BioWare has come a long way from the days of Baldur’s Gate. Dragon Age: Origins was their last major RPG that still felt reminiscent of their old days, but Dragon Age II has changed things rather drastically, for better or worse. The game plays less like a typical western RPG and more like a full-blown action-RPG, with popular elements from BioWare’s other massive franchise, Mass Effect. While the changes have been quite divisive, the final product is still just as solid as ever.
The first major change is with the art style. While the overall look of the game seems improved, especially the character models, it still feels a bit drab at times. Most of the environments you explore are similar: you’ll find yourself in the same caves, mansions, mountainsides, etc. Once you’ve been in one cave, you’ve been in them all. Kirkwall, the main city, seems pretty lacking in detail as well. It’s a fun place to explore, but everything looks bland in comparison to Origins.
This ties in with another major complaint: DA2 feels less open than its predecessor. You spend the majority of your journey in Kirkwall, or the small surrounding areas. Aside from the beginning of the game, you’re almost never outside of this area. Kirkwall itself is great, but it definitely feels a lot more linear than Origins. While Origins was not completely open, it still felt like a truly enriched world, not just a single city.
The story is also less epic this time around. You play as Hawke, who is attempting to escape the Darkspawn hordes with your family after they have destroyed your home. And with some help, you make your way to the city of Kirkwall. The Darkspawn, the major threat from the first game, are barely present in this adventure. The main conflict that looms throughout the three major acts deals with the political struggles of Kirkwall.
The idea that you’re a character in a fantasy game that isn’t trying to save the world from certain doom is refreshing. You’re dealing with conflicts on a more personal level, which is great, but the writers never go far with it. You often find yourself doing rather meaningless tasks and dealing with story points that only vaguely tie in with the main plot. There is no major driving force or threat; you’re simply trying to keep Kirkwall’s inhabitants from killing each other. It’s fine as a subplot, but as the main focus of the entire game it falls flat. There are some good points in the story, but they never go anywhere. And with an incredibly disappointing ending, you’ll feel your adventures in Kirkwall were for practically nothing.
Complaints about the story aside, Dragon Age II’s writing is brilliant, and some of BioWare’s best. The characters all stand on their own as unique and truly fulfilling, as are your interactions with them. By implementing Mass Effect’s “dialogue wheel” system, your choices feel more impactful.
Eventually Hawke’s own personality begins to unfold and develop; you can make the typical “good” choices for most of the game, and as you do that, Hawke’s natural reaction to certain events will change drastically. Even the “evil” choices will come across as more sympathetic than you might expect. It’s a great system and it adds wonders to the replayability.
The major change with Dragon Age II is the combat. No longer included is an “auto attack” function and instead plays like a typical action game. As a warrior, for example, you use the A button to do your basic attack, and the other buttons correlate with your different special attacks (depending on what you have assigned). You can still open a pause menu to do other actions or to change your party’s tactics, but it’s still a lot faster as a result of these changes.
The battle system is fast, fun, and a huge improvement over the original. While playing as a class like the warrior might get a bit old, the options available for both rogues and mages are quite limitless, making them both the more versatile classes available. The changes made here are the biggest cause for concern, but they only help to speed the game up and make it flow better.
The game has a huge list of side quests to complete as well, making your time in Kirkwall a lengthy one. While some of them are largely forgettable, a lot of the quests you encounter really add a lot to the game. This is especially true of your companion quests, which open up a lot of information about your party members and could expand a lot in the main story as a result.
Dragon Age II is, in one overused word, epic. It may lack the grand story and openness of its predecessor, but it more than makes up for it with sharp writing and fast-paced combat. It’s an addictive game you won’t want to stop playing even after the credits roll.
Pros: Dialogue system and character interactions are top notch; effective writing; fun, albeit simplified combat system; plenty of side quests
Cons: Overarching story is weak and predictable; despite having a ton of content available, the game doesn’t feel as open as Origins; dungeons and environments are drab; disappointing ending