RELEASED: March 2011
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, X360
PUBLISHER(S): Electronic Arts
Recent years have been kind to the Western RPG, even if we're disregarding the obvious impact of certain MMO's. Several single-player masterpieces have emerged, most of which have been brought to us by the Canadian BioWare. Mass Effect is the most widely acclaimed and known franchise to wear the BioWare brand, but many old-school role-players consider 2009's multi-million seller Dragon Age: Origins the most important BioWare game to date due to its epic, traditional, yet very original, medieval fantasy story, and vintage gameplay, which hadn't been so neatly bundled in one single game in years. A full-length sequel to the game was announced in the summer of 2010, and it was released in a somewhat record breaking time of eight months into its announcement. The game drew harsh criticism long before the final product was available - some hand-picked reasons being that it was no longer a real RPG, it was too close to Mass Effect (it was even dubbed Dragon Effect by some journalists and fans), and having a Dragon Age game without or with very little darkspawn in it was like bread without butter. Having recently fallen in love with Mass Effect and considering the fact that I absolutely hate purists and their way of thinking, I headed into Dragon Age II without a shadow of a doubt that it would be a great game. Well, it's obvious that some central aspects of the game were way too rushed, and it is perhaps the worst BioWare game I've played thus far... which isn't much of an insult. Dragon Age II is still a great game that I am proud to have in my collection. Plus, the simplified combat and limited character customization aside, it is still very much of a role-playing game, in which each one of your decisions determines your each step towards becoming no less than the most important person in all of Thedas.
Kirkwall is not the galaxy
Nicholas Boulton : Hawke (Male)
Jo Wyatt : Hawke (Female)
Adam Howden : Anders
Joanna Roth : Aveline Vallen
Rebekah Staton : Bethany Hawke
Nico Lennon : Carver Hawke
Gideon Emery : Fenris / Paxley / Temmerin / Liam / Tethras Garen
Victoria Kruger : Isabela
Eve Myles : Merrill
Brian Bloom : Varric Tethras
During the fifth Blight, Hawke and his family evacuated from the crumbling Lothering, fled Ferelden and travelled across the Waking Sea to seek refuge in the city of Kirkwall. Within a decade, Hawke became known as the legendary Champion of Kirkwall, the single most influential person in all of Thedas. A rough-edged Seeker of the Chantry captures a dwarf named Varric, who she knows to have been close to Hawke, and forces him to recount Hawke's incredible rags-to-riches tale in detail, hoping to find the answers she needs to save the Chantry from falling apart.
Dragon Age: Origins - in retrospective. My occasional round trip in Neverwinter Nights aside, Dragon Age: Origins was the game that brought me into the wonderful world of BioWare. It was a lacking game, a little bit rough around the far edges - but when it was first released and I saw it through for the first time, it felt amazing. It all but swept my long-time favourite RPG franchise - Final Fantasy - right off the map. Whereas Final Fantasy XIII was a failure in nearly every possible way, this Canadian fantasy story had me in a vise for months and totally changed my perspective on great role-playing. So yeah, when I heard a sequel was in the works, I was pissing myself out of excitement. I thought of all the minor things Dragon Age: Origins lacked, and how they would surely be taken note of in the development of the sequel. My excitement for the game toned down a little when I heard it would run on a modified Mass Effect engine - I had heard a lot of great things about Mass Effect, but I had never played the game and thought that it was all hype. Well, then I played and finished Mass Effect, and I thought it was a stunning game. Then I played and finished Mass Effect 2, which turned out one of the best games I've ever played. At this stage, Dragon Age II became a must-have.
|Potential sisters Hawke.|
What was absolutely clear to me before I started writing this review - hell, even before I had played the game - was that this wasn't going to be a brief commentary. We're dealing with a sequel to a title that, despite all of its errors as a console game, ate up well over a year of my (no-)life before I laid it to rest - and only after there was nothing I hadn't done in it. The story was just so immersive and addictive, and seeing the game through twice, as two completely different characters, and making completely opposite decisions in each possible turn, and actually getting completely opposite results out of these moments of reflection, were things I had never quite experienced before... well, except in Fallout 3, but Dragon Age: Origins had six different, not to mention PLAYABLE - no offense to Mass Effect - background stories to choose from, which instantly made it that much more of a customizable experience.
