Posted on March 9, 2011, Ross Lincoln Dragon Age II Review
BY THE WAY: check out the Dragon Age 2 unlimited gold/XP glitch video we put together.
Dragon Age II (PC [Reviewed], XBox360, PS3)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 8, 2011
If you only want to know our opinion of Dragon Age so you can decide whether or not to buy it, here goes:
1) Hot Diggity Damn.
2) It’s better than the original, by leaps and bounds
3) It is totally worth your time and money.
There, now you can stop reading right now and go pick up it up. Dragon Age II is incredible. Epic in scope, packed with activity, and yet intimate in scale, it expands on the universe introduced in Dragon Age: Origins, builds on that story and still manages, via minor tweaks and dramatic changes, to improve the series without diminishing what made Origins an instant classic.
What’s It All About?
By far, the biggest change between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II is in the story.
Dragon Age: Origins was a richly developed universe, but it served as the backdrop for a story about
England Ferelden‘s war against the Darkspawn destroying the country. While you witnessed racism, religious intolerance, greed, all the things that make people so wonderful, going from newbie to hero (and possibly, co-monarch) in the process, emphasis was on power-politics, war, and how your character affected and was affected by them.
Dragon Age II veers dramatically from that. The focus this time is the story of Hawke, member of a family of Fereldean refugees we first meet in the middle of the aforementioned war. The destruction of their home (and loss of a beloved sibling), drives them to neighboring
Scotland’s The Free Marshes’ city of Kirkwall. Here, they seek refuge with a relative and try to make a new llife.
Thus begins a story that will cover a decade. Seeking merely to set his/her family fortunes right, Hawke and co. rise from starving exiles to wealthy pillars of Kirkwall, eventually finding themselves amidst a racial/religious conflict at the heart of the Dragon Age universe. Without spoiling too much, the plights of Elves, Qunari and Mages at the hands of an oppressive society intertwine with the fate of Hawke’s family.
If Dragon Age: Origins is about putting aside differences to face an external threat, Dragon Age II is about what happens after the threat is gone and those differences haven’t been addressed. Deliciously anvilicious, DAII flings the unexamined tropes of epic fantasy (unexamined racism, imperialism and love of war) right in the faces of people accustomed to view them as reassuringly patriotic. Religious authorities, it should be noted, are the single biggest oppressors, and while they’d deny political intent, one can’t help wondering if the Canadians at BioWare might be trying to tell Americans a little something about ourselves.
Political or not, it’s gripping. The war sets the plot in motion, but it’s the aftermath of that war that sets the scene. You’ll therefore definitely want to import your DAO file; even though you won’t be playing the same character, the decisions you made, (especially in DLC), will dramatically affects your DAII universe. There’s also the added bonus of getting to explore a previously unrevealed section of a universe that feels completely familiar, and experience a story that strikes similar notes to other great postwar/post disaster tales; everything from Grapes of Wrath, Exodus, The Third Man to Uncle Tom’s Cabin get subtle and not-so-subtle nods over the course of the decade you spend with Hawke.
It’s far more complex than I expected, but it also retains BioWare’s sense of humor. There’s a clever reference to a rap song from 1994; more sexual banter (and hook ups) than a Bond film; they even did the impossible and created a medieval version of the Internet age’s biggest annoyance. Making something of a family drama – albeit one with magic, ass kicking and tons of sex – is a gonadsy choice for the sequel to a fairly standard Fantasy RPG. Add a lot of open ended story options – characters live and die based on player decisions that aren’t mandatory – and bladow. BioWare have topped Mass Effect 2 and, I suspect, have given a preview of ME3.
Other Gamefronters have remarked that BioWare set out to make DAII friendlier to consoles than PCs. I didn’t play the PC version of DAO, but I can confirm that on Xbox 360, DAII is just better, especially during combat.
