The lights are on
The last couple of days, I've gone over what I consider the first 2 entries to the series, though I suppose Awakening could be seen as Dragon Age 1.5. There was a lot to like about the Origins games, and I will admit I was both excited and a bit concerned when I heard Dragon Age 2 would be coming out so soon after those other ones. The first games were huge, and there was a lot of extra content produced for them. While I looked forward to another romp through Bioware's excellently realized fantasy world, I was concerned that there would be some corners cut in getting a true sequel out there so quickly. Some of my fears were perhaps realized, but overall I'm happy to report that my time playing Dragon Age 2 was enjoyed quite a bit.
This game is one that runs a bit parallel to the first game, at least to start. The events of the first game revolve around something called The Blight. In the first game, you are tasked with stopping it. In Awakening you are a different character, and again faced with a related task. In this one, the events of the Blight shape your character's predicament, but is not your primary objective.
Dragon Age 2 is broken up into 3 segments, each one separated by a passage of time that allows the story to span several years instead of taking place as one successive event right after another. It's an interesting plot mechanic that works pretty well I think overall. There are references made to both Origins and Awakening, and for those of us who played the Origins game, you can import your choices and they do have some effect on Dragon Age 2. If you don't have one, they also give you 3 sort of pre-scripted situations that allow you to decide how earlier events panned out. This is great for adding some variety to the replay of Dragon Age 2, but it is a bit disappointing that more of your decisions from the first game did not play a bigger role in the second. This is the same company responsible for Mass Effects 1 & 2, and in Mass Effect these 'hooks' seemed a much bigger deal in the sequel than they are here in Dragon Age 2.
Graphics - 8:
The graphics look better here than they did in the original. The colors are more vibrant, facial expressions are good (thought not as good as Mass Effect 2's) and there are some pretty detailed environments to tromp through. Characters are still a bit stiffer in their movements during cutscenes than I would like, but they animate pretty well while in battle. The uneven framerates during more intense battles still plague this title, as they did the first game as well. Perhaps the biggest gripe I have about the graphics is not the quality, but the quantity. You spend a lot of your time going through the same areas over and over again. It fits with the story but lacks the scope of the original, and as a result you just don't get as much variety in landscape as I would like in a fantasy world.
Sound & Music - 9:
I think the voice acting in this game is even better than the first, which was pretty solid. Some of the characters like Anders and Varric are particularly entertaining, and giving your character voice in this sequel was a very good design choice. The music is as good if not better than Origins as well, often feeling grander and imbuing a sense of epic scale that the story itself might be lacking in fact. The sound effects are good, but I think the combat sound effects were a bit more repetitive than in Origins. There were times that the characters repeated things over, and over and over... and I thought my wife might be getting a bit annoyed by it. The first Dragon Age had some excellent moments where characters bantered back and forth as you walked around, and the same holds true in Dragon Age 2. In fact I found many of the conversations even more entertaining here than in the original, even if the characters themselves were not always quite as interesting to me.
Gameplay - 8:
The new method of making conversation choices is nice. It's very similar to the circular menu/wheel used in Mass Effect's dialogs, and it does a good job of letting you see how your comments are viewed. There are a lot of options when you converse with people, ranging from kind, to angry to sarcastic - and you can sometimes unlock additional options that might not always have been available depending on who you have in your party at the time or prior actions/choices you may have made in the story. It's good stuff that really lends itself to the branching type of storyline the Dragon Age series is known for.
The menu is a bit easier to get around than in the original, but it feels like some of the customizations for character skills and equipment are more limited. I don't necessarily mind this, the developers had a specific appearance in mind for your party members and instead of changing out their armor you can find upgrades that improve upon it without altering their aesthetics.
One big problem for me this time around was bugs. There were some in Origins as well - in fact one of the glitches used to get unlimited money can be used here as well - so it's a bit disappointing that such a well-known bug wasn't fixed between the original and the sequel. That strikes me as either lazy or out of touch with the players - neither one of which is ideal. Those are optional exploits that a person may or may not want to use, and they don't bug me nearly as much as some of the broken side quests. There is one that when I looked it up (to rescue a woman along the Wounded Coast) - it looks like no one has managed to complete yet. You can see a person I presume you are supposed to interact with, but they simply stand there. There are a few others to that if you approach them out of order, you can get the quests into a state where they can't be completed. Luckily these are side quests, but it's annoying all the same - I spent quite a while on the rescue one before I looked it up, only to realize I couldn't complete it. I imagine some patches will be forthcoming soon to fix these, but having encountered them already, I figured I would mention them.
