Dragon Age II
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 3/08/11
Bioware has been on a roll for the past few years. After the polarizing effort that was Jade Empire, they redoubled their efforts, producing the generally well received Mass Effect as well as award winners Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, the latter two coming out within only a few months of one another to boot. After several expansion packs of varying price and quality, Bioware has finally opted to bring us the next chapter in the Dragon Age saga, creatively dubbed Dragon Age II. Like Mass Effect 2, it can load information from your prior game to allow the choices made in that game to be noted in the sequel, though unlike Mass Effect 2, the game introduces a new hero, “The Champion”Â for the player to take control of. With a new hero, new environments, new and familiar characters and enemies, and a somewhat streamlined and improved set of mechanics, Dragon Age II seems, at first glance, like the sort of dramatic improvement Mass Effect 2 was over its predecessor. Well, this isn’t a wholly accurate assessment; while the game is a notable improvement in a lot of key respects, some changes are ultimately better than others, and while the game is quite good in a lot of respects, some more time spent in development would have likely made it a classic. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, and as a result, Dragon Age II can sometimes be a bit disappointing as a result.
Dragon Age II starts off during the events of the first game, as your character, Hawke (you can, once again, change the first name of the character as you wish), and his or her family are attempting to get out of Ferelden, which fans of the first game will note was under a massive siege from the Darkspawn at that point. From here the plot progresses over the course of a decade, as your character and his family migrate to the city of Kirkwall in the Free Marches and you rebuild your life and start over in the wake of the events of the first game. Despite the fact that the games both take place in the same world, their plots interconnect little; aside from a few guest appearances from Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Origins Awakening characters, you’ll only hear about the events from those games in passing. This story is Hawke’s to write, and the events of the game are their own. The story is actually presented in an odd, yet interesting, past tense sort of style, as the story is being told by party member Varric to a Seeker from the Chantry. Aside from the fact that it grants all sorts of interesting allusions to what will come to pass (while still allowing you to determine those events), the game will occasionally show that Varric is an unreliable narrator, often to comedic effect, which actually makes the plot somewhat more charming as a result.
Insofar as the actual plot itself goes, on the plus side, it’s nice that Hawke’s storyline isn’t specifically tied to the story of the first game, as it allows you to craft this new storyline without events being specifically beholden to those of the first game. While Mass Effect 2 did a good job of tying everything together from the first game to the second, Dragon Age II chooses to go in a new direction entirely, and that’s actually not a bad thing, as it allows for the franchise to not be tied to one specific character or set of characters, allowing it to develop through its world instead of just one person or group. The characters are all very well written, as well, and their dialogue and character interplay is interesting. The people in your party, while they all might like Hawke, don’t specifically all like one another, and this comes out in various bits of dialogue that basically make the point that these are characters with their own unique personalities and values, not just ciphers for the game to project on. Also, it’s nice that the plot elements are more varied from the “good versus evil”Â concepts of the first game, and that the plot doesn’t come down exclusively to fighting the bad guys as much as deciding who the bad guys are towards the end, something the first game lacked. On the other hand, the core plot, while fine, doesn’t feel especially epic in scope, as it’s mostly a series of tenuously connected events tying from one part of the story to the next that, while fine on their own, don’t always seem like they’re especially impressive or well assembled as a whole. Further, while the game makes efforts to try and differentiate the characters somewhat from prior Bioware efforts, you can still see elements of prior Bioware characters in these characters. Varric is Alistair, only a dwarf; Isabela is Morrigan, only less truly amoral; Merrill is Liara from Mass Effect, only kind of evil, and so on down the line. The characters are still well written and still likable, but you’ll find that if you’re a fan of Bioware, you’ll recognize the characters more often than not.
