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Dragon Age II is the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, which was released by BioWare (developer) and Electronic Arts (publisher) less than 18 months ago. If you're like me, and you paid attention to the previews and trailers and hints dropped by BioWare -- including the now infamous "when you press a button, something awesome happens" comment -- then you knew that Dragon Age II wasn't going to be a whole lot like Origins, and the question only remained: how far would BioWare go? Well, they went pretty far, and as a result, while Dragon Age II isn't necessarily a bad game, it's nothing like what I was hoping for (or probably what anybody who fondly remembers the Infinity engine games was hoping for), and it continues BioWare's downward development trend from interesting role-playing games to simplified action games.
Dragon Age II starts out in parallel with Origins. You play a character fleeing from the destruction of Lothering (which was sacked early on in Origins), but then you make your way to the city of Kirkwall where, a year later (and with all of the events from Origins and Awakening now in the rear view mirror), your adventure starts in earnest. You then do the usual -- you meet up with some companions, you complete some quests, and you learn about the world you're in -- before the game culminates with a major boss battle and you save the day.
Unfortunately, the story is about as uninspired as the generic description I just gave for it. There isn't much of a plot (you basically just wander around and complete 150 side quests on your way to the end), your companions are sort of dull (with voice acting to match), and the quests are less than memorable (there are almost no interesting villains; you just defeat hundreds of anonymous bandits and mercenaries over and over again). The game sort of feels like BioWare went to an RPG rummage sale and bought whatever quests and story ideas were available, and then just threw everything together.
Worse, the story culminates with you picking a side between the mages and the templars, two groups who have had a longstanding conflict, but this decision isn't any fun at all. Unlike, say, The Witcher, which used a similar concept, the two sides in Dragon Age II aren't shown in varying shades of gray; we only see the negatives. Just about every mage is secretly a blood mage or an abomination, and just about every templar loves to torture or oppress mages. I didn't like either side, and I didn't want to help either side, and that made the conclusion to the game even less exciting than it might have been otherwise.
Finally, I didn't like some of the "twists" BioWare inserted into the story. As with Origins, some of your companions can leave you or die, but unlike Origins, it's more the plot deciding when these things happen rather than you. In the game I played with essentially a lawful good character, I ended up with only one mage who could heal -- and he turned out to be something of a murdering psychopath. My character should have executed him for his crimes, but I was worried about how the end of the game would go if I only had potions (and their extremely long cooldowns) to rely on, and so I reluctantly stayed with him. That just ended up being one more reason out of many why I wasn't happy by the end of the game.
The character you play in Dragon Age II comes complete with a background story -- "human fleeing from Lothering." That means you don't get to choose an origins or a race when you create your character, but you still get to choose your gender, your class, your appearance, and your name. I sort of liked the origins sequences from Origins, so I missed them here, but otherwise BioWare offers enough options in character creation so that you can feel like your character is unique.
Sort of surprisingly, BioWare completely revamped how characters work in Dragon Age II. The game still features the same three classes -- warrior, rogue and mage -- but just about everything else is different. For starters, BioWare did away with their sort of confusing skill and talent hierarchies (where, among other things, stealing was a skill but picking locks was a talent). Now everything is an ability, and only combat abilities exist in the game. That is, the game still features lots of spells and fighting maneuvers, but things like diplomacy and stealing are gone, crafting is handled by shopkeepers, and lock picking and trap springing are completely linked to a rogue's cunning attribute.
The attributes also got an overhaul. The game still has the same six attributes -- strength, dexterity, magic, cunning, willpower and constitution -- but now they control different things, and they're much more specialized for certain classes. As an example, in Origins strength controlled how much melee damage characters did, but dexterity controlled how likely they were to land their attacks, and so characters needed both. Now in Dragon Age II, strength controls damage and hit chance for warriors, while dexterity does the same things for rogues, and so there isn't much reason for warriors to bother with dexterity or rogues with strength. Warriors really only need strength and constitution (with perhaps some cunning for defense or willpower for stamina), and that makes it much more boring to build them up.
