Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II
Dragon Age II Cover
Platforms Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows, OSX
Genre Action-packed RPG
Score 8  Clock score of 8
Buy from Amazon

I was a bit worried going into my playthrough of Dragon Age 2. The first screenshots revealed a depressingly gray world with curiously pointy polygons, and reader reviews of the game blasted it for a variety of reasons. But my first hour review of the title cemented me firmly in the “I’m going to enjoy this game” category, and 40 hours later I emerged with some sore fingers and a smile on my face.

It’s understandable why some gamers didn’t enjoy Dragon Age 2, in some ways it’s quite a departure from the stable, Western RPG tropes that Dragon Age: Origins employed, but deep down, it really is the first game’s sequel. Some aspects have been streamlined, for better and worse, but I always felt like I was in the Dragon Age universe I spent 50 hours in last time around.

Dragon Age 2 was released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows, and OSX. I played a used copy on the Xbox 360, meaning I didn’t have access to any downloadable content that was provided for first-time buyers.

While playing Dragon Age 2, I also read The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, two excellent fantasy novels by Patrick Rothfuss. The books are presented with a frame story; essentially the hero of the tale is telling his own adventure as an older man. What I love about the frame is that it subtly hints at where the younger man is heading in life while also showing how his actions have shaped the world. Plus, the writing style raises many questions such as whether the narrator is reliable.

Dragon Age 2 also features a frame story, a storytelling feature seldom used in video games, let along pulled off effectively. In some near future, the dwarf Varric has been cornered by a woman known simply as the Seeker. She demands to know the story of Hawke, the hero/heroine of Dragon Age 2. Thus, Varric is tasked with telling Hawke’s story, with us shaping it with our decisions.

It’s a pretty bold way to kick off a sequel to a finished story, but it’s clear from the start that while Dragon Age 2 could almost be considered a tangential side story to Dragon Age: Origins, this will be it’s own complete story with a new cast of characters and new locations. BioWare could have easily given us Dragon Age: Origins 2, with the same gameplay, areas, and heroes, and all the gamers who pissed on Dragon Age 2 would have eaten it up (or hated it, because that’s just how some people are), but I applaud the writers and developers for trying something new.

Dragon age 2 Varric Interrogation

But let’s return to the frame story quickly, while it’s a great storytelling device when used effectively, in Dragon Age 2 it’s basically just there to help pass time efficiently between events. There aren’t many hints to what is actually happening in the world now, and we don’t actually find out the Seeker’s motives until the end. This is a wasted opportunity, if you ask me, but I love that they tried.

Where Dragon Age: Origins was about the Hero of Ferelden, Dragon Age 2 is about the Champion of Kirkwall. Kirkwall is an independent city-state across an ocean from the main events of the first game, and to many gamer’s surprise, where you will spend the majority of the game. The city is broken up into a dozen different locations with a wonderful map that allows you to select where you want to go quickly, including whether it is day or night. I loved the simple navigation.

This is probably a good time to address whether Dragon Age 2 would have been better off with an Assassin’s Creed-like open city, and while this would have certainly been excellent, I really don’t mind the distinct sections. Traveling is made dead easy and switching between day and night gives the map an added bonus. It’s essentially like Dragon Age: Origins map of Ferelden on a much smaller scale (though that’s all relative), and without most of the random encounters while traveling.

Speaking of Dragon Age: Origins, you can import a completed save of that game into Dragon Age 2. While it doesn’t provide the massive amount of bonuses like going from Mass Effect 1 to 2, it does help personalize the game a bit. Old characters will pop up, and the Hero of Ferelden is a favorite topic of many, with many describing her gender, class, and feats throughout the game.

Dragon age 2 Hawke Bethany Dialog Wheel

But this is Hawke’s game and Hawke’s story, and BioWare made the decision to fully voice the character like Commander Shepard, heck, the entire conversation system has been lifted from Mass Effect but with the ultimate addition: sarcasm. Yes, instead of being good, evil, or boring, you can be good, evil, or a sassy jerk. IT IS AWESOME.

I played the entire game utilizing sarcastic remarks and it made my Hawke so incredibly entertaining. She was a female, and actress Jo Wyatt did an incredible job portraying the Champion of Kirkwall. Even when the sarcasm felt totally inappropriate in the situation, she managed to pull it off.

The fully voiced hero really lends itself to this kind of game, clocking in at over 40 hours for me, I never felt bored by the plot and barely had to push myself to complete every side quest I could find. The cast of characters honestly is weaker than Dragon Age: Origins, but I found a few companions that I enjoyed and generally stuck with them. Varric is the standout, as the frame story’s teller, he’s already a central character, but he’s also very well written in the main game. As a dwarf who has left his homeland, he’s got enough chips on his shoulder that his crossbow Bianca sits very comfortably. He also makes for a very excellent companion to a sarcastic Hawke.