Well, one of the things that will surely turn some people off right off the bat is that in Dragon Age II, you play as a man or a woman simply named Hawke, or as some call him/her, the "Medieval Shepard". You can modify your Hawke by quite a damn lot - just as much as you can shape Shepard to your liking in Mass Effect. Hawke's spoken dialogue has been criticized a lot, which I still don't understand - personally, I like it much more than just choosing lengthy lines from a list and imagining your character's voice in your head. It's more natural, and since you're given so much choices for branching a conversation, it has no ill effect on making the character feel less like your own. After all, the dialogue system works even better than in Mass Effect - it's the exact same "dialogue wheel", but with even more visible indications to the nature and tone of each comment. Oh, and each comment counts. The game doesn't really throw a Paragon/Renegade system of any kind to your face, let's just say that the people in the game always remember your past actions, in better and worse... in EXTREME detail. The game is a notably more open-ended one than the first installment; uttering just one single key line can turn a great deal of your progress upside down for tens of hours to come. How many different storyline branches are there? I wouldn't even dare to try to count all the possibilities.
|The battles look good, they feel good, but there's |
rarely a challenge to them.
Two, the loading times. I mean, man. Since you'll be spending a lot of time fast travelling from one location to another, you're going to see those loading screens a whole lot more than you bargained for; I sincerely think they came up with the fancy loading animations just to convince players that the game is indeed loading, not freezing. I don't know what it is about this game that makes processing so damn long and hard, since the dungeons in the game are extremely small in size, and repetitive to boot. I'll get to this particular dungeon subject a bit more thoroughly later, as it is definitely Dragon Age II's greatest flaw. Three, glitches. Origins and Awakening's glitches are definitely severe enough to put Dragon Age II's to shame by numbers, but as technically flawless as this game might seem at first, it does have many persistent bugs, minor and major ones. The minor ones range from non-fatal, sometimes even amusing occurrences such as twitchy speech, to looping cutscenes and dialogues seen in Leliana's Song. The major ones range from utterly unwinnable quests to one of the final bosses falling halfway down a chasm while he's on his last legs, out of your range and therefore undefeatable until you swallow your anger and calmly reload the game to go for a B.L.N.T. (Better Luck Next Time).
Before really picking the game apart to reassemble it just as soon and give you my honest verdict on it, I'd like to delve into the characters and the quality of the story. These are things that do live up to the franchise name, better than great. Stylistically, Dragon Age II differs a whole lot from the first game; although there are darkspawn stragglers and a few dragons lurking about, as well as a whole horde of demons, most of the game's conflicts are purely political, and Hawke has a weird tendency to find himself in the middle of them all... yeah, just like Shepard, I know. But, these conflicts usually end up in some very violent conclusions - it might be hard to believe after what I just said, but Dragon Age II is much more violent than the first game. It's kind of disappointing that in the intro sequence, you can cut enemies in half with your sword, but you can't do that later on in the game; you simply strike enemies down. Still, there will be blood. Lots of it. And lots of cinematics to prove a further point.
|Scanning the exact same stone walls for the |
As I was saying, you're going to meet a lot of familiar folk either way, some of which might even go as far as join your party. Some are minor characters from the past that were bound to be exploited further, some are very central guys and gals that had some downright unfinished dealings that you might or might have not taken note of. Some just stop by as brief cameos, primarily to make fanboys and -girls bleed their asses dry. Even I am tempted to replay the whole saga just to remember all details of what happened in the past, even if I have sworn to never touch the first retail again. Going through who's in the game and who's not when it comes to returning characters is not a very nice thing to do, so I'll just mention a few new ones. Hawke's companions are quite a crew. Aveline is one of the survivors of Ostagar and a very capable warrior; although I'm bothered by having a female for a default tank, I must admit she's invaluable. Varric is the best dwarf character, ever. He's been very well received, for his great performance and the many notable differences between him and the stereotypical dwarf character, which are mostly explained by him being born and raised somewhere else than Orzammar. Fenris is an elf, a former slave with a thick vein of lyrium etched into his skin, and some serious anger management issues, especially when it comes to his very vocal resentment towards mages. Despite consciously developing a shitstorm of a rivalry between him and my first Hawke, he's definitely my favourite new supporting character - by the way, he's voiced by Gideon Emery, who did Balthier in Final Fantasy XII. Yes, I'm sure I'm not in love with the guy's voice - he just happens to be cast as the best characters.
