Review: Dragon Age 2
For some reason, unknown to us, we’ve landed up with two takes on Dragon Age 2. The first look is done by Caveshen who raves about the game because it’s no doubt a great title. And here’s where the the problem arises, a second look from Azhar makes it feel as if the title isn’t everything it was previously hyped up to be — leaving us with a dilemma of opinion. Of course, reviews are opinions – so you’ll need to trust your judgment. We hope you find what you’re looking for.
- Worth The Time?A resounding “definitely” would go here.
- Things LovedGraphical fidelity, cool set pieces, insanely fun combat, interesting party members.
- Things Hated“Waves” of enemies, convoluted story, repeated environments, feels rushed and incomplete in places.
- RecommendationIf you’re a fan of RPG games of any kind, or you enjoy games with really good stories, then buy it.
- Name: Dragon Age 2
- Genre: RPG
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: None
- Platforms: Xbox 360, PC, PS3
- Developer: BioWare
- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- Price: R465
- Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Straight up, I’m just going to come out and admit that I am a fan of the Dragon Age series, as am I a fan of the Mass Effect series, which essentially makes me a BioWare fanboy now. I will also admit to being late to both series (ridiculously late to the latter) but nevertheless enjoying both like few others have. As such, I have eagerly awaited this game’s release since first hearing about it around this time last year, and then instantly pre-ordering it the second it was available locally, and then proceeding to count down to the day of its release. I’ve been that hysterical about it.
But all of that out in the open, I am not above being brutally honest when it comes to talking about these games. I have had many a debate about the story structure of Dragon Age: Origins among other gripes of mine with that game, and you are all well associated now with my opinions on Mass Effect 2 and the choices that are forced upon the player without much justification for the “right” choice being right and so on, and so when it comes to telling it like it is, I am more than capable. So go with me on this, because I pretty much guarantee that half of those who read this will fail to see the points that I am trying to make. Also, as a result, this review is going to be very long. You have been warned.
First, some background. The first game in this series, Dragon Age: Origins, followed the exploits of a character that you created and began as a regular non-important person in the world with. Through various unfortunate circumstances you ended up having to leave your respective home and soon after, join the Grey Wardens. You were so cool, or so you thought. And then some stuff happened and you ended up having to recruit an army to fight against the threat of the Archdemon and the Blight that it brought, while finding random specialist fighters to join your cause. Choices were made, sides were picked, allies were recruited, and you and your team of random specialist fighters were able to successfully stop the Archdemon and send the Blight into an early retirement. And then you played that Awakening expansion and all of the DLC, and more stuff happened. Awesome.
Cue Dragon Age 2. This game has, put simply, very little to do with Dragon Age: Origins, apart from of course being set in the same universe, with the same classes and races and, okay well there’s a bit of Dragon Age: Origins in it…
It’s important to note that Dragon Age 2 should not be seen as a sequel to Origins in the purest sense. Rather, it is a continuation of a larger story, from a different perspective. Dragon Age 2 is a far more personal experience. Whereas in Origins, you controlled a character that looked to the world and ventured through it, in order to do what needed to be done, here you are in a single city, controlling a character that looks to himself and his family instead. Dragon Age 2 might well have been called “Dragon Age: Hawke’s Origins” and it would have made more sense. The game revolves and centres around one (insert first name here) Hawke. It tells the story of Hawke and how he (for the sake of this article, let’s call Hawke a “he” since I chose a male) rose from a mere refugee, having escaped Lothering during the Blight, to Champion of Kirkwall, and beyond, all within ten short years where he doesn’t visibly age one bit.
When you look at it like this, it is easier to fully accept what BioWare are trying to do with this game. They haven’t forgotten about your character that you worked so hard to build up in Origins, they haven’t forgotten about all of those world-changing choices that you had made. And they sure as hell haven’t forgotten that Morrigan still owes us a fucking explanation for her actions. They simply wish to tell you another story, in the meantime. When BioWare bring these stories together, I promise you it will be worth all of the frustration and impatience.
The clearest indication of the fact that BioWare had planned this for a while might be the fact that, as anyone who has played Origins knows, once your party leaves Lothering and completes a main quest (hopefully after you’ve recruited Sten and Leliana to your cause), the town is declared “Destroyed by darkspawn” on the world map and cannot be visited any more. It’s the only place on the map that says this.
That’s the storyline, and this is the review.
