Dragon Age: Origins on the consoles was a flawed but fun title. The biggest problem was that it was clearly made for the PC and ported over to consoles. It certainly worked, but one couldn't help but wish that they'd spent more time ironing out the kinks. Dragon Age II, on the other hand, is clearly designed from the group up for consoles, but it isn't a refinement of Dragon Age: Origins. The best way to describe it a blend of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, but mixing two great games doesn't necessarily yield a great game.
Players are put into control of Hawke, a refugee from Ferelden, where the original Dragon Age: Origins took place. The Darkspawn Blight that overtook the land forced Hawke and his (or her) family to retreat to the city of Kirkwall. Hawke spends the next seven years dealing with situation and attempting to survive, although everything in the city has one root conflict: the Mages vs. the Templar. The Mages are magic users who occasionally run the risk of going insane and becoming superpowered demons and monsters. The Templar are a group of enforcers who wish to prevent this at any cost, even if it means oppressing or killing Mages who haven't done anything wrong. Hawke's adventures constantly put him in conflict with either the Mages or the Templar, and the eventual story forces Hawke to decide if freedom is more important than safety. Along the way, he'll be crowned the Champion of Kirkwall and forever alter the city's fate.
The meandering story spends an exceedingly long time without any real focus, and I had a tough time caring about Kirkwall, Hawke or anything that was going on. I complained about the unoriginal threat provided by the Darkspawn in the prior game, but at least they drove the story. Dragon Age II is theoretically about the buildup to a conflict between the Mages and the Templers, but it never really goes anywhere. The final boss encounter feels uninteresting and anticlimactic because it relies on a plot device that was introduced — and forgotten — early on. As if to make it worse, the game ends on a cliffhanger and a thinly veiled foreshadowing for Dragon Age III. You spend most of the game building up to Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, but when you are the champion, the final chapter is over in a flash. It would be as if Mass Effect spent a long time building up to Commander Shepard becoming a Spectre and then had one brief mission before the game was over.
To be fair, something similar could be said about Mass Effect 2, but there is a difference. Mass Effect 2's party members were a more developed and fleshed-out group of characters, and while the plot didn't move forward much, it was because you spent time learning about and working with this interesting group. Most of the party members in Dragon Age II are terribly one-note and seem to exist only to be a mouthpiece for one of the game's two viewpoints. The characters in Mass Effect 2 or the original Dragon Age were fairly broad stereotypes, but at least they felt like characters instead of walking viewpoints. Rogue characters Varric and Isabella, who fell outside of the Mage/Templar divide, feel more like actual characters. To the game's credit, the characters develop through casual conversations as you're walking around. You find out about interpersonal relationships, and they have discussions that are unrelated to the divide. Unfortunately, if you happen to bring along characters who disagree, you can expect these character-building conversations to devolve into petty sniping.
Dragon Age II takes a page from Alpha Protocol in that making characters like you isn't the game's only option. Your response to questions can either earn you friendship or rivalry with characters, but the friendship/rivalry system has very weird and inconsistent gains. Despite what you'd expect, friendship isn't gained by simply doing things the character likes and rivalry isn't gained by doing things they dislike. Most characters have roughly one viewpoint that really matters, and you get points if you follow that viewpoint. Go against it, and you lose points. This doesn't always mesh with what is occurring, and sometimes you'll even lose points for doing exactly what the character told you to. I had one of my party members dislike me for distrusting a demon after they specifically told me not to trust that demon.
Dragon Age II foregoes the dialogue system from the original game in favor of one inspired by Mass Effect's dialogue system. It is almost identical, right down to your dialogue choices being chosen from a similar-looking menu. The major difference is that you're given visual icons that represent the tone of what you're trying to say: kind, sarcastic or cruel. A nice touch is that Hawke's lines seem to change slightly depending on the predominant tone. A sarcastic and joking Hawke will still be somewhat sarcastic and joking, even if you pick a helpful option. It's not a bad system, and it's helpful to have a clear indication of the tone of your choices.
Dragon Age II has some odd nods to complexity without actually offering much complexity. Customization is available in Dragon Age II but strongly discouraged, so I'm not sure why the customization options exist. Ultimately, you have a bunch of bad choices and the one rather obvious "good" choice. One good example is the stat system; in theory, you receive three points every level that you can divide between one of six stats. In practice, there's absolutely no reason to invest a single point in any but the two stats of your class specialty. Attempting to do so is actively harmful in that your character ends up being less effective in everything he tries to do and is unable to equip higher level items and armor. The same was present in the original Dragon Age, but the flaws are actually magnified here. It serves as a beginner's trap for players who think that they shouldn't focus on only two stats.
Likewise, there's little variation in your party members. Each one gains a certain set of special abilities that basically tailor them for a certain combat role. You can sometimes choose to branch them outside of this role, but there's little reason to do so. If you want a healing mage, you're stuck with Anders. You don't have the choice of making Merrill into your healing mage because she lacks the healing tree. All of Anders' unique abilities are geared toward making him the healing mage. Likewise, if you want a tank, you have to use Aveline. The game waves at the idea of customization, but the end result is no different from Mass Effect 2's simplified companions. The only change is that there are a thousand bad options and two good options, instead of only two good options. If you're an experienced gamer, then you won't fall into this trap, but you also won't find much depth to the customization. If you're not, then you risk having a less effective party for no good reason.
