Dragon Age 2 is a fine game that could have been something special were it not for some glaring flaws and cut corners. Although it makes you wonder just how little development time Bioware had, the peaks in the game and its story are so great that when it’s done you can’t help but be glad you played it, even if the overall design disappoints. It’s also a divisive game, and for good reason.
Despite Origins’ success, almost nothing in Dragon Age 2 goes untouched. A lot of systems are needlessly simplified (injuries, party member loadouts), replaced (the combat model), or flat out removed (non combat skills), leaving less for the player to actually do in the game world. Granted, not everybody liked all of Origin’s fiddly bits and it’s clear Bioware designed this game with that group in mind. If you like Mass Effect, which was designed more inline with the advantages and restrictions of console gaming, better than Origins (a more PC-centric design) or if you’re a fan of speedy World of Warcraft-style combat, you’ll think this game is an improvement. Fans of Origins and the Infinity Engine games will mark this game a retreat from what was a very fair marriage of classic CRPG gameplay and modern design ideals. I do admire a lot of what Bioware tried to do with this game, I stand with the latter.
Dragon Age 2 leaves behind the story of the Greywarden, which was a smart move. What more was there for the Greywarden to do, really? It instead puts you in the role of Hawke, a Ferelden refugee trying to protect his mother and two siblings as the Blight-driven darkspawn burn their home town of Lothering to the ground. This brief overlap with the events of Origins is a good way of bringing you into the character’s world and setting up the change in scenery to the primary setting of Kirkwall, a massive city in the Free Marches. Once there your only real aim is to build a new life for you and yours, but as the ever-present narrator makes clear from the get go, you’ll soon be sucked into events wildly beyond your control. Who’d of guessed?
This is a much smaller and more personal story than Origins, an epic game that is about as close as you can get to a gaming equivalent of Lord of the Rings. As much as I loved Origins, I liked the more personal touch here. Games don’t always have to be about saving the world, the universe, or the entire multi-dimensional plane of existence. You can do things with story and character in a smaller story that you can’t do in a bigger story and it’s clear that was Bioware’s aim. If only they’d been a little better at it.
As a game Dragon Age 2 continues the design philosophy Bioware used for Mass Effect 2: Less is more. Take everything that isn’t great and get rid of it. Some call that trimming the fat; I call it a disappointing retreat from a gutsy and successful first effort.
Like Mass Effect 2, the gameplay here can be summed up in two words: Talking and combat. You go to a location, talk to the character with the helpful arrow over their head, depart for the quest location, and fight your way along a narrow, consistently recycled corridor from point A to point B, get the object of your quest, and fast travel back to talk to somebody else. It works, but it is repetitive. Sometimes the game doesn’t even bother with the talky bits; you just find an item and a quest pops up, magically telling you just where the total stranger is that lost their precious puppy or scarf. How helpful. And uninteresting.
Although it has some amazing visual effects and a full complement of fighting skills with which to tweak out your characters, this same sense of repetitive design is applicable to the new combat model. To be fair, the more immediately responsive combat controls are sure to appeal to people who thought combat was a sluggish affair in Origins. Although I didn’t care for the ramped-up pace and over the top action, there’s a credible argument to be made that the combat is better balanced this time around and that the emphasis on cross-class combos (using one character to set up an adversary for massive damage by another) leads to more interesting battles. The game also makes better use of threat generation such that you really do have to be careful about protecting your powerful, but more vulnerable, party members from adversaries. It’s just a shame that encounter themselves are so monumentally predictable.
Every encounter plays out according to the same script. Find bad guys, fight for a few minutes until reinforcements arrive in the middle of your group (sometimes right out of thin air), win the battle. The only variation is that sometimes there will be a third or fourth wave of reinforcements or a boss monster for you to widdle away at for ten minutes. When you’re telling a smaller story it’s important to really craft the experience for the player and the combat here is anything but crafted. It’s a script that runs over and over again for 40 hours of gameplay.
