In continuing my “catch up” session, here is my Dragon Age II review.
Dragon Age II is a title that received controversy online. The original was well received, giving the players a modern experience with a traditional role-playing game. Hell, even I, who had very little experience with traditional RPG’s around the time I first touched Dragon Age: Origins, experienced an overwhelming sensation of nostalgia from playing. For many, the original drawed upon their nostalgia and gave an enjoyable play through this. The sequel, however, does not deliver this sentiment.
Release Date: 11th March 2011 (UK)
Platform: PC, PlayStation 3 [Reviewed], Xbox 360
Dragon Age II follows Hawke, a refugee in the city of Kirkwall who is destined to be the Champion of Kirkwall. He escapes during the Fifth Blight, in Fereldan (the events of which conspire in Dragon Age: Origins), with his family into his mother’s birthplace. It is here that Hawke has a run with the Qunari and becomes an important figure in the ever ensuing fued between the Mages, whom are deemed too dangerous to let free, and the Templars, the knights who oppress the mages. The narrative itself focuses on a central theme of whether human rights should be sacrificed in order to maintain order.
The game is split into three acts seperated by key narrative events, with each act complimented by its own series of quests. The story being split into three acts, each seperated over the course of a number of years, allows the player to experience and involve themself in the change of Kirkwall under the ever-corrupting rule of the Templars, as well as discovering the consequences of earlier actions in previous years. As of such, players may also initiate quests which actually continue from a previous act, developing their own narrative and becoming a reasonably strong subplot which integrate with the central theme. These subplots delve deeper into the player’s sense of morality, resultingly making them question whether the ends is worth the means. I personally found myself siding with the rebel faction – the mages – more than I ever did the Templars, but there were a couple of tricky situations of which I struggled to pick a choice I felt was the right one as I played my character as a noble hero.
Being a role-playing game, you’d expect a lot of freedom to play the character you want to play. Unfortunately, this is when Dragon Age II becomes a shell of its former self. Whilst the previous title allowed you to choose from six origin stories, three classes and both genders of three races, Dragon Age II only allows you to choose both genders for three classes. The origin is the same, and the story itself is generally the same regardless of the actions you make. Indeed, the only real impactful choice in the game comes at the end. Beyond that, the game pretty much plays the same both times. This results in the replayibility of the game being completely underwhelming in comparison to the previous outing. Despite this, I did find exploring the other perspectives interesting. It just wasn’t enough to keep my second playthrough fresh.
The combat system feels significantly different in comparison to the previous title, but less has been changed as may appear. The pace has been increased, with battles becoming much faster and have now taken on the pace of an action game such as God of War. Players attack enemies through button mashing, occasonally mixing in abilities for various effects. While this is more immersive than the previous, with the user feeling more involved in the battle, it doesn’t take very long for the experience to become very shallow. Ultimately, there is nothing really to gain from being more in control of battle. Instead of watching them fight, and making impactful decisions, you are mashing the attack key while trying to keep your eyes out for an opening for one of your abilities – and that’s if you ever use them.
I found the majority of battles that I participated in were over in a flash, with myself only ever really mashing attack. My abilities were usually left unused, as they were relatively unnecessary in the many skirmishes you will face. Even with the difficulty turned up, I found that I rarely had to bother with the exception of the higher class enemies. The strategy from the previous outing was lost in exchange for short and flashy battles. While I do admit that there is still the useful tactics system, and how you develop your character requires some level of thought, they didn’t seem to be as effective in the previous. When a new ability is obtained, the characters’ tactics slots are usually updated to include their new skill; meanwhile levelling up has been made more simpler, with each class having two attributes that they specialise in – leaving the others pretty redundant.
