In 2009, Bioware released Dragon Age: Origins, a spiritual successor to the superb Balder's Gate II, to universal acclaim and a multitude of awards. The game allowed the player to take one of six different characters, each with a unique backstory, and shape their adventure as they became a Grey Warden and saved Ferelden.
BioWare games, especially in recent years, have been known for their sprawling stories, involving a great deal of characters and locales. KOTOR, Mass Effect, and the first Dragon Age all featured a major threat to civilization, which the player was forced to overcome. They are all, to sum it up in one word, epic.
Dragon Age II is different. The player controls Hawke, a refugee from the town of Lothering, which was visited briefly in Origins, before being ravaged by the Blight. Hawke, his mother, and siblings escape to Kirkwall, a massive city across the sea from Ferelden. Instead of leading a massive quest to save the world, the player is given a much more focused story based around Hawke's rise from derelict to the "Champion of Kirkwall".
The story is actually being told by Varric, a clean-shaven dwarf who is captured by the Chantry, the Dragon Age equivalent of the Catholic Church. There, a Seeker named Cassandra questions the dwarf (who is a companion in the game) about the Champion's whereabouts. Varric narrates the Champion's rise as you shape the narrative. This leads to some interesting and often humorous moments as Varric embellishes the story, only to be caught by Cassandra.
Ladies, meet Varric.
The shift in focus for Dragon Age II will surprise many, and undoubtably upset some, but the truth is it works. Taking place over ten years divided into several acts, the story is more about political intrigue than saving the world. The Circle of Magi are being oppressed by the Templars, who work with the Chantry to control magic, and Hawke is caught in the middle. Themes of freedom, fascism, and whether or not the ends justify the means all unite to make a powerful narrative.
In addition to the main plot, there are many sub-plots, each connecting over time to the overall story. There is even a sub-story during the first couple of acts involving the Qunari, a race of humanoid giants with a society based around war-think Krogan in Mass Effect. Their plight plays a vital role in Hawke's growth and features some of the best dialogue in the game.
Dragon Age II may not have the 'oomph' of a multi-race struggle to save the planet from annihilation, but it succeeds in delivering a more personal tale, which demands the player to question what is right and wrong more than most BioWare titles do. It's amazing how the game world shifts and changes to reflect choices Hawke made in previous years. And if any of you are worried that a story about politics isn't exciting enough, I assure you, there are several moments that made my jaw drop in exclamation..
Of course, as in every BioWare story, the characters are half of it. Varric is one of Dragon Age II's best, his saracastic humor cutting into every line he delivers. Merrill, a Dalish elf, is incredibly naive but adorable for it, and also a tragic figure in the story. Anders, who players first met in Awakening, is a conflicted healer determined to escape the Circle of Magi.
Each party member brings something special to the table, except for Carver, your brother. It's unfortunate that, depending on the class you select, you either have Carver or your sister Bethany to aid you, because while she presents an engaging story and dialogue, Carver is an absolute bore.
Natalie Portman is a mage?
The previous Dragon Age was an action RPG that really forced players to take things slow. A strategic, isometric view (PC only) allowed players to map out each command, which was necessary for many of the game's tougher fights. Dragon Age II has been tweaked to emphasize the action more than strategy, and whether or not that fits your preference, BioWare does so amazingly well. The game is easier than the last, though Nightmare difficulty still offers a robust challenge for the experts.
Classes are the same – Warrior, Rogue, and Mage – but have been refined to be more diverse. The Warrior, which was previously restrained to a more a tank-ish role in Origins, has been expanded upon so that players can now dole out extreme damage rather than just taking it. Rogues can be outfitted as either a sniper-like archer or a shifty in-your-face assassin. If the latter is taken, there are additional ways to upgrade for a potential of three to four radically different play styles.
The talent tree has been adjusted, so no more wading through useless techniques to get to the powerful abilities. A circular tree replaces the old system, so if there is a skill you don't care for, just spec around it. In addition, some abilities now have augments, so when you level up, you may choose between acquiring a new power or making an existing one more potent.
Talents from Dragon Age: Origins have been removed, though they now tie to your attributes, so lockpicking improves incrementally with every ten levels of cunning, and so on. The entire system makes more sense and allows greater control over character customization.
Combat is now more fluid, and more interactive than Origins. Rogues leap vast distances to attack a target, and backstabbing is now automatic, teleporting you behind your target rather than forcing you to bait the trap. Mages dole immense damage, powers use up less mana, and casts recharge more quickly. Warriors move quickly around the battlefield, and a greater variety or abilities per play style (two-handed vs. sword/shield) mean hacking and slashing has never been more fun.
As you rain down pain on your enemies, they reciprocate with showers of crimson.
