Review: Dragon Age II

Posted: March 16, 2011 by Tony Polanco in REVIEWS

For all of the innovations that the Role Playing Game genre has experienced in the last half decade there are some things that have remained virtually unchanged.  Battles are usually slowly paced and have to be approached tactically while stories generally involve the protagonist and his/her allies facing insurmountable odds in a quest to save their world. Bioware’s latest RPG, Dragon Age II has taken it’s own path to RPG-dom and bucks some classic RPG staples in an attempt to tell a different kind of story and provide a faster and fiercer combat experience.

Unlike it’s predecessor, Dragon Age Origins, Dragon Age II’s plot is told as a story within a story.  The tale of the hero of Dragon Age II, Hawke, is recounted by his/her former Dwarf ally Varric Tethras.  The world is on the brink of war and Hawke: The Champion of Kirkwall is missing.  Varric is arrested and interrogated in an attempt to find The Champion so that perhaps he/she can stop the upcoming turmoil.  The story that Varric tells spans a length of nearly ten years so the framed narrative device is a clever way to skip around the timeline to let the player experience the more interesting parts of Hawke’s adventures.

Varric’s tale begins with Hawke and his/her family as they flee their home village which is under attack by monsters called Darkspawn.  The Hawkes (along with another refugee that they find on the road) eventually make their way to the City-state of Kirkwall.  Hawke’s mother is the daughter of nobles from the city and she is hoping to move the family into her childhood home but upon arrival things do not go as planned.

While Bioware should be applauded for not sticking to traditional RPG conventions with the story, I have to say that the execution could have been handled better.  The entire games takes place in the city of Kirkwall and some of the outlying areas. You will see the same sights and surprisingly enough, the same dungeons constantly.  Lead designer Mike Laidlaw has said that the reason the game has just a handful of dungeons is to give the player more content.  I don’t really see the logic here.  Less dungeons equals less content.  Just because I go to the same place ten times doesn’t mean that I am doing more.  The same cave system that can be found at the top of a mountain will also be the same cave system that is underneath the city.  It’s a reused dungeon but the story is telling you that it’s supposed to be an entirely different place.  I am not a fan of randomly generated dungeons in RPGs but for this game I was practically begging for them.  After you enter the same cave for the twentieth time you will know what I’m talking about.

The city of Kirkwall itself does not fair any better.  It is entirely too small and despite all of the non playable characters littering the streets, feels dull and lifeless.  If you want to make a convincing city that feels alive then you need to have it be the size of an actual city with more variety in each district. The Grand Theft Auto games are perfect examples of how to create a city that is vast, provides variety of scenery, architecture and feels lived in.  Building interiors are just like the dungeons in that there are only perhaps two to three different layouts.  The local brothel’s interior is no different than your alley’s mansion’s interior.  This gets boring and frustrating after a while.

For nearly 2/3 of the game, the story felt like it had no direction or purpose.  Main quests and side quests were nearly indistinguishable from one another so it feels like you are just running errands for people for no real reason.  I jokingly called this game “Side-quest Age II” for a while because that is how the game felt.  It wasn’t until the last third and the final confrontation where all of the disparate story elements came together and justified all of the seemingly random acts I engaged in.  However just like with the environment design, the idea was interesting but the execution fell short of it’s intended mark.

Both the story and game world design give me the sense that Dragon Age II was a rushed game.  Dragon Age II was released eighteen months after the original Dragon Age.  If you take into account that Dragon Age Origins took nearly five years to develop and that downloadable content was constantly being made for it, there is no way that the development team could have put as much effort into DAII as they should have.  Composer Inon Zur’s comments also give us evidence that DAII was rushed by publisher Electronic Arts in order to capitalize on the popularity of the series.

One of the key signatures of a Bioware game, highly defined and developed characters, is something that thankfully was not compromised.  Hawke, his/her companions, the villains and even random non playable characters are all very interesting. What’s really cool is that since the game spans a decade, your characters will begin forming their own relationships with each other and their banter during or between missions really help you feel that your team has become a family over the years.  But like any family there will be disputes.  Certain character’s goals do not align with others and you may hear arguments as you walk with your team.  Most of the banter is laugh out loud hilarious too so whenever your characters start to talk among themselves do yourself a favor and stop to listen.  You can also become friends or rivals with your party members.  Getting the friendship or rivalry meter (found in the menu screen) all the way to one side or another will unlock unique abilities in battle so make sure to either be nice or a complete ass to your team mates to unlock these abilities.

Just like with any Bioware game, you can form intimate relationships with certain members of your party.  Like Dragon Age Origins, you can have either a heterosexual or homosexual relationship.  Like I said in my Dragon Age Origins review, this is great because it caters to anyone and their sexual preferences.  I did find it kind of odd that you can have a homosexual relationship with any of the romance-able characters though.  No one is completely gay or straight in the world of Dragon Age I guess.  Again, I don’t have a problem with this since it does give the player more options but I would’ve liked to have seen some characters that did not indulge in anything other than a completely heterosexual or homosexual relationship.  This would make things a bit more realistic I think.  While on the subject of sex, the love making scenes of Dragon Age II have lost that weirdness from the last game.  In Origins, characters engaged in sex with their underwear on and dry humped in front of a camp fire.  As I said in the review, this bothered me to no end.  Thankfully in DAII the camera fades to black before intercourse begins and the scene fades back in on the characters the next day.  I’d still like to see sex scenes along the lines of what was presented in the first Mass effect game but the way that they were handled in DAII is much better and more tasteful than the original Dragon Age.

