Publisher: Electronic Arts
Console: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Hours Played: 35
Progress: Completed the main quest and all side quests
BioWare surprised at the end of 2009 with what seemed like a 3D version of its venerable dungeon crawling franchise, Baldur’s Gate. In reality it combined the same great storytelling and party-based combat found in its sci-fi epic, Mass Effect but in a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired setting. The highly anticipated sequel to 2009′s Dragon Age: Origins takes a more focussed approach, centering on a family, stranded as refugees from the Blight in a strange city, far away from home. So does this change in approach pay off and does this sequel innovate enough to satisfy? Read on to find out…
The story in Dragon Age 2 is the biggest catalyst for change from the first game. Instead of being the hero who single-handedly changed to outcome of a war and embarks on an epic quest to safe an entire nation, you are Hawke, a young man (or women if that’s how you created your character) of modest means who flees the land of Ferelden because of the Blight, a massive incursion of the evil armies of the Darkspawn. Together with your mother, brother and sister you decide to make your way to the city state of Kirkwall where your uncle and family estate promise the opportunity of a new beginning. Unfortunately all is not as it seems, because of the many Ferelden refugees who have sought out Kirkwall for shelter from the Blight, as well as an uncle who proves to be less helpful than expected, your welcome in this new place is less than warm.
What ensues is the tale of a refugee who tries to make his way in a strange and intimidating city. This involves everything from performing lowly fetch quests to defending the Viscount of Kirkwall himself. Along the way you will of course have the opportunity to meet a myriad of new individuals, some of whom will join your party as playable characters. Although you will get entwined in many of Kirkwall’s local developments, the overarching theme is that of the philosophical (and practical) conflict between the implied necessity to keep mages controlled or even locked up and the preservation of their rights as citizens. The Kirkwall “Circle”, overseen by the Templars, is ever vigilant in ensuring practitioners of the magical arts are kept in check, those that are deemed to dangerous are made “tranquil”, basically robbing them of their free will and dooming them to a life of imprisonment. As Hawke you will have close ties to mages, you may even be one yourself, as such you will have to decide over the course of the game, how friendly you become with the Templars and other allies that may have a more conservative approach when it comes to the threat of mages. The game does not pull any punches when it comes to showing the potential dangers of those who can practice magic. Many will make pacts with demons they won’t be able to control, often with frightening results. How you walk the tightrope which balances between standing up for the rights of people who happen to know magic, this includes your sister -and protecting the citizens from Kirkwall from those who use magic for power, -is completely up to you and provides the player with some very interesting decision-making opportunities.
I loved the rags-to-riches story BioWare presents us with in Dragon Age 2, it is a more focussed tale that pays closer attention to character development than the big, epic narrative found in similar titles. Like past Bioware games, the player will have the opportunity to learn more about the back story of the various characters, this time around there is more interplay among your party members who develop their own relationships as the game progresses. Although some people have criticized the game for its limited setting, it mainly takes place in Kirkwall, it really helps center the story and helps the player feel like they are a part of the city as much as the in-game characters are. Kirkwall’s history is rich, feels distinctive and its story is fascinating.
Although less dramatic than the graphical changes between the first Mass Effect and the sequel, Dragon Age 2 still pleases with sharper textures and a cleaner, brighter look. The objects in the game appear crisper, with less blurring up close and the overall color scheme and ambient lighting brighten up the game for an overall more impressive look.
Character animation can still seem a bit wooden, especially during cut scenes, however the facial animations are as strong as ever the lip syncing is great and faces display emotions very effectively. It is a shame to see that the near photo-realistic facial textures of Mass Effect 2 did not make it into this game however, Dragon Age 2 is an equally story-driven experience and is all about character development.
Overall, Dragon Age 2 still is not the best looking game, polygon detail is a bit lower than many other games, apparent in the basic looking structures and environmental objects. It aslo does not rely on flashy effects, lighting, combat -or otherwise, however a lot of care did go into building the city of Kirkwall. It has a very distinctive look and some of the structures, like the Templar keep, are very imposing as its ramparts pierce the sky. Bioware built many of the structures in Dragon Age 2 up, causing them to tower over the player as you adjust the in-game camera to look up, effectively demonstrating the size of Kirkwall and its pedigree as a city centered around rock mining.
BioWare has always done an excellent job of accompanying its engrossing stories with strong, cinematic music. The score may not be as memorable as those in some classic Nintendo franchises we could mention however it is certainly enough to set the stage for whatever situation the player may find himself in. Background music is pretty minimal and sound effects are mostly pedestrian but the crown jewel in Dragon Age 2‘s sound offering is undoubtedly the voice acting. The game’s characters really get their personality by virtue of the fantastic voice cast. The dialog sounds unforced and believable and of course benefits from the always-excellent writing. The main character, Hawke, sounds suave and likable with his charming British accent however take a darker moral road and he gets a nasty edge that belies his questionable moral choices. It is all very well done and a refreshing change of pace from many of the Japanese-to-English voice translations gamers often have to suffer through.
There are few changes in the controls department compared to the last game. Your character’s abilities are mapped to the face buttons (X, Y and B for the Xbox 360 controller), with a second set of abilities mapped to the same buttons by pressing and holding the right trigger button. The full radial menu appears by pressing the left trigger button, this also pauses the game and gives the player full access to all of the party’s abilities and items. When the action heats up and you need a breather to figure out what to do next or where to lay down a certain spell this option is a lifesaver and allows for some tactical planning. The controls are a joy to use, they feel intuitive and they will never make you feel like you need to double check what button to press next.
