Dragon Age 2 – Staff Review

As if following up on Mass Effect wasn’t enough, BioWare had a major challenge in the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins. Despite its flaws, Origins boasted a malleable plot and fantastic characters, and much the same can be said of Dragon Age 2. Discarding the procedural fantasy epic for a more personal story, DA2 speeds up the action even as it paces itself on the narrative. It’s not always a healthy mix, as questionable choices intrude on and sometimes undermine serious developments, but the game easily succeeds in making this new direction fun and engaging. Whether its surpasses its predecessor, however, is far less cut-and-dry.

In the wake of Origins‘ blight, Hawke (that’s you) and family make a desperate flight from Ferelden, seeking safety in the city of Kirkwall. From the start it’s known that you move up in the world, rising above the other refugees to eventually become the city’s champion. Telling the tale is Varric, a dwarven companion of Hawke who’s accosted in the intro and not-so-politely asked to separate fact from fiction. A somewhat unreliable narrator, Varric serves as the framing device while the game takes us through a three-act decade in Hawke’s life: earning a living, settling family matters, wading through political crises, and everything in between. Jumps in time aren’t always convincingly portrayed – nitpickers might wonder why Kirkwall doesn’t change much and nobody seems to age – but overall the setting does a fine job telling multiple stories in parallel and developing them alongside Hawke over time.

While the engine from Origins has been updated, more or less the same interface and controls are at work here. Movement, inventory management, menu and ability hotkeys; it’s all pretty much where you remember it, and it still plays more or less like Origins. The camera no longer pans back to a top-down view, a regrettable loss but not by itself a deal breaker. You’ll periodically receive mail at your home, which ranges from quest offers to correspondence and the occasional Nigerian Antivan banker. Runes, potions, and the like are now commissioned there as well, with more available as you discover new recipes and resource deposits. Resources aren’t used up in the order, though you can’t craft in the field. Sadly, you also can’t manage your entire group’s inventory from home, so swapping everybody’s weapons and accessories is more time consuming. Furthermore, companions’ armor can’t be changed, so you’ll wind up with a ton of gear you simply can’t use.

News of the hour: Man in the back says 'everyone attack!'  Intervention by Hawke not anticipated, plan backfires!
News of the hour: Man in the back says “everyone attack!” Intervention by Hawke not anticipated, plan backfires!

Fortunately, combat runs far more quickly. Characters often make dramatic, lightning-quick leaps into melee range, though you’ll sometimes see fancy footwork to get at a target two feet away. Battle isn’t that far removed from Origins, but the faster speed helps bring out the flavor. Time-honored tactics of tanking, kiting, and crowd control are more viable here, and it’s easier to reposition in a hurry. You can still pause and issue individual commands, but your party’s AI tactics are usually sufficient on normal difficulty. Still, the game’s wave system gets old. You’ll often kill ten bandits only for another dozen or so to drop in out of nowhere, then another dozen behind them, and fifty feet later the process repeats itself. Battles are certainly flashy and fun, especially with bosses and other large critters, but eventually dealing with crowds of things just feels like busywork. It doesn’t help that bystanders basically ignore raging street fights, as if they happen regularly.

Character building is fundamentally unchanged, from base statistics to class-specific skilltrees. Apart from skill adjustments to facilitate the faster combat, most skills are now also upgradeable and combo attack requirements are clearly explained. Mages aren’t quite so game-breaking this time and classes show better balance overall, though some talents are certainly more useful than others. Still, there’s merit to building Hawke to your playstyle regardless of class, and there’s nothing stopping you from mixing and matching. Duelist rogues, for instance, can reliably serve as backup tanks, while assassins excel at chasing down soft targets or crippling bosses. Thus, a blend of both gives you an important role in pretty much every fight. Likewise for warriors, whose options range from straight tanking to crowd control to good old-fashioned damage dealing. Friendly fire is deactivated on the normal difficulty, giving mages free reign to launch fireballs and cause all manner of area-of-effect chaos.

