I came away from this piece feeling a bit defeated (writing about Bioware titles is a huge undertaking), but I hope it's still useful to those on the fence about the game.
It was on a strong platform Bioware constructed Dragon Age: Origins on – a game of meaty action, rich lore, and nail biting drama. So when players start the sequel, the anxiety understandably sets in. The Grey Warden hero of Ferelden is no longer part of the picture, and the combat initially seems so frantic that you might check whether you indeed bought a Bioware RPG, or if you got the latest installment of Dynasty Warriors by mistake. But this is indeed Dragon Age, it even occurs around the events of Origins, only now it’s from the perspective of one called Hawke. On the run from the Darkspawn, the Hawke family of Ferelden refugees (strictly human, mind you) only narrowly escape the onslaught to find safe haven upon the docks of Kirkwall, a city where the entirety of the game takes place. That’s right, one city.
Finding themselves as few among many refugees clogging Kirkwall’s harbors -- and after discovering that their one close relative in the city has squandered the last of the family’s small fortune -- it’s up to you to work the lowly Hawke family up the social ladder. Being forced into a year of lowly mercenary work as a way to gain entrance to the city doesn’t sound like fun, so the game fast forwards to when your contract is up, and thus you’re set free upon the streets of Kirkwall to make a name for yourself. You’ll visit upper class residences, slums, docks, shady alleys, and witness all the social strife packaged with them. The Dalish elves occupy a neglected ghetto, and the chantry (much like a church) hosts charities as well as corruption and secrecy. A garrison of foreign tribal warriors called the Quanarhi create unease amongst Kirkwall’s leaders, and zealous Templar knights patrol the streets for apostates and illegal wielders of magical power. Many of Dragon Age II’s most dramatic scenarios involve these social dilemmas, who you side with, where you’ll comprise, and what you decide is justice. This all leads to how Hawke became the storied champion of Kirkwall, the game’s backdrop.
You can customize your appearance like always, but the default character designs are actually pretty damn sexy for once.
The architecture, rich emphasis of warm colors on flags and banners, improved lighting, and flying street debris certainly make it prettier than anything Origins could come up with, but as a game dedicated to just one city, Dragon Age II doesn’t make a strong case for itself. The city doesn’t breathe. There’s simply no hustle and bustle to accommodate the personality of a port city -- it’s just a few motionless characters at every block, or some merchants beside small wooden posts. You wouldn’t expect an empty square was the red lantern district of Kirkwall, but perhaps the one or two woman making flirtatious gestures is supposed to give it away. There are several areas of the city structured in loving ways that have every right for additional detail, but lack it. To say it’s lazy is only making half the point here, as the less than stunning showcase of environments in Origins was hardly enough to sway the enjoyment players had interacting with them. And interact with Kirkwall you will, because it’s much more interesting than it looks, to an extent.
Kirkwall looks pretty nice at times, there's just not a whole lot going on
While Origins had extensive sub-plots ripe with moral dilemmas for the player to work through, the sequel has Hawke going around town doing bite sized versions of the same concept. The brevity of the side quests in Dragon Age II are likely part of a perhaps obvious plan to make dialogue drama more accessible to players less keen on sifting through lists of long responses. The game instead adopts the dialogue wheel, a function introduced in Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise that was met with great success. What the dialogue wheel does is simplify your dialogue selections into a wheel of summarized phrases that when chosen, Hawke will expand upon with a fully voice acted response. Admirable voice performances across the board, witty lines, and intense decisions make way for some engaging scenarios, particularly ones involving Kirkwall’s inner and volatile cultural differences.
You’ll step in between mages and templar, and it’s your call on who is the misunderstood one here. Why is it your call? Well, you’re really good at fighting. These confrontations make up the game’s short lived main story line, and while they are certainly the most exciting, player choice has little effect on changing the most events in any dramatic fashion. The ending especially, cheats the player into pondering a decision that would shape the very future of the city and its values, but instead ends up being one in the same inevitability. In other cases – the optional side work to do around Kirkwall – the aspects of choice revolve more around the now banal and cheap thrills of dialectic RPGs. You can be nasty or nice in how you manner yourself to those offering you work, and the decision to kill someone or not comes to the forefront of conversation at an almost humorous frequency. It’s a streamlined addiction to start -- like a quick Dragon Age fix -- but carries significantly less moral baggage, and the few gold coins as reward reveal little incentive to pursue another.
Anders is a mage and respected underground healer, he's also a nut case.
If Kirkwall felt a bit low budget, then the dungeons beneath it and of its surrounding areas win the award for the cheapest aspect of Dragon Age II. You’ll probably notice the recycled environments within the first hour of the game. Why does this cave seem vaguely familiar? Wasn’t this cellar cleared in the last quest? Boy, everyone seems to live in the same mansion here in Kirkwall. Nearly every instance you enter is re-used, populated with the same enemies, but filled with new chests to loot. The sense of adventure is a bit limited, to put it gently. And the mentioned loot doesn’t make it any better, because Dragon Age still can’t seem to figure it out. You’ll pick up 27 blades called “Dirk” and rings called “Ring” in every visit to these eternal environments. The automatic categorization of junk loot is really the only redeeming improvement Dragon Age II decided to make, otherwise you’ll be sifting through generic magical items (half of which only the main character is allowed to wear), and there’s little sense of reward when outfitting your party.
