Dragon Age II ReviewBy Adam Sessler - Posted Mar 08, 2011
Dragon Age II is best described as a conundrum: a sprawling and sometimes messy fantasy game that, in places, improves on the Bioware model, while taking admirable risks that don't pay off as well as their initial promise. This results in an experience that, for all my ambivalences, is something I intend to play again, but not until many months from now.
- Characterizations are incredible
- Conversations are deeply engrossing
- Production design is much improved over predecessor
- Overall story lacks direction
- Dungeon types repeat endlessly
- Combat is decidedly uneven
Dragon Age 2 Review:
Editor's Note: Adam's review is for the console versions of Dragon Age 2 only. To read our impressions of the PC version, click here.
Coming less than a year-and-a-half after its predecessor -- and in the wake of widespread acclaim over Bioware's Mass Effect 2 -- Dragon Age 2 comes with the baggage of expectation and apprehension that seems requisite for all major developers, especially one that has become as prolific as the Canada-based juggernaut.
The short gap between installments, the move to more console-friendly combat, and the legacy of dated game design and presentation from its predecessor (despite G4's 5/5 review I, personally, felt lukewarm about Dragon Age: Origins) have conspired to make Dragon Age 2 something of a curiosity.
Having now sunk around 75 hours into the game, Dragon Age II is best described as a conundrum: a sprawling and sometimes messy fantasy game that, in places, improves on the Bioware model, while taking admirable risks that don't pay off as well as their initial promise. This results in an experience that, for all my ambivalences, is something I intend to play again, but not until many months from now.
And In The Beginning, There Was Story...
In DA 2, the player takes on the human character of Hawke (Male or Female with the choice of Warrior, Mage, or Rogue). The tale begins towards the end of the introduction to Dragon Age: Origins, with the betrayal and sacking of Ferelden. Hawke and his family are racing to escape the darkspawn hordes by seeking refuge in the city-state of Kirkwall where, despite having family ties, they encounter people who are less than charitable to the throngs of survivors arriving at their gates.
Making a deal with one of two disreputable groups in Kirkwall to receive asylum, the prologue ends. Then, Hawke sets out one year later, after the events of Dragon Age: Origins, in a tale of climbing out of destitution and anonymity to become an individual of great renown and significance. Hawke becomes enmeshed in the politics of Kirkwall, which act as an accelerator to the wider concerns of the Drgaon Age universe: fear of outsiders, the repression of mages, and the general avarice that leads to conflicts with Darkspawn, demons, pirates, thieves, elves, and the like.
Anyone who has played more than one Bioware title will be familiar with the three-act structure of their games and Dragon Age II is no different; however, what ends up being a notable departure is how each act functions as a self-contained story with only peripheral elements informing successive chapters (major decisions and character interactions do flood forward but in less formal and surprising ways).
...But then, Disappointment
Initially, this approach is admirably audacious. Despite oblique warnings at the game's beginning of the dangers that await the characters, the all-too-familiar framing device of preventing the end of the world is wholly absent. This allows for a more mature and laconic growth of the narrative that, initially, seems to take full advantage of the game's significant length and content.
This ambition, however, gives way to confusion when, even forty hours in, no over-arching drama begins to take shape and the myriad of side-quests further complicate any attempt for the player to derive a coherent motivation driving their involvement in the tale outside of the acquisition of goods and experience. That, and the game's conclusion is almost stunning in its abrupt (and shockingly obvious) revelation, only serves to highlight how disparate the narrative components have been throughout.
A Ray Of Hope
Those components -- the self contained sections of story that make up the main and secondary quests -- are where the storytelling excels and, in many instances, exceeds the incredible writing in Mass Effect 2. The motley assortment of characters that comprise your party are among the most memorable in recent games, and are so carefully composed that they stay fresh throughout.
One quest, which posits you as an increasingly baffled go-between facilitating a teammate's junior-high level crush on a subordinate, is not only funny, but also quite endearing. A deeply naive elf provides some of the best ambient dialogue around, especially when coupled with a worldly and lusty pirate.
Varric, the dwarf, whose recounting of the games events frames the story, is perhaps the greatest achievement. He cuts a recognizable archetype, the outwardly selfish Bogart-type whose dry, cynical, and weary attitude to the game's events compelled me to engender his friendship through the game's conversation system and resulted in a quiet and touching transformation in his attitude.
The conversation system is another of the game's remarkable accomplishments and is an evolution of both Mass Effects 2's elegance and Dragon Age: Origins's diversity. Dialogue choices have no clear good/bad split; in fact, there's no easy overarching split to be found. Within each dialogue tree, your choices have color-coding that informs about the level of accommodation to a character, from generous to single-minded. In addition, there are a wide variety of symbols that highlight your motivation: a gavel for Solomon-style decision making, an olive branch for indulgent understanding, and the mask of comedy denoting sarcasm to name a few.
This immense diversity is immediately accessible and affords an amazing range of paths as to how you engage your cohorts and, depending on your understanding of and intentions with these characters, the results prove dramatically different. Lacking a clear roadmap as to how these choices will be received is a thrilling experience that brilliantly dissects the awkward social disconnect between the desire to present oneself as you are, and the innate need to manipulate your image in front of others. (After spending the night with a character, the awkward "What does this mean?" discussion that follows may prove more terrifying than anything in Resident Evil 4.)
