Dragon Age II
Those familiar with BioWare’s Mass Effect will have probably heard of its more fantasy-based sister series, Dragon Age. The concept is the same: customize a hero (in Dragon Age’s case a race as well) with choices that include appearance, class, and lineage. From there, you head out into a highly political world of swords, shields, magic, and dastardly deeds. I hear you when you say that these ingredients have come many times before and will come many more, but there’s a magic to Dragon Age that goes beyond conjuring balls of fire from your hands. The politics and revolution that surround the unfair imprisonment and monitoring of mages by the Templar, the racial tension between the elves, dwarves, and men, and the seemingly endless troubles circulating around royalty all have a real impact on how you choose to present yourself, less you should permanently lose a potential ally.
The characters that inhabit this world are rich and sharp but also flawed and often times far from heroic, which means you actually grow to care about them as interactive personalities instead of a walking set of pre-determined answers. Their moods shift during combat and exploration based on how you choose to react to just about anything, and because of that, you’re forced to consider who is worth pleasing, and who isn’t – because you can’t please them all. This was the formula that made the original game a hit amongst its target audience, and with its sequel Dragon Age II comes a handful of both engaging changes and disappointingly unnecessary alterations. At times, Dragon Age II veers too far onto the path of a double-edged sword, as it leaves some positive experiences that the game puts forward crippled by equally negative ones, but generally succeeds in tapping into the essence that made its predecessor great, albeit a bit shorter.
The storytelling in Dragon Age II is unique in that everything that the player sees and does has already happened and is being retold – with quite a few aggressive exaggerations – by Varric, the dwarven bounty-hunter being interrogated by a not-so-happy looking woman donning the insignia of the Templar, whose purpose is to gather information following a world-changing event that the Champion (our protagonist) is hinted at being the catalyst of. Some of the most fantastic scenes in the game are played out while Varric is characteristically ‘tinkering with’ the truth of historically important events, giving the Champion and his party unique and overpowered abilities that kill enemies quickly and in large quantities, while at the same time making the hero immune to all damage, before forcing the player to battle through the true version of the event when Varric’s interrogator calls him out on his bullshit. The possible frustration of playing through the same sequence a second time is non-existent, and makes the entire mechanic quite humorous while it paints this fantasy to be exactly what it is: a fantasy, give or take a few ‘accurate’ details.
Varric’s retelling gives us the Champion, Hawke, a man or woman forced to flee from home with his or her family following the tragic betrayal of the King during the spread of the blight in Dragon Age: Origins whose data can be uploaded to a new game of Dragon Age II ensuring that all of the events that your previous choices encouraged following the King’s death and the end of the blight are still accurately represented. Once you’ve selected your gender of choice, you are given three classes to toy with: warrior, mage, and rogue. Each of the three play quite differently, and the three specializations available to each class, of which Hawke can choose two, help to branch off the play style further still. The warrior is the staple frontline brute, able to perform some really cool melee attacks with a two-handed weapon, or less excitingly defend the party with a shield, the rogue avoids detection and deals silly amounts of damage from behind the scenes, and the mage does what the mage does best: makes things go boom. Which you choose to play depends heavily on how you like to see things fall dead, though it goes without saying that the classes are different enough that you will want to play through a little bit of the game with each, just to be sure. Be forewarned though, that the class you choose to play will permanently remove for certain at least one of the potential party members Hawke can keep in his company, or not.
What’s unfortunate about the specificity (within some degree) of Varric’s story is that it forces the player into some corners. First off, Hawke must be human, and furthermore, will always leave his homeland a refugee. No more dwarf nobles, or elves from the woods, Hawke is Hawke give or take a few aesthetic details. What’s more, to encourage the vast gap between how the classes deal with enemies, certain perks from Origins that might’ve blurred the lines between roles, like dual wielding warriors or mages that could tank no longer have a place in the heavily streamlined specializations that Dragon Age II houses.
Gone are the expansive lands of Ferelden, as well. As the legend of the hero is centralized in a city called Kirkwall, each and every quest takes place in recycled and curiously empty city zones that are only slightly refreshed during the game’s arcs, which skip ahead at the end of every major chapter to signify the passing of one or two years. What makes these chapter advancements so intimidating is that they’re ruthlessly effective in eliminating any possible party recruitments, item collection, or character interactions after time is sped along, leaving particular aspects of the game permanently inaccessible. In a nutshell, this means that unless you’re playing with a strategy guide strapped to your leg, you’re going to need to play through the game at least once before you can get a feel for what needs to be done where, and when to do it. Though one might argue that the realistic anxiety that this mode encourages is refreshing, some agree there are few things a game can do that are worse than closing a door to a player forever. Creating a space in which a dialogue opportunity can go horribly wrong or can be missed, to be pursued at a later time is forgiving, but to eliminate possibility entirely only to force a second play through is cruel no matter how big a fan you are of the series, especially when the romance options come into play. All I wanted was to have my hero sail away with his pirate love when things were said and done, but apparently those elusive dialogue options were my undoing, again.
