Pick the sword, dagger or staff as you journey to become the champion of Kirkwall
I'll admit, I was worried about Dragon Age II. Excited, but worried none-the-less. The follow up to Bioware's 2009 Fantasy RPG epic, a combination of only seeing small snippets of the game, the fact that I'd always felt it really didn't need a new art-style, and just a general sense of foreboding has kept me on edge. Trying to put it into words though was almost impossible, so I quickly adopted a "wait and see" attitude. What I've seen fills me with joy, trepidation, annoyance, suspense, and awe all at the same time. Well ok... not the exact same time, but this is definitely a bit of a rollercoaster of a videogame.
It's odd sometimes how the little things can alter a perception. Being a Bioware game (especially considering how great Mass Effect 2 was), you expect great things here. Again though, for reasons that we'll probably never understand, Dragon Age II doesn't seem to have the same production values as the Mass Effect series. This is not so much a problem as it is just a mystery - I mean, do they not get the same stuff those other guys do? What's going on there? Still that being said, this game is a definite improvement to Origins, at least on the console. Perhaps it's the fact that Bioware did the console versions themselves this time, instead of getting a third party to help out, but there's a huge difference here. The state of the PC version though is another matter however, as we'll be covering that in a separate review.
Apart from some choices, Hawke's character is very defined which is actually pretty good
There are several key elements you'll want to pay attention to in this game, perhaps the most important one being the story. As sound as it was, Origin's tale was almost a little too generic for its own good, and some found it a tad boring. Dragon Age II however uses a framed narrative, like that in the film The Usual Suspects. This new method of telling the story gets you hooked almost from the beginning, as you already know something has happened, and you're simply trying to find out what has happened. That, and the random moments where the story-teller is deliberately 'embellishing' the tale with moments of impossible heroism and awesome, keeps things interesting and makes for some fun and frantic 'easy' gameplay segments. These are a nice distraction from the never-ending slog of normal gameplay, it's a shame there's not more of them. Pay attention to the hints, and you can sort of 'predict' some of the stuff that happens, which is also kind of fun. .. Given the nature of choice in this game, quite a few elements are flexible - who your significant other is, what ends up happening with your siblings, who you help, etc... so there's a lot of replay value here.
Alas it's not perfect: For example, the pacing could be better. The first year in Kirkwall is a bit of a quest dump you could say, with a lot of things you can do before you do the main quest... to be honest, considering this is a ten year-spanning story, they could have spaced things out a bit. Granted, there's nothing saying you have to do every quest, but if you choose to do so it does feel like a bit of a grind. It's also funny how a single element can almost ruin everything that came before - whilst there are some really great moments here, prepare yourself for a disappointing ending. It's a cop-out, it's frustrating, and it kind of ruins the whole point of a framed narrative in my opinion. It reminds me almost of how Knights of the Old Republic II turned out. I wonder if, like Obsidian, Bioware simply ran out of time?
Of course, when you're not talking, you're fighting. One of the first things we remember hearing about Dragon Age II was that they basically wanted to make it so that you press a button "and something awesome happens". You can see elements of that in the design for this game, as many of the special abilities are powerful and flashy - even the regular attack has some flair to it. The tactical elements are also there, although we'd argue their role has been diminished. If you want something done, just switch characters and do it for yourself. The variety of skills you can choose is good, although we wish there was more room for experimentation. On the surface at least, combat is pretty enjoyable - it looks good, it feels good, and the interface works well with the new design ethic here.
Unlike previous games, gender has more significant gameplay consequences, which is nice to see
Get underneath that though, and there are flaws. Given stamina or mana limitations, along with the ability cooldowns, combat does get a little bit button mashy as sometimes all you can do is tap A or X to do the regular attack. Setting up 'Tactics' hasn't been made any easier to really understand either, but so long as you set up basics like healing and attacking, you shouldn't need to fiddle too much. Also think carefully of how you want your character to pan out, and what skills you want them to have - do it incorrectly and it can make things difficult. Even though they've claimed to be adding more flair and style though, this isn't completely the case - I remember one of the first bosses you have to fight in DAO, and when we killed it, there was this kick-ass animation where my guy jumped into the air and drove his sword into the beats face. Those kind of Troy-like finishing moves were all over Origins, and I've yet to see one here in Dragon Age II.
This is another one of those odd games to review, especially considering how highly we regarded its predecessor. There's good moments, there's bad moments, there's weird moments... the companions in this game are all enjoyable characters (even if you can spot the Mass Effect 2 clone in some of them), and yet managing the Rivalry/Friendship metre can be difficult. Unlike in the first game, where it was more clear how certain characters would react to certain choices, in this you could be plodding along through a convo and suddenly you've lost standing with someone, for no adequately explained reason. That's annoying. We noticed that there was a DAO or Awakening import feature, but to be honest the effect this had was just as trivial as in Mass Effect 2... maybe even more so, actually. At least in ME2 you could see some of the background stuff was going somewhere, whereas you can't say that here as you're not even in Feralden anymore.
We also have to say that we're a little disappointed at how often Bioware chose to re-use areas for this game. You could do five different quests that involve going to five supposedly separate caves, but they would all look the same because they share the same level design. Sure, there is some customization done here: One cave will only involve one room, another cave will involve the whole thing, but certain passage ways will be blocked... I think the greatest highlight of this was when we did two cave missions in a row, one involved going from A to B, and the other involved simply doing it the other way around, but it was the exact same cave.
Combat is visceral messy, and a little bit flashy. Good stuff
We understand that this happens in game design, we're not saying everything should be unique... but if it's this noticeable, then you know there's a problem. It's also a little confusing if you don't know what's going on, because the whole level is actually present on the mini-map, and yet depending on how they've customized it for this particular 'instance' you could say, you won't be able to access all of it and it's not clear why, until you realise that they're just reusing assets.
There's more to this game that we haven't talked about: Inventory and character outfitting, crafting, resources etc.. There's a lot here to do, there's a lot to experience, which is great. On the whole this is a good game, you will enjoy it, and it's definitely worth getting and worth playing. An ending is just an ending for some people, and even I'm capable of ignoring a lot of 'niggles' that drive other people up the wall. Still, this game could have been better... should have been better perhaps, but if we're going to look at the wider picture there have been far worse games, far worse things to have happened in games. Whilst very specific, the story of Hawke is an engaging and compelling one indeed, and we urge you to discover it for yourself.
DRAGON AGE II VERDICT
Again, stay tuned for a separate PC review.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Despite a bitch-slap of an ending (setting it up for a sequel no doubt), there’s some really great moments in this game.