Review: Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II (2011) – 

Before I actually start the review, there are a few important things I need to point out first. One is the fact that I consider the first game, Dragon Age: Origins and all its additional content, to be one of the best RGPs I have ever played, and the sequel would have to be pretty damn impressive to compete with it. The second is that I’d heard quite a lot of criticism aimed at Dragon Age II, both from friends and from online forums, who seemed to be in agreement that the sequel was a pale imitation of its predecessor.

As you can imagine, I went into Dragon Age II with fairly low expectations…

And I was pleasantly surprised. While the game is definitely not up to the standard of Origins, it is certainly not, as one friend so eloquently put it, ‘wank’. Dragon Age II may not have the best gameplay  in the world, but BioWare have proven time and time again that story and characters are what they’re best at and this game is no exception.

*

The bad:

Before playing the game, one of the main complaints I had heard was that, compared to the first one, the gameplay had been greatly simplified, and I have to agree. While I wouldn’t say that Dragon Age II has been stripped of its RPG elements, I would certainly say that they have been greatly reduced.

Gone are features such as armour fatigue and secondary weapons, and Skills are nowhere in sight. Talents and Spells have both been simplified as well, and companion approval/disapproval ratings are now far easier to gain. Tactics are also still present, but, despite relying heavily on them during the first game, I didn’t find myself using them. All these points make the game feel like it had been dumbed down.

While there is still a large selection of armour available, Hawke is the only character whose armour is customisable, so it makes you wonder why they bothered including it at all, because surely everybody just collects the Mantle of the Champion and calls it a day.

I also felt that the game seemed less challenging, with enemies being a lot easier to kill than they were in the first game. Dragon Age II seemed to be focused on the idea of quantity not quality when it came to fights, pitting you against numerous but not overly challenging enemies, and occasionally throwing the odd boss battle into the mix for good measure. While strategy was integral part to winning battles in Origins, there were very few enemies in Dragon Age II who couldn’t be beaten by simple button-mashing. Dragon Age: Origins was a whole different beast to its sequel. It was a harder and meaner game, and was all the better for it.

Another problem is the combat. In Origins, the combat was brutal and engaging, but in this game it is exaggerated and childish, with characters leaping into combat and performing feats that, while visually impressive, are physically impossible. This exaggerated style only serves to distract you from the game, as the combat is so visually over-the-top, that your screen quickly becomes a disorientating blur of blood and explosions.

Another of my problems with Dragon Age II, although it is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of thing, is the fact that the truly evil and terrifying darkspawn from Origins have been replaced by almost comical looking redesigns. These horrifying, demonic, and (most importantly) intelligent monsters have been turned into nothing more than a horde of slathering zombie wannabes and unfortunately, they’re piss-easy to kill as well. It’s a great shame because I feel it all that really undermined the great threat they posed in the first game.

It is worth noting that all of the above complaints come from reviewing the game as a sequel, but if you judge the game solely on its own merits, then most of the criticisms I have listed above do not apply, and because of this, I feel that players using Dragon Age II as an entry point into the series will enjoy it far more than those who have experience the first game.

*

The Good:

As I stated earlier, BioWare knows how to write a good story, and Dragon Age II certainly carries on that tradition. The game is divided into three acts (and a brief prologue), each set three years apart, and the intermediate time filled in by a voiceover from your team mate Varric. This story within a story format works incredibly well, especially when Varric allows himself a little artistic license, such as exaggerating everything (including Bethany’s bust size) in his over-the-top version of Hawke’s exodus from Ferelden. It’s a brilliant example of BioWare using their accomplished storytelling techniques to maximum, and hilarious, effect.

The fact that the game is set over a nine year period really allows the player to get an in-depth feeling for the city of Kirkwall, its politics and religions, and for the people that live there. Friendships and relationships feel real, and the simmering tensions between the templar and mages, which form the backbone of the story, escalate to an explosive head in a very natural and believable way. By the end of the game, it feels like you, not your character, have lived in Kirkwall for the past nine years.

