Review: Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin
Genre: RPG
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 10/11/11

Dragon Age II has certainly been all over the place insofar as reception goes. Some people liked the more action-oriented mechanics and the slimmed down inventory systems, as well as the freedom to romance characters of either gender with no issue. Others hated the repetition of the design and mechanics, the simplified systems and the fact that dudes hit on their dude sometimes. Legacy, the first expansion for the game, did no better. It was praised for its length and variety while being condemned for a final boss that was awkward and more action oriented than many were comfortable with. Mark of the Assassin seems as if it has the intention in mind of trying to rectify some of the more obvious complaints about Legacy and, hopefully offering more depth, all while trying to promote the Dragon Age: Redemption web series. This is a nice idea in theory, but in practice, the mechanics don’t all come together as well as they could, and the main point of the expansion above and beyond all others is so singularly focused that it becomes problematic if, to be blunt, you don’t care about it.

As with Dragon Age II: Legacy, the story here is presented as a side story Varric is confronted with by the Seeker, and said story is wholly self-contained and can basically be played anytime from the second act onward (presumably) without affecting anything. As it goes, Hawke and company are tipped off to a meeting in Hightown that ends up being an ambush before they’re introduced to Tallis, who has been wanting to meet up with Hawke in hopes that she can request some aid. It seems that Duke Prosper, an Orlesian noble in the area, has come into the possession of a gem dubbed the Heart of Many, and he shouldn’t have this thing, so Tallis is looking to liberate this from him. She requests Hawke’s assistance in liberating this thing from Prosper, and off you go to do this thing, though if you’re betting that the plot’s a lot more complicated than that, you get a cookie. The plot of Mark of the Assassin is generally pretty solid, on the whole, and most of the characters you’ll meet are interesting enough to hold up their end of the plot and keep things moving along fine. You’ll also see a few familiar faces from the franchise as you go along, and there are even some side plots for your secondary characters that give them some involvement in the plot beyond just being there for the backup. The plot seems to come together a little better than that of Legacy, if only because it seems to fit in more with the theme of Dragon Age II than the prior expansion, as well.

That said…

Mark of the Assassin takes a lot of its cues, plot-wise, from Kasumi: Stolen Memory with a dash of Lair of the Shadow Broker, which would be fine except that Tallis isn’t the character to carry this plot. Kasumi worked fine in her role because she wasn’t meant to be anything but a mysterious thief, and Liara worked fine in her role because she had a game and a half of plot development behind her. Tallis however, is presented as something of a badass from jump street and the writers seem like they’re overcompensating to make her seem more awesome than she needs to be. The idea here is that Tallis is the focal point of the Redemption web series, and the goal is to generate interest in said series. The problem is that Tallis is basically written like Isabella took three levels in badass between missions, and every moment she’s in needs to be a crowning moment of awesome. It’s not even that the character herself is bad, either, as little moments, like when she’s acting like an idiot trying to attract a wyvern or when she’s trying to actually explain what’s really going on make the character feel compelling at times. That said, though, when her entire introduction sequence is her being more badass in one sequence than Isabella and Fenris put together, and the whole campaign makes the player question, “So, why did she need my help again?” that’s the point where you feel like less would be more here. The plot works fine enough even so, but the impression here is that the character will probably work better in Redemption, where she’ll have more room to grow and be a person, than she did here.

Mark of the Assassin basically looks as good as the original game, and there’s a good bit more variety to the environments this time around, as there was in Legacy, than in the core game. You’ll be seeing more variety to the environments as well, as the campaign takes place across several different areas, from forests to dungeons to treasure vaults and beyond. The characters that pop up from the core game all generally look as good as ever, as do the new monsters you’re tasked to fight, though the new characters you meet don’t quite match up, visually speaking. Duke Prosper generally looks okay, though some of his animations are a little odd, and Tallis looks fine save for her face, which has some odd shadow issues that make the character look older than she probably should. Aurally, the various Orlesian voices contributed to the game are amusing and perfectly fine, and the voice acting from your usual cast of characters is also as strong as ever. Tallis is voiced by Felicia Day, as she is also the actress portraying the character in Redemption, and by and large, she does perfectly fine here. If you’re a fan of Day, as the marketing is built in large part around her contribution to the pack, you’ll likely find her voice work to be solid and enjoyable, and she hangs with the rest of the cast fine enough. If, on the other hand, you know nothing about The Guild or Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, then she’s no more exciting than anyone else involved in the game and isn’t going to make you into a convert here. All of the other audio bits are more or less as expected.

As this is an expansion pack, Mark of the Assassin features a good amount of combat sequences that are more or less identical to those of the main game, so if you’re familiar with the combat or have read the aforementioned review, you’ll have an idea of how this plays. However, as an expansion, it’s less combat heavy than Legacy, so you won’t spend your WHOLE game hacking the crap out of everything you see, and there are a few more subquests to embark on this time around. Each secondary character in your party gets a miniature quest you can work on, and there are several subquests for you to take on in addition to the main quest, so there are plenty of diversions to keep you occupied. The game also spices up the combat a bit, adding in new humanoid enemy types as well as new monsters, including a few fights against Wyverns, which are essentially giant lizards that spit horrid poison and hit for major damage, and a bunch of fights against Ghasts, smaller harassing enemies that are essentially the grunt enemies of this expansion. There’s a good variety to the enemies you’ll face and the final boss fight isn’t anywhere near as precise as the one in Legacy (and can be simplified further by completing a quest), so there’s a solid balance to the combat that shouldn’t annoy anyone.

