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Dragon Age 2 in 4500 words or less... >_<

By the time I finished the introductory section of Dragon Age 2 (a.k.a. DA2), I was cursing Bioware's name for pulling a bait-and-switch. There's no denying that this instalment has a very different feel from Dragon Age: Origins (a.k.a. DAO). However I finally got through my rage-stroke, and Origins-fanboyism  aside I did enjoy DA2. I'll save my DAO vs DA2 arguments for the end of the review, and judge DA2 apart from the rest of the series (I'll still draw comparisons of course... but my final rating is not about how well DA2 matches DAO). I've tried to be thorough, as such the review is fairly long, so I broke it down into sections in case you're only interested in certain aspects. If you're curious how it stacks up against DAO, go to the very end of the review for my comments.


Story - Main story/quests

Story is probably the area where DA2 was most lacking. The writing was quite good, and the individual parts of the story weren't bad in and of themselves. The problem was that the various parts of the story don't really flow together; rather it feels like the story stops at the end of each chapter and then a new story begins in the next. There are a few continuing themes that hint at what your ultimate showdown will entail, but until the final hours of the game you're really left in the dark and never given an ultimate goal. It is only looking back through the story that you see the weak connections. It is understandable why Bioware took this approach; this story is not about a hero, but rather about the journey that an ordinary person goes through to become such a hero. Since most people aren't born into any sort of epic quest line, then of course the defining moments in their life might not all be connected into some grand storyline that flows perfectly from start to finish. From that perspective, it makes sense.

Unfortunately, that type of story doesn't always translate well into long games, and this is one of those cases. No matter how fun a game is, it's hard to keep a player hooked and motivated for 40 hours. At its core the game play stays the same, so a grand, epic quest is often a means of keeping the player intrigued, making say "one more quest before I go to bed", because they can see their goal ahead in the distance and each step towards it has meaning. When you present the player a fragmented story, then that drive is lost. Instead of saying "one more quest before bed", I found myself saying "well that quest line is done, no reason to start another before bed". Even without a story uniting the chapters, each chapters story could have been a gripping tale. However, even these were fragmented, with your chapter starting with some mundane task, that eventually leads to another mundane task, that eventually leads to something exciting. With the plethora of side quests, secondary quests, companion quests and rumours to investigate, the low-key beginnings of the main quests generally weren't very interesting and were often the last quests to catch my eye.


Story - Companions, quests, misc

Though the main story wasn't particularly driving, I'm happy to say the companion quests were quite extensive and fun to play through. Generally each chapter offered a new quest for each companion, the first quest being their recruitment, and focused on developing their own storyline with varying degrees of impact on the main story, most notably the potential to lose them based on your decisions. As with DAO you can strike up a romance with several of your companions. The friendship system also returns, but with a twist; both friendships and rivalry's impart bonuses, and there are times when a high score on either side of the meter is required to get a companion to stand by you. I welcome this change since it rewards you for exploring the 'other' side of your relationships, but I think it needs a bit more work; it feels strange that a companion will stand by my side if I've verbally abused them enough, but leaves if I'm still neutral with them. Most friendship/rivalry opportunities are during quests, so it is very hard to get full friendship or rivalry with all party members, you can't simply chat up your friends and give them gifts to max out their friendship. That being said each companion also has a (single) gift which can give you a boost.

Not so extensive were most of the side-quests. Granted they are side quests, and as such shouldn't take much attention from the gamer, but Bioware was exceptionally lazy with these. How most of them work is that while out exploring, you'll occasionally find an object, sometimes mundane like a lock of hair, sometimes more interesting like someone's remains. A quest is then entered saying something like "There's probably someone in [insert random area] who is looking for this item!". You enter that area, go to the marker, and give the person their item, getting some gold and a generic thank-you in return. Like I said it's okay for side-quests to be, well, side-quests, but when there is almost no though put into them, it just makes the game feel bloated. Bioware would have been better off bumping up main quest rewards and doing away with the side quests altogether.

My last story-based complaint is with the 'visits' from some characters from DAO and its expansion. A few characters make meaningful appearances and can even be companions. However in the last act, there is suddenly an onslaught of cameos from old characters. I'm all for tying the stories together, but in a meaningful way; it feels like they just forced these appearances in last minute so people remember the game is from the Dragon Age series. I won't spoil any specifics, but they just left me greatly underwhelmed and felt very lazy.


Gameplay - Combat

If you're expecting the same unique style of tactical combat you got in DAO (which this long after release you shouldn't!), then brush those expectations aside before you even start the game. I will make things much easier in the long run.

There are several changes to the combat system, and each one has a reaction with the other changes, so it hard to lay it all out neatly. To start off, the combat system in DA2 seems to be trying to combine the tactical aspects from DAO with the hack-and-slash game play from action RPGs, which a strong bias to the action side of things. In theory, this isn't a bad idea; let the tactical people play tactically, let the button mashers mash buttons. However, the system doesn't really excel at either extreme and tactical play in particular feels very unsatisfying.