Varric also gets his moment in the storytelling sun when he all of a sudden becomes Scarface and single-handedly (player controller!) begins killing dozens of enemies with his crossbow. It's a surreal moment topped only by the the Seeker pulling Varric out of the story and scolding him for his lies. I've never seen an unreliable narrator pulled off in a video game before and this was done impressively.

The rest of the cast is filled in with various mages, warriors, and rogues, there aren’t a lot of risks taken with Hawke’s companions, in my opinion, but they each have their own story and arcs to keep them interesting. Anders is a mage and former Grey Warden, Ferris wields heavy weapons and hates all magic, Isabela is a busty pirate captain, Aveline quickly rises the ranks of Kirkwall’s guard, and Merrill is a Dalish Elf dabbling in blood magic.

And then there’s Bethany, Hawke’s sister (or Carver, his brother if you’re playing a male Hawke). When I first saw her I was surprised at how much she looked like my Hawke, and then I did some research and found out they actually generate her appearance from how you design your main character, very cool feature. But Bethany/Carver are effective characters in that they really ground Hawke, she’s not just the Champion of Kirkwall but also a loving sister and friend.

Dragon age 2 Rogue Dual Weapon Skill Tree

As for the game itself, Dragon Age 2 plays a lot faster than Dragon Age: Origins, and feels a bit less like a tactical RPG and bit more like a hack-and-slash. This isn’t Sacred 2, mind you, it still feels like a Dragon Age game, but it’s been sped up enough to feel like an actual action game at times, I really loved it.

The core gameplay is the same, spells and techniques are mapped to the buttons and potions can be used from the radial menus, Dragon Age vets will feel right at home... until they start diving into the character menu. The skill trees have been completely redesigned to be 100% more useful, and provide the player with a ton more options. Skills actually branch out now and feature upgrades along with sub-class skills. I felt like I had a ton more control over the customizing of my character than in Dragon Age: Origins.

The equipment has also experienced a revamp, with the major change being that Hawke’s companions are for the most part already wearing their full game armor. This was a controversial decision by BioWare, and in some ways I liked it as it meant a lot less micro-management every time I picked up a pair of Superior Boots, but you do lose a certain connection to your characters, too. In the long run, it probably saved me a few hours of menu browsing though which is a plus in my book. Not all characters’ weapons and armor are set in stone though, and Hawke is fully equipable from head to toe. You will probably either hate this or welcome it, but it’s definitely not a game breaker either way.

A real possible game breaker are the game’s issues with save corruption. I have no idea what would cause it but about 10% of the time for me saving would completely fail. Thankfully, the game knows it frakked up immediately and let’s you know, and I only lost about 10 minutes once when I failed to realize my last save had corrupted before quitting. But I kept a constant cycle of about five saved games, so I was prepared for the worst, but for those not as careful... that would suck. (Though auto-saves and act saves are made, at least auto-saves can be corrupted. Thankfully my post-game save was created okay!)

Dragon age 2 Male Hawke Darkspawn

Another annoying aspect of the game are the reused locations for dungeons, mines, mansions, and caves. This honestly didn’t bother me as much as it apparently did to half the internet, but by the time the third act rolls around, there aren’t any more surprises in where you’ll be trekking. Most jarring is that the level builders would simply close off doors and tunnels, funneling you through slightly different routes than last time, but the mini-map will still display the entire location.

My last complaint concerns the story, while I liked the frame (even if underutilized), and the three act structure with time gaps, the third act seemed rather rushed. It’s one thing to only have the storyteller explain the really important bits, but when the major players of the third act aren’t even introduced until the final moments of the second, it makes me wonder how well the finale was planned out (especially with the way those major players implode).

Before I close this out, I suppose I need to say something about the graphics and sound... they’re steps above Dragon Age: Origins, though not quite at even Mass Effect 2 levels over a year later. I do want to call out the loading screens, though. This is how you do loading screens in a game. Each one was a beauty, with art deco mixing with fantasy elements, shadows transforming innocent-looking statues into menaces, and the emblem of the city of Kirkwall being drawn and animated in various ways. Loved the loading screens (never though I’d say that).

Overall: 8

This is the same score I gave Dragon Age: Origins, though I feel like I enjoyed Dragon Age 2 more in some ways, and a bit less in others. If the game didn’t feature the save corruption issues, reused maps less, and had spent a bit more time fleshing out the third act, I would have easily bumped the grade up. But really, the number means little, the previous 2000 words is my true score.

Dragon Age 2 is not only a great game, it’s a great sequel in unexpected ways. BioWare didn’t simply rehash the original, but boldly created almost an entirely new cast, built up a big city, and actually took careful steps in creating an original story for Hawke that was wholly separate from the Hero of Ferelden.

When the credits were rolling, I thought to myself that for the first time, I am really excited for Dragon Age 3. The possibility of a party made up of the Hero of Ferelden, the Champion of Kirkwall, and the Seeker are just too much. Bring it on, BioWare.