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Dragon Age II (Xbox 360) artwork

Dragon Age II (Xbox 360) review

"I guess people liked the origin stories in the first game so much that BioWare went ahead and made the sequel one giant origin story that cuts short just before it actually goes anywhere. Itís as if someone made a Batman movie that ended with Bruce Wayne putting on his costume for the first time."

Anyone who was unfortunate enough to have played Dragon Age: Origins on Xbox 360 or PS3 is probably well aware that the game took a number of hits in its journey from the PC (the platform for which it was originally designed) to consoles. Namely, it looked a hell of a lot worse and the battle system just didnít operate as well without the aid of a mouse and keyboard. Well, after Mass Effect 2, no one could accuse BioWare of not taking criticisms seriously. In fact, while I loved Mass Effect 2, the gameís most commonly-cited fault was that BioWare took criticisms for the first game too seriously and in the process skewed what made it so special. And speaking of that, hereís Dragon Age II, a sequel that fixes nearly everything that was wrong with its predecessor and still somehow manages to be a significantly worse game.

My experience with the PC version of Origins is limited, but Iíve played enough to understand why itís so heavily admired on that side of the gaming pond. It was one AD&D ruleset away from being a Baldurís Gate sequel: BioWareís classic pause-and-play system allowed you to rather intricately coordinate your partyís efforts in a real-time environment and the sharp, brutal difficulty curve demanded that you do so. But between restricting control to one character at a time and replacing the original interface with a clunky radial menu, Origins lost something in its transition to consoles. BioWareís only solution was to make the game easier, which didnít work. They were fully committed to rectifying that error in the sequel, and regardless of everything the new game does wrong Ė all of which Iíll get to in a moment Ė the combat is the one thing Dragon Age II does absolutely right.

Thereís much more immediacy to the battles in Dragon Age II. Characters move about the field quickly and cleanly (without the abundance of pathfinding issues that plagued Origins), players are forced to hit a button repeatedly to continue attacking (as opposed to tapping the button once and putting your character on autopilot), and each blow is delivered with a loud, crunchy, earth-shattering oomph. Any modifications to your character's attack methods are there to provide a more instantaneous reward. In Origins, for example, rogues received backstab bonuses for attacking enemies from behind; in the sequel, backstabbing is its own ability, one that transports the player behind the target and delivers a crushing stab. Itís bloody, brutal and satisfying.

Whatís impressive is that the developers have given Dragon Age II the aesthetic of an action game without outright making it an action game. Combat remains as reliant on stats and behind-the-scenes character building as the original was. The difference is that it now moves faster and feels more responsive. Unfortunately, hyper-coordinating your party still isnít realistically possible, but at least the retooled radial menu (which now has quick-tabs for healing items) and added flexibility in customizing your AI-controlled teammatesí behavior make up for it. Itís been noted that Dragon Age II is a hair easier than its predecessor, but that's the result of the increased control the player now has over the combat. I can see why PC fans are upset by these changes, but as a dedicated console player I could hardly be happier with the solutions on which the developers settled.

What I love about these improvements is that theyíve been established without the drastic simplifications that made Mass Effect 2 such a controversial sequel. I mean, yes, itís silly that I canít customize my teammatesí armor or craft items on the spot, but these arenít alterations that will cause me to lose sleep. The skill trees have been made easier to navigate without sacrificing depth, and the slightly more exaggerated art style results in a game thatís much easier on the eyes. Even the load screens are neat to look at, which is a relief, given how frequently they occur.

The biggest and most talked about changes, however, relate to the main character's presentation. Players are restricted to controlling a human, and the dialog trees have been replaced with Mass Effectís conversational wheel. This gives players less flexibility when talking, but it comes with a trade-off: the main character, Hawke, now has a voice and an identity.

Let me tell you about Hawke. The folks at BioWare have been spending the last decade fine-tuning their storytelling game, and the most frequent roadblock has been that their insistence on player choice results in static protagonists. Even Commander Shepard, with his wooden voiceovers and distinct ďgood cop, bad copĒ temperaments, never felt like more than an empty shell on which to project my decisions. Yet Hawke feels like an actual character. Heís fleshed out enough, with an extensive back-story and several of his family members playing key roles in the plot. All of his dialog options are consistent with his personality, thanks to both the clever writing team and the convincing voice actor they hired to play the part. Hawke feels at once like an independent force and a projection of my own actions. Thatís a triumph.

