Dragon Age 2 (Review)

I was a little slow getting this review out of the gate after two very difficult and work intensive weeks but here it is, my thoughts on Dragon Age 2.

When I first found out that Dragon Age 2 revamped the Dark Spawn to look like bizarre carnival attractions and made the entire game be set in one single city, it’s probably not difficult to understand why I had reservations about the game. After learning that the combat was made to be more action-oriented for console players, I became increasingly apprehensive and, honestly, I didn’t think that I would ever lay down the cash for Dragon Age 2.

But I did.

I don’t know what prompted me to buy Dragon Age 2 despite my fears, but it doesn’t matter any longer. I’ve played Dragon Age 2 extensively and I can safely say that my fears, while originally justified, have been washed away by what has become my favourite Bioware game that I’ve ever played.

I frequently see a lot of people bashing Dragon Age 2 on larger internet forums due to the many changes that Bioware introduced with the sequel to what was undoubtedly 2009’s best RPG by a landslide. Yes it is true that Bioware did cripple or completely remove a few gameplay elements from the first game, but for every disappointing change there is a positive one to counter it. I am hoping that my review will make it clear why Dragon Age 2 is a fantastic game that surpasses the first game, despite having several flaws that it’s predecessor did not have.

The Dark Spawn return, but are no longer the central antagonist.

Dragon Age 2’s story is pretty interesting to say the least. It begins in Ferelden as Hawke and his/her (gender is selectable) family are fleeing from Lothering after the Dark Spawn attack. For those who played the first game but cannot remember Lothering, it was the town where you could recruit Leliana and Sten. Anyway, the group quickly meets a very familiar witch from the first game who rescues Hawke and company from a horde of Dark Spawn. They are then escorted to a port town where they travel to a city called Kirkwall in the Free Marches, a location that is directly north of Ferelden on the continent of Thedas.

Kirkwall is where pretty much the entire game takes place. A few quests will take the player outside of the city, but you never leave Kirkwall for very long. Anyway, once in Kirkwall, the story really kicks off and is basically just Hawke’s life story as he/she rises to fame in Kirkwall while accidentally getting involved in a few major events that occur in the city. It really is a rags to riches sort of story, and it carries a lot of weight as it is a very personal story. Dragon Age Origins was about the entirety of Ferelden suffering from the Blight and the Grey Wardens who are tasked to stop it. Origins had a very standard and fairly cliche fantasy story behind it that could have been ripped straight out of Lord of the Rings. Dragon Age 2 doesn’t focus on being as epic or grandeur and is, as I said, a personal story. It is Hawke’s story.

As a whole, I enjoyed the story in Dragon Age 2 far more than in Origins. Since the story is all about Hawke and his/her life in Kirkwall, you get to know and understand the person you are playing much more than you did in Origins. It helps that Hawke is fully voiced as well, so we no longer control a silent protagonist. These two factors (personal story and voiced hero) enable the story to flow more naturally and feels more engaging as you are pretty much always at the thick of everything that occurs around you.

While Dragon Age 2 certainly has the better story, it is impossible to deny that the cast of characters in the sequel can’t hold a torch to the band of misfits that players acquired in Origins. In Origins we got to laugh at interactions between the cold Morrigan and light hearted Alistair, get a kick out of Shale and Sten who were both unintentionally hilarious characters, and even be entranced by Leliana’s tales and words of wisdom. Dragon Age 2 has absolutely none of this and beyond perhaps two characters, Dragon Age 2’s roster is about as forgettable as Wynne in Origins.

The Qunari have received a very well deserved makeover.

While some of the characters have a lot of personality, there just isn’t enough conversation or interaction with them for any of them to shine much. The only two characters that I felt were very enjoyable were Merrill and Varric. Merrill is an Elven mage that briefly appeared in Origins and Varric is a Dwarf who essentially narrates the story of Dragon Age 2. I find these two enjoyable because Merrill is sort of a clumsy girl who seems to have a lot of self-confidence issues and is never really sure of herself. Merrill frequently apologizes for “babbling” and always seems to look upon a lot of scenarios with a sort of child-like innocence that I found really adorable. Varric is a huge contrast to Merrill. He is a cocky little Dwarf who loves opportunities that could benefit him financially. He’s sort of like the joker of Dragon Age 2 as he utilizes a style of very dry and witty humour that defines his personality greatly. Despite being a little sarcastic most of the time, Varric is exceptionally intelligent and sharp. I find that pairing Merrill with Varric in my party often results in very amusing conversations between the two. It may not compare to Alistair and Morrigan slamming each other with witty insults, but it’s still a blast to see Varric sarcastically poking fun at Merrill’s child-like ignorance of the world around her. He seems to refer to her as “Daisy” just about every time they talk, and she doesn’t even seem to care or notice as she just continues rambling on and misinterpreting situations in cute and funny ways. For sure these two are the best written characters in the game.

