reviews\ Mar 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Dragon Age II Review


Let's be up front: Dragon Age: Origins was not a good game. It was incredibly derivative and so tediously boring that I nodded off in the middle of its "epic" battle scenes and conversations alike. For anyone familiar with ANY fantasy tale spun since and including Tolkien's Ring trilogy, Dragon Age was old news before it was even released, offering up nothing unique of its own. For those who had played Mass Effect and especially Mass Effect 2, it was also a thoroughly subpar RPG, even by Bioware's own standards.

Fortunately, Dragon Age II is considerably better, though to be fair achieving that goal was not remarkably difficult considering the mediocre quality of the original. Bioware's B-team has made a number of much-needed improvements, but more importantly, the game is actually engaging now. It's far from perfect, but I have yet to be unexpectedly lulled to sleep during my 20+ hours of adventuring, so it at least has that going for it.

Dragon Age II takes place a few years after the events of the original game. You can import your save data from the first to carry over any major decisions you made, or choose from a few pre-made histories, including what Bioware considers the "default" path. Ultimately, this matters very little within the sequel, as all of the old characters and even The Warden are now mere footnotes in newcomer Hawke's tale, with Allistair and Morrigan being the exceptions.

Unlike Dragon Age: Origins, players have very little customization available to them when it comes to Hawke. You can choose a male or female variant from three different classes: Warrior, Mage, and Rogue (all of whom need no explanation, assuming you've played more than Angry Birds during your video-gaming career). You can choose from two default looks or get knee-deep in some appearance customization, but beyond that, Hawke's story is pre-ordained.

Avoiding any spoilers, I can merely say that Dragon Age II will follow Hawke through 10 years of fetch quests, corpse-looting, and brothel visits. Don't worry about having to trudge through hundreds of hours of gameplay, however, as the game skips around a fair bit. Within the first 30 minutes, you'll have already skipped a whole year. You'll know this because every NPC or inanimate object you encounter takes the time to remind you that exactly one year has passed. About 10 or so hours of gameplay after that—give or take depending on the amount of side-questing and post-GDC Facebooking you do—you'll skip a whopping three years, and so on and so forth.

The first Dragon Age was so boring it was literally painful attempting to progress. All of the quests seemed like they had been copied straight out of every other RPG ever made, and I didn't care about any of the characters (except for one devilishly attractive witch) or their plights. Dragon Age II is still immediately familiar to anyone who knows what an elf or "AOE" is, but it has been made considerably more interesting by comparison. This is undoubtedly a result of all the pieces adding up to a much better whole, but it's important to note nonetheless as I know I'm not the only one who wanted to off themselves each time some nub started rambling on about the Blight and all their infinitesimal problems in the first game.

That being said, Dragon Age still falls short of the exciting and riveting world created by the Mass Effect team. Part of this stems from the fact that Hawke (in my case, a female Rogue) is a very vanilla character. Physically she could be interesting, but her voice work leaves a lot to be desired. Shepard had a very commanding tone but was flexible enough to sound sincere or humorous when needed, whereas Hawke only knows two speeds: sarcastic and wimpy. You're usually given three dialogue options when conversing with characters—friendly, sarcastic, and forceful—but Hawke sounds like a vanilla-flavored wuss no matter which you choose, even when threatening to tear out throats with her bare hands.

I also have to mention the constant conflict between mages and the Templars, a key plot element throughout Dragon Age II. That's all fine and good, but it's a little ridiculous that everyone is trying to be extremely secretive about who is and isn't a mage, even when Hawke has a party full of spell casters with giant staffs magically floating on their backs. I can imagine this had to have come up at least once during a development meeting at Bioware and someone just went, "Nah, no one will notice." It's lazy, poor writing, and also a bit unintentionally comedic, which is not what any self-respecting developer making a story-driven AAA title should be aiming for.

Likewise, the roster of companions are somewhat of a disappointing lot. The characters themselves are decently fleshed out and mostly memorable, but they only come in two flavors: elf and human (and one dwarf, which is basically just a stumpy human). At least throw in a Qunari or rogue darkspawn (similar to Legion's inclusion in Mass Effect 2). Luckily you get a fairly diverse selection of teammates, so you can put together a team that best suits your play style and complements your Hawke. You can switch amongst your teammates at the click of a button, allowing you to try out different classes and specializations in case yours gets boring.