Another move that cements the franchise’s transition towards action RPG gameplay is the removal of all non-combat character skills beyond lockpicking, which itself is incredibly simplistic. Skills that deal with success in dialog–making potions or poisons, etc.–are gone, and it makes character building far less interesting. Decisions about how to build out core attributes, which, in Origins, were already just a number-sink with no sense of scale, are almost entirely meaningless now because the design of the character classes (rogue, mage, or fighter) forces you to focus almost entirely on just two of them. Hey, I just leveled up my rogue! Let’s see. Time to pump another three points into my Cunning and Dexterity. Again. Maybe this time I’ll go hog wild and add a point of Constitution (hit points) or Willpower (stamina).
Remarkably there’s even less to worry about with your NPC party members, who are now heavily equipment restricted. Fenris is a two-hander. Period. Mages use staves. Done. And armor? Don’t even think about messing with Isabella’s threads because her look is here to stay. So if you’re playing a mage who just found a kick-ass set of plate, a helmet, gauntlets, or boots that would be perfect for Aveline, too bad. It’s only for you and you don’t qualify because you’re a mage. Hit the merchant district, pal. Don’t worry. In an hour or two you’ll find an identical item with stats that are a hair better and you can sell that too. One wonders why Bioware bothered with loot at all, considering the only thing you can do with most of it is sell it. (The lack of icon art in your inventory, by the way, is yet another cut corner.)
Thank god for the story and characters, which, to their credit, are where Bioware eats and breathes. No, their style isn’t for everyone, and if you’re not a fan of the developer’s past work this is unlikely to change your mind, but ultimately Dragon Age 2 lives up to and often exceeds their high standards.
As the game played out I grew attached in one way or another to every character who joined my party. They each found their way to me (or vice-versa) from different places and each brought something interesting to the table, both from a skill and personality perspective. Their motivations are consistently clear, if not their goals, and it all leads to some marvelously difficult choices for the player to make. Themes of trust and betrayal are at the core of your relationships (both romantic and friendly) in Dragon Age 2 and by the end game I found myself astounded and blissfully dismayed at the outcome of some of their stories and my part in them. The romances, too, are a cut above a lot of what we’ve seen from their past work.
The main story also works incredibly well on multiple levels and it forces you to make a bevy of uncomfortable choices. It’s common for games of this type to tell you a situation is complicated or that one side is good or bad, but you too rarely see it in the process of playing the game. In Dragon Age 2, you see first hand what the various political conflicts are about and you see why there are no easy answers. As Hawke, you’re constantly pushed to pick what you hope is the lesser of two evils, often finding the results of your choices don’t lead to the result you had imagined or hoped for. The only caveat to it all is that the impact many of your choices have on the game are largely for show. You will agonize over this decision or that decision only to find the story comes back around to the same result no matter what you do. I suppose you could argue it’s a commentary on powerlessness despite possessing great power and influence, but in practice it feels like Bioware was unable or unwilling to craft a story where your decisions truly altered the course of events in the game. Fortunately, it’s an incredible ride regardless and I respect the genuine creativity that went into telling this story.
Although I question Bioware’s prioritization of interactive cinema over interesting and variable gameplay, that doesn’t mean Dragon Age 2 isn’t worth experiencing. This game grabs and tears at your emotions like few others can and that is worth a lot. For all of its lack of broad gameplay, it’s got plenty of style to go around and, though repetitive, the visceral (if overdone) thrill of the combat keeps the experience chugging along even after the actual routine gets old. This is not remotely a bad game, but its supreme lack of ambition with regards to gameplay, combined with the shocking number of cut corners, left me with the impression that it’s a compromised effort that was built with more emphasis on speed to market than substance. Play it, yes, but get it on a discount.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB: M (Mature)
Genre: Fantasy Action RPG
Platform: PC (also 360, PS3)
*Originally published at Gameshark.com, 4/2011
*Minor text updates, 2/16/2016
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