This time around, dialogue decisions are shown on a wheel similar to that of Mass Effect, informing the player of the nature of his or her selection, be it humorous, aggressive, kind, lawful or what have you, relaxing the process of tailoring your decisions towards direction you find suitable. Though at first glance this may give responses an uncomfortable ‘categorization’ feel, in the end having the option to precisely piece together the type of attitude you want your character to be known for graces the game with a deeper sense of roleplaying that far outweighs the potential problems that come with labelling possibilities, and do a wonderful job of making your Hero of Kirkwall just that: yours.
With pirates and romance on the table, Dragon Age II’s cast may be even richer and more diverse than its predecessor. The silver-tongued Varric with his crossbow Bianca, a tragedy-stricken warrior woman, a lusty pirate, a mage infused with the spirit of Vengeance, and a freakishly strong slave with magic-infused tattoos don’t even make up the entire cast of potential allies, and can even come to be heartbreaking enemies should you make a complicated decision at the wrong time. Everything is always in flux in Dragon Age II, and the game does well to remind you that everyone has an agenda, and saving the world doesn’t forge permanent friendships. Having to kill confront and take down a character that had been with me for well over thirty hours of gameplay was a bitter and surprisingly refreshing outcome to a choice that I simply couldn’t falter on. It was invigorating and tragic all at once.
If you’ve crossed swords in Origins, you know what to expect from Dragon Age II on both the combat mechanic and visual fronts, as the two work very much in concert. To say that combat is messy would be an understatement, as veterans know to expect bodies exploding, decapitations, limb removal, and most other kinds of forceful bullying you can imagine. The game doesn’t stray far from its predecessor’s gore fetish, but textures and character details have not been left as they were, and Dragon Age II certainly keeps a look that prides itself on the ‘in your face’ splatters of blood and colourful scenes, in comparison to its predecessors attention to finer detail. Weapons and armor are unique, facial expressions are accurate, and the city of Kirkwall – though lacking in the smaller details that Dragon Age: Origins decorated itself with – is colorfully dreary, beaten, and full of life on a broader scale. Particularly when in combat, the game does well in presenting sharp character animations with loud shouts and crisp sounds, with plenty of spell-casting vibrancy.
Enemies are confronted in real-time as you explore the city and its few surroundings, and the hero has a select number of abilities at his disposal, as well as direct strategic control over his three chosen allies. These include permanent tactics that can be written on a character-to-character basis (for example, to have your mage automatically heal an ally when their health reaches less than 25%), and tactical pausing, where the player can directly control the actions of all four characters at once, be it target selection, movement, or skill use. What this means is that any given time, the player can shift his or her strategy to accommodate the arrival of a new wave of enemies or the death of an ally, reacting to abilities that induce weaknesses that other allies can take advantage of, keeping in a tightly-knit group where area of effect abilities become more effective, or spreading out to group up on a single stronger enemy, like the series’ infamously difficult dragon encounters. Don’t be mistaken, these strategies will become absolutely necessary if you plan to tackle the increasing number of difficulties that you’ll face as your choices pave the way to the conclusion of the Champion of Kirkwall’s story. Needless to say, there are plenty of forces to make an enemy out of, and equally as many to call to your side when things get messy.
It’s just a shame that for the detail that went into telling Hawke’s story, the player has to endure such a huge loss of customization options: teamwork based combat mechanics come at the price of a lack of class specialization diversity, for example, as the previously popular ‘tanking mage’ might interfere with the role of a warrior. The price for breathing life into Kirkwall is painfully imposing the lack of new zones to explore. As time passes and the refugee protagonist becomes Champion, his stay in Kirkwall is uninterrupted, and as a frustrating result the list of zones available to house the hero’s many quests stays as thin as it was in arc one.
Dragon Age II is a great game for fans and on the whole, but a handful of the features it boasts come accompanied by disappointing sacrifices that are particularly painful to those who have come to love and expect so much from the series. Be sure to take the handful of bad instances with the good, and you’ll find plenty to like about Dragon Age’s second installment.