The Rise to Power begins...
I was a big fan of Dragon Age: Origins and I devoured that game over nearly 100+ hours, spent between the core story, side-quests, numerous explorations and every bit of story-based DLC that I could get my hands on. I actually played the console version and I loved every minute of it, it evoked a yester-year of Baldur's Gate style PC love and I was enthralled with my Warden's journey.
Flash forwards now to Dragon Age 2, my Warden is elsewhere and I have a new hero to look after - Hawke, a refugee from the Fall of Lothering, one of the few to escape the Blight and find themselves on the shores of the Free Marches in the City of Chains, Kirkwall. Dragon Age 2 has been on my mind for a while now and I've finally gotten to play a good chunk of the game on the Xbox 360 on a retail disc. Warning, this review is quite indepth and if you don't care to read the following, you can skip to the end for a summary.
Dragon Age 2 uses a storytelling trick known as: framed narrative, it's been used a couple of times, in games like Alpha Protocol for instance and it is used to excellent effect here in Dragon Age 2. Your character's story is told through the tales of one of your companions, Varric, a rather dapper dwarf who is clean shaven and has a silver tongue. In each segment Varric chronicles the rise to power of the Champion of Kirkwall with a little vignette and interactions with a Seeker from the Chantry.
The framed narrative trick is perfect for this, you get to play the events that Varric is obviously talking about and the choice is yours how you progress through each time-period. It doesn't feel jarring at all and it has been masterfully used to create a compelling and well-designed narrative that lets you experience a rise to power where your character actually means something to the world.
I won't say anything else upon the story, because I loathe spoilers.
Edit: a late addition to the review, this system is quicker and faster than Dragon Age. Upon loading it's quicker too. What's a lot better about DA 2 is the autosave system, which is seamless and happens in the background without spoiling the flow of the game.
Dragon Age 2 has taken the gameplay from Origins and smoothed it out, refined many of the features and given an overhaul to the first game, rather like Bioware did with Mass Effect 2 and to my mind, Dragon Age 2 doesn't suffer at all for it. Now I know there are probably Dragon Age vets out there that are upset by the changes, but if you don't give the game a full chance, you're doing Bioware a disservice and missing out on a truly good game. Change isn't always bad, and it isn't always good. There are numerous reasons for evolution of something and if it remains the same, well, it stagnates. That said there's a few changes that I'd like to bring to light in this review:
1. Character generation. Since Hawke is rather like Commander Sheppard, and fully voiced this time around (Male or Female Hawke), human is the only default choice and there are 3 classes to pick, mage, rogue, warrior. You can fiddle with your Hawke's features and change quite a few parameters like you could in Mass Effect 2. You can change the first name and pick one of 3 starting backgrounds that shape the world for Dragon Age 2, if you never played Origins. If you did play Origins, you can import a save game character and Dragon Age 2 will adapt the world to the choices that you made in the first game.
One interesting thing to note, your Hawke's features affect those of your family members...just play around and you should spot that.
2. Combat: Combat has changed quite drastically from the first game; it feels more intuitive and definitely more visceral. It is first and foremost an action-rpg combat system and there's actually a deep layer of tactical option remaining if you choose to look closer. You can mash the A button to do basic attacks or trigger any of your mapped powers at any time, as long as you have the mana or stamina. That's all well and good, but even on Casual there are some very tough fights if you don't know your way around the combat system.
Cross-class combos are a must in that case, where you can set up an effect like Brittle with a Mage, and a Warrior can smash them. Or you can Stagger a foe and have Mages deliver a Chain Lightning. There are a few combinations to experiment with and Cross-class combos do amazing amounts of damage. Then you can pause the game and issue specific orders. I actually recommend using this option in quite a few of the bigger fights, picking out dangerous magic users and boss characters and setting them up for some tactical takedowns.
You get out of this system what you put into it. So if you're after a Fable style combat experience, just mash the A button. If you want something deeper, pause, think and plan your battle tactics. Why not have Varric fire a Hail of Arrows into a crowded mob of lesser foes and then target a main boss with something from any of the other companions that does highly focussed damage against a single foe?
Experiment, it's not just a pure action game.
3. Inventory: The inventory has changed since Dragon Age, you're no longer battling with it and it's simple to use. You're not mix-matching every set of armour for every character. Each NPC has their own unique armour set and you can find upgrades for those if you explore around the various city and wilderness locations. NPCs can equip a variety of weapons and you'll change those quite a lot as new gear pops up from various places, you can also manage their amulets and rings. Hawke's armour is broken down into chest, hands, feet and head. You can mix the right armour for your character if you so desire as long as you have the stats to use it.
