Reviewed: April 14, 2011
Released: March 8, 2011
Dragon Age II is a pretty bold game. It’s not often that you see a sequel that’s willing to completely abandon all vestiges of the game that came before it, let alone shift the plot’s focus away from the events of its predecessor, but Dragon Age II manages it with aplomb. Going from the blight-ravaged nation of Ferelden to the city of Kirkwall, Dragon Age II replaces the supernatural threat of a corrupted draconic god with political machinations and the rags-to-riches story of Hawke, a Ferelden refugee who, finding themselves continually in the right place in the right time, goes from a hired sword to one of the most powerful people in Kirkwall. It’s a divisive game, and the story ends abruptly, setting the stage for expansions and sequels, but it also stands as an example of some of BioWare’s best storytelling in years, and a hopeful sign of things to come.|
That said, Dragon Age II goes fairly out of its way to alienate fans of the first game. Going from a love letter to the era of Baldur’s Gate to a fast, action-based hack-and-slash game that barely requires tactical pausing was a gamble on BioWare’s part, and it didn’t pay off all the way through. While the combat can be exciting, especially with rogue powers that move Hawke around the battlefield, and cross-class combos that take advantage of the special movies unique to mages, warriors and rogues, there are also notable rough spots. In the game’s longer fights, enemies appear out of nowhere, spawning with little rhyme or reason.
In addition, the warrior class is simply broken. Warriors gain stamina for special moves when they kill enemies, but timing the kills to make sure that a warrior is the one to execute a near-dead foe rather than a mage or rogue is obnoxious, especially since mages regain mana automatically over time, and rogues gain their stamina back by attacking. However, all the major problems with combat seem like they could easily be fixed in a patch or expansion, and I certainly hope that they will be.
The dialogue system has changed drastically as well. Moving from Dragon Age Origins’ list of possible responses written out in full, Dragon Age II goes for a Mass Effect style array of misleading sentence fragments arrayed around a circle, with the added benefit of various glyphs inside the circle that hint at the tone of the line that will be delivered. While the Mass Effect dialogue choosing style’s always had its downsides, Dragon Age II manages to refine it a little, both by offering context, and by giving rewards to digging through NPC dialogue trees and points where your choice comes more down to relationships with the characters and how well you can read them, rather than choosing the upper-right option because you want to be a good person. It’s not perfect, but it stands as a good compromise between choosing what you want to say and being surprised by a character who’s not entirely of your own making.
The game’s plot is one of its highlights. Spanning a decade and taking place entirely within a single city, Dragon Age II manages to weave a much more personal, engaging story than BioWare’s games have in quite a long time. Going from living as guests in a destitute uncle’s abandoned shack to being the Champion of Kirkwall, Hawke’s story is on a set route, but numerous side-paths and options lie open, setting the stage for events that unfold later in the story based on your choices in given quests. There’s a fair number of events that seem like they could go in different ways depending on how Hawke treats the people around him or her, and even if the game doesn’t have the replayability and plot depth of Alpha Protocol, the game does a good job of presenting multiple paths through the plot and changing the world to reflect the actions that Hawke takes.
There are a few major problems with the game, not least of which is a bug where maxing out Merrill’s relationship before the start of act 3 will destroy the fabric of space and time, and send Hawke into a non-linear crazy land where the game assumes that Hawke’s already completed her quest. There are also non-technical problems, like the number of times certain maps are repeated, even taking into consideration the fact that the game is meant to take place in a relatively small area, compared to the sprawling nation of Ferelden.
Above all, it seems like Dragon Age II is an experiment. If you’re a fan of the first game and expect a direct continuation, either in story or mechanics, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re not willing to put up with some rough edges and some mechanics that don’t quite work as intended, you’ll end up having a hard time. But if you’re going for a game that has some of the best storytelling in RPGs in a while, or you’re looking for a BioWare RPG to tide yourself over until Mass Effect 3, you won’t do much better right now than Dragon Age II. Abandoning the typical BioWare mode of preparing to destroy a big bad, Dragon Age II is openly a story about people and societies, and how they affect each other. It might have its share of problems, but at least for me, the experiment paid off and provided one of the most fascinating RPGs I’ve seen in years.