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Dragon Age 2 (PC) artwork

Dragon Age 2 (PC) review

"There have been complaints, and will be many more, that Dragon Age II is appealing for a more mainstream audience by removing all the fiddling of its predecessor, but I donít think this is a fair accusation. There is very little that you could do before which is no longer possible. The difference is that the extraneous elements have been stripped away, giving the action space to breathe."

For me, two things defined Dragon Age: Origins, one of the most ambitious and fictionally rich RPGs in recent years. The first was the depth to its world, the cavernous reach of its narrative, which included a history spanning many thousands of years. The land of Ferelden was too often steeped in fantasy cliche, but it wasnít just the setting of a video game; it was a place with a back-story and politics, inhabited by different races, all vying for their own means thanks to their own prejudices. Dragon Age, ultimately, wasnít a game about mythical creatures living in a faraway land; it was about us, and our world, and how we might reflect upon that if prompted in the right way.

The gameís second defining feature was, of course, the way it began. Depending on your choices during the character creation screen, you experienced a completely different opening hour-or-so of the game. These origin stories created a narrative that was distinctly yours. In Dragon Age, a single playthrough could never even begin to tell you the whole story.

In Origins, you discovered things, rather than being told them. As a human noble, I had no idea how badly some of my people had treated the elves until later on. I assumed hostilities were because of the paranoia of others, not because of the horrible oppression these people faced day after day, hidden away from the higher-class humans. Seeing this all clunk into place, and watching various other strands of the story begin to make sense as a result, was a rare experience in a game.

BioWareís approach to Dragon Age II is an interesting one. There are a great many changes. Combat is the most immediately apparent, but there are more. The dialogue options. The skill tree. The world.

If Origins was the epic, the companyís tour-de-force of fantasy, then this sequel is the microcosm of all its lofty ideas. Thatís true both of the gameís systems and the world contained within them. Rather than whisking you off on an enormous journey across a huge nation, Dragon Age II restricts you primarily to a small part of its world, and the story you experience is the only one available.

Your choices along the way - both moral and pragmatic - do alter the course of your lengthy adventure. But this is a more focused tale. Instead of creating your own character entirely from scratch, this time you step into the boots of Hawke, a refugee from the hellish Ferelden, hoping to start a new life in the city of Kirkwall. This is no courageous quest to save the world. Thereís no arch-villain in Dragon Age II. There is simply the harsh reality of existing in these times - and the painful truth of what you must do to survive.

In many ways, this is an impressive departure from the norm for BioWare. Gone is the developerís established structure, where a largely linear opening and conclusion bookend a several-stranded bulk of questing in between. Thereís no necessity to hop around various regions, with a list of people whom you must convince to join you. The main quest, in fact, is one that only slowly falls into place. At the start you have no overriding objective other than to gain access to the city. Once youíre in, for a good while, itís not always entirely clear what youíre supposed to be doing at all.

Itís decisions like this which might help Origins loyalists to deal with changes that have been made elsewhere. Conversations, for example, have received an overhaul. Instead of simply picking from a list of dialogue options, youíre asked to select your attitude on a directional wheel. Its similarities to Mass Effect have sparked drearily predictable accusations of dumbing down, but that isnít really the effect it has. The gameís being explicit about its emotions and attitudes doesnít make things easier, as such. It just allows you to tailor your character in a more specific and manageable way.

Combat, too, has been streamlined enormously - especially if you consider the PC version of the original game. Thereís less focus on tactical micromanagement, and more focus on getting stuck in. Thereís a radial menu, through which you can fine-tune the combat style of you and your troupe. But fighting, this time around, is primarily a spectacle. For my money, itís a change done right.

There is an almost unparalleled physical weight to Dragon Age IIís combat. Your character automatically locks onto the nearest enemy, circle-strafing around them, and each blow lands with a cacophonous thump. To be wholly successful in combat you also need to adopt a fine-tuned rhythm reserved usually for dedicated brawlers. There have been complaints, and will be many more, that Dragon Age II is appealing for a more mainstream audience by removing all the fiddling of its predecessor, but I donít think this is a fair accusation. There is very little that you could do before which is no longer possible. The difference is that the extraneous elements have been stripped away, giving the action space to breathe.

Like Origins, Dragon Age II makes the mistake of stretching out these sequences for too long. There will be times throughout the lengthy campaign where you wish for nothing more than a little respite, the chance to explore a new place, or meet some new characters who arenít hell-bent on your destruction. Even your passage through the main storyline is far too sluggish, with unnecessary padding at several points. When thereís little sense of forward momentum, with relatively few changes in scenery as the game plods on hour after hour, itís a problem. Things become unfortunately repetitious, and you get the sense that you could have progressed much further by now if only the game had let you.

