Review by wrexwrecks

"A modern RPG, with modern sensibilities, for the modern gamer"

Dragon Age 2 is the next entry in BioWare's epic fantasy saga started with 2009's well-received Dragon Age: Origins. That game, intended for a PC audience, was an uneasy fit on consoles and Origins suffered greatly from the late decision to port it over. What worked on the PC with a mouse and keyboard simply didn't on a controller. Consequently, console gamers were robbed of the finer nuances of its combat system, and graphically, without the higher rez potential of a gaming rig, it was also a letdown. Visually DA:O was tantamount to smearing Vaseline on the TV during a screening of Lord of the Rings.

Not all was lost, however. BioWare established a rich lore to accompany their new fantasy game, and it was glorious. It was a world that revolved around magic, or more importantly, protecting the average citizen from being victimized by its use. Every inch of the game was filled with lessons on geography, politics, and history. Empires rose and fell, heroes came and went, evil triumphed and was triumphed upon by the forces of good and it was all around you wherever you went in the game world. And all of it was intricately detailed in the game's encyclopedia-like codex, to be perused at the players leisure rather than forced down his or her throat via expository dialogue. For fans of “future history,” high fantasy, or alternate realties, it was a kind of nirvana that BioWare excels in crafting.

Luckily, the story and lore remain just as interesting and diverse as ever in Dragon Age 2. The big question is whether or not the combat, now specifically designed with a controller in mind, could rise above the sticky morass of PC-style complexity on a console that was Dragon Age: Origin's ultimate downfall.

To the joy of fantasy RPG fans without PC gaming rigs everywhere, I can say with complete certainty that the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

Dragon Age 2 tells the story of how our protagonist, Hawke, became the Champion of Kirkwall, and the roll he (or she) played in events that have shaken the continent of Thedas to its core and undermined the very fabric that holds society together.

But story actually begins after those events and is told as a series of flashbacks. The game, and its three chapters are all book-ended by an interrogation. The flashbacks represent the story teller giving his account of Hawke's rise to power and role in the aforementioned “world shaking” events that are of such great concern to the church official conducting the interrogation. There are also a few occasions where the fact that the game is being “told” second hand leads to the playing out of humorous exaggerations in the game as if they really happened. Those moments were some of the most pleasantly surprising I've encountered in a game.

Those who are fans of BioWare games should take note that DA2 does not follow their standard “intro; visit 4 places of importance; end-game” story. In it's place is a multifaceted approach to storytelling that covers roughly ten years in Hawke's life. Also, instead of a grand unifying evil force that needs to be stopped, like the Blight in Origins, there are certain factions whose goals may go against Hawke, his companions, and the city of Kirkwall. You'll spend the majority of the game slowly unraveling threads that lead to and from the various factions, Hawke and Hawke's companions. The true meat of the story is how these various threads tie together and add up to a greater narrative that deals with the trials and tribulations of Kirkwall itself - as Kirkwall, and the events that occur there over the game's extended time frame directly influence the events already underway at the game's start that concern the Chantry and the Chantry Seeker interrogating our Dwarven narrator.

The multifaceted approach to storytelling also applies to Hawke's companions, a motley crew of the usual warriors, rogues, and mages you had in the DA:O. Each companion has a story that plays out over the ten or so years that the main story does. Many of these include moments of real drama, heartfelt emotion, betrayal, and redemption, and one that plays such a role in shaping the game's central conflict between Kirkwall's Circle of Magi and their Templar overseers it nearly escapes from its role as “companion quest” to become part of the main quest line.

Despite all these disparate story threads it manages to remain relatively focused and leads to a satisfying conclusion to Kirkwall's Story. Hawke's story on the other hand, seems to be just beginning. The game's end is not so much a cliffhanger as a sign post that points to things that will come - hopefully in Dragon Age 3.

On the downside, there are a few strands that remain loose when the final credits roll, mostly having to do with a handful of characters from Origins who return for cameo appearances in DA2. They suggest a greater role than ever develops during the game. Possibly it's fodder for DLC or the sequel. If you're prone to uncontrollable angst over micro transaction, that might turn you off.

There are two big changes that are immediately obvious as soon as you start the game. The first is the addition of a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel. Gone is the list of responses for you to pick from while your character stares off into space like a mage made tranquil. Unlike Mass Effect, the conversation wheel comes with a few upgrades. The first and most welcome is the addition of icons to aid in choosing a response. These range from angel wings and a halo to denote especially friendly or forgiving responses to a question mark to guide you toward further investigation. The second convo-wheel upgrade is the addition of a sarcastic or charming option. These replace the lame neutral options that you got in Mass Effect and often lead to Hawke cracking jokes or being cheeky. While never really laugh out loud funny, the option for Hawke to say something with a little more personality really beefs up those conversation options that are often the refuge of the indecisive and middling,

The second big change in gameplay is that Hawke is fully voiced this time around. Instead of the mute tranquil I alluded to before you can now listen as he or she (yes you can still pick gender and both are fully voiced) crack jokes while covered in left over blood splatter. Hawke's voice actor, no matter the gender, is top notch and what you'd expect from a BioWare game. Frankly, there nothing worse than a poorly acted main protagonist, so no worries there.