The graphics have definitely improved, but the game is still no Mass Effect when it comes to looks; now I truly think it is a conscious choice, after all over a year had passed from the original Xbox 360 release of Mass Effect 2, and even the first Mass Effect game released in 2007 generally looked better than this. The game is much more cinematic than the first one; the conversations are not nearly as mechanical and there are a whole lot more cutscenes. The design of certain characters has changed a bit, from some old acquaintances to darkspawn, and most notably, the whole Qunari tribe, who are now more distinguishable from humans with huge horns and black eyeballs to go with their ash-coloured skin and sheer size. I like what they did to the design, and I'm expecting great things from Dragon Age III - sometimes renovation isn't such a bad thing. Although both Hawkes are a bit monotonic in their performances, the voiceover work has also definitely improved across the board - many actors who were originally cast as the returning characters from Origins and Awakening have been replaced, and for once, I have no gripe with that. We have no big names here - just a whole cavalcade of British, American and Canadian voiceover staples, who do good for the most part. Inon Zur's soundtrack is as good, but just as ambient as always. No 30 Seconds to Mars this time around, although I think one certain revelation in the game is either a pun or a heartfelt tribute to the band, I'm not quite sure which. "I'm Not Calling You a Liar" by the British indie band Florence + The Machine (remixed by Inon Zur) plays in the end credits and fits the atmosphere quite OK.
I'm tired of stating something of the sort, but Dragon Age II begins exactly like Mass Effect 2. There's a lengthy cutscene, a playable intro sequence that really has no bearing on the game itself, and THEN you can create your character, as well as import your save file from Dragon Age: Origins if you want to - I certainly do. If you're having trouble remembering what has happened thus far in your personal plot of the Dragon Age saga, there's a list of the most important events for each of your different characters. The events in the DLC besides Awakening have no bearing on the plot, even though you can import the save from The Golems of Amgarrak or Witch Hunt. Having played and finished Awakening is extremely important; you will not get half of the references to earlier events without that feat under your belt. Sometimes it honestly feels like Awakening is more important to the whole of the Dragon Age storyline than Origins.
|Big love for the Qunari, right here.|
You cannot talk to nearly everyone in this game, and all NPC's and companions that have half a meaning to their words are marked with a huge icon from a million digital miles away for you to take inevitable notice. Also, you cannot pick one lock in this game. Rogues with a high Cunning rating are good to have along as always, when it comes to combat and opening treasure chests, but the latter feature is really not that essential to your success since like I said, most of the stuff you find is utterly useless; looting really isn't what it used to be, which was one of the best damn qualities of Dragon Age: Origins. Once again, you can only upgrade your companions' armour, not change it, which limits the looting experience by quite a damn lot.
Now that I've gone over some of the really ugly spots of the game, it's time to take a break and go into some of the most polished features of the game. First, the relationships with the members of your party, both professional and romantic. Let's start by saying that even though you cannot talk to your companions just any time you wish - which is actually quite good since a conversation can no longer be triggered by accident - they have a lot to say to you, each and every one of them, in many points of the game, regardless if you keep them in your active party or not. Each companion has a home base somewhere in Kirkwall. When they have something on their mind, a new companion quest appears. If the companion is in your active party, all you need to do is go to their home base and turn to them for conversation. If (s)he's not, you will find them there all the same. Sometimes, they have new, true quests available. Most times, they just want to hear your opinions on their personal issues; of course, your opinions have a very hefty impact on you becoming either their friend or rival. If the criteria's on the mark, you will also gain access to flirty dialogue options, which trigger and/or boost your romantic relationships with the characters. The romantic relationships are way more intricate than in Dragon Age: Origins, where you could just bombard your love interest with gifts, then say "Nice shoes, wanna fuck?" and be done with it. Even having sex with him/her doesn't count as completing a romance. This is how it works: set your sights on a character, flirt with 'em to the point even others are starting to notice your interest, give 'em a couple of gifts, be good to 'em, have sex with 'em, tell 'em you love 'em, try not to kill 'em, and hope that in a few years, the person will still be standing by your side. If you play your cards right, they probably are. The romance angle is so much more of a true part of the gameplay experience than it was in Dragon Age: Origins, I love it. Just to get it out of my head, there are four companions you can start a romantic relationship with - and as always, they're not too picky about your gender. As a matter of fact, sometimes it feels like the game is downright prompting you to come out of the closet. They kind of overplayed and satirized the notorious gay angle of Origins, here, to the point of purposedly making the player feel bad for rejecting romantic offers from companions of the same gender.