Building your character works similar to Dragon Age: Origins, although with party members, the system is more similar to Mass Effect 2. In Origins, players found weapons and armor in their travels and equipped them to their person or their party embers, so long as they met the criteria. In Dragon Age II, players can buy fresh weapons for companions. However, rather than gving them new leggings and chest pieces, players can buy/find upgrades specific to each character. These can only be found at specific points, so keep your eyes open.
Some will of course argue that the game has been over-simplified, or "'watered down," but I disagree. Like the story, it's not worse than other BioWare games, it's different.
Speaking to the design, and true to BioWare form, each location contrasts wonderfully with the next. Kirkwall is a grand city. In original Dragon Age, players spent a fair amount of time in Denerim, the capital of Ferelden. Kirkwall is more than twice as large with multiple sectors, including the haughty Hightown, where the rich go to ignore the poor, and the slums of downtrodden Darktown. Outside the city walls, the Free Marches house the Dalish camp on a mountain, as well as a large salt mine. The coast, pockmarked with caves and ruins, rounds out the area.
Kirkwall, also known as the "City of Chains", is an exciting beast to say the least. Although you spend the majority of the game here and in the Free Marches, the urban stonework remains fresh. As time progresses, the metropolis shapes itself around the events occuring in the story, giving said events an extra sense of weight.
Kirkwall's architecture towers over its denizens.
One thing I was really happy to see was the characters interacting with each other. In the Mass Effect games, and Dragon Age: Origins for that matter, teammates would chatter when you bring them on missions. They do here as well, and their banter can be downright hilarious. However, now, when going to speak to one of the characters (they each have their own hideout within the city), you may actually catch them having a conversation with another companion. It adds another layer of authenticity to the world.
Quests, a major part of any RPG, are diverse and satisfying. Most will involve a combination of diplomacy, combat, and investigation to solve, often with some exploration thrown in. Some inquiries even send you venturing through various regions at night. Similar to Mass Effect 2, if you talk to your companions enough and build their trust, they will unlock special quests unique to them alone.
Dialogue has been completely overhauled, too, in favor of a simplified Mass Effect conversation wheel. Hawke (who is now fully voiced) can choose to respond with tact, sarcasm, or honesty (or compassion in some situations). There is no Paragon/Renegade scale to reflect your decision; however, following a consitent dialogue path will reflect in later conversations, as even choosing a kind response with a generally sarcastic Hawke will elicit a partially sassy rebuttal.
Relationships no longer vary on a scale of friend/foe, but now friend/rival. Through idle banter, or based on your actions during quests, your teammates will waver between being your friend, or your rival, and there are different advantages to each. Friends will make the party a little stronger, whereas rivals will make themselves a lot stronger. Built upon this is a more open relationship system, so now you may sleep with whomever you want, male or female. You can found a relationship with someone regardless of their disposition provided you put in the necessary effort.
One grievance that and needs be mentioned are the repetitive dungeons. Actually, repetitive is the wrong word. BioWare literally constructed four dungeons, and then copy-pasted them into different areas, opening or closing branching passages to give the illusion of being diverse. With all the detail that goes into their games, it is surprising, and regrettable, that this is where BioWare chooses to cut corners, considering the enormous amount of time spent within these zones.
At least enemies show some hint of diversity.
Visually, Dragon Age II is far ahead of it's predecessor and on par with the likes of Mass Effect 2. Character models are gorgeous, and move/emote realistically. No uncanny valley here; everything is fluid. Different races are distinguished and well-designed, particularly the Qunari. Interestingly enough, I don't think the developers at BioWare have ever seen a woman with anything less than C-cup breasts or without a perfect hourglass figure.
Kirkwall can be beautiful, plain, or repugnant depending on whether you're in The Gallows or Darktown. Regardless, BioWare captures it well. Textures are crisp, especially in the Free Marshes, and the red, black, and brown hues have been put to good use. Characters move gracefully around the screen as blood coats their clothing and the ground alike.
There are some issues however, and the visual package is far from perfect. Occasional bugs and glitches, slowdown, and stuttering hold back an otherwise impressive presenatation.
The sound, in typical BioWare fashion, is top of the line. The superb voice acting establishes believable personas, special effects rend enemies in clear detail, and the score complements the ambient mood perfectly. It's not as grandiose as Mass Effect but fits the art style like a glove.
BioWare has taken some risks with their changes to the Dragon Age formula, and while they may turn some players off, they are implemented beautifully. The game feels less like a sequel and more like a reboot, though that's not much to complain about. Some curious (and downright lazy) design choices aside, this is an incredible package. I don't know how they do it, but BioWare continues to impress with every new release. And in this reviewer's opinion, this is one of their best.
Release Date: March 8, 2011
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC