Review by sein

"Epic potential in a good game...just a good game"

During my experience with Dragon Age 2 I was badgered by one frustrating and confounding thought: ''this game could have, probably would have, and most certainly should have been epic''. It should have surpassed the original and easily most comparable rpgs. Yet, for reasons still unclear to me, Bioware chose to deliberately disregard one of the key factors, nay an undeniable necessity that makes an rpg enjoyable: variety. Dragon Age 2 has everything else in abundance, a solid story, fun and deep game play, character depth, and Bioware's trademark and masterfully written and executed dialogue and choice system. Although, as it is, I fear it's mainly fans or at least those who played and beat Origins (and maybe some of its DLC) that will get the most out of this experience. Newcomers to the series may not garner as much appreciation (or tolerance) for it's sequel as fans such as I. The reasons for that I will touch on later, but first, the awesome basics.

The graphics overall are an improvement over Origins. Character models are slightly better with more detail on clothing and small effects such as faint movement in hair and clothing. There's also a little more variety in the NPC faces, armor and weapons than in Origins, although still expect to see many of the same armor and weapon models recycled often with different color schemes. Some of spell effects are more visceral and realized as well. For example, the rock armor spell, which in Origins after being activated, would simply be represented by a faint colored aura around your character. Yet, in DA2 when activated the mage literally becomes engulfed in a bulky-armor of rocky-stone which stays until the battle is over; during which it then regresses in an additional animation. Not all spell affects are this graphic, and many still tend to have only an application animation then disappear while active, but it's a nice touch nonetheless. Overall, weapon and spell attacks (along with the combat in general) are much more guttural than in Origins and visually pack more of a wallop; often ending with some form of mutilation to their poor recipients. This accompanied with the hyper-paced combat (which often pits multiple waves of enemies at you) can make for some bloody skirmishes. Environments sport a good amount of detail, both in props and textures. Overall, considering the number of things going on both on screen and in the background the level of graphics detail is above average and usually flows smoothly, with only the occasional lag during combat.

The story, despite its constrained setting (the city of Kirkwall and its surrounding area) still manages to tell a pretty involved and intricate story of a nobody immigrant that arises to status and power. The story will arrive at its inevitable conclusion, but its the ability the player is given to direct its course to that end through dialogue choices and the moral or amoral decisions they get to make leading up to it that really give the story its bang. Expect to make some difficult choices and face the consequences of many at some point. It's for all intents and purposes the standard Bioware fare in the morality department. However this time around the trip is made less ''black and white'' with the addition of a new sarcastic/witty personality dynamic for the main character Hawke. For me this alone made the Hawke character almost as likeable and memorable as the party member characters and gives him/her almost as much personality. There's no doubt many will probably veer toward sarcastic/witty Hawke at some point (like I did) because it adds so much more character to your character's.... uh... character. In addition, to make the character role you choose for your version of Hawke even more dynamic (and consistent) you'll find the persona (good, bad, sarcastic) you've chosen for your character most often being how he/she responds during automatic conversation points (such as introductions, ending comments, random NPC reactions, etc ), and during battle. It helps keep you're characters attitude/personality consistent, and less bipolar. This added dynamic (although a small addition) puts the player one step closer to being able to truly mold a hero (or villain) in the manner they choose, and Bioware should be commended.

As for game play, many (myself included) will probably consider the combat the game's saving grace. I've enjoyed it so much more than any combat in any rpg I've played in recent memory (including Origins). I'd even go so far as say the combat is ground breaking. Bioware ramped up the pace of the combat to the power of ten while still retaining all the depth, stat management and tactical game play of Origins. At first glance one could think this was an action/adventure game (and some may actually consider it as such) but again all of the rpg based stats, leveling, and customization still remain, and therefore technically it still retains its rpg classification (atleast as far as I'm concerned). It's just a very hyper combat based rpg, which plays better than most action games of the like. Combat actions are done instantaneous (i.e. you press a button and your character attacks) as opposed to being issued a real-time command, and moving to the target on its own and auto-attacking. As a result, the game can devolve into a button-mash fest at times (especially on the normal or easy mode), which gives the illusion of lacking tactical depth. Contrary to many complaints this form of simplicity was apparent in the first Origins too on the lower difficulties, and is simply more apparent in DA2 due to its action-game facade. However, after about the first eight or so hours of play when enemies become tougher, the enemy-level scaling kicks in, and more abilities become available the tactical depth of the game will become apparent (and blatantly so for those who are careless about their characters' stat development). However, for me the lessened difficulty of normal mode compared to Origin's was significant. But don't fret, hard and nightmare modes will see veteran and hardcore player's returning to the deeply tactical and sometimes unforgiving game play of Origins. For those unfamiliar with the core game play, in the harder modes tactical pausing, and micro managing of all your characters abilities, positioning, and targeting is often required (if not a necessity) to be victorious. This, in my opinion is the only manner in which the games deep and well designed combat system can be truly appreciated. On normal or easy modes it's sufficient enough to just set your characters' behavior macros and let them do their own thing. Speaking of behavior macros, this time around you're given a significantly larger number of slots in which to apply/assign them (don't expect to ration them out or spend valuable skill points for them like in Origins) which further increases how you can customize party members' behavior. It may even be possible for very clever (not to mention super-patient) players to set their characters' behavior macros so they are completely self-sufficient even on hard or nightmare difficulty.