Other characters cannot hold a torch to Merrill and Varric. Aveline, a tank character who is essential in your party if you are not a warrior yourself, has a cliche personality that is about as boring as watching paint dry. Anders returns from Dragon Age Awakening, though with a new voice actor and a butchered personality that no longer provokes amused chuckles from me. There are a few other characters to choose from (all optional as far as I am aware), and they too are about as interesting as Wynne from Origins. So, while Dragon Age 2 certainly has a better crafted story, the characters aren’t quite as good as they were in Origins with only Merrill and Varric really standing out.

Animations and spell effects have been improved drastically from Origins.

The gameplay can be a little tedious since the entire game is set in Kirkwall. There sheer amount of quests available to pick up in the city is pretty overwhelming at times and, unfortunately, most of them aren’t very exciting to do. You will find yourself experiencing deja vu very often as you may venture to locations to complete quests in that you had just visited only half an hour ago. The coastal cliffs and mountain outside of Kirkwall are visited very frequently and due to the barren nature of their landscapes, they get boring very fast. Major quests in Kirkwall are a little better however. While most quests aren’t much more than simple “go to X location and kill someone” it is worth noting that a lot of the dialogue that happens during the better quests is pretty enjoyable. There is one storyline fight in particular that I really enjoyed. To prevent there from being any spoilers but to clue in those who have played the game, I am referring to the quest that puts you up against a very certain murderer. While the story quests are very well written and are exceptionally engaging, the optional quests are pretty much just there to inflate your total play time and aren’t particularly entertaining.

Regarding the battle system, it is true that it has become more action-oriented. This doesn’t necessarily mean that battles play out differently than they did in the first game in terms of mechanics, it’s just that the fighting happens at a faster speed than in Origins. Battles that used to take two or three minutes in the previous game may now take only thirty seconds to one minute. The flow is faster and the battle animations are definitely superior, but the actual mechanics are hardly different at all from Origins and players will be clicking their action bar at the bottom almost constantly. Anyone who has bought into the “Dragon Age 2 is dumbed down to appeal to Call of Duty fans” nonsense should relax, because it is not the case. The fighting is the same as it was in Origins, it is just faster. Does that make it better? Well, that’s up to the player to decide. It’s all a matter of personal taste.

I only have one gripe about the combat in Dragon Age 2 and that is the fact that, most of the time, you never know how many enemies you’ll be squaring off against. You may see three or four enemies on your screen before the fight begins, but after engaging them it is not uncommon to have two or three more jump down from above and to be flanked by several more enemies. It is confusing to say the least, especially since the enemies that flank you usually come from wherever you just came from so, logically, that path should have been safe. It is a strange occurrence that can make some fights a little annoying, but it is really only a minor complaint and shouldn’t pose a problem to anyone who knows what they are doing in combat.

The most notable thing that was dumbed down in Dragon Age 2 is the ability to customize and interact with your companions. You can no longer click on them to initiate conversations, as they will just spout one liners like the companions did in Dragon Age Awakening. It is also impossible to change the gear that your companions wear. You can still manually choose their amulets, belts and rings, though it is no longer possible to equip pieces of armor on them. All characters can equip weapons of your choosing (except Varric, who has a storyline weapon) as long as it fits their class. Merrill, a mage, can only use staves while Aveline, a warrior, uses shields and swords. You can “upgrade” companion armor in a way, but it requires choosing various storyline options in the conversation trees. For instance, I noticed that after one of my characters romanced Merrill and convinced her to move into Hawke’s home, she lost her original dull armor and adopted a very fancy looking suit of what looked to be chain mail.

The Deep Roads return, along with the Fade, but both are now fairly enjoyable. (Gasp!)

