Dragon Age II’s biggest problem is putting the II at the end of its name.
Origins took a better part of a decade to develop. The writers at Bioware created an original fantasy world in the grimdark mold, highlighted by morally grey characters, where fascism, rascism and fatalism ran rampant, then build a traditional role-playing game around it. Despite its flaws, and I can nitpick a few of them, it was a polished, expansive fantasy adventure that harkened back to the days where RPGs sent you to four corners of their world, righting wrongs, fighting foozles and looting everything in between. The grimdark tone lent an aura of originality providing instances of morally ambiguous quest decision, companions with a certain amount of depth and an overall epic RPG that’s missing in games for some time.
Two years later, they released Dragon Age II.
Dragon Age II doesn’t exactly pick off where Origins, (and it’s DLCs) left off. Instead, it eschews almost everything that Origins was, and builds a wholly new idea from the bits and pieces of backstory. It’s almost a different game. Two years probably isn’t enough after all, to deliver another expansive epic adventure like Origins, so the II more wisely focuses its intent on story and combat. Specifically, the story of a champion’s rise to prominence in a single city. It’s a premise that’s laudable, with a plot format that takes advantage of act structures, and the RPG’s need to send its characters on wild side-quest along the path of the main plot. For the most part, Dragon Age II is an enjoyable experience, with hints of a good story buried underneath and enough entertaining characters to keep you enthralled for it’s 40-hour adventure. But boy, is it rushed.
So much of the game needs polished. Hard battles with difficulty spikes that impale your poorly prepared ass all over the map. A User Interface that buries all the interesting bits of story and function behind minimalist negative space and odd font choices. Exploding blood bags that are greater in volume that the enemies that should have contained them and those repeating dungeons. Man, those repeating dungeons are a sure sign that this is a rush job. Level design has never been Bioware’s strong suit, but never has it been so egregious that they spent far too little time in thinking about what the game should look like in terms of location. Masters of story they may be in background, companions and plot, but Bioware has yet to grasp the idea that you can tell a story through architecture.
Then there’s ACT III, where the games themes are supposed to come together in their climatic showdown. Where all the fear, and conflict that has festered for so long has to erupt in spectacular fashion, and the drama resonates within the story. Instead, it plays out too quickly, undone by characters reciting extremist propaganda without the option to argue another way. Story beats are rushed through with efficiency, but less so the tension that needed one final push, one final reminder before bringing the entire world of Hawke crashing down on her. Dragon Age II’s ending wants to be a tragedy, and they got all the depressing parts right, as well as the commentary on modern politics, but they forgot that tragedy has to be rooted in the desire for something greater, something nobler and falling far short of that ideal. Instead, we get extremists arguing with one another and no way to shut them all up. Where the game was kinda of good in disguising its railroading of plot in the two prior acts, ACT III simply gives up and sends Hawke down an inevitable path of destruction, whether you like or not. Bioware doesn’t even give you the satisfaction of a denouement, a proper farewell and closure to the events of ACT III. They rather set the stage for the eventual sequel.
Despite all that, I enjoyed myself for two-thirds of the game, before the repetitive dungeons and rushed story bothered me. I enjoyed the character interactions and I enjoyed the ability to feel anger, frustration and joy at my companions personal adventures and philosophies. (Go Aveline! Suck a dead dog Anders!) I enjoyed that they could grow as characters depending on your relationship with them. I enjoyed the little bits of family that the game occasionally remembers to give to me, but wished they had done a better job at executing large parts of it. I enjoyed some of the second act twist, and that side quests can spin off into year long adventures depending on your prior decisions to their resolutions. I even enjoyed the conversation system, and that it’s a lot more consistent with regards to setting your personality across the game.
Ultimately though, I enjoyed Dragon Age II as an experimentation of a different RPG style from Origins classic take on the genre. It’s a good idea, with great moments hammered unceremoniously together into an unpolished game. Perhaps two years isn’t enough to develop yet another expansive epic, perhaps they should have called this Dragon Age: Champion instead, Perhaps they shouldn’t have tried to copy to much from Mass Effect 2 so close to its success and invited all that backlash. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I can probably hope they find a happy medium between this game and Origins and take a little more time to polish that up for the eventual sequel set in Orlais
STRAY THOUGHTS (I like the good idea, but man … that bad idea)
– I like the new character progression system, with the stats and the talents progression. They provide more interesting decision on levelling a character and creates a nice specialized roles within the character classes. Even if they are all centered around combat. But man, the UI is a beast, separating inventory, secondary stats, resistances and comparisons across seperate menus.
– I like the new companions, and the animation and the dialog that comes with their personalities. They may not be as deep as those of Origins, but most of them are a lot more fun to hang out with. (Except fundamentalist slave boy Fenris.) Bioware tends to write archtypes, with personalities that rarely change over the course of a story, whether your character has any affect on them or not, but DA2’s companions display ability to grow as characters along the course of the story depending on your relationship with them. It’s a nice touch that hopefully can be fully expanded upon in subsequent games. But man, I wished I had the ability to chat them up whenever, instead of waiting around for their quest to pop up. I wanna help Isabela, Varric and Merrill, and I wanna help them now.
– I like the new art style, with the illustrative cutscenes, the improved character models and their distinct look with that one costume, as well as all the cool upgrades to in-game weapon and armor models. But man… those inventory icons are next to worthless with the odd color selections and inability to zoom in my character’s paper-doll.
– I like Kirkwall’s backstory and it goes a long way in explaining why the events of Act III happen the way they do, but man, they should have done a better job in getting that part of the story to the forefront.
– I like the concept of centering the adventure around the growth of a character and his/her impact on a single city, but man… Bioware really needs to move away from their closed box level design. Too much of Kirkwall felt like a loading corridor and the never changes in the seven years I was there. We live in an age where we have Assassin’s Creed city technology and Grand Theft Auto. Why can’t Bioware, with the backing of EA’s money and their own success build an RPG out of that idea. Why lock us in small city areas and pretend that it’s a great metropolis.
– I like the new combat skills, and the sheer variety in their abilities, combos, styles and animations. I like the specialization of classes, and that warriors are finally back on the table as the damage dealers. I even like the inclusion of MMO style boss mechanics in some of the fight even if I’m not always a fan of the holy trinity of RPG combat design. It feels tactically satisfying once the game gets going. But man… why take out the isometric camera? I miss that. If you’re going to give me braindead AI that likes to stand in the fire and can’t handle the whelps, at least allow me greater control of my party. I hope this is not symptomatic of their streamlining and their designing simply not liking tactical depth.
– I like some of the streamlining, but man, some streamlining really is meant for the lowest common denominator.
– I probably would have like the tone and style of the game in my earlier years, but man, I’m really wishing for a more swashbuckling epic adventure. Too many fantasy RPGs these days are painted with a cynical brush of grimdark gritty realism. Where’s the escapism in fantasy?