March 08, 2011
Let it never be said that BioWare doesn't know how to craft an epic. The developer has taken the science-fiction RPG into the stratosphere with Mass Effect and given The Lord of the Rings a good run for its money in the fantasy stakes with Dragon Age: Origins. While purists will argue that Mass Effect and Dragon Age aren't strictly pure RPG experiences, there's no denying that each game is an action/role-playing hybrid that invariably exudes quality.
Now it's sequel time for BioWare's fantasy universe and if the previous game felt like a conversion of what was essentially a PC title, Dragon Age II feels very much at home on the console. Dragon Age II is a leaner, meaner version of the first game with a greater emphasis on immediate action, so chief among the changes you'll find in the game is a completely overhauled combat system. Pressing a button means something awesome happens, was BioWare's mantra during the development cycle of Dragon Age II, and it shows, as each jab of a face button brings about some sort of spectacular pyrotechnic display or gore-laden shower of blood and viscera.
If there is dice rolling going on, it's exceedingly well-disguised, making Dragon Age II closer to an action game than its predecessor. It's comparable to the changes made between the first Mass Effect and its sequel, which might set some eyes rolling, but in all seriousness, Dragon Age II benefits immensely from the increased fluidity and immediacy the revamped combat brings. And while Mass Effect 2 was nudged closer to shooter territory, Dragon Age II is arguably edging towards the realms of hack and slasher, but without the button-mashing connotations that genre tag implies. It's a perfect middle-ground between action and RPG.
Obvious combat improvements are only the tip of the iceberg however, as the game's protagonist Hawke is a cut above the almost entirely mute hero from Dragon Age: Origins, with not only a voice, but also a fine line in reasoned, sarcastic and aggressive dialogue responses that reflect the personality of the character. There are less options in creating your own version of Hawke, as you can't choose what race he or she is, and the only variations in the game's prologue are dictated by which class you opt for. Mage, Warrior and Rogue is the set up once again and each has its own distinct set of abilities and upgrade trees, as you'd expect.
Speaking of which, levelling up is a slightly different process this time around, presenting you with the usual attributes like strength, dexterity, willpower, cunning, magic and constitution. In that respect, Dragon Age II is the same, although you have a better idea of how your character is developing, as each is now assigned a more specific value, like a measure of fortitude for strength and a percentage chance of inflicting critical damage attached to your dexterity, for instance. Once you've spent points on these aspects of your character, there's the new branching skills, which fall under several categories unique to your hero.
So, as a Mage for example, you might choose to solely focus on upgrading the elemental skill tree, acquiring devastating ice and fire attacks along the way. Or you might prefer to make your Mage an expert in the arcane arts, with abilities like the telekinetic mind blast or protective barriers. A Rogue meanwhile, can go for subterfuge, sabotage or specialist paths, while a Warrior has warmonger, battlemaster, vanguard or defender options at his or her disposal, among others. Alternatively, you can mix and match between an array of abilities, and as you level up, your hero will become increasingly adept in a whole range of skills.
A compelling story is another lynchpin for a BioWare title and in this department Dragon Age II doesn't disappoint. Telling the tale of how Hawke became the Champion of Kirkwall, through the eyes of Varric, the smooth-talking dwarf, DAII's narrative will take you deep into the Free Marches, where labyrinthine caves and mountain passes are waiting to make your acquaintance. Some locations – especially the caves – do start to get a bit samey after a while, but this is a small gripe considering the scale on display elsewhere. Visually, everything has been given a significant overhaul, so every environment is drenched in rich, intricate detail and almost every one of the game's assets, including character models has been redesigned. You're still fighting the darkspawn in DAII (among other things), but not quite as you know them.
Interactions have also changed, going the Mass Effect route with a dialogue wheel, where your responses to dialogue have consequences, although they seldom feel quite as far-reaching as some of the decisions you had to make in Origins, you can resolve conflicts peacefully or with violence as you see fit. Facial animations and lip syncing has also been improved, as has the voice-acting which now has a broader range of regional British dialects, which are little things that all add to the overall experience. In short, Dragon Age II is the most immersive RPG we've played since Origins, and given the fact that the hero now has a voice and distinct personality (like Shepard), you can chalk up an extra plus point for the sequel.
Then add yet another plus point for the user interface, which has received a nice lick of paint across the board, as well as a new analogue stick-based pause menu, which allows quick access to the map, inventory, journal and other options. It's far less clunky than Origins' fiddly inventory. Still, the in-game radial menu remains unchanged, save for a few new icons that are easier to read. The world map also acts more as a hub now too, enabling quick and easy fast travel between objectives, which are listed for you, so you can always easily decide where you need to go next without faffing about.
As achievement lists go, Dragon Age II's is far more accessible than Origin's complicated one that required either multiple playthroughs or strategic save games. Achievements are now far more straightforward, although some may still require a multiple playthrough for those yet to complete the first game. Essentially, Dragon Age II's achievement list is more like Mass Effect 2's, and better for it. You're also encouraged to explore outside the narrative and play around with various mechanics too, which is always good to see in any list of cheevos.
Dragon Age II is a remarkable game and testament to what BioWare can really do with an RPG franchise. Dragon Age: Origins was a fantastic game, but Dragon Age II adds shiny bells and whistles to the formula, making it feel more at home on the console, while ramping up the visual fidelity and boosting the satisfaction factor of cleaving an enemy into bloody chunks. There are minor quibbles, like skittish interaction with objects in the game world, some sluggish loading times and occasional empty dead ends that seem pointless, but Dragon Age II will delight fans with nods to the first game such as drunks in a tavern chatting about the 'hero of Ferelden' or the odd returning character, while simultaneously wowing newcomers to the series, with its accessible yet deeply rewarding gameplay.
Inon Zur's orchestral score is still utterly masterful and reacts appropriately to the action unfolding on-screen. The voice acting is uniformly excellent too, as are the sound effects and audio design in general. Voices actually echo in caves now, which they didn't seem to in Origins.
From a visual standpoint, it's virtually impossible to pick out a single flaw with Dragon Age II's visuals. BioWare has implemented strong iconography that really makes the game stand out, while crafting characters and locations that will live on in the memory long after the final credits have rolled.
As far as controls and gameplay are concerned, Dragon Age II is a neat evolution of Origins' core mechanics. Combat in particular is far more satisfying for the action game junkie, while the depth for the RPG purists is still available in the tactical aspects of the game.
Dragon Age II is a huge game that will take tens of hours to finish, and if you're the kind of gamer that likes to explore, you can add a few more hours on top of that. The whole product is also slickly presented and marred only by some slightly slow loading times, which are easily forgiveable when taking the game's immense scale into account.
This is an achievement list that takes a leaf out of Mass Effect 2's book in as much as it's a lot more straightforward, less convoluted, but still solid. There's enough on offer here to make you want to pursue the full 1000 Gamerscore, presenting enough of a challenge, without resorting to hair-tearingly tough objectives. A nice list, all in all.
Dragon Age II manages to be the same great epic as its forebear in terms of sheer scale and ambition, while packing in superior visuals, improved gameplay and a stronger grasp on its own unique identity. Giving the hero a voice helps, as does the consistently engaging story, which draws you in from the off and doesn't let go. Dragon Age II is a rich and lustrous fantasy RPG that shouldn't be missed by anyone with a pulse.