Dragon Age 2 Review
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On 12/10/2011 at 12:00 PM by Julian Titus
Proof positive that you need longer than 18 months to make a follow up to a great RPG.
If you look for strong, memorable characters and deep world building in your RPGs, Dragon Age 2 hits the spot. It's just a shame that the quests and level design can't match the personality.
Fabled RPG developer BioWare has seen great success with their two original IPs during this console generation. These releases are on opposite ends of the spectrum: Mass Effect is a grand sci-fi space opera that melds role playing with action, while Dragon Age is an epic fantasy that feels more at home on the PC. This dichotomy was the most evident with 2010's release of Mass Effect 2, a game that many considered to be the best release of the year, and yet it did away with most of the role playing elements that put BioWare on the map. It was hard to tell where Dragon Age 2 would fall in the BioWare pantheon. Would it hold onto the deep RPG roots of Dragon Age: Origins, or would it be an action game with branching dialogue trees, like Mass Effect 2? The answer, as with most things, lies somewhere in the middle. But we'll come back to that in a moment.
Anyone that played the first Dragon Age will be pleasantly surprised the moment they pop in Dragon Age 2 and get their first look at the graphics. Dragon Age: Origins looked outdated the day it was released, and that's being generous. It also looked as bland and cliched as a $2.99 fantasy paperback novel. The franchise was in dire need of an identity, and I feel that the art team and character designers have done just that. Everything has a nicely stylized look to it, and this goes a long way to making Dragon Age stand out instead of looking like "Fantasy Role Playing Game 3-A". Elves no longer look like slightly smaller humans with pointy ears, but instead are delicate creatures with large, expressive eyes. The qunari, shown in Origins as grey-skinned bruisers are now alien and imposing, adding gravitas to their role in the story.
Everything about the graphics and art design is so vastly improved that it's hardly recognizable as a Dragon Age game. However, there are elements here that are consistent with the first game. Dwarven architecture is just as distinct from human-made structures as it was before, and you'll find yourself wearing armor of the same craftmanship found in Ferelden. The game looks so good that it's a shame that we don't get to see even more of it. The environments are small, you'll encounter fewer enemy types, and, possibly most damning (depending on your point of view) is the fact that you can't change the armor of your companions. While this gives each of them their own unique style, it also takes away the fun of seeing them grow in strength and change over time. Some of your characters do get new threads from time to time, but you'll have some party members that wear the same outfit for 7 years. That may work for Peter Griffin, but it doesn't fly in RPG land.
Along with this fresh coat of paint comes a completely retooled combat system with the home consoles in mind. Pressing the attack button results in the 3 and 4 hit combos expected from the action/RPG genre. Combat feels much more immediate and satisfying, and also makes sense to me on the consoles. Unless I'm playing a traditional turn-based, menu-driven RPG I expect to press buttons and have my character react instantly. Of course, this results in the first few hours of the game feeling a bit bland and button-mash heavy, but that goes away as you level up and learn new skills, many of which are upgradeable multiple times.
While some of the more subtle abilities are gone, like persuasion (sad to see it go) and trap making, you have more options in terms of actual battle skills. You can really tailor each character around a specific strategy, and I also commend the game for doing a better job of communicating what stats are improved as you use your attribute points. If you hate change, fear not; there are plenty of options here to tweak, including going back to the auto-attack of the first game. I kept button combat on, personally, but I was sure to turn on numerical damage as well as all textual cues during battle.
Combat in a BioWare game has never looked cooler, with some superb battle animations. Rogues and mages in particular benefit from the flourishes of their attacks, as well as spell effects like Rock Armor resembling, er, armor made out of rock. Little touches like these are much appreciated, because, if you're going to spend 80% of your time in battle, you may as well look good while doing it.
That 80% of time in combat leads me to one of my biggest criticisms of Dragon Age 2. I play BioWare games for the character interactions and story. In Mass Effect I spend a lot of time running around the Normandy, checking to see if my crew has anything new to say. This was even more emphasized in Origins, as you could talk to your party at pretty much any time, and both of these games allowed you many opportunities to talk your way out of trouble. In DA 2, however, it feels like you're going to end up in a fight to the death no matter what you say. You'll also get attacked on the streets for no reason so often that battle fatigue can settle in quickly. This fatigue could be lessened by talking to your companions, but the game is a let down here, as well. In DA 2 you can only talk to your party members at their individual hang outs, and then only when the game allows you to. While the quality of these conversations is much better thanks to some nice scripting and improved facial animations, I ended the game feeling like I didn't get to know my companions as well as I would have liked to. This is a shame, because I liked the cast of characters better here than in the first game, even if you have less people join your merry band. Well, not so merry, as most of your party is going to be divided on the core ideology of the story.
Players will be similarly divided on the subject of Dragon Age 2's story and setting. While Origins was a sweeping epic about a heroic journey to save the world, DA 2 tells a much more intimate tale of political turmoil in the city of Kirkwall, far removed from the lands of Ferelden. You experience this story after the fact, as your dwarf companion Varric tells of your exploits that span nearly a decade. This concept of having an unreliable narrator (Varric likes to embellish) leads to some memorable and cool moments, but is sadly underused. You can see the tension between the two main factions in Kirkwall bubbling just below the surface, and you know that things are going to eventually boil over and that you're going to have to take sides. It is a great story concept that shows flashes of brilliance, but stumbles in the execution. This is especially true at the end, where your choices seem to become null and void. BioWare has always done a great job of giving the player the illusion of choice, even if everyone will reach the same core ending. Shepard will always save the galaxy. The Grey Warden will always slay the Archdemon. But in those games the player feels a sense of impact on the story. The final hours of DA 2 takes that sense of impact away from the player, and the story suffers as a result.
This feeling is exacerbated by the sparse setting of the game. Kirkwall is small: only slightly larger than the biggest city in Origins, and it's the place where 90% of the game takes place. During your quests you will explore various caves and dungeons, but these are constantly recycled. It is common to traverse the same cave in reverse, even though you explored its twin in a completely different area of Kirkwall. It's far more egregious than the prefab structures found on every planet in the first Mass Effect, because at least those areas were built by people. These are simply natural caves -- caves that all look the same. I missed a lot of quests and items simply because I got tired of exploring every nook and cranny of the same five caves over and over again. It smacks of a rush job, and this is given further evidence by the fact that Kirkwall doesn't change in 7 years. You'll see signs of construction as you first look around, but nothing comes of it. Even with the major events in act 2 the city remains unchanged. If you were covering as much ground as you did in Ferelden this would be excusable, but the fact of the matter is that Kirkwall is just too small to carry an entire 40 hour game. I would have been more than happy if Kirkwall was just one third the size of Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City, but what we are given here is woefully inadequate.
When all is said and done, Dragon Age 2 is a zero sum game. For every improvement made upon the first game, something else is done that is a step backwards. DA 2 is a very good game that could have been amazing. With that said, however, I still enjoyed myself immensely with it. I still found myself playing into the wee hours of the morning. I was invested in the lore, the characters, and the story, even if I wasn't pleased with the way it concluded. And I still found myself starting a new game once the credits rolled. Some of the problems of Dragon Age 2 are problems that are endemic of developing games in the HD generation. With the increase in development costs comes a need from the developer to narrow the scope of their ideas to bring out games in a timely manner. It is a sad but inevitable fact that RPGs are going to have less under the hood as time goes by.
But hopefully they will change their clothes once in a while.