Of course, unless the combat works, all the top-notch voice acting, and lore-making is for naught. Combat is the one area that held DA:O back, in my opinion, and it's also the one area of the game that's going to draw the most fire from hardcore RPGers. Simplified, streamlined, and dumbed down are all words that are going to be used to describe the combat. Is it? The answer is yes - although I wouldn't say dumbed down since it's meant solely as an insult. BioWare has chosen to reduce the number of talents and spells, eliminate skills altogether, and drop one specialization from each class (from 4 in DA:O to 3 in DA2). They've also eliminated the fatigue stat from the game so the mana or stamina cost for a talent or spell is the same whether you're in the heaviest armor or street cloths. Also gone is the ability to decide what your companions wear. They have one outfit that can be upgraded, and you can still choose their weapon, but just one this time instead of two. Their combat style cannot be changed, however. A sword and shield companion can't use a two handed axe, for example. A loss for micromanagers to be sure, but on balance, it means less math and more blood fountains - not that blood fountains are inherently better than math all the time, just when you're playing a videogame.

Another loss is that of choosing the race of your Hawke. He or she is human this time around. You can edit their faces or go with one of two default faces (they're the same, but one has blood smeared across the nose). I was pleasantly surprised by the facial editing options this time around. The hair especially looks far better than it did in DA:O or even Mass Effect 2. Overall the facial editing is leaps and bounds ahead of that seen in the Fallout games or Oblivion. For me, the default male Hawke looked great and I imagine I'll use it every time I pick a male. His beard is just so amazing.

Despite all the streamlining, it's not all bad news because what is there works like a charm, is far more interesting, faster, and more visceral. Large battles can still be a tad hectic despite the fewer options and will often see you pausing the game by opening the radial menu, selecting an attack for each party member then diving back into combat several times per battle. Along with talents and spells you also are given the option of tossing glass bottles filled with various damaging substances, healing, topping up your stamina or mana, ordering a teammate to move to a different position, drinking buffing potions, or coating weapons with debuffing poisons. So yes, it's less complex than the first game, but still way more complex than games from the Mass Effect, or Fallout series.

Overall, I just found it more enjoyable. Talents and spells happen as soon as you activate them, however they can be interrupted by taking damage. Also, the skill trees are more thoughtfully laid out. For me that meant less skipping powers I wanted because I'd waste points on powers I didn't. The combat, while fun, still suffered from the occasional difficulty spike, but it was not nearly as bad as the first game. Also, since there are no difficulty-based achievements this time around, there was no reason not to turn it down from hard to normal for one fight here or there, then turn it back.

One niggling issue would be the fact that since the whole game takes place in and around Kirkwall, the locations you see never really change. It's possible you might find trudging to the Gallows for the 399th time soul-suckingly dull, or be disappointed to suffer from “hey it's that cave again” syndrome. I personally didn't, but if you're the kind of gamer that desires a constant supply of new areas to explore, you will be disappointed, angry, sad, and/or all three. However, I think there's a solid reason they did this because…

…THE GRAPHICS ARE SO MUCH BETTER!! Where DA:O was a blurry mess, DA2 is mostly gorgeous to look at. Textures still won't stand up to close scrutiny (that can still be a problem with peoples' cloths during dialogue), but overall it looks more like a modern game should look. This is helped greatly by BioWare's as-per-usually strong art and character design. So yeah, it may be the same cave you've visited a thousand times before, but it looks a thousand times better than anything in Origins. That's a fair trade-off if you ask me. Quality over quantity and all that.

Sound-wise, it‘s very similar to DA:O. The game's score is generally more understated, but that fit's the game if you ask me. However, many of the musical cues that play during battles are excellent and appropriately bombastic given the action. Florence and the Machine provides the obligatory rock song that plays during the end credits. I liked it. Your mileage may vary.

Voice acting is also as-per-BioWare-usual. There are, however, a string of ridiculous accents that make some NPCs sound like Adam Savage from Mythbusters doing his awful pirate impression. But that's also BioWare as usual. Hawke and the central cast of companions and NPC heroes and villains are universally excellent, however.

My first play through clocked in at just under 70 hours, which I'm sure is on the long end of the spectrum. To do everything (which I didn't) should take and average gamer between 30 and 50 hours depending on their completionist tendencies. Replayablility is high as there are three classes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and many mutually exclusive story choices that affect how the game plays out. I couldn't even venture a guess as to how long it would take to see and do everything as every class and gender in DA2.

To sum up: Dragon Age 2 is a great experience and a must buy for fans of BioWare games. What it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in character and fun. While it's not perfect, and some of those imperfection could drive a serious gamer up the wall, overall it's worth the time and effort. Just don't expect it to be a throwback to the halcyon days of PC RPGs. It's a modern RPG, with modern sensibilities, for the modern gamer.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/29/11

Game Release: Dragon Age II (US, 03/08/11)

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