Part of the problem is with abilities. Rather than having the player end up with a large number of abilities, Bioware has 6 general tree and 3 specialization trees for each class. These trees generally only have 5-6 distinct abilities, several of which may be passive, however some abilities also have upgrade options. For instance, a mage might upgrade the radius of their fireball, a rogue might add a stun effect to their attacks, etc. So instead of investing say 20 points and getting 20 abilities, you will most likely invest 20 points and get half as many abilities. That alone isn't a problem; what is a problem is that many of these abilities have long cooldowns, and because of cross-class-combos (more on that later) and the fewer options available for dealing with specific situations (i.e. aggro management, healing etc.), you will spend the majority of your time mashing the basic attack button. They even got rid of auto attack, so you don't really have an option. Mashing X (or A or mouse-button) for 40 hours isn't really exciting.

I mentioned cross-class combos. Instead of a single character setting up high-damage ability combos, all combos now require two classes. Some of each classes abilities cause (or more often can be upgraded to cause) one of three effects; brittle for mages, staggered for warriors, and disoriented for rogues. Each effect can then be exploited by certain abilities (again, usually after an upgrade point) by the other two classes for some bonus. For example, a warrior's ability might grant a huge damage bonus if the target was rendered brittle by a mage. On paper this is great, and getting a 900% damage bonus is fun, but as mentioned above abilities often have long cooldowns (and might not be guaranteed to cause the combo effect)  so it can be a test of patience to set them up, and when I played through as an elemental mage, my main damage spells were also the ones that had the brittle effect, so it generally wasn't worth casting them until my warrior's cooldowns had run out. Also, many abilities feel greatly underpowered if you don't use the combo, and sometimes spamming basic attack for a battle seemed more effective.

As I mentioned you general have fewer abilities available to deal with specific threats, such as grabbing threat from your mage, or healing a character. As an example, until you unlock the healing specialization, there is only one healing spell for mages, and it's on a long cooldown. On its own not a huge issue, just save these abilities for when you need them. The problem is that battles now almost all consist of waves and reinforcements. So you might draw threat away from your mage, only to have another wave spawn of top of them. And then you use another ability to again draw them away, only to have yet another wave spawn of top of them. Wave-style also renders tactical character placement almost useless, since waves will often spawn in a large circle around the battleground. The end result is a lot of running around and kiting with your mages while you wait for abilities to cool down. Rather than planning the cool ways you're going to use your abilities, you're planning the boring ways you're going to save them up in case a tougher enemy shows up.

The difficulty of encounters was also inconsistent. One would expect battles to start easy and get harder as you progress. Instead, encounters are initially tough because you have so few abilities and companions to choose from (certain classes will fare worse than others in the introduction). Once you get a chance to flesh out your abilities and party, battles are either straight forward or absolutely crushing, which virtually no middle ground. On my second playthrough I found myself constantly flicking the difficulty anywhere from casual to nightmare to try and get a that gradual increase in difficulty one would expect. I know you can always turn the difficulty down (and I did!) but it seems silly that you can get through a chapter on hard then need to turn it down to casual because the boss didn't die even after 50 minutes of beating it with your sword. Or 2 swords, a crossbow and a staff, to be precise.

Long story short, the new combat system just didn't agree with me. I like hack-and-slash, I liked the tactical combat of DAO, but DA2 didn't hit either mark. While some encounters were fun, many had to be restarted because it turned out I put my mage right where a group of rogues spawn half way through the fight. The new ability and combo systems have potential, but need more tweaking so that you're actually using them instead of waiting to use them.


Gameplay - Tactics

Technically this would fall under combat, but given the action stance combat takes tactics honestly feels quite out of place in that discussion. As with DAO, this game features a tactics system which allows the player to set conditions and actions for each party member. For example, for your healer, you could set a tactic that says if an ally is under 25% health, cast heal on them. Unfortunately that pretty much demonstrates the most complex tactics you can make. There are a few actions that hint at logic combinations, such as "jump to tactic X" or "use this condition in the next tactic", but neither seemed to work as intended (in both cases, the tactic jumped to could still activate without the first condition being met). This was a disappointment given the complexity of cross-class combos, as you often only want to use an ability if say, an enemy is brittle but ALSO has lots of health left; all too often my warrior would shatter a near-death grunt instead. Maybe Bioware didn't want players to let their companions run on auto pilot, but it feels more like they just didn't bother touching up the system. The companion AI is pretty lame so you have to spend a fair bit of time making sure they won't waste their cross-class combo finishers and that they'll attack the tank's targets, but you can only ever make them competent. The system is in dire need of a hard "AND" parameter, and if would be great if they allowed for nested IF/ELSE type statements that rewarded players for strategizing ahead of time, but given DA2's bias towards action instead of tactics, it is doubtful the tactics system will get overhauled. You are also restricted to a handful of preset lists or a single custom list; I found I often wanted to switch between a few sets of tactics but had to swap them out one-by-one, and making changes to a pre-set will overwrite your custom set.