Dragon Age 2 is a 3rd person, party-based RPG. Combat includes up to four characters, one of which is usually the main character, Hawke. Characters are one of three classes, warriors, mages or rogues. Each character class has its own unique skill tree, which is divided into different categories with different progression paths. This is all pretty much what we saw in the first Dragon Age game, however slight tweaks have been made. New spells and abilities have been added and the effectiveness of the rogue has been greatly enhanced, especially when using ranged combat.
Battles are a lot of fun and as close to real time combat as you can get without turning the whole affair into a straight button masher. This time around a bit more attention has been given to combining spells and abilities between characters for improved combat electiveness. The chaos caused by four characters invoking their robust ability set amidst hordes of enemies is usually a bit too much to really pay attention to combining abilities but I suppose it is the thought that counts. Pausing the game by brining up the radial menu helps you get your bearings and plan your next move more easily though. Bioware does not hold back with the combat, before you know it you will be swarmed by all kinds of nasty, fantasy baddies who will be right up in your face with evil intentions. Forget about taking on enemies one at a time, usually you are swarmed and although this keeps things fun, you had better have a good repertoire of attacks with a wide area effect. The game reminds you with a vengange of the necesity to constantly be saving as death is around every corner. The player can adjust the difficulty (which only affects combat) at any point, so when a particularly tough battle has you on the ropes, you can change the difficulty to something less sadistic just long enough to move on and change it back to normal after.
The story and how you interact with it is, as with most Bioware RPGs is a big part of the gameplay experience. The player will have several different dialog options during conversations and although they usually consist of the “nice” answer, the “funny” answer and the “bad guy” answer there are a total of 17 possible reply options that can appear. The whole mechanic still feels arbitrary as ultimately these answers either move you to being more of a good guy or more of a bad guy, just like we have seen a million times before. Story- and game developments are affected a bit more dynamically than your character’s moral stature however , making the game experience more fun and less predictable. Talking to your party members opens up new quests that reveal more of their past and personality while the overarching theme of “mages, good or evil?” will ultimately paint how your companions view you. Gamers are always fascinated with what kind of “relationships” they can establish with party members and Bioware did not disappoint. It almost seems that if it has a pulse, you can woe it with your roguish charm and painfully cheesy pick up lines, regardless of the recipient’s gender. Although there has been some controversy regarding the “romance” options and the way these options are exercised, the truth is it is nothing we haven’t seen before and not nearly as graphic as what is displayed in the Witcher 2 or God of War 3.
Although the gaming environment feels a bit more limited that what we saw in the first Dragon Age, the truth is that many of the areas there were extremely linear and lacking in detail. Although Kirkwall is a singular setting, it is made up of many different areas and feels a lot more organic than the environments found in the first game. The player does have the ability to travel out of town to a sweeping coastal region, which looks gorgeous, not only that but you will also be revisiting the “Deep Roads” from the first game. I welcome Bioware’s change of setting and more focussed approach to storytelling, it made me care a lot more about the characters and the world they were in. Quests constantly update and can usually be tackled in any order the gamer sees fit. Which quests become available depends in large part on the conversation options the player takes throughout game, as if that wasn’t enough pressure, certain gameplay decisions can lead to characters either leaving or joining your party, heck you may even unknowingly send them to their death! It definitely is nice to know that the decisions you make as the player make an actual impact on what happens in the game, BioWare has a great track record of empowering the gamer that way.
Dragon Age 2 is a big game, there were three separate occasions where I was sure the game was about to come to its conclusion, yet it surprised with more to come. Most players who will thoroughly pursue all available quests, should expect to put in between 30 and 40 hours. Although the objectives of the quests will frequently repeat, how can they not- with such a great number of them? -The story that surrounds them is always different and usually fascinating. If they are not somehow tying into the main quest they are at least shedding more light on the city of Kirkwall and its people. Although it may be hard to imagine wanting to keep going after the main story and side quests have been completed, there are no options to free-roam once you have wrapped up the game. It would have been nice if BioWare allowed the player to continue leveling up by supplying randomly generated enemies, however it is only a matter of time before new downloadable content becomes available.
BioWare continues its streak of creating excellent RPGs, Dragon Age 2 offers a more focussed game than its predecessor with slight improvements to graphics and gameplay. It engrosses us in the tale of Hawke and his family as they struggle to build a new existence as refugees in a hostile city. This is a must-buy for any RPG fans or those who enjoyed the first Dragon Age game or other titles by BioWare.
+ A more focussed story that centers around a man and his family, struggling to make their way in a new city. A refreshing break from always playing the savior of the world.
+ Dialog is interesting and thought provoking
- The theme of “mages: good or evil?” is recycled a bit too much throughout the game
+ Sharper and brighter textures
- Still fairly basic environmental- and character models
+ Fantastic voice acting
- Forgettable music and sound effects
+ Special ability button mapping is very convenient
+ Satisfying combat with lots of strategic options
+ Good implementation of story into gameplay proceedings
- Good versus evil moral choices are still pretty arbitrary
+ Absolutely huge game that never stops giving
- Everything is structured so there is little in the way of “free roaming”