But then yes, there’s your party, the real highlight of the game and its script, and that is said while admitting the cast is somewhat hit and miss. There are the forgettable siblings of yours, and the game’s grasp of family drama feels rather forced, but there’s also several relationships worth pursuing. There’s Aveline, the head of the city guard who carries herself with a righteous air around her, but deeply wounded by her failures to protect her husband. She’s also playful, especially when trading her values against those of Varric – your snide and charismatic Dwarven partner who knows the ins and outs of living a life of vice. Most delightful is the banter between these kinds of party members as you browse the city and its outskirts, and seeing how one bounces off another is a fun little game to play in and of itself. It’s easy to grow fond of the smart ass in the party like in Origins, but then there’s also Merril, a gentle Elven mage so naïve and lacking of street sense that she comes off as strikingly adorable in the presence of your more hardened followers. Exploring these relationships can reveal love interests, and can also lead to additional side quests that develop in more interesting ways than most. It’s also nice to know as your party comes to love or hate you depending on how you treat others, you’re rewarded by unlocking bonus battle stats for them regardless. Of course, if you want them to take a certain path over another, you may have to be nice to the ones you hate.
What’s going to catch fans off guard the most is the game’s Hollywood like makeover of the combat. Dragon Age II is indeed still a game of hearty pause-and-play tactics where targeting and mitigating the presence of the most dangerous foe is the priority, and it remains fun in these aspects. Immediately noticeable, however, are these thick groups of weaklings, and there’s really no other way to describe them. They have nearly no health, hardly hurt you, and go down in one swipe (perhaps two on harder difficulties) -- and yet they add some gratuity to each battle. Perhaps it serves as a way to get your adrenaline pumping before facing the real enemies, slamming the ground with your great sword to see 5 henchmen go flying. And matching this massacre is the more flagrant animations of your fighters; warriors swing their mallets and swords with great ferocity, rogues throw up smoke bombs and kick them into crowds of enemies, and mages twirl every which way – it’s quite the makeover.
You're going to face these same demons a lot, and you're going to look like Jet Li doing so.
But then there are the real enemies, and this is actually where the combat begins depending on the difficulty setting. While party composition, positioning (mostly for bosses now), and skill management is more important on harder difficulties, -- making sure you can soak damage as well as dish it out – it’s quite easy to just wipe the floor with whatever group you’re using, even on regular settings. And that’s perhaps the flashy charm of the game’s streamlined nature – enjoy the show, and carry on. Crank the challenge up and you’ll certainly get what’s closer to traditional party based tactics, but then some new annoyances pop up along with it. For one, you’ll start to notice the flamboyant attacks of your characters seem a bit cheap and comical, since the stronger enemies don’t seem to take much damage at all from auto-attacks, even if you’ve been piling points into your warrior’s strength all game. And then there’s Dragon Age II’s system of enemy waves, one coming after another at certain moments. When is the battle going to end? You just don’t know. Exciting from one angle, and frustrating at another. One very mentionable problem is that you can’t zoom out to a useful bird’s eye level (even on the PC version). As you’re barely tickling the health bars of the strong melee enemies in the front rows -- after having just annihilated the flock of weak ones -- a powerful mage may spawn in the back of the room. These guys are pretty much the biggest threat in the game, and you’ll die often times simply because you didn’t know they were invited to the party.
Bandits still jump you in alleyways, spiders still string down from cavern ceilings, and naughty mages still summon their hell spawn in dark cellars – this is still Dragon Age. How the game manages to stay interesting when the above listed are almost literally the game’s entire cast of enemies is a mystery. Although perhaps this is thanks to the game’s various skill trees offered to each class, and even exclusive ones to specific characters. Rogues can focus on party strengthening auras, a powerful yet fragile stealth approach, or crowd control effects that leave enemies confused. Leveling Fenris, a grim elf warrior that lacks a sense of humor, gives him the basic warrior tree options, as well as his exclusive arcane warrior skills – melee mixed with magic. There are many different ways to approach enemies with these options in mind, even if the enemies may not be as interesting themselves. The trees themselves are really light and simple, but this also makes starting new games and trying new builds a painless affair. In other words, mages may not be the most interesting class to play anymore by default – though they probably still are.
Looking at current trends, the new and streamlined approach to RPGs comes as no surprise to Dragon Age II. The traditional experience of party management and moral dilemma is still there, admirably more accessible to newcomers, and somewhat wholesome to veterans. But you’ll sift through intense decisions you’ll forget moments after, through slickly choreographed battles and new adventures, but that you’ll learn to approach with little curiosity or excitement. It passes a Dragon Age fix, but an empty one by many standards set before it. And while it’s reasonable to say Dragon Age II gave its new structure some effort, it was not always of the most earnest kind.