle, for some reason), it can be less important or even completely unnecessary, depending on the difficulty level. Additionally, the vast majority of encounters play out with your party being ambushed, which means there’s less opportunity for planning out how you’re going to engage the enemy. It’s pointless to worry about positioning even after the fighting has begun, since almost every battle has multiple waves of enemies appearing out of nowhere. The skill trees have been tweaked somewhat, but they still have level and investment requirements -- the most significant addition in this regard is what are called cross-class combos, involving class-specific debuffs that can be exploited by other classes’ abilities. Boss battles were made more like standard action games, instead of just having super-sized health, power, and resistances. They often require you run around and avoid special attacks by sidestepping or hiding behind a pillar, then focus fire when their weakness is exposed. While this accomplishes the goal of making such encounters more engaging, that’s not exactly the kind of gameplay you would expect from a tactical RPG.
In terms of player characters, DA2 represents a shift in focus from a potential variety of different identities to that of a single, pre-defined individual named Hawke. You guide him or her on a quest that lasts ten years, starting out as a humble refugee of the Blight in Ferelden and eventually becoming the most influential person in the entire city-state of Kirkwall. What you may not realize going into it, though, is that 7 of those 10 years are completely skipped over, with three year-long “acts” taking place in between. Essentially, each act consists of a variety of secondary quests and side tasks that culminate in a single story-related event that closes out the chapter; they even clearly warn you beforehand that you should take care of any unfinished business before you continue because you’re about to embark on a time warp.
This acceleration in character development provided by skipping ahead several years at a time does serve to enhance the feeling of progression. As much as you might accomplish in Origins, it all happens so fast (that game takes place over the course of two years) and you don’t get to soak it in as much. DA2 does a good job of really making you feel like you are the hero, even if it is a bit cheesy or over the top at times, as well as letting you see the impact you have on your surroundings. The plot itself isn’t anything special, but this is one example of how good the storytelling is. Another fun aspect has to do with the entire game taking place within a framed narrative; Varric the suave dwarven rogue tends to embellish a bit as he recounts the tale, resulting in some interesting scenarios for you to play through before finding out that that’s not quite how it happened.
The problem with a tighter narrative is that the overarching storyline is fairly linear. While a wide range of meaningful choices was something I really liked about Origins, I’m sad to say there’s very little of that to be had in the sequel. Sure, there are some alternate ways you can choose to complete quests that may lead to different rewards or maybe a follow-up quest later on, but those don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Aside from the decision at the end of the game that determines which of the two final cutscenes you watch, there’s only one instance I can think of where you’re presented with a bona fide dilemma. Other than that, the game is a continuous series of shallow selections meant to create the illusion that you’re forging your own path, when it actually wouldn’t have made a difference if you chose another option. A lot of the time, even the Mass Effect-inspired dialogue wheel merely serves as a means of picking whether you want to say the same thing in a way that comes across nice, sarcastic, or dickish.
Some aspects of Dragon Age II have suffered questionable simplifications, such as “companion armor.” In Origins, your party was capable of using any of the loot you did not need or want for yourself, but now “they decide what they wear,” and receive occasional upgrades in armor value to their pre-existing outfits. This means that the majority of the armor you find or receive as quest rewards is completely useless and might as well be automatically consigned to the “junk” tab of your inventory. If you’re a warrior, you have no use for robes or light armor, and since your party members can’t wear them either, it’s vendor trash. You could argue that this ensures companions retain their unique “look” throughout the whole game instead of being covered up by armor (how else would you gaze upon Isabela’s ample… personality?), but a more plausible theory suggests this was a compromise to save time in lieu of designing different versions of armor for elves and dwarves. You can still outfit them with weapons and jewelry as you see fit, at least.
Another sizeable change comes from the crafting system. That is, it’s completely gone. Instead of training up skills and combining ingredients to create potions, poisons, bombs, and runes, you “discover” sources of key ingredients in the wild and (in theory) relay their locations to various craftspersons, who will create the items for you so long as you have the associated recipe or design. Once you’ve done all that, you can “order” them as often as you like from the comfort of your own home. By some sort of magical time-warp delivery mechanism, you receive your items instantly! And if you’re wondering why there’s no mention of traps, it’s because those are not available for the player to use in DA2. You’ll still encounter them in dungeons, however, and use a rogue to disarm them.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with the game is the heavily-recycled environments. There are only a handful of different dungeon templates such as Abandoned Mine, Dwarven Ruin, Fancy House, Undercity Tunnel, and Industrial Warehouse that you will revisit at least a dozen times each during various quests to generic locations. That may sound similar to the limited dungeon themes in TES IV: Oblivion, but believe me, it’s at least ten times worse. Sometimes they change things up by applying different textures and props or blocking off certain paths behind impenetrable doors (though those areas still appear on the map), but the layouts are exactly the same. You even know precisely when you’ll be ambushed by enemies and where loot will be located because spawn points and chest locations are always the same, too. And of course, you are confined to the city of Kirkwall and its 5 major districts, plus a few surrounding locations, for the entire game; each area is repeatedly used for multiple quests, so it just gets really boring after a while.
Dragon Age II features a moderate change in art style from the first game’s more traditional and realistic fantasy fare to something a bit more unique. Cinematics employ that animated 2D illustration thing that seems to be getting more and more popular, which also carries over into a plethora of unique loading screens that vary for each location and are at least somewhat interesting to look at. Many character models have changed -- most obviously Flemeth, the Witch of the Wilds from Origins -- as well as facial features of non-humans: Elves have a much more alien appearance with enlarged eyes and noses shaped to be flush with the forehead, the Qunari have been completely redesigned to look more like beastmen (complete with horns) instead of just beefier humans, and dwarves… well, they’re still dwarvey. Character movements have been made to be swifter and more exaggerated like those seen in Japanese anime, which kind of goes along with the giant two-handed weapons.
Technically, the graphics are a noticeable improvement over Origins. The engine has been upgraded, and that’s not including the additional bells and whistles the PC version enjoys thanks to DirectX 11 support. Features like advanced dynamic lighting, contact-hardening soft shadows, improved terrain rendering with tessellation, and geometry displacement effects are enabled by the DX11-only “Very High” graphics setting. Said highest setting also makes use of the high-resolution textures you can get by downloading a separate 1.1GB patch that comes with the recommendation of having at least 1024MB of VRAM. Unfortunately, DX11 performance is not quite up to snuff, as even cross-fired Radeon HD 6870s can stutter and randomly slow to a crawl with everything maxed out. Next month’s driver releases will hopefully fix this; there have been beta versions intended to help specifically with DA2 performance issues, but those don’t work for everybody.
Dragon Age II continues the trend of fully-voiced dialogue in BioWare games, with generally competent performances from the actors. There’s a wide range of European accents represented, though some are pulled off better than others -- it seemed to me that a few characters, Merrill the Dalish elf sorceress in particular, drifted in and out of various styles of enunciation... The writing has improved, however, and the idle banter between party members is better than ever. Companions currently traveling with you will also speak up during conversations with other characters, to approve/protest the situation or just crack wise. The soundtrack was scored by the same composer that did Origins, as well as other games of note such as Fallout: New Vegas, Crysis, and Prince of Persia. The background music reflects the mood of what’s going on, and of course the battle tunes kick in when enemies are afoot.
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