Some have said the combat system is completely different from that of Dragon Age: Origins, which it is not. As a matter of fact, it's exactly the same. It just looks different. BioWare was well prepared for someone not liking the tweaked controls and somewhat different interface, so they included a whole lot of options for people grown too accustomed to the previous game. With just a few little adjustments, you can get quite close to the vintage scheme you're used to, and which I'm used to, so no complaining. There's a lot of fighting going to happen in this game, and it is quite fun (not to mention violent), albeit repetitive, and easy since enemies do not have elemental immunities. Level farming to some extent is possible this time around as enemies occasionally respawn, but there are even less true random encounters on the map than in the first game (I was ambushed twice during my first playthrough), so taking on the huge number of sidequests is still your primary source of EXP income.
|Any killing to be done in the house of the Maker?|
Enchantment and item crafting have been worked on, and on my account, towards a better direction. No longer will you need a shopping list of a million different ingredients and tools to build the simplest trap, nor a particular ability to be able to do it in the first place. You simply need to find the basic resources from the field as the years pass by; some of them are only found during specific acts. Finding one resource, for example deathroot or elfroot, guarantees you a lifelong access to it; all you need to do after that is find a crafting desk or go to the one in your home, and order the item you want. If you have found a sufficient amount of deposits for each crafting resource you need for one item, you can order as many you need or as many as your coin purse allows you to. Excellent. Runes for enchantment are crafted the exact same way; you can buy them from some choice merchants, too. What is a bit annoying is that you cannot simply remove runes from weapons and armour, and each time you replace one, the old one's destroyed.
One last nice subtlety I'd like to mention is that saving the game does not disrupt the action like it annoyingly did in Origins, and the autosave system is a little more reliable. Going for a certain Trophy/Achievement in the game practically demands you to save often, because death may creep up on you by a complete surprise. But...
|One of the returning characters has went through |
However, while even a third playthrough might feel interesting at first due to the third consistent dialogue option of being sarcastic and the distinct differences in gameplay between the three classes, it should be obvious that at some point the appeal will fade; running around Kirkwall - one city - and the small surrounding areas for hundreds of hours, with dozens of identical pseudo-dungeons to boot, is not my perception of an ideal way to pass time. Luckily, the Trophies/Achievements are better this time around. For example, they don't require you to play each class to a certain level; you only need to reach Kirkwall with a character from each of the three classes, and that won't take more than an accumulative total of perhaps an hour of your time. There's nothing too tricky with the exception of some Trophies related to diplomatic solutions, which I haven't quite figured out yet how to get to. I'll keep pushing on, and by the looks of it, I don't need more than this one more playthrough to nail the plat.
BioWare have always managed to maintain a fine balance between highly immersive RPG gameplay and an incredible story. With Dragon Age II, they succeeded in creating a story and telling it well from all standpoints - even if the graphics aren't exactly top-notch, the cinematics are appealing, especially after the game's stiff, mechanical predecessor. The game feels good to play, too - right up until the point you realize you've seen that one dungeon, docking bay or forest path a dozen times before, only this time a different branch is blocked, the doors that used to be open are now locked, etc.. Mass Effect 2's diversity when it came to unique planets open for exploration, and their unique sidequests which were just as surprising and nice to play as their stories were to follow, is lost somewhere along the Milky Way. Dragon Age II is a very good game, but it fails to meet the standard set by the previous game, not to mention the neighbouring franchise it's partly designed after. However, as I said, calling it the worst BioWare game I've played isn't much of an insult.
GRAPHICS : 8.5
SOUND : 9.0
PLAYABILITY : 8.2
LIFESPAN : 8.0
CONCLUSION : 8.2
a.k.a. Dragon Age 2 (working title)
GameRankings: 78.92% (PC), 80.37% (PS3), 77.07% (X360)
BioWare's Brent Knowles - one of the main designers of Dragon Age: Origins - expressed his distaste for Dragon Age II by leaving the company during the game's development. He later commented on the game by saying that it's strong, but lacks many of the things that made the franchise what it is, and a game he didn't personally feel like making.