In fact Ė and I realize Iím in the minority here Ė Iíd say that Dragon Age IIís cast easily trumps its predecessorís. With the exception of Shale (who was limited to DLC anyway), I never felt guilty about leaving any of my original party members at camp for the length of the entire game, but Dragon Age II practically forces you to get involved in your partnersí ordeals through various character-centric missions. As a result, I wound up feeling more sympathy for each of them. Thereís also more to the process of earning your teammatesí trust than simply showering them with gifts. BioWare has offered consequences for developing both friendships and rivalries. And for once, the romance subplot is more than simply a one-night stand at a key moment just before the finale; itís a key element in what is ultimately a very personal tale.

Dragon Age II is so focused on its characters that it seems unconcerned with actually telling a straightforward story, and thatís where the game begins to fall apart. Similar complaints were leveled against Mass Effect 2, but at least that game had a clear enemy, a central objective, and the sense that every step we took brought us closer to completing that objective, however slowly. Dragon Age II follows Hawkeís family Ė all refugees from Lothering after itís invaded by darkspawn Ė as they try to build a new life in the city of Kirkwall. Thatís it. Thereís no antagonist and no real goal; you just wander the city and do whatever and hope that it eventually amounts to something.

Your first major task, for example, is to fund an expedition to the infamous Deep Roads. Making the money to do so requires hours and hours of errand-running and bounty hunting, participating in dozens of little subplots that have little to no connection to one another. That would be fine, given the entertaining combat and excellent writing, yet BioWare constantly reuses the same handful of identical dungeon layouts for the entirety of the adventure: the same cave, the same mansion, the same volcanic ruins, and so on. And even that wouldnít be so punishing if the hub world wasnít so criminally confined. Kirkwall and its three or four surrounding regions are entirely too small to sustain such a long game. Itís damning that so much of our time is spent running up and down the same streets, dropping off items and engaging battles in the same locations.

Iím trying not to let my disappointment cloud my better judgment here, as itís a well-known fact in these parts that Iím a huge BioWare fan, but padding an RPG out with the same recycled environments over and over just to hit the 40-hour mark isnít acceptable by any standard. Itís as if Mass Effect had been three times as long and composed entirely of those repetitive planetside missions that nobody liked. These issues are present due to either time constraints or downright laziness. My guess is that the former is the culprit, given the gameís short development cycle.

Iím sure itís possible to finish the game in less time than it took me, yet everything in Dragon Age II feels so insignificant that itís difficult to tell whatís mandatory and whatís optional. That itís such a personal story (the Blight is barely even mentioned) is hardly a flaw in and of itself; the game dabbles in themes, such as the mages-versus-templars conflict, that leave me in awe of BioWareís continued commitment to fleshing out its fictional universes. But the plot goes nowhere. We know, via a framing story in which a dwarf named Varric recounts Hawkeís escapades, that he will gradually rise through the ranks and eventually become the Champion of Kirkwall, but then what? Then the sequel happens, apparently. I guess people liked the origin stories in the first game so much that BioWare went ahead and made the sequel one giant origin story that cuts short just before it actually goes anywhere. Itís as if someone made a Batman movie that ended with Bruce Wayne putting on his costume for the first time.

Thatís ultimately what Dragon Age II feels like: a placeholder, a prelude to something better. Itís got all of the elements of a good sequel, but as much as I like the characters and combat, they belong in a more engaging game. We all loved the demo because itís impossible to perceive Dragon Age IIís flaws from its short prologue, but itís disappointing to witness 40 hours of glacial buildup without any actual payoff. Dragon Age II has actually made me worried about Mass Effect 3, and thatís the most impressive thing about it.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (March 24, 2011)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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If you enjoyed this Dragon Age II review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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CoarseDragon posted March 24, 2011:

Another review I read said the same thing about the repeated environments as you did. To bad that has to happen. I suppose I would much rather have a bit shorter game than one padded with repeats.

Your review was very good but I never (OMG) played Mass Effect so some of those references were lost on me but your futher explanations cleared up most of that.
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fleinn posted March 24, 2011:

hehe. Great summary. It's rare that I completely agree with just about everything you say, so I had to say that. From what I've played.. not sure I like the way the game forces all the branching to a close by the end of each segment.. that really is my biggest problem with bioware nowadays. That you don't think the choices you make stick with you, even if they are harrowing and significant when they take place, and so on..

But it was a good review too. Like the three major parts, and how they fit together.
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Suskie posted March 24, 2011:

Thanks. Yeah, I really didn't have anything new to say about this game so anyone who's been keeping up with Dragon Age II will probably already have heard what I've said here. Still, from me, given my disappointment... it needed to be said.

Oh, and Fleinn, I'd definitely say Dragon Age II fits into the model you've been using for recent BioWare games, which is to say, it's full of remarkable details but amounts to nothing.