However, the expansion also puts a bit of focus onto some mild puzzle solving, which actually breaks up the gameplay a bit and makes for some interesting variance, much as it did in Kasumi: Stolen Memory. Basically, in addition to the main combat sections of the mission, there’s a stealth segment and a couple of puzzle solving segments to get through, though most of the puzzle solving sections are wholly optional. The stealth section has you distract enemies by throwing stones or knocking them out to maneuver through the castle, while the puzzle sections feature some excellent variety, though most of them aren’t especially taxing or anything. There are a couple in the (optional) Vault section that might twist your brain a bit, but the rewards are well worth it, as you get a powerful suit of armor that’s better than anything available in the main campaign, as well as some solid loot to boot. These sections, again, are partially optional and mostly not terribly challenging, but they help to break up the “press A to kill things” experience a good bit and there’s a good bit more variety, mechanically, to Mark of the Assassin than there was to the main game, though it’s roughly about on par with the puzzle solving bits in Legacy in terms of challenge, if not volume.

You can clear out the whole expansion in a couple hours, but you can’t return to it unless you start a whole new game, which is actually a shame, as there are actually a few different directions you can go in once you hit the halfway point that might make for some worthwhile revisiting of the pack. There are also several exclusive item drops to the pack, including two for your sub characters, several unique accessories, and, again, a unique armor set for Hawke that’s very solid and better than anything in the core game. You’ve also got five exclusive Achievements to unlock, and while you’ll basically unlock most of them just by playing through the main campaign, a couple will require you to put in some extra effort to unlock; none of them are as bad as the hardest Achievements in the campaign, mind you, but they’ll take a little doing to unlock. As it’s only a ten dollar expansion pack, you’re obviously not getting hours and hours of content out of it, but there’s enough content to justify the asking price, honestly, and that’s mostly all you can really ask for.

Now, since this is an expansion, all of the negatives that afflict the main game so too affect the expansion, with the exception of the repetitive environment issues. However, this is not to say that Mark of the Assassin doesn’t have its own problems. For one thing, while the extra gear options are nice, the armor you get from this expansion, while better than the best armor from Dragon Age II, is equivalent, for the most part, to the armor you can find in Legacy, and if you’re playing this as part of a post-game run, it doesn’t matter anyway because you’re going to get, like, half an hour of benefit out of it. Beyond that, the stealth sequence, while there’s no penalty to “failing” it, is kind of annoying in structure, as it’s basically Metal Gear Solid without the solid controls of that series, and techniques that have to recharge before they can be used again. Also, of the Vault puzzles, while the color matching puzzles are simple enough, the tile flipping puzzles are an absolute bear to work with if you’re playing with a controller, especially if you have your dog summoned AND HE SITS RIGHT ON THE DAMN TILE BECAUSE HE DOESN’T LISTEN WHEN YOU TELL THE PARTY TO HOLD, I MEAN COME ON NOW. Oh, and finally, while it’s nice having Tallis in the party for the duration of the expansion, having “guest stars” in your party that don’t then carry over to the main game is kind of pointless, as if you DON’T like them you’ll begrudge having to use them and if you DO like them you’ll begrudge losing them when they leave. This was fine in Lair of the Shadow Broker because Liara has actual history in the franchise and you could actually continue your romantic subplot with her from the first game; here, Tallis has no lasting impact on the game one way or the other and one is left wondering what the point even was.

Basically, Mark of the Assassin is a solid expansion pack to Dragon Age II, but it does nothing to set the world on fire, and while it’s about on par with Legacy as add-on packs go, compared to the expansions for Mass Effect 2 like, and I hate to belabor the point, Lair of the Shadow Broker, it’s not as much of a win as it could be. The plot is fine enough overall but Tallis is written to be too cool and ends up seeming forced, the game generally features more interesting visuals but less interesting characters, and the new voice acting is generally fine. The gameplay is functionally the same, but there are some new bits that are added to break up things well enough, though mechanically some parts are more frustrating than others. The gear you get is nice if you’re still in the middle of a campaign, but as post-game equipment goes it’s only useful for half an hour or so and if you’ve played Legacy some of the best stuff here is matched there anyway. The entire expansion kind of seems like it’s meant to get over Tallis as a big exciting character, which would be a good idea if she stuck around or if the pack was better paced, but the actual handling of the character is forced and she leaves no lasting effect on the core game and the game is no richer or poorer for her existence. Taken as a whole, Mark of the Assassin is fine for what it is and fans will like it fine but it’s not a “must have” add-on unless you’re a huge fan of Felicia Day or the lore of the game world, unless you avoided Legacy and still want some jacked-out armor.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin basically feels like a plug for the Redemption web series as much as an expansion piece, and while there’s definitely enjoyment to be found, it’s not a must-have piece by any means unless you’re a big fan of the lore or Felicia Day. The overall plot isn’t bad, but Tallis is supposed to be this awesome badass with a dark secret and comes across like Kevin Nash took a level in rogue more than anything else, which brings the experience down a bit. The game looks better environmentally, and the monsters look good, though the characters aren’t as impressive, and the game generally sounds as good as it ever did, pound for pound. The core mechanics are the same as in the main game, but broken up a bit with some stealth and puzzle sequences; in theory, these add some nice variety that spices things up, but in practice, the stealth and some of the puzzle sequences aren’t mechanically friendly and can be a chore to play. You’ll get some nice gear from clearing out the expansion, but the best of the lot are some solid but unimpressive accessories and an armor set that’s about matched by the set in Legacy, and if you’re going through a post-game playthrough you won’t get anything out of having it anyway. Mark of the Assassin seems like it’s equal parts advertisement for Redemption and actual add-on content, and it’s at that line of equality that the game splits: the parts that seem like actual add-on content are fine, but the parts pimping Redemption come across as forced, and if you don’t have an opinion of Felicia Day, you’re not going to get anything special out of this expansion pack.

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