When you start up a new game, you are asked to choose from one of six possible Hawke-esque characters. The male or female version of either a mage, warrior or rogue class. Unlike the demo, here you are allowed to change basic details such as Hawke’s first name, face and portrait. Once that has been completed you are accelerated into what we’ll call the present, where a Chantry seeker is interrogating Varric, a dwarf and Hawke’s closest friend according to the story. He then proceeds to tell her the story of the Champion of Kirkwall, with a few exaggerations here and there. Yes, you read right, Dragon Age 2 has a framed narrative for a story mechanic. When last did you see that in an RPG?
The prologue then begins, essentially ten years before what we’ll call the present, and smack bang in the middle of the darkspawn invasion of Lothering that you’re well accustomed to from Origins, and after Varric’s exaggerated telling of the events, the game starts proper with you and your family attempting to escape Lothering and the Blight. You soon end up in Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches far away from Ferelden, along with hundreds of other Fereldan refugees. What then follows is (or would have been) one of the most personal stories that you will ever encounter in a game.
One problem, and it’s a gaping chasm of note, is that the game basically just drops you into this story without first building up the necessary emotive bits and so you feel as though most of what is happening to your character is forced upon you. At times you’re expected to feel emotionally sad and distraught, but you’re alienated to that because you never had the prior opportunity to warm up to and connect with the characters presented to you.
Kirkwall itself is a beautiful city of stone, built looking almost like Gondor of The Lord of The Rings fame. You will spend ages here. Let it be known, by the end of this game, you will not need your mini map to tell you where in Kirkwall you are. As times goes, you get very much accustomed to all of those little details that let you know that this city is your home. It will feel like home after a while. But at first, it will be a brutal place, full of confusing people who all seem to know your name yet you have no idea who you quite are, yourself. As time passes, you become more and more famous, going from at first this unwanted Fereldan refugee, only in Kirkwall to steal homes away from the native residents, to nobility, to the Champion of Kirkwall.
As such, the story is structured in three acts. Each act concludes in some major event in the history of Hawke’s life, and then proceeds to move the story forward. The developers have made excellent use of the conflict mechanic, using each act as a springboard for specific existing conflicts within the game and the resolution of each, per act. At any point in the game, if feels like there is this brooding conflict, this threat of escalating hostility between two parties. Dragon Age 2 tries its hardest to drill that home.
Each act’s conclusion, apart from bringing some resolution of some story arc, also essentially resets all maps, meaning that after beginning a new act, the various places that you visited in the previous act change ever so slightly usually depending on your actions in the previous act, either granting or denying you access to areas that were previously closed or open, respectively. By doing all of the main, side and companion quests, you will end up re-visiting all of the various places you visited in the previous act, and witnessing said changes.
Speaking of side quests, this game has ten metric fucktonnes of side quests that vary in name from “Companions”, “Side” and “Secondary” and can be as simple as walking up to someone with an item of their interest, clicking on them and getting paid for it, or as tricky as fighting dragons, demons or revenants in order to protect, destroy or recover something or the other. Some quests also arc over each act, continuing as you go along, with yet more “problems that only Hawke can solve” being thrown at you.
Companion quests specifically all arc over the entire game, giving you fresh quests per party member, per act, to complete. The companions themselves in this game are, as expected, well fleshed out and diverse. From a Tevinter slave elf with Lyrium-infused skin who hates mages to a very Welsh-sounding Dalish elf who uses blood magic as part of the combination of her ancient elven teachings and a deal made with a demon long ago. There really is something for everyone here. Only the dwarven participation in this game, quite ironically, falls short, with just Varric. But all of their backstories, all of their quirky characteristics, everything about them is endearing and has you feeling over time like they are either true friends or true rivals, which works well in the case of the system of approval that this game uses, for party members.
Whereas in the first game, decisions and dialogue options led to either approval or disapproval, here it is called friendship and rivalry. In the first game, if disapproval was maxed out, something that was ridiculously impossible to achieve in most parts, your party members would leave of their own choosing. Here if you max out the equivalent, rivalry, all that happens is that they become a rival to Hawke (duh), and same can be said of maxing out friendship, which causes them to become friends with Hawke (duh again), essential for romancing a party member. Each companion has a special passive that will unlock once you’re either their friend or rival, so it’s a tactical advantage having a specific party member be your friend or your rival.
Did someone say romance?
Speaking of romancing, BioWare have taken something of a different stance with this game and allowed all companions save for your in-game sibling and Varric to be romance ready. This means that whether you are a male or a female Hawke, every other companion is fair game given certain requirements such as giving that person a gift and maxing out friendship, and of course completing their companion quest. This has been met with mixed responses, as you’ve no doubt read about by now. But all of this pales to the fact that Isabella’s boobs are way too big for anyone to care. Also, that dress…
Combat in the game has been a huge gripe with many who have cited the fact that the game is now, in their relatively meaningless opinions, “dumbed down” and therefore inferior. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only real issue that I take with the combat system is the need to always be “right-clicking” or “button-spamming” in order to attack. This makes sense for a console-based game but isn’t as intuitive for this game type on a PC.
