I must admit that I had several contradictory opinions while playing Dragon Age 2. There are times when it feels how a AAA RPG should feel – making me feel powerful as dozens of enemies fell to my sword in a single battle or giving me the ability to freely react to any given situation without worrying about some underlying karma score or how streamlined the skill trees look. But for every positive, there were plenty of instances where it felt like a major step back from its predecessor; everything from lackluster writing, generic quests to recycled environments to the oversimplified combat makes it appear a rushed effort.
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Dragon Age 2 is clearly a game made for consoles, unlike Dragon Age: Origins, where it was the other way ‘round. Gone is the whole “like an Infinity Engine RPG”-feel, replaced by something that could be best described as Mass Effect in a medieval fantasy setting. So Dragon Age 2 ditches the unique character creation aspect of its predecessor in favour of a fixed main character. You play as Hawke, whose first name, appearance and gender is customizable as is his (or her) character class. For the remainder of the review, I will be referring to the male Hawke since that’s what I played as.
The game follows a rather interesting narrative as the story is mostly told in flashbacks described by a street-smart dwarf named Varric to a Chantry Knight Commander while being interrogated. Hawke has clearly done something to anger a lot of people and is probably the only reason why you’d want to see the game through to the end. Unlike previous Bioware games, the story doesn’t build up to some world-threatening event or a massive battle against an uber-baddie. It’s a refreshing change, but without a driving plot, the pacing is off and most of your actions in the early hours of the game feel irrelevant, almost to the point of MMO-like grinding. There’s a nice Usual Suspects undercurrent to the narrative in the form of the smooth-talking, not-always-reliable Varric, but it’s a shame that Bioware doesn’t make the most of it.
The opening section is set roughly around the same time as the events of Dragon Age: Origins, more specifically the destruction of Lothering during the early stages of the blight. Hawke and his family are on the run from the darkspawn trying to make their way to the city of Kirkwall. This doubles up as the tutorial section of the game and it’s here that most die-hard fans would write it off as a dumbed down RPG for the masses. The first thing you’ll notice is how the slow tactical combat of Dragon Age: Origins has been replaced by a faster-paced action-RPG style hack-n-slash complete with over-the-top animations that rarely requires you to pause and issue orders. You can still do that, but it’s completely optional.
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The difficulty level has been greatly reduced and you can easily steamroll through a majority of the battles on the Normal difficulty by only pausing during some of the tougher battles and boss fights. You’d think this could be remedied by cranking up the difficulty, but doing so makes the game tedious rather than challenging. This is mainly due to the way enemies spawn during battle. The tactical battles of Origins were largely dependent on the positioning of your party members as well as the smart rationing of potions and supplies. Here, you simply cannot plan ahead because enemies have a tendency to spawn in waves during the course of battle, sometimes right behind your mages and ranged rogues who you’ve carefully placed out of harm’s way. The waves are quite unpredictable, making it really difficult to decide when you should be using a potion or a life saving healing spell. The removal of the tactical overhead camera angle on the PC version only adds to the frustration.
Your best bet is to play it as a real-time action-RPG on the Normal difficulty, which is probably what Bioware intended this to be in the first place, and playing it that way is certainly more enjoyable. The difference in difficulty between Normal and Hard is like night and day. Your companions are incredibly effective and the ability to assign custom tactics is simply overkill. Add a couple of a mages to the party and they’ll effectively clear low-level mobs even before a sword-and-shield warrior has a chance to get up close. Despite the general lack of the challenge, the combat still manages to feel fresh and exciting throughout the game. Some folks will have a hard time coming to terms with these changes, but they make the game flow better given the amount of fighting you’ll be involved in during the 40-odd hours it takes to get to the ending if you choose to tackle every side-quest.
