Dragon Age 2
The console version of Dragon Age: Origins didn’t have the same magic as its PC counterpart. The story, characters, and quests were all the same, but the thrill of battle was damaged during the transition. Addressing this problem is the greatest strength of Dragon Age II; by implementing a combat system tailored to console gameplay, BioWare’s epic fantasy series takes a new shape. This changed vision for the franchise may disappoint hardcore fans of the original, but the sequel still delivers – though not in the ways you’d expect.
BioWare’s template story structure involving an intro, four main quest hubs, and a finale is nowhere to be found in Dragon Age II. Unfortunately, no compelling story rises to take its place. Framing the story with another character’s narration, Dragon Age II attempts to tell the tale of Hawke’s rise to power in Kirkwall. In execution, this story amounts to little more than a bunch of sidequests lashed together. They are rarely connected to a central goal, and since the main plot has no arc, you get little sense of mounting tension or rising stakes until the climax is upon you.
Most of the missions are short, in-and-out affairs that involve traveling between Kirkwall’s painfully limited number of locations. While the city is supposedly huge, you only bounce between about 10 areas and a handful of buildings and caves within them. By the fourth or fifth time I was sent down to Darktown to resolve shady business, I was pining for the vast forests of Ferelden. Speaking of Ferelden, you can import your save from Origins, but it just alters some dialogue and a few cameos so don’t expect constant references to your previous exploits.
Your surroundings get old quickly, but most quests have a clever spark that keeps the entertainment value high. I hunted a serial killer, took a jaunt into the Fade, and watched an ally awkwardly blow a date with her ideal man. A few mundane missions fill in the gaps (prepare to kill a lot of slavers), but the inventive scenarios and excellent writing are among the highlights in Dragon Age II. The tasks you perform for your party members are particularly cool, aided by the fact that your companions are more interesting characters than those in Dragon Age: Origins.
The biggest change from the first game is the combat. No longer trying to straddle the fence between tactical and action-focused systems, Dragon Age II gives itself over entirely to fast-paced, responsive battles. This drastic departure from the original formula is bound to upset purists, but it suits the game well. Throwing down a non-stop barrage of spells and weapon techniques is empowering, and since you aren’t just issuing commands and waiting for their execution, the action feels more immediate. Don’t expect this sensation right away, though; you’ll have to play for several hours before you have enough abilities to keep combat interesting. In the early stages, you’ll burn through your meager skills and then mash the attack button while you wait for them to recharge. I promise, it gets better. By the time you’re wiping out your opposition before they even hit your front lines, it all seems worth it.
Aside from combat, an array of smaller tweaks make this sequel better suited for console play than its predecessor. The Mass Effect-like conversation system gives Hawke a voice and keeps the dialogue flowing, though it also removes some of the moral ambiguity. BioWare has tuned the combat difficulty to require minimal micromanagement, but this comes at the expense of the pause-and-play approach (which is technically still possible, but totally useless). Inventory and equipment are easier to manage, and the new skill trees – while heavily simplified – help differentiate characters and give them unique roles in combat. I also encountered some technical issues like enemy pop-in and graphical hiccups, but they rarely hampered my enjoyment.
Part of me was disappointed with Dragon Age II. I hoped for an improvement on the original, but it ultimately feels like a step back. The new battle system is fun, but not nearly as satisfying or rewarding as Origins’. Since you don’t even have a main antagonist until the final hours, the story pales in comparison to the original. If you put those complaints aside and remove Dragon Age II from the impressive shadow of its predecessor, you’ll find an engaging action/RPG experience that still retains BioWare’s trademark clever dialogue, cool characters, and detailed lore.
(Note: This review pertains only to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Dragon Age II. You can read the PC review here)
The changed vision for the Dragon Age series may disappoint hardcore fans of the original, but this sequel still delivers – but not in the ways you’d expect.