Another annoying glitch occurred at the end of the game. I won't list any spoilers, but similar to Origins some of your choices affect how things play out in the ending narrative. One of the big choices in-game is whether or not your character is going to pursue a romantic relationship, and there's an opportunity to hop in the sack with a couple of different people (consider this the warning that the game, while not graphic, has themes not real appropriate to younger children) - and in the end of the game when your ending is being told, it messes up. I had been with both Isabela and Merril and in the end picked Merril as my character's love interest. However, the ending narrative showed Isabela's name and actually verbally said both Merril's and Isabela's at the same time in overlapping audio. It was a big jarring and makes me wonder that if/when there is a Dragon Age 3, if we can import our data, if this will have any affect on it or not.
That said, the other big change in how the game handles is the combat. The first game felt a bit tactical in nature - Dragon Age 2 makes it apparent right away that the emphasis is on action in this game. You still build up stats and skills like an rpg, but combat is much faster and more fluid, and both my son and I immediately noticed that and both thought it was much better suited to the game. A risky choice, but one that I thought paid off. You can still pause and assign tasks to your party members if needed, but I only did this a couple of dozen times total in my play through of Dragon Age 2, and I was doing it constantly in Origins.
Intangibles - 9:
I will get my biggest complaint out of the way immediately: there is not enough variety in your locales. The city of Kirkwall is impressively realized and it looks great visually, but you spend at least 80% of your game time in this one city. It may be a bit cliche, but if I'm playing a fantasy swords & sorcery game, I expect some fantastic environments along the way, and that really doesn't happen here. I'm also not usually a big fan of backtracking, but in this game they use the assets over and over again. I probably went into the same mountain in Sundermount at least 5 times over the course of my adventure. I think that this is probably the biggest area where my corner-cutting fears were realized.
Okay, now that the locales and glitches have been properly talked about above, let's talk about what Dragon Age 2 does right - and there's a lot to talk about there. For one, I liked the overall story. I know some people complained that it was not nearly as 'epic' as the first one. True, you're not saving the entire world from The Blight, but the fate of Kirkwall city eventually falls into your hands, and your choices do an amazing job of shaping that fate. As much as I wanted to play the earlier versions of Dragon Age over again, I think I want to replay this one even more. Sure, the lack of fresh scenarios is a bummer, but I'm in it for the storyline and here there are some remarkable changes to storyline that can be had here. Once I beat the game, I did a lot of looking around online at what some of my choices might have done, and I was thrilled to see how several of my choices made such a difference to how things played out. Some of your party members may not make it through the story - in fact most likely you will lose at least 1 or 2 along the way. The potential for this to carry over into later content or Dragon Age 3 is awesome, and something I hope Bioware realizes as well (if not better) than they did with Mass Effect 2.
There are a lot of side quests along the way - and my first game took me about 40 hours to complete everything. Some of those corner-cutting concerns can be understood when you consider how many cinematics and storyline changes Bioware had to account for in giving players so much flexibility in their choices. I've already rolled up two more characters and am looking forward to more play throughs.
For people who enjoy achievements, you can get most of them on a single play, but not all. I got about 2/3 of them on my one play through. Annoyingly, 2 of the achievements can only be had if you have one of the DLC's - which was given to players for free if they had pre-ordered this game by a certain date (that I missed by all of a week), or if you want to pony up some Microsoft points/PSN dollars (I think it's 560 microsoft points). I haven't done this yet, but I probably will later. there's another DLC I did get called the Black Emporium - think of it as a rare black market. It's got some okay gear in it, but it doesn't add anything particularly interesting to the story itself. Also, there are several unlockable items you can get by doing certain things like playing the Dragon Age Legends Facebook game, signing up for the Dragon Age newsletter and so on. Bioware's tie-in with these other media hubs, and other games like Mass Effect and Dead Space are neat, and I'll be curious to see if it's something we see more of in the future.
Overall - 8.5:
The overall game is better than Origins and Awakening, especially on a technical level. I enjoyed the story and how it was presented quite a bit, but that plus some of the lacking party customization options has proven to be a bit of a sore spot for some players. Overall though, if you liked the first Dragon Age game, this one has enough of the same characteristics that it will probably be very appealing to you. I've already logged a good deal of time with it, and like many other Bioware games, it is a title that I've beaten and will hold on to - most of the time if I beat a game, it gets traded in shortly afterward. I am hopeful some of the bugs will be fixed in a patch soon, and I'm really looking forward to what else gets released in DLC - not that I need any extra excuses to play through the game again.
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