Speaking of building up characters, that part of the game works roughly the same. Each time characters gain a level, they get three points for their attributes and one point to choose an ability. Abilities have been divided into a collection of specializations, each with a particular theme. All characters start out with access to six specializations, but your main character is allowed to unlock two more (out of three possibilities) at levels 7 and 14. The specializations should look reasonably familiar to anyone who played Origins. For example, the mage's elemental specialization includes the spells Cone of Cold, Fireball, and Winter's Grasp, all of which were in Origins, plus a new spell Firestorm, and also a few passive abilities and upgrades to make the spells more powerful.
Finally, in sort of a subtle change, all weapons and armor in the game have been designed with classes in mind, with attribute point restrictions to match. Warrior gear requires strength and constitution, rogue gear requires dexterity and cunning, and mage gear requires magic and willpower. As a result, characters from one class can't use the equipment intended for another class, and so the classes are much more "cookie cutter"-ish than they were before. For example, rogues can only dual-wield daggers or use bows. They can't use shields or swords or even wear robes. And say goodbye to the entire concept of the arcane warrior. Mages are now stuck with cloth and staves.
Now, all of the above being said, the character system still works reasonably well. There is a lot of variety to the abilities available for each class, and while my main character reached level 25 just before the end of the game, I never ran out of abilities that I wanted to select for him, and so gaining levels remained important throughout the entire campaign. It's just that this is a character system for an action role-playing game, where the only thing that matters is combat. Any party-based role-playing game from a developer like BioWare should give players more options and more freedom rather than less, but for some reason that's not the direction BioWare wants to go.
One of the main focuses of the Dragon Age II engine is combat, which is handled much differently than it was in Origins. For starters, it's faster paced (maybe twice as fast), and characters can get involved much more quickly. Warriors automatically charge at their enemies to close to within melee range, and rogues get to perform some acrobatic leaps. Battles typically don't last very long, but they're not too tough to organize because you can pause the game at any time and issue orders before starting things back up again. The default AI is also decent, and characters do a nice job of employing their abilities.
The downside to the battles is that for some reason BioWare switched from the reasonable, tactical encounters from Origins and decided that all-out mayhem was much more fun. As a result, you almost never spot a group of enemies and then figure out the best way to deploy your party. Instead, battles pop up all over the place, and then waves of enemies just suddenly appear on the battlefield, sometimes right in the middle of your party. There isn't any way to protect against this, and since BioWare didn't do a good job of tweaking the abilities to fit in with the frenetic pace of the battles, fights tend to be a mess, and frequently rely on goofy strategies like having one character run around in circles while being chased by enemies until either the rest of your party can finish off the enemies, or else the (lengthy) cooldowns on your health potions and healing spells finally expire. Fun fun fun.
My first time through the campaign, I played on the default difficulty setting, and I found it to be much easier than the default setting in Origins. With little in the way of preparation or planning, I was able to blunder my way through the campaign only getting wiped out a handful of times. But then I started the campaign on the "hard" setting, and it seems much better balanced. Regular battles actually have a chance of defeating me, and I have to think more about when to use the abilities of my party. Unfortunately, the tougher battles also tend to expose the inadequacies of the interface -- the camera is zoomed in so far that it only works well when you're controlling a single character, and the party AI can't be turned off easily, meaning you basically just have to leave it on and then grit your teeth when you order your characters to do something, and they ignore it and do their own thing.
The other focus of the engine involves dialogue. Despite Dragon Age II having the feel of an action role-playing game, its campaign is more what you'd see from a traditional role-playing game, with lots of conversations and associated quests. The big change with dialogue is that BioWare decided that the main character's lines should be acted (unlike in Origins), but that put them in a quandary. They didn't want players to read a line of dialogue and then listen to it being acted, and so instead they adopted a system close to what Obsidian used in Alpha Protocol.
