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Developer: BioWare / Publisher: Electronic Arts / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Language, Sexual Content, Violence) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99
Following up one of the most popular and critically lauded roleplaying games this generation is no easy feat. No matter what the developer does, some people will love it and some people will hate it. That’s definitely the case with Dragon Age II. While BioWare’s renowned storytelling and characterization are intact, the gameplay changes will outrage some and satisfy others. BioWare has served up an epic RPG that, depending on your point of view, is either streamlined or dumbed down. At best, this is another magical game from one of the best developers in the business. At worst, it’s merely above average.
Dragon Age II kicks off in Lothering, a small village from the original game. Circumstances have the main character fleeing the darkspawn blight, sailing the seas, and taking refuge in Kirkwall. Naturally, companions are met, tasks are undertaken, fortune and glory are acquired, and (if you choose) romance ensues.
The story is divided into three acts. The first act is full of side quests. I’m guessing that the idea was to give you background information on Kirkwall, the land’s political situation, and key characters. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to get lost in the numerous side quests, which can leave you wondering, “Wait? What the hell am I supposed to be doing?!?” The second and third acts are much more focused, with far less side questing and a greater emphasis on major plot points.
Unlike the original, you’re playing as a set character with a set history — a man or woman with the last name Hawke. You can change some facets of the character, such as appearance and class. You’ll also be able to select responses that best fit the personality you want your character to display. Having said that, this is a far cry from the numerous races and backgrounds you could choose in the first Dragon Age.
The geographical scope of the game is also smaller. In the original, there were more unique places to go to and a greater variety of settings. In the sequel, the locations are more limited. In fact, you’ll have to revisit most areas multiple times. It’s funny how certain passages are blocked off in one chapter and mysteriously (or conveniently) open up at a later time.
Limiting the scope of the game and the character creation possibilities was completely intentional. Some players will be down on not having the freedom of the first Dragon Age, but the trade-off is a much richer narrative. The second and third acts of Dragon Age II feature fantastic storytelling with numerous plot points that wouldn’t work if your character could be whomever you wanted and go wherever you pleased. I was completely entertained by the story and, to me, it was absolutely worth giving up some freedom.
One of the best facets of Dragon Age II is its companion characters. They’re just wonderfully written and are diverse in terms of personality and gameplay. You’ve got the innocent girl that plays with blood magic, the stalwart captain of the guard, the brooding ex-slave (/dick), the flirty pirate whore, and more. Hearing them interact with the main character and each other was so enjoyable. It’s fun to mix and match different characters just to hear their different background conversations.
In terms of gameplay, all of the companion characters (except your siblings) have unique talents that you can explore. This helps ensure that they’re not carbon copies of your main character. For example, your rogue can be very different from Isabela’s rogue with her unique swashbuckler talents or Varric’s rogue with his marksman skills.
The dialogue flow between your main character and the companions is more natural than in the original game. This time around, your companions have to be visited at certain points of the game in order to trigger events. Unlike the first game, you can’t just stand there and trigger eight conversations with a companion character. Depending on your actions, characters will develop feelings of friendship or rivalry towards your main character. This has gameplay repercussions too, as there are certain talents that are unlocked when a companion reaches the full friendship or rivalry level.
For the most part, Dragon Age II plays like a typical BioWare RPG. You talk to people, undertake tasks, fetch things, beat the crap out of minions, collect treasure, and pound on a boss character. There are some changes that hardcore RPG fans might not like. These changes were made to broaden the game’s appeal. Dragon Age II is definitely more accessible than its predecessor, but some of the changes made will upset a vocal minority.
The combat in the game is more action oriented. If you play as a rogue or a warrior, you can tackle combat with a heavy dose of button mashing. The battles definitely feel easier this time around and less strategy is required. However, you can plot out stealthy attacks as a rogue or elaborate arcane assaults as a mage. Both of those classes can be molded into powerful combatants, but it just feels kind of unnecessary since the combat is so easy. Warriors are boring, but offer the most challenging way to play. Rogues and (especially) mages can be developed into overpowering characters that make companions almost unnecessary.
Crafting items and outfitting characters have also been streamlined. The game automatically keeps track of crafting components you’ve discovered, so you’ll no longer have to muck with them in your inventory. You only have control of the main character’s weapon, armor, and accessories. Companion characters can only swap accessories and weapons (except for Varric). Some players hate that you can no longer change companion armor, but I didn’t mind the change at all. It caused me to spend lest time looking at menus and more time enjoying the game’s story. Besides, don’t you think it’s weird that the main character gets to decide how all his friends dress?
Graphics and Sound
Although the game has improved visually, the graphics are not remarkable. The first Dragon Age looked a bit below average. The second one looks slightly above average. You won’t be offended by the game’s visuals, nor will you be impressed.
Sound, on the other hand, is quite impressive. Inon Zur’s soundtrack adds a ton of atmosphere to the game. From high action to heavy drama to tragedy, his compositions help Dragon Age II’s storytelling. The voice acting is also superbly performed. The actors and actresses help bring the game’s excellent writing to life and make each character feel distinct.
Some players will hate that Dragon Age II is smaller in scope, has less customization, and features easier combat. None of that bothered me too much and I think the hate is overblown. My biggest complaint was seeing the same environments over and over again. As for the gameplay, I enjoyed a lot of the streamlining and think people complaining about companion armor customization are a bit wacky (buy a doll). On paper, the combat is deep, but making the game more accessible left me without a reason to take advantage of my character’s abilities. Ultimately, I was left with two of the three things I expect from a BioWare game — fantastic story and brilliant characters. And that’s more than enough to leave me confident that Dragon Age II will end up being one of my favorite games of 2011.