I should mention the conversation trees after bringing them up in the previous paragraph. Dragon Age 2 adopts a sort of Mass Effect approach to conversations. When engaging an NPC, players will no longer have a few moral choices to choose from like in the original Dragon Age, but will now have a round wheel that has a few choices that represent very certain personalities. There are three standard choices which are compassionate, joking, and aggressive. Sometimes there will be a few other choices, but they don’t pertain to the three personalities mentioned and just serve as a way to get more information out of the NPCs. It’s not a bad system and it works well since you always know what sort of attitude Hawke will take based on what you choose, but the choices are often worded in ways that do not accurately reflect the words that Hawke will use. For instance, a selectable choice may simple say “I am Hawke.” Upon choosing it Hawke will say, “I am the Champion of Kirkwall, haven’t you heard of me?” Notice that Hawke does not say who he/she even is, so there can be a bit of confusion. With the joking/sarcastic options, sometimes Hawke won’t even say anything even remotely similar to the choice you are presented with. It’s a little peculiar and it can be annoying at times since the words on the screen and what Hawke actually says can, in some cases, be completely different.

So what is my verdict? Dragon Age 2 beats the original in storyline and general flow, but Origins has about four enjoyable companion characters to Dragon Age 2’s lowly two. The conversations were better structured in Origins, but Dragon Age 2 is better written and having your character actually speak adds volumes to the game’s presentation that the previous game sorely lacked. So, in conclusion, both games are very fantastic, but the overall presentation of Dragon Age 2 is better. I forgot to mention that Dragon Age 2 has slightly better visuals (keyword is slightly) and much better loading screens, so that also helps to give this sequel a greater presentation than its older sibling.

If you were a fan of the original Dragon Age, I honestly do not see how you could flat out dislike this game. I certainly do recommend it to any fan of Origins. There have been a few changes and Dragon Age 2 does take a few steps in the wrong direction, but considering how little development time Bioware was given by Electronic Arts to pump this game out, it is evident that the development team put a very admirable amount of time and work into Dragon Age 2 and all of their hard work has translated to a very enjoyable game. Even though we still have Skyrim due out in November, I am already close to pinning this game as the RPG to beat for all of 2011. Check it out!

Final Score

9.3/10

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Dragon Age: Origins (Review)

“Bioware delivers another fantastic hit RPG.”

When most people thought about Bioware a year ago, several titles would run through their minds such as Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, or Mass Effect. However, towards the end of 2009, Bioware unleashed another quality title that would soon become a hot property and DLC cash cow. Several months later and that title, Dragon Age: Origins, has become the RPG to own of 2009. But why?

First, there is the setting of Dragon Age: Origins. Set in the nation of Ferelden on the continent of Thedas, Bioware has woven a very intricate and mesmerizing fantasy world from scratch. Many traditional fantasy elements are of course present, such as mountain-dwelling greedy dwarven folk, fearsome dragons, and the antagonizing evil force capable of crushing any army that stands against it.

This antagonizing force is known as the Darkspawn, a faction of repulsive creatures that live underground in the Deep Roads. Every couple hundred years, a Darkspawn leader known as the Archdemon leads the creatures to the surface world where they immediately wage war on, well, everything. This is called a Blight which can only be stopped by an ancient organization known as the Gray Wardens, and it is the prime focus of the entire game as you take on the role of rookie Warden. Setting out for dozens of hours with the intention of just stopping this one inevitable invasion never gets boring either, as Bioware seemed to be slightly inspired by the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the way that the Darkspawn attack and conquer, how they sound, and even how they look. Indeed, the Uruk-Hai appear to be the prime influence of the Darkspawn design.

While setting out to defeat the Darkspawn threat, you will of course meet many interesting characters along the way, some who will join you and some whom will fight against you. Each character you meet has their own distinctive and impressively developed personality. The quality of the writing for party members and major plot characters is very staggering, easily standing up to the scripts of professional films despite a few cheesy moments. Further enhancing the believability of the characters are the moral choices you are consistently presented with. Characters will react according to your choices, which ranges from gaining favour with them, turning your friends against you, or even unlocking class specializations. As well, you will frequently be able to kill minor plot characters if you make incorrect or immoral decisions. You have the opportunity to kill more important characters, but this is much more uncommon.

By gaining favour with party members, you will increase their approval rating towards you which grants them bonuses in battle, which I will now discuss. Anyone who has played Knights of the Old Republic, Final Fantasy XII, or surprisingly World of Warcraft or other major MMORPGs will quickly understand how the combat system in this game works. Your character and party members will have action bars in which you can drag and drop items or powers and skills that you learn through gaining levels. The three classes all have standard skills, such as warriors having tanking related abilities and stances, rogues receiving archery and stealth related techniques, and mages being given a wealth of magic abilities. Upon using an ability in your action bar, a cooldown will be initiated for that ability and you will have to wait a few moments to use it again.

