Heroes often come from auspicious origins – that was the story told in the first Dragon Age game as players gained insight into the world of the game thanks to an eternal conflict between inhuman darkspawn and the people of Thedas. We came to see the gothic and often very bloody fantasy setting through the eyes of a hero pressed into greater calling through destiny as the Warden.
The Warden's tale was fairly standard as fantasy RPGs go – from small fry you develop into a serious player within the kingdom of Ferelden. It's adventures followed a fixed path toward an inevitable conclusion with side adventures and later downloadable add on content offering some alternate perspectives on the main game's characters and events.
Dragon Age 2
breaks with this traditional approach. Instead of a chronologically linear storytelling mechanism, the player is instead treated to a 3rd person and often unreliable narration. The main character, like their Dragon Age: Origins predecessor rises from nothing to become an important figure, the difference this time – it isn't an immediate climb, but instead a ten year epic.
The main aim of the game is to tell a chapter-based story and while it still has most of the contrivances of a fantasy role-playing game, there is far less focus on discovery and exploration this time out, instead Dragon Age 2 focuses on button-mashing high action sequences told in distinct pieces.
Those expecting a repeat of Origins with some slight tuning need to adjust their expectations before jumping back into the Dragon Age universe. The gameplay is not the same, the focus of this game is firmly set on the development – thematically – of a single person. Hawke, your proxy, will eventually become the champion of Kirkwall, the game's primary setting, though don't be fooled into believing that champion means hero necessarily.
Instead of choosing a race/class combination and then playing through a tailored prologue, Dragon Age 2 shortcuts a bit while allowing you to choose a profession but not a background. Since you are Hawke (much like you are Commander Shepard in Mass Effect and its sequels), the beginning of the game is fixed. Sure you get to pick your class, gender and can customize your looks, but no matter what you are playing the same character with a few variations in approach.
Fans of the origin element of Origins might complain but this is not Origins 2, it's a completely new game set in the Dragon Age setting with some overlap and connection to the events of the first. Hawke comes from Lothering, which is a location the Warden attempts to save in the original title but ultimately loses to the surge of the Darkspawn horde. This catalytic event drives the character to flee Ferelden and expands our experience to a new setting across the sea called Kirkwall.
Kirkwall is a very different place. The walled city is ruled by a vicount in title but truly is kept together through the refugee crisis of the Ferelden Blight by the religious military Chantry. These holy knights and priests stand against the corruption of the world and guard/monitor the mages with an iron grip and close eye. Magic, the chantry believes, is a sign of evil corruption and humanity cannot be left alone with such power unguided lest demons corrupt its wielders and enter the world. This conflict between the Chantry and the mages takes center stage in Dragon Age 2.
Along with the refugee angle, the Champion is saddled with something else the Warden lacked – a family. This “real connection” I suspect was meant to help players see the family and build personal connections, but in my playthroughs my siblings (either a brother who is a warrior or sister who is a mage) quickly became less interesting traveling partners, lost in the more interesting friends I made through the game's story who weren't forced on to me (Which mirrors my personal family life I guess). The change in storytelling is probably the least damaging change. Building Dragon Age 2 around a strong central figure, giving that character a distinct history and voice to play on – these are techniques that make Mass Effect stand out so it's nice to see them employed here. The limited options might rankle some but this is more a storytelling game than a freeform “make the story up in your head” sort of adventure like past Bioware outings.
Gameplay for Dragon Age 2 also experienced quite a few tweaks, not all of them for the better. Since the series has a broad following on PC and consoles it's fairly clear that the computer version would not necessarily stay mouse and keyboard focused. With the console version of the game players now have to smash buttons to attack enemies, unlike in Origins where combat was more passive and tactical.
The PC version luckily avoids this convention. Once players target a foe and initiate a basic attack, the game knows to continue whacking the enemy until another command or special ability is employed. This version of the game also carries over the PC-centric control interface instead of the analog stick design used in it's console counterpart. The camera still allows some zoom-in or out function but feels more cinematic and does not pull back to the same extent as Origins allowed.
Combat can still be paused and players can easily switch between party members to issue commands and micro-manage. The tactics scripting returns as well, though frankly it's not hard to play the game on any platform and survive all but the toughest battles without setting up tactics.
Bioware games are often told through massive dialog sections. While Dragon Age: Origins felt like an upgraded Neverwinter Nights approach, DA2 is full on Mass Effect 2 in its handling of morality and dialog. One nice change even from the rotating dialog choice interface of Mass Effect 2 is the addition of “mood” indicators. The game displays a general approach related to a dialog choice – for instance an aggessive response displays a closed red fist or crossed swords. Polite or respectful dialog is labeled with a peach frond, etc.
Visually Dragon Age 2 is quite a large boost from the original. Bioware has even included a DirectX 10.1/11 engine to polish the images even better. This support for modern graphics hardware and a free download of the high resolution texture package for PC users leaves Dragon Age 2 shining with visual fidelity. New clothes however come with new problems it seems as many players with high-end video cards are experiencing quite few gamestopping problems with the title.
Those who played the Dragon Age 2 demo noticed a lot of strange problems visually, but the full version of the game launched out of the box with completely different issues – some of which make the game unplayable using the DX11 renderer. Workarounds exist for Nvidia and ATI users including dropping back to the default DirectX 9 settings, but be warned if you're expecting a smooth experience out of the box that your $400 dual video card rig might stutter and stall during the game's cutscenes and dialog moments.
Dragon Age 2 tells a very interesting story and overlaps and reacts to certain decisions players make during Origins, but it often feels like an unfinished game. Not because of flaws in plot or characterization, but in its environment and dungeon designs.
The choice to make Dragon Age 2 an urban adventure is bold. There are some great templates to follow in fantasy fiction – like the Hawk & Fisher Haven books or Discworld, but the key to making an urban game is exciting locations and distinct characters that make the city feel alive. Dragon Age 2 fails on both these requirements. Instead of a large diverse urban center, Kirkwall is distilled down into a few sparsely populated zones. You never feel like there are more than 20 or 30 people in any area of the city at one time, which is depressing.
Scenario design also suffers because it's obvious that by about 10 hours into the game you've experienced the same 15 maps over and over again in place of distinctly different environments. The mines have doors that in one instance may be open or lead to enemies but in others are blocked by solid stone and impassible. However, the map display is exactly the same and the environment even has the same set dressing. It's depressing and leads to problems for me in believing I'm actually venturing to a new place or experiencing something new.
There are moments of genius buried in Dragon Age 2's approach to storytelling, it is a good chance to return to a popular and familiar franchise, but it just feels a bit shortchanged thanks to the technical and game design limitiations. Just because Bioware makes great story-based games doesn't mean they should get a pass for the things they chose to shortcut in this title.