All things considered, Bioware has had a pretty good track record. From their initial, genre-defining releases in Baldurís Gate and Neverwinter Nights, to more recent titles like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, the Canadian studio has put out some amazing games that have been the cause of much debate in the gaming community. It seems only reasonable that, somewhere along the line, the studio would have to make a mistake. They would have to slip up somewhere, wouldnít they?
For my initial impressions of Dragon Age II (think of them as a supplement to the main review!), check over on this page.
A surprising amount of people (and myself, for a long time) would tell you that Dragon Age: Origins was this slip-up, this confusing mark on an otherwise flawless report. Many hoped the sequel would fix some of the troubling issues that plagued it (the clunky combat being chief among these concerns), and nearly a year and a half later, Dragon Age II is in my list of Completed Games. After spending nearly 30 hours engrossed in the city-state of Kirkwall, I might not be so inclined to agree with the Origins nay-sayers anymore. It feels like the whole series has been a smudge in one way or another. Thatís a story for another time, however.
Dragon Age II is a decidedly different game from Origins in several substantial ways. While they have made great pains to improve the game in certain areas, with the combat in particular feeling much more active and alive, Bioware has floundered in the one area that should matter the most in a role-playing game of this day and age: the story. Add that major concern to the numerous in-game issues and the many confusing decisions made by the developers and you find a thoroughly confounding, but ultimately salvageable game in DA2. If this game made me feel anything else, itís worry for Mass Effect 3.
The combat in Dragon Age II is well-refined. I can say that confidently and not worry about overstating it, but the fact is that playing as a warrior feels much more explosive and dangerous than it did in Origins, where I felt completely overwhelmed trying to do anything at all. Playing on the PC I still had quite a bit of tactical ability, but I felt that it eventually grew unnecessary: My party found encounters where 3/4ths of them could literally auto-pilot their way to victory. There were also frequent occasions when thatĎs all they could do, given their lack of stamina and mana. This monotonousness carried on for quite some time, ramping up dramatically near the end of the game. I canít comment on higher difficulty levels (I completed it on Normal in around 28 and a half hours), but thereís a fear that the tedium that sets in on Normal could become quite worse with artificially strengthened encounters.
Combat becomes a much more interesting game when you do use your tactical abilities correctly. Each class can inflict some sort of status ailment that can be utilized by a different class for some serious damage, and maximizing your use of these can destroy some trash encounters. Prepare to destroy a LOT of trash too; the many cookie-cutter dungeon cells are packed with a rather small amount of unique varieties. Fortunately, the boss encounters in DA2, however few and far apart they are, are some of the most inspired enemies to defeat that Iíve seen from Bioware this generation. The optional encounter in Act 3 deserves a special note; itís one of the few moments in the entire game where you feel like youíre getting something done on the bare edge of your teeth, down to the last of your consumables and holding out for sweet victory.
The ďcookie-cutter dungeonsĒ are perhaps one of my biggest griefs with the game. Throughout the entirety of the 30-hour campaign on Normal, I walked through a small handful of uniquely generated dungeons. It felt like there were only 7 different selections of maps, with different doors and pathways changing the general landscape only slightly. Itís a complete slap in the face to deliver such little variation in the areas that make up almost a third (if not more) of your game time. The same could be said about Kirkwall in general, but I felt that a special exception has to be made to these dungeons. One in particular stands out near the end of the game; Hawke is asked to investigate a warehouse. The preset warehouse dungeon has a dock inside of it, extending out into the ocean. The only problem with this is that, with the entrance where it is into the dungeon, the dock is in the middle of the Qunari Compound. It felt incredibly lazy on their part to go through with a fundamental gameplay decision like this.
Moving away from the combat (which takes up a decent amount of the game once you get into it), other gameplay mechanics have been updated or improved upon since their inception in Origins, but not all truly excel. Overall, the UI feels much more sleek and well-rounded; if anything, itís a perfect balance between functionality on the consoles and on the PC. Itís been cleaned up and given a new coat of paint. For just a few of the changes:
- The dialogue wheel, ripped from Mass Effect, was improved upon greatly and is a really intuitive way to engage in the dialogue without feeling too constrained. There were situations where it felt like not enough options were available and you were truly forced into a certain option, but they are seemingly small in number. To compound this, the entire dialogue structure has taken a pretty strong bit of influence from Mass Effect, with a strong sense of cinematic appeal as opposed to static 2-camera switches. All in all this feels like the best update as far as a major gameplay mechanic goes.