Gameplay - Dialogue

One big change in DA2 is the move to a dialogue wheel, similar to Mass Effect 2. On the whole I like the system, as it feels more organized and streamlined than the 'list of options' format from DAO. The use of icons to indicate an options implications (i.e. charming, rude, funny, investigation, romance, etc) is a nice addition, and in fact almost required since you also don't see the actual text of each option, rather a very short description of what you'll say. I had a few problems with that specifically. For one, you can't always predict your characters tone from the description, and though the icons help, confusions did occur. For example, when offering a bride or demanding money, you aren't shown the amount. I ended up paying more than a quest reward's worth in gold for information once, and in the final act gave up a load of XP for a measly (at the end game) 30 silver. Another icon means you will be aggressive, but it could be hard to tell if you'll suggest taking an aggressive action or actually insult the person you're talking to. While the cleaner look and feel is nice, having the full text (or a portion of it) pop-up when you hover over an action would be a nice addition, or at least important information like how much money will change hands, or if you're about to call someone a jerk instead of saying they should stand up for their self.


Gameplay-Misc

To close up the gameplay section, I have a bunch of smaller compliments and complaints. These may seem nit-picky, but combined they have a significant and persistent impact on the game. On the positive side, I liked that DA2 does away with the skills found in Origins. Most of the skills were somehow reworked into other aspects of character progression that work more naturally, such as lock-picking naturally increasing as a rogue's cunning score increases, which makes things more streamlined (I never found that skill points needed much though in DAO). Though I miss the sheer number of abilities in DAO, the upgrade system is good and the tree layouts are easy to understand. I also liked that most sustained abilities will stay on between battles, so you don't need to spend 20 seconds rebuffing, and abilities instantly cool down when fights end, allowing you to keep trucking ahead (and providing a nice bonus if you manage to clear a wave of enemies before the next one spawns).

On the other hand, there were a lot of little things that detracted from my enjoyment. On the combat side of things, you can't lock a target which forces you to pause when you want to look around. I also miss auto-attack, and given that DA2 relies much more heavily on basic attacks that its predecessor, I think it really would have been appreciated this time around. Warrior stamina regeneration was fine for most battles, but since they only regain stamina when they strike a killing blow, long boss battles generally required lots of stamina potions (or an hour of basic attacks), even if there were a few waves of smaller enemies. When an enemy was in your line of sight, even if too far away to engage, you would automatically enter combat mode rendering you unable to interact with objects or people. Also, when combat first starts, there was sometimes a 5-10 second delay where enemies and/or party members simply wouldn't take any action, and your party members would sometimes simply not follow you into battle at all.

Each companion now has a single, customized specialization tree, and often is missing one of the standard class trees. This really pigeon-holes them into a certain type of character, and while that isn't terrible in itself, the fact that companions can leave you means you might not be able to fill a certain niche with other companions of the same class. Companions also now have a standard set of armor that can only be upgraded, not replaced. Clearly part of the 'cleaner interface' initiative Bioware seems to have taken up, it means a lot of your powerful loot will go unused and pawned away for a fraction of what it's worth. This also, again, serves to pigeonhole your companions into a specific niche. For the equipment you can give them, you have to swap members in and out of your party to view/change their equipment, making deciding what accessories and weapons to keep a lengthy chore. Speaking if items and 'cleaner' interfaces, Bioware has really made inventory management more complicated. When you open the inventory you are shown a list of items (separated into categories), which is nice, except almost every piece has a generic name like "Ring", "Iron ring", "Expensive ring" or something else non-descript, so you still have to go into the stats display anyways to tell what you're looking at. The exception is your useless junk items, for which they thought up dozens, even hundreds of clever names for. A display that integrates the stats by default would have made more sense that the new 'streamlined' interface. A last gripe about equipment, each classes armor requires equal amounts of the classes primary and secondary stat. This was really annoying, since my two-handed warrior really didn't need constitution and would have been much better off with more willpower (similarly my bloodmage didn't really need willpower...), and reduced your options for attribute points earlier on. Level-based restrictions would have made more sense from a gameplay perspective.

There is also no longer a 'camp' where all your followers hang out together. While this helps give the impression that they have their own lives, I'd say that illusion is already stretched thin enough that if wouldn't have hurt to have them all hang out at the tavern and thus save you a lot of running back and forth.

