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Late Review: Dragon Age II


Dragon Age II is one of most conflicting games I’ve played. On one hand, its tight, responsive combat system and unique art style provide satisfying highs; while on the other, the story, setting and RPG elements offer mundane monotony - often stifling any enjoyment from Dragon Age II’s successes. The game serves as a sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare’s critically acclaimed masterpiece, which was lauded with many Game of the Year awards. It’s safe to assume Dragon Age II will not be.

BioWare attempted to do what it did to Mass Effect 2: retain its core components, add some new features, and strip away the excess. This worked with Mass Effect 2, retaining the feel and character, yet still making it more accessible to a wider audience; but it didn’t work with Dragon Age II.

The combat is arguably the only successful simplification they’ve made, but even then, there are still gaping flaws in its design. The system works similarly to Origin’s (accessing assigned abilities through X, Y, B, and switching layers with the right trigger) but the combat is much tighter and faster paced. For example, the rogue in Origins could employ a ‘backstab’, and then slowly meander around the enemy to engage in the stabbing; in Dragon Age II, the rogue throws a smoke bomb onto the floor and instantly appears behind the enemy. This applies to all classes: mages can instantly fire spells at their foes, rather than flailing their arms around to summon a AOE spell, and warriors speed towards their aggressors in the fashion of an enraged bull. The violence is satisfying, visceral, and often over the top (which suits its art style inextricably) - it often doesn’t refrain from having the enemies practically exploding in a haze of red and gore (although, the likelihood of this happening has been reduced in its most recent patch).

While securing hype for release, BioWare reps often quoted their mantra of “Think like a general, fight like a Spartan.” While the latter is most certainly true, the former is sadly not. The game retains Origins’s ability to pause and issue orders and that is all well and good, but the scenarios in which our intrepid adventurers find themselves are often determined to undermine the player’s ability to “Think like a general”. Dragon Age II implements a wave system in almost every fight: foes stream down from rooftops, pull themselves up through the ground, and sometimes just plain appear from nowhere. The system works against strategy, as it’s impossible to know what’s coming next. In Origins, one could easily prepare for a fight (pausing the game and issuing orders to one’s companions), but in its sequel, this simply can’t be. This would be acceptable - Hell, expected - within boss battles, but with random encounters on the street? No. When exploring an area of Kirkwall at night, it would not be out of place to see two or three gangs of enemies - all complete with waves. Not only is this tedious for the player, but it brings one out of immersion (I found that, at least) - how bad can Kirkwall’s city guard actually be? It seems to me that the encounters are designed to encourage plain ol’ hack n’ slash - simple bashing of the A button for extended periods of time. This, frankly, bores me; I have frequently turned the difficulty down to easy, just to get it over with. The combat is fun in short battles, but over elongated periods of the same enemies, it's not.

(It’s worth noting that due to a recent patch, auto-attack (Origins style) has returned. It can be simply engaged in the options. This may please some, but I found one of the most engaging things in the combat was the instant gratification of manually attacking.)

Dragon Age II’s new art style is something of an achievement. Origins was dull, muddy and boring, but its sequel improves on this greatly: the streets of Kirkwall are mostly a glorious white marble, blisteringly so, in comparison to Origin’s equivalent, Denerim; the Wounded Coast and its subsequent offshoots are a beautiful amalgamation of a still, azure ocean, gently lapping upon pristine cream beaches; bordered by a veritable oasis of lush green foliage - with a sprinkling of shipwrecks and debris. The environments are all very lovely the first few times you see them; they’re all very nicely detailed and generally show a high level of polish. But when you spend at least 30 hours tramping through the same handful of areas, exploring soon becomes a laborious chore. This, coupled with the same combat scenarios, over and over, leads to a very repetitive and tiring game. A game is doing something very wrong when the player is delighted to find a new environment. This is the thorn in Dragon Age II’s side. Every time the game’s mentioned, the lack of environments will soon follow. The game could have been so much better if more time had been invested into its world.

That said, though, the game’s new art direction is an overwhelming success. The visuals are more unique, shall we say. (I hesitate to say ‘cartoony’, as it doesn’t really do the style justice.) Dragon Age certainly has an image now; you could recognise it from a screenshot - the series is certainly shaping up to have a unique identity. The art that comprises the loading screens and cutscenes between Acts is, I feel, the best part of the game. I simply love the character that comes across and the rustic, broad strokes in which it is represented - I actually look forward to loading screens (which is probably testament to what the game actually offers)!

The game’s narrative is portrayed as a ‘framed narrative’, with Varric explaining the story of Hawke’s ascension to the Champion of Kirkwall. I don’t feel that enough was made of the ‘framed narrative’ gimmick. It only serves as a transition between Acts, and even then its importance is tenuous. I can count on one hand how many times it actually affects the main portion of the game: namely two times. There is a lot of missed potential with the gimmick; Varric could have vastly exaggerated boss battles, actually injecting fun into the game. But sadly, this only happens twice, and both times are lacklustre.

