Dragon Age II Review
Dragon Age II was the much anticipated sequel to BioWare's 2009 epic fantasy RPG, Dragon Age: Origins. Unlike the first game, where the player gets to customize his or her character's race, origin story, and class, Dragon Age II puts you in the shoes of Hawke, a human from the village of Lothering. The game opens with Hawke and his/her family fleeing from the destruction of their home village as the Blight featured in Origins overtakes it. Once they escape, the family makes its way to Kirkwall, a city-state in the Free Marches.
Hawke is a fully voiced character, unlike the Warden from the previous title. The dialogue system is an upgraded version of the “Mass Effect” dialogue wheel. This gives the player the option to respond with paragon, renegade, or sarcastic responses. The voice acting for Hawke is not as good as it could have been. Neither gender has the rich feel or emotional timing that has been a staple in BioWare games for years. When conversing with well acted characters, such as Varric or Bethany, Hawke falls flat. On the plus side, Hawke's motivations are pretty clear from start to finish, which is more than can be said for the previous game's protagonist.
Despite being called a sequel, this game really stands on its own and has little connection to the first game, other than the fact that it shares the same universe. Hawke and the protagonist from the first game never meet. Most of the companions from the previous title are absent from this one, with a few notable exceptions. All of the build up generated in Dragon Age: Awakening regarding the evolution of the darkspawn seems to have been forgotten. Hawke's story truly is his/her own. This could be considered a good thing but the game's very name suggests that the questions left unanswered from the series's first installment will be resolved at last. They're not. Most of the companions from the previous game do not make an appearance. Those that do are simply there as throw backs to the last game and do little to complete anything that was left unresolved. In fact, some of them only serve to add more questions to the list. A very distracting problem with the returning characters is their design. Most only vaguely resemble their previous game counterparts due to the game's new animation. Returning characters such as Isabella, Zevran, Alistair, Flemeth, Sandal, and Bodahn would be completely unrecognizable if it weren't for their familiar voice actors. As far as sequels go, this game rates pretty low.
Taking it simply as its own game and not tying it to the first game at all, it's an okay game. The combat system is fast paced, bloody, and well oiled. When first starting out, it feels refeshing. The only problem is that it gets really repetitive. The impressive lightning fast combos and abilities become dull by the end of the tutorial level. You'll simply end up using the same three or four abilities over and over again during each fight after a point. Furthermore, the enemy design is equally repetitive. There are only about twenty different enemy designs in the programming, which detracts from the unique feel of the Dragon Age world.
The level design is interesting, yet plain. For the majority of the game, Hawke is confined to Kirkwall and the surrounding mountains. In the first game, the player had a world map and could choose which part of Ferelden he/she wanted to play through. The map returns but is confined to Kirkwall this time around. The city is vast and requires some exploring but, like the game's combat, will feel dull by the time you reach the middle of the game. One new feature with the travel system is the addition of a day and night system. Certain events can only occur in Kirkwall during the day and will not be present if Hawke shows up in the middle of the night.
As for the missions themselves, some are interesting. Some are dull. As you move through Kirkwall, different characters will ask you for favors in exchange for money. You run their errand, come back, and get paid. During the first act, where your goal is to save up fifty sovereigns for an expedition into the Deep Roads, this is a good system. After that, however, it stops working. There aren't many items to buy in this game, so the amount of money that you make will quickly just pile higher and higher. It will be a bit worthless to you, so going on the quests during the last two thirds of the game feels like it's just for the sake of earning enough experience to level up so that you'll be able to successfully defeat new bosses.
In typical BioWare fashion, this non-linear RPG's level of enjoyability is determined in large part by the companions in your party. All of these characters have strong personalities and are well developed. Most of them can even be romanced by a Hawke of either gender. Unlike the previous game, where friendship was based on a love/hate meter, this game uses a Friendship/Rivalry meter. The difference is that you can still pursue a romance with a character whom you've constantly abused or politically disagree with. It's a nice improvement, since a lot of people complained that romancing certain characters in the last game meant leaving them in camp while you went on missions that they would find morally gray.
Now for the most important part of any review: the story. The style of the second installment in the Dragon Age series is very different from the first one. While Origins and Awakening focused on your more traditional hero traveling across the land in order to save the world from an evil force of darkness, Dragon Age II is more political. The game is divided up into three acts, which are each separated by a few years. Each act has a very specific problem from the onset, which after several missions, culminates in a finale with lasting political effects that will impact what comes next. The long and short of it is that the mages in Kirkwall are under a lot of pressure from the Templar forces stationed there. The majority of mages wish to live freely and practice magic as they see fit. Fearful of the dangers of magic, the Templars would rather keep the mages locked up in their tower where they can be contained. The player has several opportunities throughout the game the side with their the mages or the Templars. Regardless of how the player acts, the final antagonist of the game is still the same, which ultimately gives a feeling of dissatisfaction and that your decisions didn't hold as much weight as you thought. The political story is enjoyable and the companions you choose to utilize during the missions will determine if the quest is entertaining or just a fool's errand for more gold. The major travesty with the story is that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger which promises the address the questions of both games in the next one. It's brings back sad memories of the second “Knights of the Old Republic” game, which had a similar ending. Hopefully we'll actually get a satisfying answer since BioWare has just confirmed the production of a Dragon Age III.
The short of it is that Dragon Age II is a bit of a disappointment. It doesn't come close to outdoing it's predecessor and spends too much time setting up the next sequel. It didn't take the time to be itself. Combat, level design, and missions all become very repetitive after a short period of time. The story felt weak when compared to the quality of work that BioWare usually puts on the market. On the typical 1 to 10 rating scale, this game earns about a 6.5. It's worth renting or borrowing from a friend but actually buying the game might not be worth the money to you.