The characterizations and conversation mechanic are given a proper platform for admiration from a production design that is light years from the original Dragon Age. Taking a cue from Mass Effect 2, scenes play out with camera moves, character movement, and facial expressions that bring life to the hours of dialogue that fill the game. The decision to move from the generic high-fantasy aesthetic of the original to a far more colorful and stylized one is essential in making the game compelling on the character level, the clear highlight of the
Dragon Age II experience.
I Feel Like It’s Déjà vu All Over Again
This triumph makes it all the more a shame that the presentation on the macro level does not fare as well. In the world of Dragon Age II, the city-state of Kirkwall is where you spend 80% of the game, occasionally travelling to the surrounding environs. Initially, the size and detail of the city, broken up into several districts that delineate the socio-economic and political strata of the city are impressive, as they are much bigger and far more detailed than the environments in Dragon Age: Origins; however, once it becomes clear that this one area is where the entirety of the game will play out, a fatigue creeps in as the layout of the maps become better known and the limitations of the details belie the mere simulacrum of a bustling fantasy city.
Once again, it's admirable to see an approach that diverges from the LOTR "journey of the ages” approach, but that also brings with it the obligation to balance out the lack of geographical variety with an evolving sense of mystery and discovery in a singular location. In addition, travelling between various locations in the city and to the countryside are accomplished through a similar static map used in DA:O, which loses the organic flow of one district streaming into the next and only serves to further keep the player at arm's length from the world where he is asked to spend so much time.
Where the limiting presentation of the world could have been balanced out is in the numerous dungeons where quests take place. Sadly, this opportunity is not only missed, it is the game's biggest disappointment. With one exception, all dungeons, whether they are in a mansion, cave, warehouse or coastline, are derivation from one of 5 or 6 preset maps.
Each visit to one of those maps is distinct only by certain doors being locked at different times, allowing for nominally alternate paths in always identical settings, settings that feel primitive when compared to DA:O. This backward step in design is somewhat astonishing compared to not only other Bioware games, but to similar western RPG's. The lack of attention to the spaces where combat takes place -- a major component to the game -- not only diminishes further the necessary sense of awe that is at the core to a fantastical setting, but places an insurmountable burden on the combat mechanics to carry those sequences, a burden that Dragon Age II cannot carry.
Fight Your Way To The Middle
Combat in DA II has been the source of much of the pre-release anxiety. It looked to take the old-school strategic depths of the Original Dragon Age for the PC, which were awkwardly implemented for the console releases, and reduce them to something better attuned to a controller, or the "Mass Effect-ization" of Dragon Age, if you will.
Whether or not that has happened depends on one's fidelity to the original game and their affection for ME, and I won't take the opportunity to chime in on the debate. What I will say is that I have left this aspect of the game for last in the evaluation because I still don't know what to make of it.
The real-time mechanics and significantly faster pace have moments that are visceral, satisfying, and compulsive, and at other times, especially with bosses and numerous high-level enemies, it becomes turgid and tiresome. How I grew my party's stats and who I took adventuring with me had much to with the quality of the experience; however, as the game progressed, it became clear that the admirable intentions of the game to appeal to all play styles all at once resulted in an thoroughly uneven combat experience.
I will resist the temptation to deconstruct the logic of the combat design in the game because knowing the grammar is not the best way to appreciate a sentence. When the combat is good, you can play primarily with Hawke. Using his special abilities in conjunction with the other party members to take down enemies gives you a sense of control over the situation that provides a great degree of satisfaction with your success. Your party members automate effectively with you, only stepping in occasionally to instruct other party members to attack in a particular way. This style of play works in conjunction with the fast pace of the combat and helps zip you through the dreary dungeons in their small battle arenas, while feeling powerful and clever.
It’s here that DA 2's accessibility is on display, while allowing more advanced players to micromanage and use their party to even greater effect. When the game throws endless enemies at you, absurdly powerful bosses, and numerous high-level enemies with an abundance of hit points, (starting as early as the first act) many players will suddenly wonder if they’ve been playing the game wrong, or if it suddenly shifted gears into DA:O without warning. Your mana/stamina bar, which regulates your special attacks, drains from all party members as the fights wear on, and the fast pace of the combat descends into visual chaos as you desperately pause the game to get your bearings. All the while, you’re watching party members die, leaving only Hawke to wail away on enemy after enemy with the A button -- your one basic attack.
It's in these moments, which happen with relative frequency throughout Dragon Age II, that the universal appeal of the combat emerges more as an unsatisfying compromise. The game provides a tactics menu to modify party member behavior in combat which is stripped from DA:O, but that's about as appealing to fiddle with as your Windows system folder. Meticulous management of you characters growth in stats and powers can also mitigate these problems but requiring such hardcore attentiveness without conditioning the player, in addition to seducing them with an initially intuitive interface for combat, is tantamount to inviting someone to a game of blackjack and switching over to 52 pick-up.