There isn't much in the way of companion customization. You can equip new weapons on them, but any armor (aside from rings, belts, and necklaces) are exclusive to Hawke. You can increase their attributes and choose their talents upon leveling up, or just auto-level if you're in a rush. Each level grants three attribute points, which seems like an arbitrary number that leads to a lot of unbalanced characters. All characters can have their AI behavior controlled via a Final Fantasy XII-esque gambit system, though you won't really need to mess with this on Easy or Normal difficulty. On the upper difficulties, however, you'll definitely want to micro-manage your team to maximize efficiency and ensure survival.

One improvement Dragon Age II makes over other Bioware titles is the amount of dynamic conversations your companions will have with each other while you're running about. Quite often they'll strike up a quick chat, fleshing out each other's personalities and backstories while also providing some amusement, especially when it comes to sexual experience (or inexperience, in some cases). I really wish my squad in Mass Effect 2 had been more chatty, as I was much more invested in those relationships.

And of course, you can romance several characters if you play your cards right. These intimate relationships require far more effort than in Dragon Age: Origins—but then again, so does tying your shoelaces. Even for non-romance options, there is still a Friend/Rival bar that is affected by how you interact with them and the choices you make in their company. It's a bit too formulaic for this day and age, and your progress annoyingly resets when the game jumps forward in time.

Since Warriors are for newbs and the Mage can't summon minions, I decided to try out something new. I chose the Rogue because it seemed like it had the most variety: she can dual-wield daggers or use archery, and is the only class that can pick locks. I was very disappointed to find that I couldn't switch between dual-wielding and archery at will, which seems like a major oversight on Bioware's part. I ended up sticking with archery despite all the cool moves a melee Rogue can do (such as backstabs and stealthing), and ended up absolutely demolishing anyone who stood in my way. The Rogue has a number of AOE talents that can lock down and destroy dozens of enemies at a time, and for tighter quarters, she can line them all up and instantly gib them with the Archer's Lance skill.

Another gameplay disappointment is the limited set of talents available in your quick select. Pressing X, Y, or B will use one of three slotted abilities, and holding RT will bring up a second set, but that's really not enough. I ended up skipping abilities I was interested in and opting for passive talents when leveling up since I wasn't able to add them to my active arsenal.

The graphics are notably better from the onset. The textures and colors are sharper, the visual design more deliberate, and the majority of characters look excellent up close, something too many Western RPGs—especially those under the Bethesda umbrella—fail to take into account.

Characters still get covered in blood when defeating enemies up close, a small touch I'd love to see make its way into others games. Animations are also flashier, making battles much more visually engaging. For instance, the Rogue class has an ability where she launches a flask of poison at enemies, but rather than just throwing it, Hawke will toss it up in front of her and do a roundhouse kick, hurtling it at her target.

Unfortunately, the sound design is not on par. Sound effects themselves are reasonably well done if nothing spectacular, but music and dialogue will often get cut off by load screens or dynamic events, etc. The soundtrack is one of the things that really helps create a compelling and exciting experience in Mass Effect, yet Dragon Age's OST is—like the game world it's tied to—extremely generic.

Despite spanning an entire decade, you’ll spend most of that time in the city of Kirkwall. Even within a single year, you’ll return time and again to the same locations for different missions, then rinse and repeat after a major event pushes the timeline forward. Bioware also cut corners by duplicating some areas and noticeably reusing them throughout the world. They really should have taken an extra year to do this sequel properly, and it shows the longer you play the game.

Dragon Age II is a flawed, repetitive, and wholly derivative Western RPG, but still manages to be a vast improvement over the original and should greatly please fans of Origins. Fans of Mass Effect may also find enough satisfaction here to hold them over until ME3 releases, but make no mistake: if only one Bioware title is nominated for awards this year, it will not be this one.

[Reviewed on Xbox 360]


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