For anyone who claims to know anything about Dragon Age II, it should be abundantly clear that BioWare has tried very hard to appeal to a broader audience with its latest endeavour in the fantasy RPG series. The sequel doesn’t carry the same RPG weight as 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins, but the revamped combat system shouldn’t leave out those looking for complete control of your party. Dragon Age II has enough depth to cook up a 45 hour campaign, but you can also take a more direct route through the plot in about 20 hours. This is a prime example of how BioWare has made a concerted effort to offer a little something for both hardcore RPG aficionados’ and more casual fans alike. Sadly all that accessibility has come at a price, namely in the form of a relatively dull and convoluted plot, repetitive missions, and anti-climactic ending.
The most immediate in-your-face change you’ll notice in Dragon Age II is the character creation system. No longer do you pick a race and proceed through that wonderful series of starter quests in Origins; rather, you have to play as a human, either male or female. You will also pick between a mage, warrior, or rogue. I picked a human warrior as I’m a front-of-the-lines kind of guy. There is some character customization, but regardless of how you look, you’re still Hawke from Ferelden with a loving family.
If you are familiar with Origins, then you should know all about the Blight. If you are new to the Dragon Age universe, all you need to know is that every hundred years or so, darkspawn (the game’s main demon-esque antagonists) come to the surface to wage war. The Grey Wardens are the protectors of the land, and they are responsible for dealing with the Blight. While this is the main plot of Origins and the expansion pack Awakening, Dragon Age II actually has little to do with the darkspawn.
Dragon Age II is a story within a story, but unlike the layers of dreams in Inception, this narrative element is pretty pointless. A clean-cut rogue Dwarf named Varric is questioned by seeker Cassandra, serving to fill in the gaps between the game’s three acts. Varric recounts the tales of our chiselled hero, and occasionally embellishes these stories to provide some comic relief in an otherwise dreary tale. As a more narrative-heavy offering than Origins, Dragon Age II focuses on Hawke, his journey to Kirkwall, and his rise to power as the Champion of Kirkwall.
BioWare created a story that is more about politics and the human struggle with power than the events from Origins—meaning it’s not exactly a sequel, it’s simply in the same world. I was surprised that once the game got cooking, there was little mention of the Blight or anything from the first game. There are hints here and there, as well as the reappearance of some familiar faces, but the link between the two games’ stories is almost exclusive to the setting. As someone who absolutely loved Origins and Awakening, I was a bit cautious at this new narrative. After beating the game, I’m not quite sure BioWare accomplished what it intended to do with the story, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
One of my favorite changes, or clean-up, is the improved dialogue. With a Mass Effect 2-style wheel, Hawke (who actually has a voice—a welcome addition over Origins’ perpetually silent protagonist) can choose to be aggressive, funny, or generally positive. The wheel occasionally opens up to more investigative options and, depending on your relationship with characters, you can even flirt. That’s right, if you feel compelled to get passionate with one of your party members, or an NPC, all you have to do is butter them up. My Hawke snagged a lady, and he even got her to move in with him. Relationships are very important in Dragon Age II, outside of the bedroom that is, and open the door for additional quests or rewards. My only concern with the relationship system is that the story doesn’t always make sense based on your friendship (or lack of friendship) with the main characters. This is certainly not a huge fault, but some of your friends’ decisions seem off-base at times.
Outside of the new character creation and fresh narrative, Dragon Age II introduces a revamped and simplified combat and party system. On the party side, I was a bit disappointed at the decision to make Hawke the only character you can equip with new armor. For the life of me I can’t figure out why BioWare decided to dumb-down the loot system—something which RPG fans, such as myself, simply adore. You can augment your party members’ armor, but you can never give them new armor. You can, however, hook them up with new weapons you find or purchase from merchants. This is just one example of how the simplification of Dragon Age II didn’t really work for me.
Combat in Dragon Age II is a joy, but again it’s simplified from Origins—a tactic that, in my opinion, works just fine. It’s faster, yet you can still pause the action and give orders to your party members. You can still swap between your party members, each of which has a total of six abilities mapped to the face buttons (holding R2 provides access to half your abilities while X is your basic attack button). If you want to mash buttons, you can play Dragon Age II as a straight-up action game, and while that’s fun for warriors, mages and rogues tend to function better with a more strategic approach. Relying on the game’s tactics (essentially pre-set orders for each party member, like telling Anders to heal a party member at 25% health) works fairly well, but you still have the option for more complete control. I found my party members needed help when their health was low—for some reason they thought it was more important to die fighting than to live. This is not a huge issue as you simply switch to that character, open up your pause wheel, and have them gulp down a healing potion.
My biggest gripe with combat has to do with repetition, which is actually one of my biggest complaints about the whole game. While you can face a battle with either frantic action or take a more skilled approach, you will fight the same types of enemies over and over again. That’s not to say the enemy models are all the same, in fact there’s a great variety in types of foes you’ll encounter. The problem is that battles are all pretty much the same—wave after wave of drones, with an occasional brute thrown in for good measure. Walking the streets at night almost always means you’ll encounter some thugs, but you can eliminate them with just a few shots of a fireball or a few smacks of a battle axe. Even the boss battles are underwhelming and typically require minimal strategy—the last boss battle is particularly guilty of this problem.
As if combat wasn’t repetitive enough, you will perform the same style of quests over and over again. Early in the game you must work your way up Kirkwall’s political and financial ladder by doing some basic “go kill that person,” or “go get me that,” style quests. Outside of character development and the general narrative, Hawke is a grunt doing people’s dirty work, even if it’s as simple as trying to hook up a party member with an NPC—seriously, that’s a side quest. That’s not to say the tasks are bad, but they are stale and a bit too similar. Luckily, just about every quest is short, except for the quest chains that concludes each chapter. Overall, there are so many side quests that you could easily spend 70 hours playing Dragon Age II.
By the middle of the second chapter I started to really like Kirkwall. The gloom of lowtown, the serenity of hightown, and the bustle of the gallows all have their own appeal. But by the start of the third chapter, however, I was ready to see some new faces. The world looks great, but if you are going to drop 30+ hours into a game, you want a bit of variety. Again, this just adds to the overall repetitive nature of the game.
There is a lot to like about Dragon Age II for both hardcore RPG fans and those new to the world of blood magic and Grey Wardens. Still, I can’t say I was crazy about the story and the overarching narrative style. About halfway through the game I lost interest in the story but found myself caring about the main character—odd how a game can do that. By the start of the third chapter, I was downright confused. A lot of the story just didn’t work for me—the whole political dispute was poorly crafted and after a while, characters and their significance started to blur together.
Despite some problems with repetitive quests and battles, Dragon Age II does a terrific job of making players care about the main characters, especially the quick-witted Varric and the level-headed Hawke. And, while our hero is not of the same caliber of BioWare’s other leading men, he’s still a great protagonist who shows genuine concern for his family and the lives of those around him. On the whole, Dragon Age II does a great job of introducing players to the series, but the loose RPG elements may disenfranchise hardcore fans. Still, if you can sink your teeth into the fast combat, entertaining characters and terrific dialogue system, then it’s very likely you will be keeping Dragon Age II firmly locked in your PlayStation 3 for a long, long time.