Speaking of Mass effect, the dialogue wheel from that game makes it’s way over to DAII but with an enhancement. Typically you are given the option of three things to say during a conversation like in Mass effect but unlike that series’ conversation wheel, this one has icons in the middle to indicate what your general tone will be.  Most of the time the top right choice will be a diplomatic or “good” response, the middle choice will be either comical, cynical or charming and the bottom right choice will be either aggressive or firm.  There are other icons that appear too like a question mark if you want to investigate, coins if you want to give money to help/bribe someone or a heart if you want to be flirtatious. Although it’s a bit more confining than the choice options in DAO, I still really like the updated conversation wheel in this game.

Combat has been reworked and not necessarily for the better.  Your character will no longer auto attack when you press the attack button.  In order to do regular attacks you have to press the attack button for each hit that you want to deal.  While this did make the battles feel more engaging it also lead to eventual frustration due to the way that enemy waves come in and how fast the stamina bar depletes.

Unlike Origins, enemies will attack you in waves and not as one giant group.  After you finish off one wave of enemies another one will appear and then usually another.  The problem is that after the first wave of enemies your stamina bar has been completely drained by you using your special attacks.  Unless you have potions to refill your stamina, most of the battles will consist of you just mashing away on the attack button.  This is all well and good for fans of the Dynasty warriors series of games but I find button jamming to be monotonous and annoying.  I can understand that the game doesn’t want you to spam your special attacks but there is already a check for that with the cool down periods between these attacks.  Cool down periods plus the easily depleted stamina bar means that your thumb will be very busy hitting the attack button for many many hours.  This also means that besides boss battles there is no real reason to strategize in combat.  Just keep hitting the attack button until all of your foes are dead.

Not everything about combat is bad though.  Seeing enemies explode into bits of gore because of a special move or seeing them being tossed aside after a successful attack is always fun.  You can also switch to different party members and combine their special attacks to do cross class combos.  For example you can have your mage freeze an enemy and have your warrior come in and shatter them to pieces.  The cross class combos are really fun to pull off but you won’t be able to do them as much as you would like due to the low stamina bar.  You can add points to stamina when you go up a level but if you are a warrior or rogue class you can’t spend as many points as you’d like on stamina (willpower) since you need to allocate those points to attributes that better suit these classes.  This is yet another example of ideas that were not completely worked out.

The last thing that was redone and will instantly catch the attention of anyone who has played the original Dragon Age are the graphics.  As I’ve said before, Dragon Age Origins was not a very good looking game.  It looked like a high end PC game that would have come out in the early 2000s.  It definitely wasn’t up to the graphical standards of modern games.  Thank the Maker that the graphics of Dragon Age II have been vastly improved over those of Origins.  This (along with the characters) is the other area of the game that saw no compromise.  The game looks amazing.  It no longer has the more realistic touch of Origins and instead ops for a more stylized look that is very eye pleasing. Although the environments are limited they all look fantastic and unlike Origins, you will stop during your travels just to gaze upon the beautifully rendered world.  When I played the demo I was a bit upset that two characters from Origins looked very different in DAII but they were the exceptions.  Many other characters return from the last game and although they have been redone in the style of the new game I was able to instantly recognize them.  I won’t spoil anything but it was fun to see some of my old allies make a return.  Some having pretty significant parts to play in current or upcoming world events.

Dragon Age II is a shorter game than Origins but not by much.  A single playthrough of the original could take about sixty hours to complete if you did all of the main, side and in game (not post game) dlc missions.  If you were to do everything in DAII it would take you about fifty hours.  It’s shorter but fifty hours is nothing to sneeze at either.  Of course the game may feel shorter since you revisit a lot of the same places constantly.  For you trophy-heads out there know that two full playthroughs and a third playthrough of the intro as a different class will net you all of the trophies in the game. There are no difficulty specific trophies to get so despite the fact that it will take a while, you should get 100% of the trophies with relative ease.

Dragon Age II was an ambitious attempt to reinvent the RPG formula but sadly came up short in many key areas. Although there are things that are great about the game, too many of them feel as though they were not given enough time to completely develop.  Despite these shortcomings DAII is still a great RPG that will provide you with many hours of gameplay.  If you are considering purchasing it make sure to lower your expectations slightly since this game is not all that it was striving to be.

Liked

  • Engaging and interesting characters
  • Great dialogue, writting and voice acting
  • Graphics were very pleasing to the eye

Disliked

  • Repeating dungeons and building interiors
  • Hitting the attack button for hours eventually becomes tiring
  • Frustrating and long boss battles made worse due to button mashing
  • Most of the game felt rushed

Dragon Age II was developed by Bioware Corp and published by Electronic Arts inc.  It was released on the Mac, PC Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.  It is available now for $59.99. The copy played for this review was a new retail copy.

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