Edit: By the way, Fleinn, have you finished the game? Without spoiling anything, they make a lot of rather half-hearted attempts to tie everything together. Like, the final boss's sword is made out of the lyrium idol you find in the Deep Roads. Silly stuff like that.
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jerec posted March 24, 2011:

" Dragon Age II is a lazily designed game with a mediocre story that's ultimately saved by its electrifying combat. So basically, it's this year's Final Fantasy XIII. Yeah, I went there. "

Oh no you di'int!
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fleinn posted March 24, 2011:

Lyrium overdose monster... aiai lol.. No, I got to play it for a day.. not sure if I will finish it.. :/ Like you say.. it's difficult to.. *wave* .. it's not a bad game, it's just that it seems they wanted to write some sort of fantasy fable instead of a game or something.. I don't know..

It sort of feels like one of those reboots of an old anime series, I guess. It's familiar, it's the same place, new people. But it's shaving things too thin, maybe.. Still, not sure if I should have an opinion on the game yet.. Am I having completely wrong expectations, maybe..? Did they succeed at something I don't see?
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Suskie posted March 24, 2011:

It even had the same release date give or take one day.
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jerec posted March 24, 2011:

As the weeks go by I am more and more glad I didn't rush out to buy this on day 1.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted March 24, 2011:

Great review, Mike. I liked how it sounded like a totally positive review, then gave us the big, ugly "but". I haven't been in any hurry to pick this game up, and I think I will be waiting for a discounted price.

Then again, I still have to finish the first one.
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Suskie posted March 24, 2011:

Thanks all. Yeah, I picked up DA2 on day one because I figured it would be an improvement over the first game (the demo certainly indicated so), so I was immensely disappointed. If you haven't picked up the game yet, you're lucky that you've gotten the warning that I never had.
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jerec posted July 20, 2011:

Dropped to half price so I picked it up. Actually enjoying it so far. Also, the elf is voiced by Eve Myles. She is never leaving my party. That's so awesome.
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threetimes posted July 20, 2011:

I've never played a Dragon Age game or any Bioware one for that matter, so I was pretty lost reading this review with all the references to Mass Effect. I didn't really understand how the combat worked - or how the game is structured: is it just a mission based game? Sorry, but I ended the review without a clear picture of the game.

Maybe you'd expect people to know what you're talking about so my comments are not relevant. I suppose that's an issue though, what assumptions are made about the audience.
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Suskie posted July 20, 2011:

Dragon Age 2 does not belong to an obscure franchise. It's the sequel to a very prolific developer's most successful game of all time, and it was produced by one of the video game industry's largest, oldest and most iconic publishers. I have also reviewed the Xbox 360 version of a game whose predecessor was also available on Xbox 360. So yes, I expect readers to come into this review with at least a modest level of familiarity with the subject matter, and that sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

If I reviewed Iron Man 2, I wouldn't waste copious amounts of space recapping who Tony Stark is, or what inspired him to become a superhero, or how he made his suit, or who he fought in the first movie. That's what the first movie exists for, and, to a degree, the many reviews of it. If I were to spend a significant portion of this review retreading the basics of the Dragon Age universe for fear of alienating non-fans, then what I would really be doing is alienating the fans themselves, who played the first game and want to know how the sequel differs from its predecessor. That's how I review sequels. I can't treat them as standalone games, because they aren't.

I remember that Pikmin 2 begins by forcing players through a massive tutorial sequence, 95% of which simply recaps basic stuff that anyone who'd played the first game already knew instinctively. It was infuriating. It's bizarre logic, to me at least, for a series newcomer not to start at the beginning of said series, especially one that places so much emphasis on story. If a review of the first Dragon Age game fails to adequately convey the basics of the world and gameplay to those unfamiliar with the territory, then that review has failed. But I went into Dragon Age II with the proper level of homework done, and I expect the same of anyone who's looking into it. If you're interested in the Dragon Age games, then start with the first one.

As for the Mass Effect and BioWare references... hmm... I guess that's another instance where I expect readers to at least be somewhat familiar with the territory. Anyone who's even remotely interested in Western RPGs has probably played at least one or two BioWare games, and should be well aware that BioWare is notorious for employing a very similar formula in all of their titles.

And the reason the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises have been so heavily compared is because they've both followed a strikingly similar pattern. Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect are both popular and beloved for their depth and excellent writing, yet they're also flawed on technical levels and unwelcoming to casual types, leading small but outspoken groups of gamers to despise them. Their sequels are shinier, noticeably streamlined products that were meant to expand their franchises' audiences but potentially alienated hardcore fans. Many people disliked Mass Effect 2 for that reason; I didn't, and one of the messages I was trying to get across in reviewing DA2 was that the reason we had it good with ME2 is because this is how poorly it could have turned out.