The mistake would be to assume that the series has taken a turn towards focusing on the console. That’s not quite true. More correctly stated, the game has now been brought to equal plains on all of the platforms.
Apart from the attack-spamming, combat is the usual plethora of pausing to use various spells and skills (now consisting trees that you invest skill points in) and everything has been upgraded, visually, to look not only more appealing and visceral, but more badass. From basic attacks to spells to random skills, everything has a cool factor about it now. Combat sequences in this game have you, on many occasions, stopping to admire what you’d just done even though what you’d just done was just done for the five hundredth time in the game. It never gets old and it never gets boring. And later on, some of the quests will have you spending many, many moments of your life in combat, attempting to ration and manage all of your potions and skills and spells. The beauty of the CRPG is alive and well in this game. There’s just less dice-rolls.
Before we digress from combat, there is one thing that must be noted. Whereas in the previous game this was only rarely the case, almost every battle in this game will be handled in what we know from other games to be “waves”. Basically, you will kill a group of enemies that you encounter, and soon after a new group will just fade (probably not the best word to use when talking about this game) into existence and begin battling you, and this happens more than once during most battle sequences, and although it fits the theme with demons and shades, it completely breaks whatever immersion you might have felt from playing this game during combat with anything remotely human. Nevertheless, as the games goes on you learn to ignore this and you’re too busy gawking over the visuals to care about it, anyway.
The combat sequences aren’t the only thing to get a visual overhaul either. Terrain textures look amazing this time around, at times making the first game look so inferior, you wonder how you enjoyed its visuals at all. Everything is crisp and detailed and the world feels decidedly well fleshed out. You will on more than one occasion, stop in your tracks and pan the camera around to admire the world around you, and then try and sneak a peek under Isabella’s dress…
There is one really huge issue that I have with the environments though. In the entirety of the game, apart from the main areas which can be visited in the world map, there seem to be at most, five templates for what we’ll call dungeons, and every dungeon in a specific area or that fits a specific theme, will follow that basic template. What this translates to, in game, is the feeling that most dungeons are just rehashed versions of places that you’ve been to, before. While it’s okay for familiarity and really it doesn’t detract from enjoying treks through these dungeons, it feels a bit cheap at times and reeks of developer laziness. Alternately you could say it is developer genius, but they didn’t hide it well enough for it to be that way. The least they could have done was work on the mini map topography instead of just giving the template’s view and therefore showing paths that in actuality don’t exist because that version of the the template has some branch or other obstruction in the way. Like Isabella’s boobs, or something…
Coming back to the game’s story, since it is told in this framed narrative perspective, a lot of the outcomes that are expected by game’s end are revealed slowly to the player while leaving space for actual decisions that the player needs to take. While this works decently enough in action, at times it makes the game’s story seem convoluted and unnecessary. You feel like, at times, this game would have been better off without the framed narrative altogether. Perhaps that’s half the reason why no other RPG has ever tried such an ambitious move. You will play through a quest, and then the game will move to Chantry Seeker Cassandra and Varric having some dialogue over the actions that you had just taken with some form of relation to some incident that you don’t yet know about and so can’t possibly relate to. It’s almost as though the developers have purposely created a story that needs to be played twice in order to be fully understood. Except that if you were to play it twice, chances are not all of your choices would have been the same anyway. And especially in a game like this that has you, time after time after time, feeling like you’re actually playing a role in a larger world, albeit a more personal one compared to the first game, it completely kills your immersion to have to now remove yourself from being Hawke for a second and try to guess what those two are going on about, while you fantasize about Isabella and her boobs…
Finally, in game conversations are handled Mass Effect style, with a dialogue wheel that has options that go from intimidation to true paragon to sarcastic asshole to honest nice-guy, with a few others thrown in for some spicy variety. The conversation choices that you make usually end up in Hawke saying something that is almost entirely quite unlike the option that you chose, but nevertheless is entertaining to witness. There are many laugh-worthy and memorable conversations in the game and over time you realise that the type of dialogue option that you choose most will dictate your character’s normal responses, meaning you can be a sarcastic asshole even during cutscenes. If ever you needed more of that feeling like you’re actually playing a role within a game.
There is so much more that can be said about a game like this. It is an epic game. so deserves an epic review. But, we’ve done enough for now. On the next page we’ve done another take from Azhar. Basically, he’s shared his feeling about the game and it seems to differ somewhat drastically to Caveshen. — Ed