The three act narrative is effective as well, with every decision you make coming with the added weight of having to think about how it will affect you further on in the game. And affect you they do, with seemingly throwaway choices and apparently minor events from early on in the game coming back to haunt you in a big way in later acts.

*

The main strength of every BioWare game that I have played to date has undoubtedly been found in their cast of characters, and Dragon Age II comes full of characters that do not disappoint.

I think it would be very hard to find anyone who did not take an instant liking to Varric the second he appeared on screen, all gruff bravado and hairy chest. Voiced perfectly by Brian Bloom (who’s dulcet tones were last heard voicing StarCraft II’s Matt Horner), he quietly steals the show from under Hawk’s feet and is easily the most likeable, funny, and charming character in the game. It’s just a shame he’s not a romantic option, or my female Hawk definitely would have jumped that…

I won’t go into a breakdown of every character, but I will say that every single one is likeable, believable, and endearing. Even Isabella, the only character I didn’t really like had her moments. Some characters were more likeable than other, but they were all unquestionably likeable. Aveline, with her flaming red hair and steely attitude, was a personal favourite of mine (and I mourn the fact that she remained oblivious to all my attempts at flirting), and her companion mission was so sweet and deserving that it had me going all weak at the knees and misty-eyed.

As I said earlier, the game’s nine year long really helps to realise its setting, and it has a similar effect on the characters. The prolonged timeline helps to make character arcs seem realistic and believable, and friendships feel genuine and emotional. Characters have time to grow and their behaviour never feels rushed. By the end of the game, you’ll actually find yourself missing them when you turn off your computer.

*

One of the strongest aspects of Dragon Age II is just how dark Bioware are willing to go with this game. Every act is full of character deaths (some are minor, but some are major), and each one hits you hard (some harder than others – especially when you’ve had a hand in it due to your choices in previous acts). I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that Dragon Age II ends with a much smaller cast than it began with. Characters that you have got to know over the course of the first two acts can be suddenly and violently cut down in the third act, leaving both Hawke and the player feeling unnerved.

This unrelenting brutality creates a tense and oppressive atmosphere which helps to emphasise the uneasiness between the templar and mages and gives weight to the dark atmosphere which hangs over Kirkwall like a thick fog. Do not be put off by Dragon Age II’s violent tone though, because the game still features plenty of BioWare’s trademark humour, and their ‘Party Banter’ is still as fresh and as funny as it is in all their releases. This juxtaposition of dark tone and humour helps to give the game a very realistic feel.

*

Dragon Age II also finds great strength in confronting the player with some very difficult decisions. Although nothing came close to Mass Effect’s excruciating flip-a-coin moment on Virmire, there were still several moments that made me pause and seriously consider my actions.

The worst of these was when, at the end of the game, you are forced to pick between the templar and the mages. All the way through the game I had obstinately supported the mages, but when it came time to make the final choice, I found I had to stop and think about it. Was I supporting the mages because they were being wronged by the templar and needed justice? Or was I simply picking them because my sister Bethany and my lover Merrill were both mages?

The fact that the game is capable of actually making you stop and weigh up your decisions show just how well the storyline is written. You care about the world of the game and want to make sure you are doing the right thing for the right reason, because making the wrong decision can deeply affect a player. I should know because, although I am content that I picked the right side in the mage/templar war, how I dealt with Anders is still troubling me as I write this, and it’s been a quite a while since I completed the game.

Another thing that still bothers me is my treatment of Isabella. As I said earlier, she was my least favourite companion in the game, and because of that she was the only one that I hadn’t achieved maximum friendship with. This resulted in her permanently leaving my party and I still can’t believe that she did. This really shows just how important even the smaller decisions are in Dragon Age II and that fact that I’m still disappointed in myself that she left shows just how deep and affecting Bioware’s stories and characters can be.

*

So, in summary:

Dragon Age II is a good game, the problem is that Dragon Age: Origins was a great game, but with its engaging characters and a story that manages to get under your skin, it is still a strong entry in BioWare’s catalogue. While the simplified RPG elements are disappointing, the game still has a lot going for it and is a joy to play, especially when you hear Isabella ask to stroke Varric’s chest hair.

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