The lights are on
Dragon Age II
Release Date: March 7th, 2011
Somehow there is an infinite return of satisfaction from a tale of a young warrior becoming a noble hero and rising up against some dark terror that has plagued the lands. The first Dragon Age allowed players to choose a variety of races and classes to make such an adventure all their own, leading the Grey Wardens against a mass of Darkspawn. The addicting RPG element combined with epic battles and interaction at local towns made the first game a huge success. It is only natural a sequel should follow. Influenced by Mass Effect's sequel, the game has now limited the number of classes and even races chosen, while providing a more polished look and interactive combat...but does it take away from the individual experience the first game offered, or provide one far more interesting and unique?
A Story Within a Story...Sans Leo DiCaprio
Unlike the first Dragon Age, there is only one race and role to choose from; You are Hawke, a Fereldan driven from your home by the Darkspawn and forced to flee with your family to Kirkwall. Told as a "story within a story", one of your party members is chronicling your rise from peasant to champion in an interrogation. It's a neat concept that keeps you raising questions as to how you know the characters in question and what events led them there.
What is not a neat concept is the very thrust forward story. The last game was laid out very well, with a clear beginning of your induction into the Grey Wardens, participation in the front lines against the Blight, and journey to clear your name and gather an army. All the while, I had an overarching goal: Stop the Blight. This game has you flee from the Darkspawn, move to a city, and raise money so you can go on an expedition. It's much less of the overall "I have to stop a full on invasion" feel from the first, into a more "I hope I get 10 more gold so I can start the real game!" feel. Without that overall goal of an enemy or presence to stop, I felt as though I was just drifting from quest to quest, wandering aimlessly. Though the latter half of the game brings much of the events to light, it leaves the start of the game feeling less than satisfying.
Despite the lackluster story, Bioware excels in its writing and character design, which is ever present in this game. No cheesy dialogue or cliche ridden one-liners, but true lyrical structure accompanies much of the characters. The banter between party members is alive and well, and calling on them to give their two cents is always enjoyable. Not to mention the characters themselves are a colorful cast of original entities, each with a back story worth investing time into.
No More Backseat Driver
The most drastic change to the game is the combat. Whereas Origins had you assign a set of tasks and watch them play out, the second installment asks you participate more. You tap a button for standard attacks and use the other three buttons for special attacks dependent upon your class.
This causes the combat in the game to feel less like a spectator's sport, and more like a battle. There is still the option to pause the combat and issue commands, with a menu that is much more streamlined for consoles. Orders go out quickly and smoothly, and coupled with macros you can customize; battles become a high point. What starts as a simple hack and slash soon evolves into frantic hits and powerful swings that reduce your enemies to nothing but red vapor.
With only three classes you would think it can get pretty straightforward but such is not the case. Each class has a subset of talent trees to choose from to specialize in and shape your character. Rogues can be up close with daggers or ranged, Warriors can be tanks or heavy hitters, mages can be healers or spell casters; it's all here. Having a healthy balance of these will insure your success. MMO veterans will feel right at home assigning roles and mixing the party accordingly, but the game is generous enough with quick saves to allow you to play around with the options.
You Are Not Smart Enough to Wear That!
Dragon Age has your standard RPG setup of armor and weaponry. You gain weapons and armor from quests or purchase them at stores, some with options of augmenting them to further assist. There are some pretty strict requirements for much of the armor and you will end up scratching your head as you try to reallocate your points accordingly; at the same time wondering why I need to be more cunning to wear a hat...
Your team members will have a suit of armor that is non-removable, and simply upgrades as you find the necessary component. This is much appreciated, as changing out a helmet and passing it along the line got old after a while. They still equip the standard rings and weaponry, but this shortens the grocery list of items needed.
Can Hawke Come Out to Play?
The biggest disappointment with Dragon Age II is the overall feeling that the game was rushed.
Textures and environments, though much improved from the previous installment, are still not up to par with much of what is out there. Some textures are fine, but running around the city, I find a blur of muddy clay staring back at me. It's hard to believe this is the same company that brought us Mass Effect, as the game is littered with cloned environments. They number in the teens, and once you've seen one, it tends to pop up over and over. It got to the point where I was begging quest givers to please not send me to the beach again.
Much of the game revolves around Kirkwall and your rise to infamy within its walls, I get that. What I do not get is why I feel so trapped when I play this game. In the last game I was traversing across a continent, choosing where I wanted to go; be it a mountain city or lush forest. In this game I feel like I am a kid who has been grounded and can only play outside in the yard, as I am not allowed to cross the street. In a game promising adventure, I just expected to travel a bit farther from a city.
I also found myself running into the occasional glitch. Sometimes textures go missing, sound cuts off, etc. I even ran into a glitch on a main plot questline 8 hours into the game where I could not talk to a guy with a quest marker clearly over his head. In my beginning playtime the game offered no real trouble, but as fights picked up and colors starting flying, the occasional game freeze occured. In the better part of 2 hours I had the game freeze on me three times. This seems to be a fluke, as only a handful of people were running into these problems, and some without any problems at all.
Recycled character models top off the list of things I wish were changed. Ogres, spiders, and even the dragon model are taken straight from the pages of Origins. It lessens the impact of any truly frightening enounter.
Dragon Age II is by no means a terrible game, and I already envision myself revisiting the main game plenty of times. It was just a let down considering the amount of time I poured into the first installment, expecting the same quality of adventure and story I had before. If you can look past the flaws, the battles and dialogue will eventually overshadow the small nuances. It's fun, but feels like one step forward, and one giant ogre punching you in the chest...steps back.