- To be honest, I quickly grew to miss the micromanagement of several party members, the 4 pieces of gear being whittled down to one upgradeable piece of armor giving me an unorthodox pile of vendor trash. It felt like I was selling 90% of the gear I received, only to frown when I try to upgrade any of my companionsí armor. I donít frankly know why this functionality was switched around; if nothing else your companions couldíve had more palette swaps or slight costume modifications. I did notice several costume changes, but they were still just one-piece suits to the next.
- To carry that idea one step further, with how useless gear management felt for my companions, the stat system as a whole felt purposeless. If my characters each only need two primary to upgrade their gear at all, why would I bother to improve their other four statistics? This locks characters even further into specializations, but this time in the wrong way; you canít have those odd deviations that still somehow work, which stifles the creativity in class combos slightly.
- The talent trees being broken down and split up as they are in Dragon Age lends itself very easily to the player; different shaped branches in the tree designate different types of abilities: whether theyíre Sustained, Active or Passive. All in all it feels like, with 6 talent trees for most characters (and two of three Specializations for Hawke him/herself), youíre able to really define what each character is going to be doing in combat situations. I like the change, but I felt like Hawke never really had enough abilities to match up with his allies. Varric, Merrill and Aveline (my victory team) all had a full complement of abilities, auras and tactics to use by the time they were 11 or soÖand Hawke had 5 active abilities. It was confusing, but it does all even out in the end if you get far enough.
Iíll get into my biggest concern with DA2 in a second, but I must point out one thing before I do so. If youíre a fan of Bioware for their gameplay, youíve probably got a good idea of what to expect from this game from what youĎve read so far. If youíre a fan of the writing, all I can say is that youíre in for a treat. While the story itself is confusing and harangued, the writing is just as good, if not better than Mass Effect. The characters are sharply designed and expertly voice-acted; their interactions in-town and during cut scenes are remarkably well-driven, and if you havenít already heard me say it, Varric Tethras is (in my humble opinion) one of the best characters Biowareís thought up in a long, long time. Dudeís the ultimate dwarven bro, and he happens to be the narrator!
That leads me to the biggest point to make about Dragon Ageís second run. The story of Hawke and the city-state of Kirkwall are a big shift from the world-sweeping epics of their previous titles. Instead of traveling across multiple, varied locations, a LARGE part of the game takes place in Kirkwall, over the span of about ten years or so. The opening begins right around the same time Origins did, with the Blight sweeping over Ferelden. Hawkeís family flees the countryside to arrive in the sprawling city-state of Kirkwall. Forced to make a deal with a choice of two underground organizations, Hawke enters the city and works off his debt for a year. From there, the story unfolds as he moves up in the social ladder, solving issues for the city one destitute individual at a time. This story on its own, spread out in three recognizable acts, is perfectly fine and in many cases highlights just what a remarkable job the writers have done.
The problem I have with this concept is that there seems to be a fundamental lack of an overarching story to it. While there are ties between each of the acts, they feel wholly contained on their own; there is no central antagonist until the last hour of the story, which comes as a sudden and confusing plot twist, several events that are linked by previous events are muddled and donít flow well at all, and in many cases the actual structure of the story is bugged and broken in the gameís current state. There were several points in the game where I was almost entirely unsure of who I was working for, or what I was even doing. The three-year gaps that occur between acts hold enormous story potential, but players hear very little of it and in turn become confused when thrust into the first major situations of each act. The story becomes entrenched in the side-quests, placing Hawke in so many situations itís a wonder the guy has any time to breathe, let alone find a real bad guy and save the day like any other RPG hero would. Thatís not even mentioning the almost complete-stop of an ending that felt criminally abrupt. At the end of the game, I felt confused, cheated and unfulfilled instead of heroic and victorious.
At the end of the day, Dragon Age II is a confusing game. I still havenít fully grown to understand some of their decisions, but I see the potential in what the game couldíve
been. The game, at its very core and essence, feels rushed. It seems like the title couldíve used more time, more attention to the various components that didnít excel as well as they could have. Perhaps the future DLC (which we all know is going to happen, just look at all the launch DLC) will remedy some of these issues, but somehow I doubt it. I donít want to say EA is at fault here, but I donít think a few more months of development time wouldíve hurt this game. If you werenít a fan of the combat systems in Origins, you might be more inclined towards this game. The potential influence this game has on future Bioware titles is immense, and I hope that their publisher isnít pushing them into releasing anything else before its time.
Final Score: 7 The review itself belongs to No Worries Gaming and myself; this is sort of an experiment.