Each time your character gets a chance to speak, instead of seeing the exact line of dialogue, you only see a summary of the words plus a stance (usually including the trio of "helpful," "wry," and "aggressive"). I know some people don't like systems like this, but I thought it worked pretty well in Alpha Protocol and also works well here. Only a couple of times during the campaign did my character say something drastically different than what I intended, and that's what the quickload key is for. Not knowing exactly what's going to happen in conversations adds some mystery to the proceedings, and it also gives players a reason to play through the campaign a second time.
Unfortunately, even with a part of the game I liked, I saw flaws. Because coercion was dropped from the game, characters are convincing in just about everything they say, which is sort of boring. BioWare also decided not to include any attribute checks or ability checks or anything like that, and there aren't even many references to the class your character is playing, or the companions you have in your party. The striking thing is, because the campaign meanders around the conflict between mages and templars, it's a little odd when nobody seems to notice that you have apostate mages in your party, or that you're playing one yourself. I haven't gotten to the end of the game yet with my mage (my second, walkthrough-oriented play-through), but I'm guessing he'll be allowed to throw in with the templars and announce that all mages should die. That would be a little surreal.
Graphics and Sound
I played Dragon Age II on a PC, and I used the hi-res texture pack and the "high" graphics setting (for some reason, "very high" significantly chipped away at my frame rate). With those settings, I thought the game looked pretty good. The battle animations are crisp and lively, the lip synching is excellent, and the locations are impressive. Better yet, BioWare did away with the annoying aura effects from Origins (mostly by doing away with the auras themselves), and so you won't have to deal with as many distractions.
The only downside is that BioWare took the cheap route and decided to reuse locations way too many times. The entire campaign takes place in Kirkwall, and because there are three acts and day and night maps, that means you have to explore each district at least six times. I'm not sure what I would recommend, but if somebody asked me how many times players should have to visit the same map, I'm pretty sure the answer would be "way less than six." BioWare also reused the smaller maps ad nauseum (for example, every warehouse uses the same map), but at least for these they tried to be clever and change around the doorways so the layout would at least seem different -- not that the strategy worked very well. For me, it was abundantly clear that maps were being reused all over the place, and I found this sort of repetition to be disconcerting and annoying.
As for the sounds, I'll just say that they're competent. The voice actors read their lines clearly, but they don't evoke a lot of emotion, and most come across as dull and dreary -- which is perhaps appropriate, because that's also how they're written. The lone exception to this is Victoria Kruger, who plays the rogue Isabela. She's about the only character in the game who sounds like she's having any fun, and I'm guessing she'd be a favorite companion even if she didn't dress in short skirts and incessantly talk about sex.
I've now spent somewhere around 70 hours playing Dragon Age II, and I haven't had many problems. I encountered a broken side quest, and I had a crash, but nothing else has really happened to detract from the game -- which puts Dragon Age II in the same category as Origins but way ahead of the likes of the recent Fallout games. Plus, the save and load times are very fast (saves are almost instantaneous), and the loading screens between maps are acceptably short (and have a nice design to boot). Really, the Dragon Age II engine seems fine. It's just a matter of what BioWare decides to do with it.
For all the criticisms I've lobbed about in this review, Dragon Age II is an acceptable game. I found it to be a little bit repetitive and dull, but it's also fairly polished and well-presented, and more than playable. However, I hate the direction BioWare is going with their games, and I just sort of wish they'd develop a first-person shooter for the Xbox and get it out of their system, and then come back to where many long-time fans would like them to be -- striving to make role-playing games better than Baldur's Gate II, rather than coddling to the masses with acceptably simple action games that sell well.
In a twist of irony, two years ago when I reviewed Storm of Zehir, I came down on Obsidian Entertainment pretty hard. Their work on Storm of Zehir was shoddy, they had just lost their Aliens RPG, and it wasn't clear if they could create a working project that wasn't based on somebody else's original concept. But, wow, how times have changed. Now Obsidian seems to be the developer most likely to create a role-playing game that I'm interested in, and I can only hope that the future holds a similar sort of course correction for BioWare.