Other tweaks show up here and there, starting with the Codex which replaces the numbered system of Origins with more obvious topic listings. Your world map now updates with quest markers, showing you at a glance which regions are important at the moment. The Mass Effect style dialogue wheel works well enough, though the attached icons do make conversation a bit too simple. In a slight step backward, you can no longer jump straight to said map from anywhere in the city, and parties can only be reformed when leaving your house or at select markers elsewhere. Speaking with them when prompted, such as for gift-giving or sidequest purposes, often involves paying their home a visit even if they’re in the party. Though this adds to the clock, it also helps personalize them in their off-duty time. As you build relationships, you’ll see them show up in each others’ cutscenes, further reinforcing the idea that these people have lives apart from you. You can even use them in dialogue, such as Varric bluffing the party out of a fight or Aveline using her authority as a city guard to speed things up.

BioWare continues to demonstrate their talent for nonverbal cues, with improved animation and facial expressions across the board. The redesigned Qunari in particular are impressive in action. Their leader, the Arishok, conveys a slow, calm sense of power and authority that makes a later outburst of rage genuinely startling. Environments show greater attention to detail, and Kirkwall’s districts are bigger and more lively than any part of Denerim from Origins. However, this is partly offset by glaring reuse of quest areas. Backtracking is inevitable given the scope and timeframe, but there is basically one type of cave, warehouse, sewer, woodland area, and so on. Dungeons are short, but you’ll revisit them often enough to notice, and enemy waves push things worryingly close to Groundhog Day levels of repetition. Blood splatter is back, and it rather disgustingly gets on peoples’ teeth this time; a minor issue, but again, it’ll come up too often to not stick out.

All right team, I say with no sarcasm whatsoever that letting this guy finish what he's doing will not endanger us in any way.
All right team, I say with no sarcasm whatsoever that letting this guy finish what he’s doing will not endanger us in any way.

Audio saves the day, as DA2‘s characters make the most of BioWare’s compelling script. Hawke does a capable job with the range provided by the dialogue wheel, though both genders have occasional problems emoting or wind up pitching “nice” and “hostile” in basically the same tone. However, the voices are quite well suited for most of the sarcastic and joking responses, which are generally amusing and worth picking more often than not. Your party gets a lot of air time too, and their exchanges with each other are some of the game’s high points. It’s not quite the Who’s Who of voice actors that Origins was, but the cast give great performances nonetheless. The soundtrack is certainly nothing to complain about and has no trouble bringing the epic fantasy noise when things get dramatic, though it doesn’t stand out as well as the acting.

BioWare is well known for creating memorable characters, and DA2 is no exception. Development is a slow boil, so few stand out as quickly as the Origins and Awakening crew. Nonetheless, your party is more nuanced than their appearances may suggest, and the revised friendship/rivalry system grants some leeway in how they develop. The flamboyant Isabela makes an introduction as a fiercely independent pirate captain who couldn’t so much as spell loyalty, yet there are moments where it’s clear her conscience nags at her and you have opportunities to cultivate this in one way or another. Varric’s arsenal of quips keeps him from cracking under dire circumstances, which makes his rare moments of honest gratitude or hostility all the more meaningful. The emphasis on personal development gives real weight to your relationship with each character, and party banter is consistently entertaining.

Likewise, the plot has moments of brilliance but takes time to mature, with various strands of conflict weaving in and out of Hawke’s life. Tensions build gradually as mages chafe under increased templar restrictions, and everybody is on edge over an enclave of stranded Qunari. There are certainly villains to thwart and giant monsters to slay, but the resulting chaos has many hands behind it, all convinced of their righteousness. Hawke’s family is also rather troubled, starting with a jealous deadbeat of an uncle who gambled away the family estate. Interesting subplots start early and resurface later, from people bent on causing a political bloodbath to a good old-fashioned serial killer. The lack of a truly central plot is bound to annoy some, and what’s there doesn’t escape the middle installment trap of ending on a big “to be continued.” Still, it’s downright fascinating how everything comes together and lays the groundwork for the finale, and there are some big decisions to make along the way.