Dragon Age II isn’t as visually impressive as its predecessor relative to other games on the market at the time, but it’s still a very good looking game. The character models are well designed and animated, and the various battles you face throughout the course of the game are as lively and exciting as in the first. The little details that made the first game a joy to watch, such as the blood of fallen enemies remaining on your characters after battle, still bring the experience alive and make the game feel like something special the second time around. The lighting and special effects are also well handled in this game, from the spells you cast to the light given off by various sources in town and in dungeons, and the environments in general are very pretty and well designed from a visual standpoint. That said, the camera still has issues at times when you get too close to walls, and the game tends to repeat dungeons frequently enough that it’s noticeable early in the game, which is unfortunate, especially because it’s so obvious; it’s one thing to repeat a texture, it’s another thing entirely to repeat the entire layout of the dungeon point for point. The audio in the game, on the other hand, is as fantastic as ever. The music once again consists of the expected rolling orchestral score, and it fits the game beautifully once again, as it gives an epic feel to the events and actions as they take place. The voice acting, though some actors have changed from one game to the next, is pretty outstanding as well, as Bioware has once again cast actors and actresses to the various roles who know how to bring out the personalities of their roles wonderfully. The sound effects are still your expected “metal clashing against metal”Â and “elemental noises when spells are cast”Â, as you’d expect, but they’re as well done as ever and fit in place as fine as they ever did.
Dragon Age II is a somewhat streamlined version of its predecessor, which means that many elements of the game have changed somewhat, but the controls have thankfully remained mostly intact from one game to the next, making the learning curve somewhat reduced. As this is, once again, a role-playing game, you’ll spend a significant amount of your time moving about the game world, talking to characters and interacting with the environment. You can move with the left stick, and the right stick turns the camera as needed. The A button works as your all-purpose interaction button, allowing you to use environmental objects, talk to people, open doors and so on, and the bumpers allow you to switch between characters in your party as needed, in case you need to use the rogue to pick a lock, for instance. The D-pad can be used to change whatever thing you’re targeting in the environment, in case you’re targeting an NPC and want to target the sign to the right of him but don’t want to move to do so. The left trigger brings up a radial menu, which allows you to choose and set skills for your chosen character, use items, specify commands for your party and so on, which basically allows it to act as a hotkey menu of sorts. You can pretty much pick up the basics of the gameplay within an hour or so of play, and moving through towns, dungeons and other locales is simple enough that even the most inexperienced of RPG players should have it down in no time.
You’ll spend a fair amount of your exploration time talking to various characters, which is now done via a circular decision menu, similar to that of Mass Effect. Your responses can be noble, deceitful, serious, or sarcastic, among other things, depending on your own personal desires at the moment and who you’re trying to impress. No answers are “wrong”Â in the strictest sense, though certain answers may not achieve the desired results and other answers may outright shut you out from completing various quests. Further, any answer you provide may possibly put a character in your party off, as they might feel your answer was too opportunistic or too charitable or what have you, which can damage your relations with that party member. You can improve their opinions by answering in ways they would deem favorable, by giving them gifts to improve their opinion of you if you don’t feel like appeasing them with your behavior, or by completing the various sidequests they present you as the game progresses. As you progress through the game, your party members will change their opinion of you, either for better or worse, which can open up romantic interests and quests if you play your cards right. Interestingly, this time around, you’re not condemned to “Good”Â or “Bad”Â opinions, but are instead offered either “Friendship”Â or “Rivalry”Â opinions, neither of which is bad, so to say. Whether you’re friends or rivals with someone, you can usually have romantic relations with them and they’ll still trust you implicitly, even if they don’t agree with your means of operating. They’ll also lock in as a permanent Friend or Rival once the bar is maxed out in a specific direction, meaning you won’t have to worry about their opinion any further from that point. You can review your party member’s opinions of you, the quests you’ve acquired, and your inventory and equipment from the various menus you can access at a press of the Start button. These menus will allow you to keep track of what needs doing, where you need to go, and what documents you’ve found throughout your travels, and you can also manage your inventory and equipment from here. In the beginning you’ll probably spend a decent amount of time poking around in these menus to look at new gear and drop worthless items to free up space, but as you acquire larger backpacks for more item storage and settle into the weapons and armor you’ll be using for your late game run, you’ll spend less time managing your inventory and more time managing your final quests.