The disappointing early quests see you following waypoints between battles and conversations, and there are few which really thrive upon character quirks or clever social nuance. Ten hours in, youíd be forgiven for thinking you were being bundled from one generic NPC to another, with none of them giving you any interesting information or unique jobs to do, until the game arbitrarily decides youíre allowed to get on with something resembling a main story.

If Kirkwall were as fascinating a place as - say - Orzammar, the dwarven city in Dragon Age: Origins, this feeling would be mitigated substantially. While Dragon Age IIís tweaked art style is more appealing (and certainly less generic) than that of the original, the world it paints offers fewer intellectual rewards. Orzammarís culture was fascinating. A strict caste system kept civilians segregated, spread out on separate vertical layers of the towering, volcanic cavern in which the place sat. Its councilís politics ran astonishingly deep, perhaps more so than any game to have tried something similar. Kirkwall is a melting pot of different cultures, different peoples, different outlooks on life, but thereís never anything to rival the extraordinary sociological complexities upon which Origins thrived.

Once again, though, this is a personal tale, and you can see what the talented chaps at BioWare have tried to do. Dragon Age II attempts not to slowly unravel a grand ecosystem of politics and culture (although the game does head in that direction eventually), but instead to paint the picture of one person trying to find their calling in a large and confusing world. We imagine sequels to be bigger and better than what came before. Dragon Age II isnít. Itís noticeably more modest in its ambitions, substantially lower-key in its delivery. And thatís perhaps the bravest route BioWare could have taken.

Is it successful? Not entirely. Itís too slow in places, and the game never does anything as overtly impressive as the title that preceded it. But measuring up against the gargantuan scope of Origins was probably always going to be an impossible task. What Dragon Age II does, with the conviction youíd expect from a team with the talent of BioWare, is understand this, and play to new strengths.

Dragon Age II is a long way away from perfection. But it is its own game, undeterred by the enormous shadow left by several previous BioWare releases. I canít condemn it too heavily when it is, essentially, the game Iíve been asking of the developer for years.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (October 31, 2011)

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bbbmoney posted October 31, 2011:

Very well written, enjoyed the read.

DA2's combat is certainly an improvement, I agree. Origins had very long segments of subplot exploration that always included substantial dungeon crawling, and the combat, though well designed, became hugely monotonous and unrewarding. DA2 flows much better and still relies on the same strategies of Origins in terms of micromanaging your crowd control effects -- that is, if you play on a harder difficulty as you should. Otherwise the game really is just Dynasty Warriors and is pretty terrible when played on Normal or Easy difficulties.

But like Origins, dungeon crawling is still pretty unrewarding, now it's just much more tolerable and pretty looking. Loot is still rather pointless, it gets a bit tiring picking up 73 different items called "Ring" and "Dirk" in one trip. The dungeons are designed as if were playing some MMO that needs to recycle everything -- you go through the same cave every single time, there's no sense of adventure, of anything really.

I enjoyed Origins and DA2 rather equally and for different reasons, as you stated they both have different philosophies. I think DA2 is on the right path but for whatever reason Bioware has been quite lazy with this franchise in comparison to what they did with Mass Effect 2. Repetitious environments, an embarrassingly primitive loot and inventory system, still the same lifeless towns. As you said, Origins had great lore, but I felt the entire presentation was lacking. Now we have a much better built environment called Kirkwall but the lore is gone.

In a nutshell I'd say DA2 flowed better, but lacked the impact the subplot interaction of the original had. Characters were a bit more interesting, but the cast still contained too many flat personalities.

Neither game reaches the standards of the Baldur's Gate name, but they are making strides in bringing that experience to more casual gamers. So it's interesting people are upset with DA2 for streamlining things when DA:O is the one that started it.
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Suskie posted November 01, 2011:

So, like... does this mean Gameroni is officially dead? And if so, can I move some of my reviews over here as well?
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honestgamer posted November 01, 2011:

Gameroni might return to active duty, Suskie, but it's not especially likely. Except when I'm doing work for other sites that pays my rent and such, I'm pouring all of my resources into HonestGamers. Both Gameroni and VideoCritics are on indefinite hiatus, with Gameroni especially unlikely to return.

If you want to move any of your reviews from there to here and assign numerical scores instead of letter grades, that's fine. If you'd like to move them over here as staff reviews, just HG Mail me the updated score and I'll move them over for you as content is needed (before year's end) so that they don't post on days where there's a lot of competition.
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Suskie posted November 02, 2011:

Okay, cool. I'll let you know.
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zippdementia posted November 02, 2011:

Sorry to jack this response thread... Is there any chance of moving the interviews over here, Jason? I'd like to have that Blue Lacuna interview up here, if possible.

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