I know you're unfamiliar with all of this. But if you've never played a BioWare game, then I'm making the (fair) assumption that you're not interested in Western RPGs, or at the very least dreadfully out of touch with current ones, in which case, why are you reading a review of one? And if you are looking to give BioWare titles a run, then the message you should take from all of this is that Dragon Age II is absolutely not the place to start.

Edit: Jerec, I sympathize with you. Merrill was the one I romanced.
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threetimes posted July 20, 2011:

Well, I guess reading or commenting on reviews of games or genres I haven't played is something I'd better avoid in the future.
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jerec posted July 21, 2011:

Why the sympathy? I don't mind if I get to have sloppy seconds after you've done Merrill. >_>

Anyway thanks to all the reviews, I knew what kind of game this was, and knew exactly what to expect. So I'm not in anyway disappointed with it.
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WilltheGreat posted July 21, 2011:

Well, I guess reading or commenting on reviews of games or genres I haven't played is something I'd better avoid in the future.

Butthurt much?
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threetimes posted July 21, 2011:

Part of the response was, why am I reading a review about a game from a genre that I'm unfamiliar with. So yes, the implication from that was - you're not qualified to comment.

Of course I've heard a lot about these games, so I was interested to get an informed perspective on one of them. I acknowledged I might not be the target audience for the review.
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wolfqueen001 posted July 21, 2011:

At the risk of exacerbating the issue, I would say that you shouldn't really feel offended at all, threetimes. What I got from Suskie's comments was more the idea that it's not as good an idea to read reviews of sequels if you haven't read reviews of the original game first, because the originals usually cover all the bases. In fact, I agree with Suskie's approach to reviewing sequels, and use it myself whenever I can. However, that doesn't mean I'd feel wrong to comment on a review of a game I've never played before. At least, not when it's the first in the series (of course, there are always exceptions...). The whole point of reviews (ideally, anyway) is to determine whether said game we've never played before would actually appeal to us, after all. But, I do feel that when discussing games we're completely unfamiliar with, it may be better to start at the beginning, if indeed we're dealing with titles in a series.
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Suskie posted July 21, 2011:

I'm not saying you're unqualified to comment, Threetimes. But your comment said that there was an issue regarding what assumptions are made about the audience, and I'm saying that, from my perspective, no there isn't. This is how I review sequels, and this is how I will continue to review them.
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threetimes posted July 23, 2011:

I had no expectation that you would do otherwise.

However, I disagree with you and wolfqueen. Starting at the beginning of a series is not always appropriate. Would you suggest that to people who'd never played a Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or a Suikoden game? Well, maybe you might for Suikoden, but you see my point.

Likewise, the idea I should read a review of the first game in a series before reading one of the next in line makes no sense to me. I wouldn't expect the first review to "cover all bases" and read a review of (for example) Atelier Iris 1 before reading one of Atelier Iris 2 or 3. I'd read the review of the game I was interested in playing.
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Suskie posted July 23, 2011:

It varies from game to game, obviously. I'm afraid I'm not well-versed in Dragon Quest or Suikoden so I can't comment on either of those, but the Final Fantasy games are not sequels in the traditional sense; they're standalone games that happen to share some of the same terminology. In terms of a series, they're the polar opposite of BioWare's recent games. Both Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 2 allow you to import your save file from the previous game, so that the choices you've made carry over into the sequels. I don't think I mentioned that in my DA2 review because it doesn't have an enormous impact on the story (unlike in ME2, where it's one of the big draws), but that should give you an example of how close-knit games in BioWare's franchises are becoming.

There are a lot of challenges that come with reviewing video games. One is compressing your often complicated feelings toward a game into a concise piece of writing that holds your readers' interest without rambling. Another is determining the review's target audience and gauging just what, exactly, they want to know. Believe me, as someone for whom writing overlong reviews is frequently a problem, I wish I could ramble on and on and cover all the bases, but I can't. I was very let down by DA2 on a number of levels as a fan of Dragon Age, BioWare and Western RPGs in general, and I had to approach the review from that perspective and speak to fellow fans who would have the same expectations towards DA2, because they comprise the majority of my audience here.

I don't blame you for being interested in DA2 and jumping in at the wrong spot, but ideally, there should have been enough in the review to indicate that neither the review nor the game was intended for you. Dragon Age isn't a series with a vast, winding library. Checking out one game before reading into DA2 isn't what I consider a tall order.

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