Two years ago, BioWare amazed RPG players with their incredible game, Dragon Age: Origins. The game was truly a work of art. Now, in 2011, we finally get our hands on the much anticipated sequel, Dragon Age II. Can it hold up next to such an amazing predecessor?
Dragon Age II takes place during and after Origins. You play as Hawke, a young refugee trying to provide for his or her family as well as make a name for him or herself. In the beginning of the game, Hawke and his family are fleeing the Darkspawn blight that is taking over their home in Ferelden. They take refuge in Kirkwall, a large country-city located in the Free Marches. Here, Hawke must work off a debt, gain trust with some of the locals, and make enough money to help out the family as well as explore the world.
There are three classes in the game much like Origins: Warrior, Mage, and Rouge. Each has their own set of skills and abilities as well as different stats and recommended skill trees. Choosing which class is for you all depends on how you want to play the game.
The character customization is much like Mass Effect’s: you can give Hawke either gender and any face you like with a ton of choices and options to be had. Unfortunately, you can only be a human this time around, but you’ll have plenty of Elves and Dwarves in your party to make up for that.
The warrior serves as a power character and tank. The mage is a buffer and healer that also has powerful attacks. The rouge is a fast-paced attacker that focuses on DPS and stunning/confusing enemies. All classes have a unique play style, and all are really fun to play.
Right away, you will see the visual improvements in Dragon Age II from Origins. The character models, environments, and overall look of the game are beautiful. The animations are more fluid and there is no slow-down to be seen during combat.
The combat is probably the biggest overhaul that was made. It is faster paced and more action oriented. Hitting X/A to attack does just that. Each hit of the button is an attack. So the characters feel more responsive during combat. They don’t just attack on their own anymore. Spells and abilities can be mapped to the other face buttons as well as holding down R2/RT to shift the ability tray to access another three moves for quick on-the-fly attacks. You can hold down L2/LT at anytime to pause the game. During this time, you can assign commands to all of your party members before jumping back into the action. This comes in handy when taking on a large number of enemies as well as difficult bosses.
The player can also assign tactics to their party members, much like in Origins. That way, if the conditions are met, they will use a certain item or skill without the player having to tell them. It works out well and allows for some good combo situations. Party members can perform a cross-class combo which does additional damage when executed properly. Cross-class combos feature an ability that hinders or stuns an enemy followed by another party member, of a different class, capitalizing on it. Think of it like setting up an enemy for a major attack.
Another large change to the game is the crafting and skill tree aspects. Points are no longer used for skills like lock picking and poison making. To create a poison or bomb, you just have to gather materials and visit a vendor in the market. All crafting and enchanting is done in this manner. Lock picking and other passive abilities are upgraded through adding points to the related stats. For instance, if you want better lock picking, add points to your Cunning stat. The skill trees see a welcomed improvement. There are many to choose from and each has activated, sustained, and passive upgrades. The main character can learn two specializations at levels, 7 and 14. There is always more to be had when it comes to learning new attacks and abilities.
The inventory and equipment system is one feature that I am torn between loving and hating. In Origins, it seemed like I was fighting a losing battle to keep my inventory organized and find the right weapons and armor for my party members. Dragon Age II threw that whole idea out the window. Now, the menu itself is more user-friendly, but most of that is due to your party members not being able to equip new armor. The only person you can replace armor for is Hawke. Now, don’t get me wrong, you can still place weapons, rings, belts, and amulets on your full party, but armor you can’t. As my Hawke was a Rogue, I ended up with about 10 pieces of armor that I could never use as they were for mages and warriors. It keeps things simple, but I would argue a little too simple.
Dragon Age II, while very open in most aspects, is still a story-driven game. The main story takes place when the player wants to advance it. There are still a great number of side quests to take on in and around Kirkwall that will extend the game a significant amount. The only problem is you spend so much time in the same place that you lose interest in what you’re doing. After spending 15 hours in Kirkwall and the outskirts of Kirkwall, you want a little more out of the game. The side quests just seem like fetch quests with a little bit of story thrown in. Granted, you will be travelling more after Act 1 of the game. It’s just a little slow moving in the beginning portion.
The conversation portion of Dragon Age II has seen a big overhaul as well. Now, instead of a massive wall a dialog options, you have a wheel that points to small phrases that derive from a good, neutral/sarcastic, and critical response, much like in BioWare’s other marquee series, Mass Effect. There are still choices to be made, and some of them can be difficult ones to make, but as far as responding to people with the different styles, I could really see no difference in what the final outcome was other than affecting that person’s relationship with Hawke. Your companions can also choose to like you or “rival” you as well. Gaining their full friendship or rivalry unlocks a special ability in their personal skill tree, so conversing with your party members can be rewarding.
Dragon Age II is a mixed bag for me. I love the improvements to the combat and presentation, and I do have to say the menus are a lot easier to navigate (which is a big deal for me.) But the story, while it has its moments of greatness, just feels a little lackluster. The choices you make feel somewhat minute in the larger scale of things. The conversation improvements are nice, but I never really got a good grasp on how my word choice would affect what happens next. I’m glad that BioWare has taken the time to try to improve the inventory system, but at the same time, it feels like they have “dumbed it down” too much.
They have good intentions, but ended up shooting themselves in the foot. I still find Dragon Age II to be a great game. The combat is really enjoyable and rewarding, but the hardcore RPG player in me doesn’t like the overly simplistic aspects to everything else. If you enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins, more than likely, you have already picked up this game. I would still suggest it to any RPG fan. You will still have a blast. I just think by making the game simpler, they have created a fun playing game, but not a very deep one.
Review copy provided by publisher.