Not that the game shouldn't find ways to challenge players in combat, but here, the challenge isn't very fun. Long battles only stand out for their length and leaden pacing. Throw in the inelegant enemy placement and combat animations, and Dragon Age II's combat unfortunately proves most compelling when it isn't an impediment to the other aspects of the game. Thankfully, the game vacillates between manageable and overwhelming until midway through the third act when most reasonable players, who would like to see how their choices resolve the storylines, switch over to the casual setting.
The New Age of Dragons
Dragon Age 2 is decidedly uneven and most disappointing when you consider what the game would have been like if all its various components were as polished and considered as its best aspects. That's a tall order, even for Bioware; however, with the developer releasing games at such a remarkable rate and two more major titles with 2011 alone, it's not unreasonable to expect more ... much more.
Along with Bethesda Studios, Bioware has forever altered the landscape of the western RPG, if not all games. With each release it's easier for the player to see their design and mechanics at work, which puts an increasingly greater burden on them to not just improve, but to reinvent. Unfortunately, Dragon Age II is not that watershed. The game is a hell of a lot of fun to play but, for its 70+ hours, you can feel the need for something new.
When Dragon Age: Origins originally came out for PC I was stoked. I love action RPGs, MMORPGS, and high fantasy so it was a perfect fit. I'm a PC gamer and I’ve been one for almost ten years now. A mouse and keyboard is all I need to be truly happy (plus a sick gaming PC, obviously).
My rig isn't the absolute best, but I'm running with Windows 7 64-bit, an AMD Phenon 9650 Quad-Core Processor ~2.3 GHz, 4 Gigs of RAM, with a NVIDIA GeForce GTX460 graphics card. I use a Razer Imperator mouse and an imported QSENN keyboard from China, not because it's “the best” keyboard, but because it looks awesome like a checkerboard. With this setup I can run pretty much any game on max settings at 30-40 frames per second.
Now that you know all that, I thought Dragon Age: Origins controlled wonderfully on PC, and it was simple to execute intricate strategies and tactics with its combat system. I heard that the gameplay mechanics on the console were clunky and hard to use, which didn't surprise me because things usually work better on PCs when they’re designed for that platform. I also got very heavily into modding my DA:O file until my characters looked nothing like the ones I originally designed, and I even changed some of my spells around to look cooler. Both of those are things you can't do on a console.
Dragon Age: Origins was an enjoyable experience, but, unfortunately, I can't say the same for Dragon Age 2. I've been playing the game on my PC and the controls that I once loved from DA: O are gone. They've been replaced with super fast-paced action that seems strictly designed with console players in mind, leaving PC gamers in the dust.
DA: O combat was a bit slow, but that slowness fit well with the PC controls. Even though the action wasn't super fast, you had so many buttons to push it was fun to try different combos and keep an even pace.
In Dragon Age 2, the fights are so ridiculously speedy (to keep people with low attention spans entertained) that it's hard to even click on an enemy in the game on PC. On consoles, it automatically targets the next closest thing, making this completely a non-issue. On the PC, I have to constantly pause just to be able to target an enemy because they move around so fast.
Not only that, but on the console version the game automatically pauses for you when you do an area of effect attack, which isn't the same for PC where you have to do it manually. The one decent thing PC gamers get combat wise is an auto attack, whereas console players have to keep mashing their action button.
It would have been great if there was a tab target system, like in modern MMORPG's, to make this a bit easier for the PC gamers. As it stands now, it's insanely annoying trying to target enemies. I have pretty fast speed and good coordination when it comes to strategy games and first person shooters, so being unable to target something in DA2 is just bad design.
Then there's the new conversation wheel. In Dragon Age: Origins there was a number next to each choice on PC so you could just press that number key and the dialogue would follow suit. In DA2 you have to mouse click the choice you want on the wheel. Yes, it's a very small inconvenience, but nevertheless it's annoying when I'm sitting back to play and have to click one extra thing that I didn't have to in the other game.
All of this aside, DA2 on the PC allows for a lot more spells to instantly be at your disposal, unlike the console versions. You can have up to 24 abilities on your spell bar at once, whereas in the console version you can only have 6. So, that's nice. That was a great thing about Origins as well.
Another thing that annoyed me about the PC version were its video options, or rather, the lack thereof. There was no “full screen windowed mode,” and if you don't want to play in full screen the game window doesn't resize for some reason. Again, a minor gripe but enough to be annoying to someone who is used to playing most modern games in a windowed mode for easy alt-tabbing between the game and other things (like, for instance, browsing G4TV.com).
I think that while Dragon Age: Origins was meant to be played on PC, Dragon Age 2 is really meant for a console audience. Sure, it works on PC and you can play it, but it's not as fluid as it is on console, especially when it comes to combat or the conversation wheel.
I have to say that, not only am I disappointed by the fact the game is entirely too linear, but not making it as easily accessible for the PC users really stinks. Plus, BioWare didn't even release new modding materials for Dragon Age 2, so all the fun I had with old mods is a thing of the past as well.
I'm not saying that DA2 is a terrible game by any means, but if you have the option to pick the title up on console or PC, it saddens me to say, that console would probably be the better choice.