All loot objects are now classified as Junk and appear under that tab in your inventory, allowing you to sell them en-masse at the various shops that are littered around Kirkwall. Crafting resources are listed separately and we'll talk about Crafting right now.
Comparing items is easier too, you can see at a glance what the benefits and drawbacks are to each piece of equipment against that piece you have equipped.
4. Crafting: Another change to Dragon Age 2, a smoother craft system. You find resources that go into a central stock pile and you can order various runes, potions, bombs so forth from the crafters in the game. You have a character base that also has these craft stations. Each item costs a certain amount in coin but requires a specific set of resources; they're not consumed once the item is made so you don't have to keep on replenishing the resource.
Enchantment is another part of crafting and that's changed, you can put runes into your equipment once again, however, the runes are destroyed if you replace the old rune...so you can't pull them back out.
5. The ability menu: The power wheel is back and it's easier to navigate than before, you can very quickly pick the power you want to use and holding down the left trigger (you can change this option to toggle it in the menu) and selecting it from the radial menu. The icons are easier to read and there's all the information you need right there to choose the right power for the battle at hand.
6. Dialogue menu: Taking a big leaf from Mass Effect 2's book, Dragon Age 2 brings in a similar system during conversations and allows you to pick from various stances. There are aggressive, reasoned and sarcastic options to begin with, as well as a few others that appear at the appropriate moments in the game. There are also companion dialogues based on who might be in the party at the time. So far I've seen a lot of Varric's dialogues because he's pretty damn awesome.
7. The map: There's a pleasing mini-map in game that means you don't ever get lost, it lists all important objectives and so on. The main map is even better with everything you need to explore the various locations around Kirkwall and it lists all the important shops, quests, points of interest and is clear to understand.
8. Fast Travel: There is a large city map of Kirkwall and you can use this to move from day to night, travel outside the city and jump from ward to ward inside Kirkwall itself. It always lists ongoing quests and you never get lost or spend ages messing around trying to work out where to go next.
9. The journal has been streamlined too; it lists important quests, companion quests and more. The information is easy to get to and you can always find out what you need from it.
I could go on for ages listing all the little changes, but those are the ones that I think are of interest to fans of RPGs in general. In terms of a gameplay 'bottom line' Dragon Age 2 plays really well and is a joy to control, especially if you're looking at the battle tactically like I do and pausing now and then to trigger specific spells and abilities in combination or to shred a group of minor bad guys so you can focus on the big picture. Each battle and various quest earns you experience points and eventually your character and the NPCs will level up.
Levelling up is easy and the system is more intuitive, you gain 3 points to put into the core stats of your class. Say mage, which are magic and willpower, but you can also put points into the other stats. Each stat governs something useful in the game, like dexterity giving a better chance for critical hits and cunning which helps rogues with their trap detection and lock-picking every 10 points spent in the stat.
Then we come to picking abilities, which are spread across the various class based skill-webs and once again, it's all easy to read and understand. You can make informed choices and pick those skills you really want. Either making your character focused on one particular path or grabbing a smattering of skills through the various webs/trees. It works very well and a lot of the skills are useful. Some are active, like assault and some are passive and give you a lot of options when it comes to levelling up.
Finally your NPC allies can offer unique bonuses based on how you interact with them, treating them well and responding to their needs nets you friendship with them, allowing you to learn more about what makes them tick and making them incredibly loyal. The opposite nets you rivalry and grants them bonuses that reflect their reaction to you. They won't leave the group, but they will often be more sarcastic, less inclined to help in certain situations and wary of Hawke.
One minor niggle of mine is the way that some side-quest locations are approached, I can see how and why Bioware did what they did but the repeated locations smacks of the first Mass Effect and they're used to keep the size of the game down mostly. Some routes are closed off by big stone doors and on these side-quests or missions you tread the same ground over and over again, with extra loot and slightly different cavern features. It is only a tiny mar on the grand overall whole though, so I can forgive Bioware for that one.
Talking of quests, well, there are a plethora of them and some of them (many) have lots of twists and turns. There are also fetch quests, which actually trigger when you find the object the person's looking for rather than requiring you to find the person first. So in essence they become quick delivery quests that give you a nice money and XP boost. With the core story quests, the side missions and exploration there's a 40 to 60 hour game here at least and it is thoroughly enjoyable.
I've seen mixed comments on the graphical style of this game, people saying that they graphics are terrible. Whilst they're not in the same league as Mass Effect 2 they are certainly not terrible. There's a nice amount of detail here, you can actually see the character's teeth for a start this time on the console and the eyes of the female Hawke default are particularly stunning in their defiant blue sparkle. The NPCs are likewise well detailed and even the smattering of side characters have enough visual difference to make them appear different compared to Dragon Age.