The story is divided into three Acts, with each one being more disappointing than the last, culminating in the criminally short Act III. The narrative comes across as poor, because of its unsatisfying events and their links with one another - or perhaps lack of them. It seems that Hawke is simply only being blown between event after event; it’s as if Hawke has no effect on the world: things happen to him, not because of him. There is also an acute lack of moral choices within the game; all of the choices that are present seem tame compared to Origins’s: the final battle of Origins could yield fatal results, while in Dragon Age II, the culmination of Act III results in the same situation, whichever side you choose. This is disappointing, to say the least, but will hopefully lead to a more focussed Dragon Age III.

However, the narrative isn’t all bad. The story has a natural feel to it; characters and situations are slowly drip-fed: for example, in Act I Meredith is only really hinted at, and as each Act passes she becomes more prominent. Hawke’s companions also have relatively interesting backstories and quests surrounding them (Aveline and Hawke’s siblings exempt). The companion quests are some of the most interesting and insightful in the game, often leading to a fondness surrounding the characters. I feel that the companions are much more accomplished than its predecessors - they all share an equal spot in the limelight, and almost all are welcome to it. The companion system is more personal this time round, too: each companion has their own home around Kirkwall, which you can regularly visit to enable mostly charming conversations.

Hawke himself (or perhaps herself) is amiable at best. There’s not really much to be said about him: he’s supposed to be you, so he’s better off with a blank canvass. The writing for Hawke is what you’d expect: the good option in conversations results in a serious, often prudish response; the witty one often provides a few smirks, but nothing particularly hilarious (Hawke is often unintentionally hilarious, especially with his battle cry of “BE CAREFUL!”); and the aggressive stance is, well, aggressive. Hawke is what you make of him, really. His voice actor is quite good, as with the rest of most of the voice actors, and his battle cries and conversations often sound sincere enough. It provides more of a compelling watch than Origins’s Warden, at least.

One of the BioWare’s more admirable accomplishments with Dragon Age II is that of the race differentiation. In Origins they were all pretty much the same; similar character models, similar features, pretty much similar overall: the humans, elves, and Qunari weren’t that different. The dwarves were unique however, for obvious reasons. But now, the races actually feel like different races: the Qunari are now much taller, muscular and grey-skinned - horned and war-painted for good measure; the elves are much shorter now than humans, with sharper ears and slenderer physiques; and the humans are, well, human. The voices behind the races are also much more distinct, namely the Dalish elves now have a Welsh accent, which is far superior to their Alienage cousins’s grating American accents.

With the simplification of pretty much the entire game, a lot of staple features native to RPGs have fell by the wayside. Again, like Mass Effect 2, one cannot change the companions’s apparel. It wasn’t even handled as well as Mass Effect 2’s system of having two interchangeable costumes each; costumes only change with certain events or after competing a romance scene with Hawke. Unfortunately, only Aveline and Anders change their outfits without being romanced, so only three costume changes per game are likely. Plus, once they’ve changed, one cannot change their clothes back. This leads to the unlikely situation of a character not changing their clothes for seven years. Although, this does lead to characters with more personality and flair. But still, at least three or four costumes per character would be expected; even just one per Act.

Collecting loot is another staple feature to have fallen by the wayside. It just makes no sense anymore. Half the stuff the game allows you to find is practically useless. Any armour that is not able to be equipped by one’s class is useless. They hardly sell for much either, most of the time, so they just end up gathering virtual dust in one’s virtual chest. It’s design choices like this that have really let the game down - the majority of the game’s ‘improvements’ don’t even make sense.

The same applies to side quests. Once they were little tiny clichéd stories that involved saving a child from something or other, but in Dragon Age II, they’re not even that. Basically, all you ever have to do is find something in a chest and take it to someone in Kirkwall. That’s all you ever have to do. It’s just so mind-numbingly simplified; there’s literally no content in there. It seems like it’s there just to be there - no other reason other than to cause a diversion.

Finally, the boss battles are simply terrible. Most - if not all (save two) - of the big boss battles are recycled from Origins. That’s just lazy. So very, very lazy. Most are made up of enemies that have been previously seen (Golems, Pride Demons, Desire Demons, Ogres), and others are comprised of bosses that were clearly created for Origins’s DLC and just shoehorned into its sequel (the Varterral and the Harvester). One of them is the penultimate boss; you’d think some originality would be due there!

Dragon Age II seems like the setup for Dragon Age III. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s simply a vehicle for the introduction of the events in its sequel. A lack of care and attention that I can only assume has been preoccupied with the third in the series. I genuinely hope that it isn’t rushed, or else Dragon Age II’s sacrifice will have been in vain.

I love this game, though. I absolutely love it. I don’t know why I do, because I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s the character it exudes; its art style; perhaps the fun-if-not-repetitive combat; or maybe it's just the endearing companions. I love it and I really, really shouldn’t. There are so many gaping flaws that simply cannot be forgiven, but I love it no less.

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About Rossone of us since 3:18 PM on 01.15.2010

Hi, I'm Ross
Things have changed, but this generally covers me. In fact, lots of things have changed. Anyway, I like to play videogames, talk about them, and write about them. You may have seen me posting a few comments on the front page; it's rare, but it happens. You may have also seen me in the Forums, which I occasionally rear my head in as Brightside. Send me a friend request, here, there, or on any of my consoles. I'm sure we can be friends forever.*

Oh, and here's a Community Interview that I done did.

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