When I first popped it in, I recognized the first 5 minutes or so as the same section featured in the recent demo. If that demo underwhelmed you, rest assured that it was intentional. BioWare pulled their punches, and bully for them too. See, during that first section I was struck by something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but something was definitely… different. Then it hit me:
Now that’s what I’m talking about: good old fashioned blood and guts. They have really, drastically ramped up the violence and gore, and thank The Maker for it.
Before you even meet Hawke, you get an all-you-can-eat buffet of gore – bloodsplosions, red geyers from de-torsoed legs, animated corpse-dispersal – that shows off how immediate and awesome DAII combat is. I played as a mage, and can confirm that it’s no longer the medieval equivalent of tech support. Instead of issuing commands while standing as far away as possible, now you get a giant stick that beats the crap out of people while flinging magical projectiles, making you feel like a wizarding Green Beret.
You’ll still want to get the hang of issuing commands while standing as far away as possible. Mages are weaker than the other classes, and while blood and gore spew forth from the weaker enemies you face at the game’s onset, don’t let that fool you into thinking it lasts. You try that magical special-ops crap on some of the harder bosses before you’re ready and you’ll find yourself cheesed to death with annoying speed.
This is an RPG, and that means level grind. Do every quest you can, as often as you can. Level up, because no matter how good you are with tactics, you will be humiliated if you haven’t. Even so, the newly streamlined talent-tree lets you assign earned points as needed, instead of forcing you down a linear path. It means you can emphasize skills you think will benefit you against certain bosses and/or quest objectives, and build up other skills later. It makes it much easier to plan your game and takes the grind out of level grinding.
Fortunately, DAII retains one of Origins‘ best features: switching between party members, considering weaknesses and strengths to maximize your chances. Even as the badassish magic and simplified commands make battles more immediate, tactical play remains important. You’ll find yourself flipping through your team, distracting with one, attacking with another, treating the group as a unit as often as you treat them individually.
The conversation system has also been replaced, and now more closely resembles a greatly expanded version of the Mass Effect system. You can select serious, sarcastic, even flirty conversation options that influence how your character is treated in a far more developed way than the previous game. Combined with the excellent voice acting and interactive NPCs littering, literally, the city and environs, you have an engrossing, addictive experience that is as much fun to play as it is to watch.
Some Final Details
There’s so much more of course. You’ve heard that players can only play as humans, but that’s almost made up for with the vastly enhanced character customization (including the very un-BioWare ability to change hairstyles in-game). Graphics are improved, and better still, so are character models. Dwarves, Elves, Qunari, Humans and so on look like different species now, instead of well-financed cosplayers.
In fact, Dragon Age II is such an excellent success that it’s hard to criticize, but it isn’t perfect, not exactly. It runs a bit hot on 360. More than once I experienced mild stuttering and pop ups. There’s also a kind of repetitive quality to minor bosses.
Like this guy:
If spiders bore you, then you are going to find Dragon Age II infuriating because you will fight giant spiders every other half hour for the first half of the game. It also takes more than 40 hours to finish. Be warned. You might hate that, but if like me, long is good, then find a pillow and get started!
(yes, this is a real pillow that you can really buy.)
But some slowness, stuttering, length and repetition are small prices to pay for such a great take on a Fantasy genre I assumed had no new ideas. I’ve tried to avoid describing the story except in broad strokes; it should really be digested uniquely. Whatever choices you make, by the cliffhanger ending that reveals an astounding detail about the current state of Dragon Age: Origin’s Ferelden, it’s clear that the Dragon Age series is aiming to do for fantasy what Mass Effect did for sci fi: Make us forget about the tired old template (in this case, Lord of The Rings) for once, and try something different.
* Great Story, original take on Epic Fantasy
* Excellent combat, graphics, character models
* Streamlined some RPG aspects to reduce boredom, expanded others to increase scope
* Great voice acting, writing
* Xbox 360 version stutters
* Repetitious minor enemies
* Possibly too long for some players