Essentially, the new battle system seems to open up a new level of control in battle. And yet, it doesn’t take this new system anywhere. It plays out much of the same as the initial title did, with the bonus of possibly suffering a sore thumb or finger by the end of your playthrough. What could have lead to more depth (maybe invoking a combo system where the effectiveness of an ability is altered based upon the actual ability and when in the combo it is used?) only leads to an experience that, in all honesty, just feels more shallow than the last outing – despite the fact that it does not take anything of substance away (albeit the pace does often make abilities redundant, but I would chalk that up to the change in enemy attributes over anything).
There are plenty of quests to partake, but they usually all amount to the same ‘go here, kill that’ formula. It’s great that they add more story to their quests, but the quests still need more variety in terms of actual gameplay.
One of the key improvements, however, is the level of role playing in regards to a linear story. Bioware have a great tale to tell with Dragon Age II, even if the conclusion can leave the player disatisfied. It’s obvious to me that the story was the focus of this game, with gameplay shunned to second place. Despite that, the role-playing mechanics are superb. The player’s character, Hawke, develops his personality based upon your interactions with other characters. If you make many jokes, then Hawke will become a more sarcastic and witty character, for example. Furthermore, there are still plenty of choices for him to make that cover both ends of the spectrum. It’s just a shame that they usually amount to little more than just an immediate effect, with little consequence beyond the present dialogue.
While the soundtrack was pretty well made, in my opinion, it quickly gets repetitive as a result of the sheer lackluster amount of locales to explore. The player often finds themselves revisiting the same handful of areas. The worst offender here are the interior maps – be it inside a cave or inside a building – there are about three or four of these maps total, and that’s more accurate than I wish to admit. Yet, considering the sheer number, quests almost always lead to visiting at least one of them, if not more. What results from this is nothing more than the repetitive formula quests becoming even more repetitive with their shared maps. It really doesn’t help that all of these maps are very plain, with the most interesting visuals being the background that I was left just wishing I could explore more of.
I can’t help but write negatively of Dragon Age II, despite it being a game I easly spent over one hundred hours of my life on. I personally found its repetitive nature strangely addicting. While the title doesn’t have much going for itself when you compare it to what the original was, don’t let it be said that Dragon Age II is an awful game. Far from it. It just becomes increasingly frustrating seeing the potential that the game has, and how it squanders it with what seems to be too little development time. And no wonder too. The game was released but a year and a half after the original. That’s shockingly short considering the genre, scale and content of the game, and what it had to live up to. There was no way that Bioware could have ever hoped to achieve anything slightly less of the game they were developing a sequel for, let alone surpass themselves.
To me, Dragon Age II is an example of a game that truly has so much going for it, and yet seemingly has little to show. It’s a great and fun game, with an immersive story and experience to play, but ultimately falls short of any expectations. In many regards, it feels incomplete with its lack of maps, underwhelming consequences from all those choices that you get to make, reducing number of quests as the game goes on, and the seemingly shallow combat. This game is an example of what happens to a game when developers try to make a title more accessible to the market. The title just feels more shallow, even if the substance found in previous titles remains. It is also an example of the terrible effects of a bad development cycle, with this game apparently getting too little time to be worked on – most likely a consequence of the older brother title, Mass Effect 3, being released later in the same year. A game of this magnitude should surely get at least two years of development time, otherwise the outcome is an unfinished and underwhelming game that leaves a disatisfying after-taste.
For what it’s worth, Dragon Age II was a title I love, but it does not really earn that love from me. It aims high but falls significantly short, as the game feels unfinished and rushed. There aren’t many people I would genuinely recommend it to over Dragon Age: Origins. In fact, there aren’t many I would recommend it to at all. If you like Dragon Age, I suggest you give it at least a rent, because it does have an interesting tale to be told, but you will be done with it after your first play-through. For anyone else: give this game a miss. It’s a real shame, too.
(Because people fret over scores so much, I have to give Dragon Age II a 6/10. This value means that the game is above average, but has nothing special going for it. In this case, it failed to live up to its predecessor, therefore it not only failed at its own potential, but at the potential of the game it was meant to be improving.)