It’s only fair to point out the presentation has some major blemishes. While DA2 should be commended for putting a novel twist on the usual RPG story, the harder it tries to focus on social and political tensions, the more it stands out when the game turns gamey. Templar restrictions start to look reasonable given how often blood magic leads to hilariously awful consequences, and a rare concrete example of templar abuse is a brief but cringeworthy invocation of Godwin’s Law. Mage Hawke experiences basically none of the social stigma or threat of demonic possession that other mages do. A single pride demon was the focus of an entire dungeon in Origins, but here they just show up whenever you need a big ugly thing to beat down. And for a series that so often explores shades of grey, DA2 seems less interested in actually debating points of view than forcing you to pick one or the other, even if both options are abhorrent extremes in opposite directions. The ramifications of the game’s climax are huge, and yet Hawke has basically no input into it.

Relax, I heard of a giant ranger who did this once.  He listens to a hamster and I wasn't even in that game, but how hard could it be?
Relax, I heard of a giant ranger who did this once. He listens to a hamster and I wasn’t even in that game, but how hard could it be?

Other irritants abound. You automatically know who fetch quest items belong to, and some of it stretches the bounds of credulity. Returning human remains to the Chantry is weird enough, moreso when the response is a nonchalant “Thank you, I didn’t think I’d find this again.” Fans will latch onto their favorite romances – Isabela’s was surprisingly good – and they’ve mercifully done away with awkward airquotes scenes in favor of more tasteful cutaways. Due to the scale of the story, much of the world outside of Kirkwall is short-changed; non-humans apart from the Qunari contribute little apart from party members or shop vendors. Awakening veterans could be forgiven for wondering if Anders in DA2 had been plucked from the Bizarro World, replacing the easygoing, cat-loving apostate with an angry, impulsive, and highly antisocial renegade. Although you do see choices play out intelligently, many are mere illusions and lead to the same conclusion: more fighting. This is most noticeable late in the game, where for very contrived reasons you’ll fight the exact same sequence of bosses no matter who you side with.

And yet, like Origins before it, focusing on DA2‘s negatives is selling the game short. Character interaction is still strong, and some of the game’s best moments involve anything but shaking the foundations of Kirkwall. The escaped slave Fenris is fixated on evading and eventually killing his captors, so much that thoughts of actually enjoying his freedom make him wonder if he even knows how. Quiet conversations about your family’s history have almost as much weight as confronting the city’s key players. Helping a friend’s disastrous attempts to court a coworker is simply a riot. DA2 is not shy about dealing in epic confrontations and long story arcs, with the aforementioned Qunari presenting one of the more interesting plots. But the arcs are given meaning largely because of the people involved, and the game does an excellent job with the small things even as it builds to something much bigger.

DA2‘s epilogue, singular, is a far cry from modular vignettes that showed a world bending to your decisions. Changes are subtle at best, and it mostly sets the stage for the next game. Reports of bugs abound, though they were mercifully few in this playthrough and largely limited to occasional crashes. Import bonuses from Origins have minor effects here and there, but like in Mass Effect 2 the differences aren’t game changers. That said, the game as a whole is most definitely geared for more than one go-round, as people react and change based on the various things you do and say. Your partners pick up details that go unnoticed in other games, like if you sell an object of sentimental value or suddenly change your tone from snarky to nice. Throw in the many ways you can change scenes and develop Hawke, and the game promises entertainment well beyond the 30-40 hours a first playthrough can take. It helps that the game’s normal difficulty is far more reasonable this time, though spawning waves can still throw you for a loop.

It’s difficult to go into Dragon Age 2 without any preconceptions. Those looking for evidence of dreaded streamlining and simplification will find it. Anyone looking for a fresh experience with great characters and faster gameplay will find that, too. It’s those looking for a true sequel that aren’t likely to succeed, as the game feels closer to a side story than a full entry in the series. It’s too unfocused and narrow to up the ante from its predecessor, despite the length of time and the events it leads to. Within the framework, however, Dragon Age 2 delivers a compelling, engaging journey in a detailed world. It’s a smaller game, telling smaller yet important stories with the world of Dragon Age as the backdrop. It’s a game of characters and moments, of finding time to make friends and influence people amidst the big, world-changing events right outside. That is, if you’re not averse to killing a hundred people just to get to the store.

Hey, they probably had it coming. If you’re in for Dragon Age‘s long haul, then you know what to do.

This game was played to completion with a digital download copy purchased through Steam.

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