Another significant factor of the newly enhanced combat that makes it such, are the animations. In Origins (as with most rpgs) character movements and attacks during combat, are as expected, typical (generic), slow, and sometimes stiff, but they work as well as one would expect them to for any conventional rpg. Well this time around, character animations have taken on a strong martial arts style, emphasizing quickness, agility, and brute force. I even noticed some that seem almost anime inspired. Even the once slow and clunky mages now twirl and twist their staffs, unleashing magical (and even melee) attacks with the grace and speed of a bo staff master. Rogues attack with the speed and agility you'd expect of a ninja and are exponentially more deadlier than before. This is due in large part to the speed and number of hits of their basic attacks and a skill set focusing on concentrated damage to a single enemy. Incidentally, the warrior class (and traditionally designated tanks and melee damagers) come across as the weakest in the damage department. Not to insinuate they don't do significant damage in their own right (especially if leveled up proficiently), but their focus as damagers this time around is on multiple opponents, and not single opponents. Forty-plus hours into the game and I never got tired of watching the ferocious flashiness of my character's attacks, and I found myself savoring each battle encounter significantly more than I did in Origins. All and all battles are hectic and you'll often forget this is still a role-playing game. Innovative and maybe even ground-breaking is my opinion of what Bioware has accomplished with the combat, something that will most likely be mimicked by many a developer in the future.

As for the sound and music, what do you expect, it's a Bioware game and to say it's all top-notch goes without saying. Voice acting is grade A++ (although I did notice a few rare gems of brief awfulness sprinkled throughout). The music is easily on par with anything Bioware has included thus far, but often gets overshadowed by the repetitive and overused locales. Sound effects compliment the hectic, fast paced battles, emphasizing the various slashes, zaps, and explosions excellently to add that extra visceral ''oomph'', making combat all the more satisfying.

Now for the really bad. As good as all that's good about DA2 is, all of it is neatly packaged and masterfully presented in a game that is, well to put it simply, repetitive. A game that in spite of its innovative game mechanics, dynamic character development, dialog and mature story, constantly devolves into a near consistent and never ending string of side missions. Of which roughly ninety-percent involve going to location A to kill bad guy B (or look for NPC A, which still usually ends with you killing bad guy B) then return to NPC C and collect a reward. To be honest, I find this type of fetch quest/seek and destroy game play archetype to be quite fun and satisfying (from an old school perspective), especially if executed correctly. Considering missions can usually be tackled in any order, the dynamic game play, and the slew of moral and dialogue choices you get to make along the way, it should have been just that ''fun'' without much argument to the contrary.

That is if not for the biggest tear in the tapestry: the environments. Environments that could have been quite appealing and grandiose if they weren't reused and recycled to an excess I haven't seen since the days of eight-bit gaming. During the 40 to 50 hours spent in the game, expect to experience the same cave, ocean front, underground dwelling, back alley, etc. dozens of times. Furthermore, the backtracking you'll do within the city of Kirkwall itself (between its five or so main hubs and the dozen or so of buildings/houses you're allowed to access) may even exceed that number. And when I say reused and recycled, I'm not exaggerating in the slightest. Literally reused and recycled, from every prop (and their placements) in the environment to the actual dungeon/city/cavern layouts, this game is one epic cut and paste bonanza. Bioware makes a not-so-inconspicuous effort at either masking or lessoning (probably both) the repetitiveness by placing entry and exit points at different locations and making some passages and entryways accessible on some missions and blocking some off in others. This does help relieve the tedium to some extent, but even limited variations of the same identical cave interior can only be used so many times before even they have to be recycled. In addition, the lengthy load times ranging from (10 to 30 seconds on the times I've counted) make the constant backtracking even more tedious. To be blunt ,considering the scope and variety of the environments found in Origins and the obviously high-production values of both games, there is in my opinion no excuse beyond very poor game design (or sheer laziness), for such an extreme level of visual repetitiveness. It's quite pathetic, and will no doubt turn off a good number of gamers or, like it did for me, substantially diminish their immersion and overall enjoyment of the game.

After all is said and done, I still found DA2 to be a fun, enjoyable, and even fulfilling experience. However what could have been a truly epic (possibly even genre redefining) role-playing game only amounts to a good one. One that is still well worth sticking with through to the end, especially if you're a Dragon Age fan. Nonfans and newcomers however should keep an open mind and not have their expectations set too high.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 05/03/11

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

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