Micromanaging four party members may sound daunting at first, but like the first two games I used as examples in the previous paragraph, you can set up tactics for each party member. Tactics essentially tell the AI who, what, where, when, why, and how. Tactics decide what your computer controlled allies will do in combat. Spend time setting each members’ tactics up appropriately and you will find combat to be a breeze. However, if you neglect to give your characters the proper tactics, you will find the AI struggling to overcome the Darkspawn and other baddies that you will encounter. Of course, you can always pause the game by pressing the space bar and switching to another character to manually issue orders. By utilizing tactics and the pause function, players should feel very in control of the entire party and will not take long to adjust.

Naturally, killing enemies will reward you with experience points, and their fallen bodies can be looted. Upon receiving a set number of experience points, you will of course level up. When this happens, you are allowed to manually distribute stat points and learn new abilities in the skill trees. Dragon Age allows you to be quite diverse with how you develop your characters, and at specific levels you can unlock sub-classes called specializations. These will enable mages to become armed fighters or for rogues to become rangers who can summon animal friends. By giving a mage the arcane warrior and spirit healer specializations, this practically creates a new class resembling a paladin as the mage can benefit from heavy armor and melee weapons, and can also unleash very powerful healing spells. Warriors and rogues can be transformed similarly, and it is an absolute joy to be able to branch out from your starting class in such a way.

Exploration is similar to the two games I mentioned previously, Knights of the Old Republic and Final Fantasy XI. You are given a static world map (which is literally just that, a map) with locations that you can hover over and click on to travel to. A cloudy black line will signify the route that your group is taking on the map, and as this black line moves over the map, you may or may not run into random encounters. These can range from battles to storyline sequences or even to, well, just random encounters with people. One random encounter I had once was a group of hopeless villagers who were trying to pull a sword out of a stone. While the world map is very linear, the ingame environments are usually fairly sprawling and loaded with quests to take on, people to talk to, or monsters to kill.

A very impressive aspect of Dragon Age is the audio department. Music is very well done and sounds like it was inspired by Lord of the Rings. A battle with the Darkspawn will reveal exactly why, as the music sounds like any ominous track played during the Isengard scenes. Throughout the entire game, music shines brilliantly. Sound effects range from decent to good, never seeming to dip above or below the mark. However, voice acting completely steals the show and is one of the absolutely highlights of Dragon Age. Bioware recruited some very fine talent for this game such as Claudia Black, Steve Blum, Kate Mulgrew, Tim Curry, Tim Russ, Steve Valentine and many more. It is the most complete cast of voice actors that I have ever heard in an RPG and I am supremely impressed by the performances given by the cast. Claudia Black, who does the voice of Morrigan, brings her character to life in a way that I cannot possibly describe. Steve Valentine accomplishes the same feat with Alistair. Star Trek Voyager alumni Kate Mulgrew and Tim Russ also do very well in their respective roles.

I regret leaving the graphics until just now, but they truly are quite nice. Some locations such as Redcliffe or Orzimmar look fabulous, though there are a few areas of the game which the visuals clearly take a back seat. Most environments do tend to be fairly pretty to look at, and I seldom found myself being unimpressed by a locale. Character and creature models are much better though, as I can only recall one model which I found to be even remotely subpar, and that would be the model used for the annoyingly persistent deep stalkers. The main cast and major plot characters all look very well done. Morrigan in particular has a very alluring and well designed appearance, and Denerim’s grizzled war veteran Loghain is modelled very well also.

Dragon Age: Origins offers plenty of replayability as there are literally dozens of ways that you can play through the game considering most situations you wind up in will present you with three or four moral decisions. In one run through the game you may play as a lawful person who always does the right thing, while in your next trip through you can choose to make choices which make you appear, perhaps, as the most evil entity in the entire game. Multiple playthroughs will also enable you to unlock more class specializations, so there is that to work towards as well.

Overall, Dragon Age: Origins fully deserves every bit of the reputation it acquired since the end of 2009, and it deserves any further reputation it will gain in 2010. This is a very complete and high quality game that every RPG fan should own, as it will provide hours of entertainment.

Final Score

9.3/10