Of course, sooner or later you’ll have to jump into combat with opposing forces, and fortunately, Dragon Age II still makes this quite easy to learn as well. Whenever you encounter hostiles, your characters will draw their weaponry and prepare to attack. You will attack whatever enemy you have highlighted by pressing the A button, which will make your character attack the enemy, though in a change from the last game, you’ll now have to repeatedly press A to continue attacking enemies until they’re dead. You can also hotkey up to five special abilities (as well as your healing items) to the other three face buttons, either by pressing them alone or while holding the R trigger. You can also select skills from the left trigger radial menu, so you can change your skills on the fly as needed, in case certain skills would be more or less useful at the moment. You can switch between any character in your party at any time with the bumpers, allowing you to control whichever character you wish to set up interesting combat tactics, like having the tank draw an enemy’s ire while your rogue slips in behind a foe for a sneak attack. Your allies can also be programmed with a series of combat tactics, which you can increase as you level the characters up, allowing you to set them with various conditional modifiers to dictate their behavior in battle. You can, for example, set Anders or Bethany to heal allies when they drop below a certain health level, target nearby enemies with area of effect spells, cast debilitating spells under various conditions, and so on, depending on what you feel you’ll need as the case dictates. These combat tactics can be changed between a custom set or various default sets, allowing you to change party behavior on the fly, depending on what you need at the moment.
Now, aside from the change in how attacking works and the change to the dialogue options, there are several other noticeable changes made to various elements of the game. Now, as before, each character in your party, including your character, has statistics that reflect their job class and experience level, as well as various special abilities they can learn as they grow. Dragon Age II only allows you to play as a human, but you can still choose to be a warrior, mage or rogue, depending on what you want to do with the game. Instead of offering you a few basic specializations and skills, the game instead allows you to buy different skills in various specializations as you level up and eliminates the secondary skills entirely, either relegating these options to vendors (for potion and poison making for instance) or having the skills be influenced by your stats (for lockpicking). Your main character can choose two additional specialty subclasses as they level up, and you can buy various skills under each class as you level up, based on what you want to have available to you skill-wise. Your allies, however, are set to whatever subclasses they are given at the time, meaning that, for instance, Merrill cannot learn healing magic, Fenris cannot learn sword and shield attacks, and so on. To compensate, all characters save for your brother or sister also get their own unique skill tree, which allows them special skills only they can learn. In addition, they also can learn a special skill depending on whether they are Friend or Rival to Hawke, which imparts its own bonuses and such to the character and, possibly, to Hawke. As before, characters also receive attribute upgrades, which can be devoted to strength (for melee damage), dexterity (for dodging, hitting and ranged damage), Willpower (stamina and magic point capacity), Magic (magic damage and healing effectiveness), Cunning (improves coercion and skill learning) and Constitution (improves health and physical resistance), as needed.
In another interesting change, while you can still equip your allies with weapons and accessories, much like in Mass Effect 2, they no longer are allowed to equip armor, choosing instead to wear the outfits they come into the party with or change to in the storyline. To upgrade their armor, you can instead find various enhancements for sale at shops or in parts of dungeons and overworld locations that enhance their defense and other such things. These enhancements pop up in different chapters, making exploration vital for finding the items, as they’re very helpful for your allies, though they can survive without them if you miss something. Gifts no longer play a huge role in determining if an ally likes or dislikes you, as there are very few of them (two or three per character), so you can’t rely on them to make characters like you. However, each gift spawns a unique dialogue segment when given, and can only be given to a specific character, making the gifts themselves more meaningful than just giving someone a gem and hoping for the best. The game also no longer puts you in the position of finding resources to make potions and poisons per say. Instead of you turning up deathroot and holding onto it to make something later, instead, you can discover a location where deathroot grows, which allows you to count it as a harvestable resource later when making potions and poisons at a shop, which significantly streamlines the whole crafting process.
Also, in a wonderful addition, whatever place you’re living in at the time has places where you can store goods and order potions and such, and later in the game your house also gains an in-house enchanter, courtesy of our dear friend Sandal once again moving in (though he talks a bit more now, which kind of ruins it a little). Enchantments are now a one-and-done sort of affair, however, so instead of removing old enchantments and moving them to gear or selling them, once you want to replace them, the old one is now gone. Conversely, however, enchantments are now generic enhancements that impart statistical enhancements based on the level of the weapon, and as such, are quite cheap to craft and acquire, so this balances out. Further, instead of traversing all over the world to get to various locations, all of the various quests happen in one of three locations: Kirkwall, during the day; Kirkwall, during the night; or hotspots in the countryside surrounding Kirkwall. While this means that many locations will repeat more often than in Dragon Age: Origins, it also means that the game is designed in a fashion that essentially says “we understand you don’t want to watch the game draw a line from point A to point B for a minute and don’t want to waste your time making you do so”Â, and that’s actually rather nice, to be honest. Finally, you no longer have a camp ground to talk to allies at, nor can you engage in conversation at random with them. Instead, each character has a location they hang out at when they’re not in your party, allowing you to visit them there and converse as the game allows, which is actually fairly sensible, if nothing else.
If you blow through the game’s main storyline missions, you can pretty much complete the game in around ten to fifteen hours (no, really), as the story missions are a small overall part of the game this time around. If you go through and explore the different locations, complete all of the various sidequests and so on, you can expect to tack on another fifteen to twenty hours to the game, all around. With this being a Bioware title, we can also expect a good amount of DLC to keep the game going long after completion, and indeed there is already DLC available, though most of it is available as a freebie for buying the game new or registering for various things online. The only piece of content that you’ll likely have to pay for now, The Exiled Prince, was free if you got the Signature Edition of the game (by preordering it before mid January) as a reward for preordering early, one supposes. Suffice it to say that, between the preorder gifts, the gifts from owning prior games, the Signature Edition gifts, and the gifts for registering early for the content, I personally ended up with about thirty different free items and a bunch of additional quests, so one can assume that Bioware will likely keep that trend going down the line. Between the various customization options and character combinations you can create, there are also plenty of reasons to come back to the game again should you wish to do so, though, ONCE AGAIN, the game lacks a New Game Plus option, and this time there’s really no indication as to why this is, save that someone at Bioware said no, and, uh, thanks for that, I guess, but I’d rather have one if it’s all the same to you. Still, though, with the different skill trees to work with, the different plot lines to see, the different options for friendship or rivalry to pursue, and so on, there are plenty of reasons to come back to the game even after you’ve completed it even without the option to carry over your stats to a new playthrough.
That said, while Dragon Age II feels like a more focused and enjoyable effort than its predecessor in a lot of ways, it also feels like a rush job in other ways. The targeting is still not perfect and occasionally you’ll have to fight with it to target who or what you want, and while it now officially feels like it’s a fine console game, this is mostly because of the “press A repeatedly to attack”Â mechanic than anything else. Further, the design concept that has your party members only gain improvements to their gear by way of you finding or buying specific enhancements rather than equipping them with new armor, while it minimizes the amount of actual micromanaging you’ll have to do, isn’t an especially good idea. In Mass Effect 2 this concept works because armor only gives mild enhancements to Shepard, and to upgrade everyone you have to develop group upgrades, thus allowing everyone to improve simultaneously. Here, Hawke has access to all sorts of awesome armor, but none of his party can ever wear it, which kind of makes the fact that you have access to lots of said awesome gear rather pointless. Further, because you’re never really buying gear for your party members, and since money literally is in abundant supply, the game is significantly easier than its predecessor as a result unless you play on the hardest difficulties. It’s not that I want the game to break it off in me, but if I can take on a monstrous Dragon in Dragon Age: Origins and lose my whole party, and on the same difficulty, take on a High Dragon in this game and not even come close to losing anyone, well, that’s indicative that there’s been a difficulty downscaling.
Further, Dragon Age II is, to be frank, noticeably buggy. Now, this is not to say that there weren’t bugs in Dragon Age: Origins, because there were, but the bugs in that game could either be described as “infrequent”Â or “not overly problematic”Â, and as such, when reviewing that game, I frankly never encountered them. The same can’t be said here, as while I haven’t encountered bugs that caused the game to crash or otherwise hurt the experience, I’ve encountered several that were either annoying regardless or simply silly. So, let’s begin. There is a glitch to replicate items, a glitch to max out your levels and gold by completing one of the various stupid random quests that pop up here and there throughout the game, and a glitch to jack out your armor by way of equipping shields. The entire Exiled Prince DLC pack is glitched and absolutely NONE of the Achievements work, which is awesome because I COMPLETED ALL OF THEM and now I’m assuming I’ll have to complete, oh, another twenty hours of gameplay just to unlock them once the patch comes down THANKS GUYS. It’s one thing to play the game again because I missed an Achievement, it’s quite another earning something again. A glitch popped up where my romantic interest started visiting my house ANY time I went there, trying to get me to advance that subplot, when they’re supposed to only visit at night, and I can’t even begin to fathom how that happened. Couple that with a few instances of obvious system chugging and a few other odds and ends and you end up with a game that really needed to be held back a month for bug testing.
Dragon Age II is one of those games that’s better in a conceptual sense, but worse in a practical sense, than its predecessor, and while it’s ultimately a good game, an extra month of development time would have made the game better than it is. The storyline, though at times disjointed, is generally well written as always, and the characters, though occasionally familiar, are as likable as ever. The game looks very nice, if occasionally repetitive, and the game sounds mostly fantastic. The gameplay should be familiar to fans of the previous game, with some mild changes here and there to make it more interesting for the console market that don’t hurt the product all in all. The simplified mechanics of customization, leveling and crafting also make the game easier to work with and play, and make the game less daunting than its predecessor in a lot of respects. While there’s still no New Game Plus mode to speak of, between the promise of DLC, the Achievements to earn, and the different choices to make and paths to follow, there’s also plenty to keep you coming back to the game if you find it enjoyable and exciting. That said, the targeting is still problematic, the lack of armor customization for allied characters is too simplistic, and the game simply feels easier than its predecessor in most respects when it didn’t need to be. Further, the game is buggy in a lot of respects, both in ways that are amusing and annoying, and it doesn’t feel like it was playtested as well as it could have been. Dragon Age II is still good fun, that’s undeniable, but it feels like Bioware was under the gun to try and push the game out as fast as possible and the product suffered for it, and while it’s still fun and enjoyable, it could have been better, honestly.
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Dragon Age II is one of those games that manages to make several notable improvements over its predecessor while also managing to shoot itself in the foot along the way, and while it’s still a very good game, as the score says, it could have been better. The story is enjoyable to follow and generally well written, but parts feel disjointed and the characters feel familiar, again. The game is pleasing to the eyes, but locations repeat too often to be ignored. The audio is as fantastic as ever, thanks to some great scoring and voice casting, as always. The gameplay has been simplified and touched up to appeal more readily to new players and console gamers, and for the most part, the simplifications and changes work well enough. The game is also quite in-depth and offers plenty of reasons to come back and play through it a second or third time, which is to its credit. However, the targeting still needs work, the simplification of the ally armor options make for some boring points, and the game feels needlessly easier than its predecessor. Further, the game has some exploitable bugs, as well as some frustrating bugs, that make the game more annoying than it really should be. Dragon Age II, sans the developmental problems, would have been an easy to recommend sequel to a pretty fantastic game, and a month longer in development would likely have resolved that entirely, but grading the game based on the game we’re given, it’s still a very good, if disappointing effort, one that hopefully won’t carry over to Mass Effect 3.