The environments are well done and even though some of them repeat in terms of the side missions, they are still nicely detailed evoking that dark fantasy theme that I have come to expect from Dragon Age's world. There's a suitable difference between the various districts of Kirkwall and as the narrative time passes, the areas change based on subtle things that you have influenced as Hawke.
I would also like to say that the Staff of Parthalan (seen in the Destiny trailer) is one of the most bad-ass looking mage staves I've ever seen in a game. I totally love the idea that magic user's staves have blades on, and it's that kind of graphical design that I thoroughly enjoy.
So yeah, graphics are not a steaming pile of nug dung. They're different and stylized and they fit in the overall feel and theme of the game. I also dig the new look Qunari.
On the retail disc as well, there have been no frame-rate stutters or glitches at all on this playthrough with my female mage Hawke. Even when I've been throwing magic like candy at the enemies and tonnes of special effects are kicking off left right and centre. It's capable of holding a steady frame-rate contrary to some reviews, which are based off slightly earlier code.
As for the gore, it's over the top and enemies fly apart. It's not Bulletstorm over the top though, and there's an option to turn it off, before Fox News gets there and brands the game as a serial killer simulator or something I thought I better mention that one.
The running animation is a bit ... awkward I think, that's down to personal preference though and it's not going to mar the game or make me lower the score. The rest of the animations are great and the new combat system makes use of some incredibly dynamic actions that fit the overall ethos of Dragon Age 2's: think like a general, fight like a Spartan mission statement. There's a brutal joy to watching a warrior do a mighty blow and sail through the air like Stelios in 300. The character interaction animations are also something that's been improved, facial ticks and emotion are plain to see on the faces now and the lip synch is pretty damn good.
Some of the spells pull your enemies about, you can be knocked down, they can be knocked down and blows feel like they have some weight behind them when an enemy flies apart. Stone Fist (a spell) feels particularly satisfying in that regard when it hits a bad guy and knocks them down a flight of stairs.
The AI is suitably improved and your NPC companions have various tactics you can set up, or you can leave them at default and pretty much play the game as an action game if you so desire. Again you'll be missing out if you do that though, since you'll get far more depth out of the combat system if you make sure your group's assigned role is correct for what you want them to do. The enemy AI is also pretty decent, mages will use their magic intelligently and rogues dance around the battlefield, teleporting and backstabbing weaker party members or even picking on the biggest threat of the group first.
Bioware have always had great sound design and there's no difference here in Dragon Age 2. The combat sounds are fantastic; the ambient and spot sounds are great. With the City of Kirkwall changing come day or night and the various interior locations are full of ambient noise and life. Top notch stuff.
Inon Zur, what more can I say. I really do like the soundtrack to Dragon Age 2, it evokes the theme of the game perfectly and whilst I really want the music that Inon did for the Destiny trailer I can say that he's done a great job with Dragon Age 2 and I've got no complaints at all. The music supports the environment perfectly and swells and ebbs are combat kicks off, giving a stirring background to blades and spells.
Dialogue and Voice
Hawke has a voice, male or female, and they're pretty decent voice actors at that. The script is well written and the dedicated sarcasm option is one I'm going to use for my male Hawke warrior with a second playthrough. The star of the show goes to Varric though, who is about the best Dragon Age NPC to date. He's brought to life in a smooth talking con-man kind of way by the actor and they have done a wonderful job on making him likeable and dynamic, he's my favourite NPC so far. The rest of the performances are great, even the minor characters have a nice range of accents and whist some are very over the top British; I don't mind that at all.
Here you are if you've skipped to the end of the review, or you're just interested in general. Dragon Age 2 isn't a perfect game but it builds on what Dragon Age began and does so with a high level of polish and approaches the genre differently to the first game. It isn't spoilt for the changes I don't think and there's a huge RPG with a lot of depth right here and ready for you to sink your teeth into. The combat system is a great addition and it provides the right mix of outright action and tactics, sacrificing none of Dragon Age's depth if you take the time to experiment with it.
You can also play on the hardest difficulty if you think the game's too easy, then you'll never spend another moment out of the pause menu and you'll be back in Dragon Age heaven.
That's about it for now, have fun with the game and enjoy the story. Bioware might not win GotY 2011 with this (since Mass Effect 3 is coming), but they have certainly done a damn fine job on the game putting to rest any fears that I might have had about it since the demo. It isn't Dragon Age, but frankly it doesn't need to be since it's its own animal and that's the one thing you have to remember. There are a few minor niggles with it, such as the repeated locations and a few issues with object interaction in terms of selecting crates and so on to loot...it's all minor though...