While the game ran well and seemed relatively bug free, I was having quite a few system lock-ups, often one every 2 hours or so. I played Killzone 3 and other games for 6 hours at a time without any crashes so I don't think it's the system itself, but there could be some unknown factor I'm not aware of. There were a few minor glitches, such as quests not removing themselves from your journal or party members staying locked in your party after completing their companion quest, requiring you to return to your home to unlock them.


Graphics

Graphics in DA2 are about the best you'll get for this type of game, meaning it's not the best looking game around but (as far as I know) probably can't afford to be given the number of objects on screen and all the numbers it has to crunch. The big open areas are still relatively crisp and full of detail, and spell effects are well done. The city of Kirkwall and the major surrounding areas are well designed and look good. Unfortunately, Bioware must have spent too much time on them because interior areas are always, ALWAYS taken from a template. There are maybe a dozen or so caves in the game, but they are all based on a single cave, with certain passages blocked off or placing you at a different entrance. Same goes for mansions/estates, alleys, undercity encounters etc. Aside from one or two retexture jobs, you can expect to walk through the same interiors over and over and over. This might not be a surprise if you played any of the DLC from DAO, which always re-used assets from the main game or expansion, but was evidently not just a fluke. It's unfortunate since Bioware clearly has a talented level design and art team, but by the tenth time you walk through the same cave it's hard to remember that.


Sound

For pretty much all aspects of the audio, my comments are "It sounds fine but doesn't push any boundaries". Music and effects are pretty much interchangeable with any big-budget RPG, so while the quality is good they just didn't feel very unique. The music in particular didn't really feel like an integral part of the experience, and on my second playthrough I just turned it off altogether and played my own music in the background. As far as voice acting is concerned, most of the work was top-notch and was a cut above the average RPG, however there were quite a few times where it felt like everything was being recorded one sentence at a time then strung together. For example, there might be some neutral dialogue followed by some happy dialogue and finally some angry dialogue; while each part clearly showed emotion, there didn't seem to be much flow from one emotion to another, just abrupt changes. Again this wasn't always the case, but stood out when it did occur. There were also a few times when the timing of interruptions didn't quite match up, leaving some odd gaps during heated discussions, but again this wasn't always the case. On the whole the voice acting really helped shape the characters' personalities, and if the sound effects and music could do the same with the game itself, perhaps in the series' next instalment, then I'd be hard pressed to find anything to complain about (which doesn't happen often).

 

Conclusion

I still have a few words to say about how DA2 fits with DAO, but since Bioware is trying to take the series in a new direction I feel it's fair to judge DA2 apart from the original game and it's expansion.

The story wasn't as gripping as we're used to with Bioware, and some aspects of the game felt very rushed - or worse ignored - such as the repeated interiors, brainless side quests, tacky cameos and lackluster tactics system. However the interesting character stories helped keep me going to the games entertaining final showdown. My biggest complaint is with the numerous changes to combat, which try to combine action and tactical elements but doesn't really getting the balance right. I think there is still potential for the action combat they are pushing towards, but for a game where you can control all four party members I think a slower pace and more tactical battles would have worked much better. If Bioware really wants to capture the action combat crowd, they would probably be better off dropping tactical play altogether, but I think tweaking their current system would be a smarter move. Graphics were about the best you can expect from a game with so many objects, and audio was good but didn't blow me away. Overall the game is executed well but feels kind of aimless, both in story and combat, and leaves Bioware with the task of really defining Dragon Age's identity to a later instalment. It's still a fun game that gives you your money's worth, and I give it an 8.0/10.0.


What about Dragon Age: Origins?!

While I gave DA2 an 8.0, if I also factor in how well it represents the series' groundwork laid out by DAO, that score would be more like a 7.0. I'm sure some people liked the new combat system, but it really clashed with me at times and just didn't have any of the same thrill that I experienced in DAO. Button-mashing just doesn't feel right in any Bioware game, and certainly not when compared to the tactical combat from DAO. The waves of reinforcements, quickened pace and fewer overall abilities try to rush you through combat rather than rewarding you for strategizing with the exception of a few battles. While I can understand that Bioware wanted to tell a very different story with DA2 than in DAO, it didn't feel anywhere near as epic as DAO. That being said there were still some improvements over DAO, such as the deeper integration of companions into the quest line. The clearer ability tree was also a nice addition. The stronger focus on cross-class combos was interesting but left non-combo abilities feeling very underpowered. Overall, however, these improvements are overshadowed by the stark contrast in story and gameplay, and DA2 just doesn't feel like "Dragon Age", as defined by DAO and it's expansion. Ultimately it feels like Bioware pulled a bait-and-switch, denying hardcore DAO fans of the game they (rightfully) expected, and leaves me questioning if they foresaw this group's reaction and used the signature edition upgrade for pre-orders specifically to trick them out of their money. That might sound harsh, and I know some people probably really enjoyed the changes, but in my opinion it feels more like a spinoff than a continuation of the Dragon Age series.


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