Mar 23, 2011

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Review: Dragon Age II

Let us take a set back from the rioting fans attacking EA Bioware forums, the padded review created by the company, and other developer stupidity. Let us take Dragon Age II on its own terms. This sequel is a step forward in the right direction and two steps back the wrong way.

The sequel to the award-winning Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II is an RPG from EA Bioware that took a startlingly short amount of time to pump out, and it shows. Be prepared to eat a meal that isn’t cooked all the way, but at least take solace in the fact that you won’t get e-coli.

Visually, the game is a mixed bag. Dragon Age II contains some great looking locales, but it also has quite a few bland maps. The characters look great until you notice the skeleton/great grandma hands that plague many of the models. Not only that, some of the other models and foliage look as if they came from the PS1 era. At least the game keeps a constant framerate while all the spells and explosions happen, which look magnificent. The game also deserves some credit for taking a more artistic approach than it’s predecessor, as it just looks cleaner and less generic.

The characters presented here aren’t as enjoyable as the previous offering, at least at first glance. Take Fenris and Merill as two examples.  Fenris is a brooding Cloud-clone with a huge sword during his first introduction, but eventually forms his own character (he, at one point, will defend your character if you’re playing as a mage, though he detests them, and quits trying so hard to be dark later own in the game). Merill is probably one of the best characters once you realize there’s a different side to her than her annoyingly cute facade leads you to believe. I felt like the people I was traveling with could turn or do something else. It’s not a brotherhood; it’s a couple of people who come together for mutual interest and then later stick around for the friendship. Growth is a large part of this game.  Part of what makes these characters come to life is their voices, as the quality of the voice acting shines. About every character that talks has a distinct voice, whether you detest them or not. Smooth-talking Varric is obviously the best, and your character delivers a sizable amount of sarcasm and emotion. The music, on the other hand, is appropriate, but it’s never sweeping. I never really felt engaged because of the score, and it sat in the background, hardly ever trying to make itself noticed. It’s not terrible, but I didn’t find myself looking for the soundtrack on Amazon.

Die-hard fans of RPGs are going to hate this next point: the amount of decisions you make in this game are fewer in quality and quality; a huge departure from what the first offered, and partially as a result, the game doesn’t feel as epic. To it’s credit, at least for me, minimizing epic decisions prevents people from wanting to immediately restart the whole game just to see the other side effect.  If you’ve been known to do that, then this is a blessing. Another plus is that the game feels a bit more coherent. All the different variances Bioware games offer often create questions as to what the real canon of the game is. At least here you can tell far easier what the main storyline will end up for Hawke.

Dragon Age II has a more fluid combat system that is honestly like its predecessor, except better. The slow, plodding fighting system is gone, and in its place a far more reactive one. Spells matter more here, who you attack first is key, and my mage didn’t have to wallow in the thick of it. It’s quicker, more fun, and just as intelligent. Despite the fast-paced feeling, you can still pause and assign orders, or you can skip that tedium and direct yourself. As before, you can hop back and forth between characters. The combat is far better than what Origins offered, until one ugly problem rears its head.

Tactics are all but thrown out the window once the next couple waves of enemies start pouring in (and they always do),  usually rather unexplicably. The game becomes far more “Action” than RPG at this point, and if you came into this experience wanting something more turn-based or strategic, you might be disappointed. You can still assign orders during these new waves, but it’s a bit hard, as they sometimes drop in mysteriously in front of your characters. Fortunately, you’ll find ways to battle this, but the first few instances of combat will leave you frustrated. After decimating your opponents in a flurry of sword swipes and explosive ice shards, you can pick up the loot, most of which your character can’t equip. People say that this is a downer, but those people don’t realize you can sell that extra crap and use the money to buy weapons you do want.

The landscapes that you’ll traverse aren’t numerous, but they are detailed. Kirkwall isn’t that varied, but it’s fine, as you become one with the town you are trying so hard to raise coin to leave. The city grew on me. I would have liked it to have a few more areas, but it stands strong on its own. It’s got more character than many other areas, and it’s not afraid to be grimy. The areas that don’t stand strong are the five environments in which you’ll be constantly doing quests. The game blocks off areas and forces you to take a certain route depending on the quest, making the already small areas feel even more limiting. It’s disappointing that the game doesn’t even attempt to hide this, and you’ll get more annoyed if the next quest you undertake is in the exact same area. The events that happen in them kind of make up for this staleness, though.

Quests have a wide range, from extremely interesting to extremely boring. Sometimes you’ll be in the middle of a local political conflict, but other times you’ll be doing fetch quest #83 for some random villager that you may or may not see during the quest. Though slightly jarring, it’s a blessing and a curse, as it can save the game from getting so stale that you’ll want to quit playing. The quests themselves generally don’t end on the usual note of completion that you may expect. In other games, once you complete a task, it usually ends at a finishing point and the loose ends are tied up all neat for you. But Dragon Age II is different; some quests finish without your finding out who the murderer is or what that evil tome may bring to the world. It’s kind of like real life: you don’t always know what your consequences will be after something happens, and you don’t always get to see the end result. I’m not sure if it was the intention of EA Bioware to do this, or they just got lucky, but it worked for me.

The game will last you a  minimum of 30 hours, much more if you elect to do all the numerous side quests, and you’ll at least want to play through it once more as a different character for a whole new experience. The game is easily restartable; be glad the intro level doesn’t last anything less than 15 minutes. Still, the game takes a while to grab its audience, something that spells doom for any RPG game. The pacing is off, and you feel as if more should be happening in the slower bits while less should be happening in the faster bits. It’s true that this game has its problems; no amount of account banning on their forums or self-reviewing can subside that. But the game doesn’t deserve a torrent of hatred and hellfire. It’s not deserving of a zero score.

Really, Dragon Age II is a disappointing sequel, yet still a fun game, even more so when you take it on it’s own level. It’s no Game of the Year, as it has numerous problems, but it’s worth your time to play and enjoy. The gameplay shines here the most, and if the other elements were just as strong, then it’d be a worthy successor.

Dragon Age II
Platform: PC, PS3 (reviewed), 360
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 03/08/2011
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: EA
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
MSRP: $59.99


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About Ryan Collins

I love long escort missions on the beach. Timed, of course.