Yes, Dragon Age 2 is a fairly long game with plenty of side-quests to undertake, but unfortunately, that’s where some of its glaring flaws become obvious. Since the entire game takes place in Kirkwall (and some of its outlying areas), you’ll be visiting the same handful of areas over and over again. This is compounded by the fact that unlike the meticulously designed interiors of Origins, DA2’s interiors are nothing but lazy copy-paste jobs. I’ve seen more variety in cheap indie titles and it’s simply inexcusable. The quests themselves usually don’t venture beyond killing and gathering, with some dialog thrown in. The writing isn’t up to the mark for a game coming from the Bioware stable. Hawke is fully-voiced so the conversations have a certain cinematic feel, but the lazy writing ruins many of the key moments. There are several situations in the game where you are supposed to feel emotion but that simply doesn’t happen because of the way they are presented.
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The new conversation mechanic, however, fares a little better. Once again, it’s very much like the Mass Effect dialog wheel, but the game doesn’t assign any karma rating to the way you behave. This allows you to be flexible enough with the way Hawke responds during certain situations. If you don’t like a certain character or faction, you can be rude or sarcastic with them or be gentle with ones you like or wish to pursue romance with. This means there are no conversation skills or quests that can be solved through dialog. All skill trees are combat-related and skills such as potion-making or rune-making are removed altogether. You can still make potions and runes, but it is done via discovering resource deposits and ordering them via a bizarre medieval e-commerce service right from your safe-house.
The in-game interface has been greatly tweaked and is a considerable improvement over Origins. The skill trees are easier to understand, offering very clear character development paths. You can freely mix and match abilities from different trees or specialize in a single area by upgrading powerful attacks with visible results. The inventory system is also better this time around, but the lack of outfitting companions with armor may bother some people. While the interface feels smoother and more intuitive, the same cannot be said of the visuals, as they remain pretty much the same. Origins looked slightly dated for its time and DA2 doesn’t look any better. Some of the armor and equipment looks nice, but the world is still devoid of color and Kirkwall is as bland as an RPG city gets. At least the world map is well designed and gives quick access to commonly visited locations.
Console impressions (PS3)
By Abhijit Banerjee
I will agree with Utkarsh – this seems to be a game first made for the console and then modified for the PC. Everything just feels right on the console; the graphics look much better than its predecessor, framerates are pretty consistent even with twenty enemies on the screen, and the entire menu has been redone with the controller in mind. Bioware have expertise in perfecting gameplay for both the PC (Baldur’s Gate II, Neverwinter Nights) and consoles (Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic) and they came up with a novel control scheme for Dragon Age: Origins. Both versions of DAO felt right when played, with the PC version edging out the console version.
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Bland design aside, the game runs much better on the PS3 than its predecessor did. It looks sharper and runs very smooth. There are also more spell and skill effects going on during battles. A total of six skills can be mapped to the face buttons, which is sufficient on Normal difficulty. Combat can also be paused by bringing up the action wheel and commands can be given to the player’s party. The battles look and play much better this time around on the console. There’s still no ability to zoom out to a tactical view though; the PC version maintains the edge here.
A welcome addition is the adaptation of Mass Effect-style conversation wheel. Rather than scroll through lines of text, a quick flick of the analog stick can enable you to make your choice. The menus have also been redesigned to make them more console-friendly. The PC version has linear menus, while on the console, there’s a circular layout, which works well. Codex and quest entries are easier to navigate and read, tactics are easy to modify, and the skill tree has got a complete rework. While the entire skill tree can be seen in the PC version, only one tree is highlighted at a time on the console.
The rest of the game plays out the same. Having played both versions, I actually enjoyed playing the PS3 version more because it has managed to take away some of the cribs from its predecessor and actually improved the looks.
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Judged on its own merits, Dragon Age II is a fairly decent RPG that warrants at least a couple of playthroughs, but as a sequel to one of the best RPGs this generation, it is a disappointment on many levels. Though there are a lot of things to like and the combat is surprisingly fun even though it’s on the easier side, it’s obvious flaws, especially given its pedigree, seriously hamper the overall experience. It probably could have fared better as an action-oriented spin-off title than a proper sequel.