Review: Dragon Age 2

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Varric the dwarf knows what makes a good story. A strong character and a
trusty sidekick go a long way, but impossible
odds and an epic scale create staying power.

“Dragon Age 2,” with Varric as its only slightly trustworthy narrator, tracks the rise of the Champion of Kirkwall from refugee to leading citizen. As the champion, Hawke to your friends, Dragon Age 2 is the story of your rise to power. Whether man or woman, peacemaker or warmonger, your Hawke will deal with a good deal of quandaries, no one makes it to the top unscathed.

The game begins in Ferelden, the land of its predecessor,
“Dragon Age: Origins,” but the city of Kirkwall is the setting for Hawke’s exploits. The City of Chains, as Kirkwall was known when it was a hub
in a slave-trading empire, is not welcoming to newcomers, but Hawke is
the persistent type.

Dragon Age 2 players do not confront the world-threatening Blight of “Origins,” but Hawke’s combat mettle be tested frequently. Returning Dragon Age players will see one of the sequel’s most obvious changes while fighting, as combat in “Dragon Age 2″
is more intense and reactive to players’ control.

“Origins” combat system punished button-mashers and favored tacticians. The sequel, however, tries to strike a balance by allowing
players to hack and slash their way to victory, resulting in gameplay that can be more viscerally
satisfying than its predecessor’s, if less intellectually so.

But Dragon Age 2 still maintains
tactical options for players who prefer a more cerebral, squad-based
approach. Players can issue orders to companion characters in order to address specific battle conditions. This allows your party members’ varied powers to complement one another, delivering attacks that leave enemies vulnerable to teammates’ lethal follow-ups.

The animations and combos create some thrills, and the pace of combat is
an improvement over “Origins,” where battles could feel plodding and
repetitive. Example: Archers and mages now have more to do than just stand to the
side lobbing arrows or fireballs and hoping no enemy gets in their
face.

The game’s developer, Bioware, has always been known for its characters
and story, which remains at the heart of “Dragon Age 2.”

Many games boast of having deep consequences to player’s choices,
but “Dragon Age 2″ really delivers. The game takes place over seven years, and seemingly innocuous decisions affect the game in unexpected ways.

Save a mage from marauding templars? You better hope she’s as grateful
as you think she should be. Help one of your friends? Hope that he was
playing straight with you. Even the simple choice you make in character
creation — warrior, rogue or mage — has profound impacts on how you
will relate to the world you encounter and the people you meet. I’ve
been impressed with the depth in side missions contingent on player
choices that have been revealed in multiple playthroughs.

Similarly to BioWare’s “Mass Effect” franchise, Dragon Age 2 allows players to import a saved game from “Origins” and its
expansion, “Awakening.” Unlike Mass Effect, players cannot and begin the sequel as the same
character from the previous game, but decisions made while playing “Origins” set a framework for the
new game’s events. Players will even see some cameos and quests in “Dragon Age 2″ that
you wouldn’t otherwise encounter without importing a save.

Despite the game’s brilliance in making your choices meaningful, the developers severely curtail your options in other areas. Dragon Age 2 forbids players from
changing teammates’ armor, prevents them from changing weapon types
(from melee to ranged, for example) and eliminates all non-combat
options from its skill trees.

Bioware’s “Mass Effect 2″ benefited from some similar changes
to its predecessor, but that franchise never had the robust loot and
inventory system that “Origins” featured. Where “Mass Effect” felt
streamlined, “Dragon Age” feels dumbed down.

Perhaps it was not an integral part of gameplay, but I always enjoyed
reading the descriptions written for every piece of arms, armor and loot
in “Origins.” They provided context and backstory and implicitly showed
the care brought to the creation of the game’s world. That feature has
been stripped away, leaving innumerable pieces of bland junk to sell and
cookie-cutter armor to equip in “Dragon Age 2.” The change makes
exploration less lively and rewarding.

As someone who loves role-playing games, I also missed the option to invest in skills such as persuasion, crafting and theft. There are many combat skills to choose from, but it’s disappointing that “Dragon Age 2″ limits your freedom to shape your character the way you could in “Origins.”

One change that is difficult to understand is the limit on dialogue with
your party members. For a developer that is justly celebrated for its
sharp writing and interesting characters, Bioware’s decision to cut back
on both of these hallmarks is puzzling. Even when there wasn’t anything
central to the plot to discuss it “Origins,” the conversations provided
many memorable moments. Morrigan’s story of stealing a mirror as a
little girl, for example, didn’t propel the plot of “Origins,” but it
did provide insight into the game’s most complex and beguiling
character.

“Dragon Age 2″ does not allow you to strike up conversations at will
with your companions. You must wait for a quest to appear telling you to
talk to them. The conversations that result do provide opportunities to
know your teammates better, but they are often brief and sometimes feel
forced, like the game just wants you to touch base so you don’t forget
the person is there.

This especially feels like a missed opportunity given the seven-year
time span of the game. The friendships and romances that can develop
with your teammates never seem to blossom as fully as they did in
“Origins.” Some of the game’s best character moments come in the
conversations that your teammates have amongst themselves as you walk
the streets of Kirkwall. And although many are funny or revealing about
the characters, these moments are not interactive.

When you are talking to people, though, the conversation mechanic
provides a clear advantage over “Origins” and its silent protagonist.
Hawke is fully voiced, and your dialogue options are chosen from a wheel
of emotions much like that in “Mass Effect.” The voice acting — with
Varric and the vivacious pirate Isabela being the standouts — is
excellent throughout the game.

I’ve spent a lot of time picking on a game I have actually enjoyed quite
a bit, but with the potential revealed in “Dragon Age: Origins” and
with the standards Bioware has established for itself, I can’t avoid
feeling a bit of disappointment about “Dragon Age 2.” It has plenty of
entertainment to sustain one or more playthroughs, and the post-release
add-ons from Bioware are usually very strong, but the steps in the wrong
direction outweigh its progress over “Origins.”

Dragon Age 2
BioWare / EA Games
PC / PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360
Rated M for Mature