There are some cool elements to your party makeup, though. While you can't customize your party particularly well, you can set up synergy between your characters. In addition to the usual status effects that spells can inflict, certain attacks and abilities can inflict synergy-focused status effects. For example, a mage's ice spells can make an enemy brittle, but a rogue or warrior can take advantage of a brittle enemy to do extra damage with some of their abilities. These cross-class attacks are pretty interesting and offer a chance for depth when planning your character builds. However, the depth is mostly illusionary, as it mostly boils down to doing extra damage with some of your moves from time to time. It's hard to complain about the benefits, but you can't really plan for it. So many moves and abilities can inflict these status effects that you'll cause them through normal combat. It's still a nice feature that make your party feel like a more cohesive whole.
The city of Kirkwall could have been an exciting location to explore, but the reality is deeply discouraging. Instead of using the game's city focus to create a more vibrant and real place to explore, Dragon Age II uses it to recycle a staggering amount of game content. Kirkwall has only a few environments to visit, and you'll see them time and time again. You'll revisit the same cliffsides, the same caves and the same city streets. Even if you manage to visit a unique location, it's usually a copy-and-pasted version of a level that you've explore before. This is extremely noticeable when you visit the Fade, which is just a city courtyard with a filter over it. By the time you complete the first act of the game, you've seen everything the city has to offer because it doesn't change or evolve in the ensuing years. Even the characters remain oddly ageless. A tremendous chunk of Dragon Age II involves wandering through the same linear locations over and over again. There's no room for exploration, surprises or even the fun of seeing a new location. After Mass Effect 2 went out of its way to assure that most of the missions in the game took place somewhere unique, it's a tremendous step backward and contributes to the feeling that Dragon Age II goes nowhere.
The repetitive level design might be easier to ignore if the combat encounter design were better. Combat in Dragon Age II has been sped up and focused more around larger-scale fights. Most characters have multiple area of effect attacks, even warriors and rogues, and enemies have been weakened but increased in number. This makes the battles look more intense and action-packed than the slower shuffling fights in the original Dragon Age. Unfortunately, pretty much every fight in the game is identical to the last. A swarm of enemies rushes you, and you fight them in almost exactly the same way, whether they're giant spiders, humans or magical abominations. No matter what difficulty level I set, I didn't notice any difference between the enemy types. Fighting giant spiders felt the same as fighting humans, and that felt the same as fighting Darkspawn. Aside from the very powerful mage enemies, I didn't feel that I had to pay attention to what I was fighting or change my tactics, regardless of the difficulty.
Perhaps the most out of place and hard to accept part of the combat system is the way enemy reinforcements are handled. New enemy waves teleport in as soon as the previous wave is done. It doesn't matter if you have your back to a wall or there is no way the enemies could appear. They just teleport in, and it looks especially ridiculous when giant spiders or enemy soldiers appear from thin air. It takes away any feeling of battlefield control. You can't maneuver the fight or environment to your advantage because enemies just teleport behind you anyway. Instead of worrying about positioning and movement, you fight and depend on your tank to draw aggro. It feels more like an MMO than a single-player game, but not in a particularly fun way. While the challenge and fun of an MMORPG is working with other players to coordinate efforts, everything here is automated. You simply pound the attack button and wait for the fight to end. As a side note, the lack of an auto-attack feature is extremely noticeable. According to Bioware, such a feature was intended but was accidently left out of the final build. Until it is implemented, the game requires countless button presses where only one should be necessary.
To the game's credit, you can pump up the difficulty to the Nightmare setting for a few difficulty tweaks. The most noteworthy of these is the addition of friendly fire, which means your attacks can damage friend as well as foe. Unlike Mass Effect 2's Insanity mode, which made the game more fun, Dragon Age II's hardest difficulty makes everything more tedious and less enjoyable. The greatest challenge in Nightmare is dealing with the awkward controls and fussy targeting and AI systems. Where these work reasonably well in a game where it doesn't matter who or where you're attacking, the lack of fine control over ally positioning becomes very clear in Nightmare. Even if you fiddle with the AI settings and micromanage every fight, it becomes more frustrating than fun. There's nothing precisely wrong with the combat; everything functions as it should, but it's not any fun to play.
There isn't really a reason to do the repetitive side-quests. The game gives you an absolutely staggering amount of loot to search through, but much of it is worthless. Any items and equipment that were worth using was either purchased from a shop or given as a quest reward. Once I had good "named" items for my characters, I never found anything better, no matter how much loot I found. Money was overabundant, and aside from an early part of the game, I never went below 100 gold, which is such an excessive amount that the game gives you an Achievement for it.
A huge chunk of the equipment is worthless. You see, only Hawke can equip armor. All other party members have pre-defined pieces of armor that upgrade automatically if you find or buy certain items. Any equipment that's not meant for Hawke's class is completely worthless and adds to the amount of vendor trash. While I prefer having options to Mass Effect 2's very limited item selection, Dragon Age II goes too far in the opposite direction. There's too much trash and no real reason for it to exist because it is never superior to the items that the plot gives you.
Visually, Dragon Age II is a step up over the original in some areas, but a step backward in others. The character animation and lip-synching is a big step up, and it looks better during the cut scenes. On the other hand, the characters didn't seem to look as good. The protagonists look fine, but many of the NPCs look strange. It was particularly noticeable with the elves, who resembled pale-skinned versions of the Na'vi from "Avatar" more so than willowy humanoids. Likewise, it's strange to see an elderly woman who is designed like a 20-year-old supermodel with wrinkles. As mentioned, the environments are extremely lacking in variety, and while it's clear that some art design went into making Lowtown look different from Hightown, everything still looks and feels the same.
The addition of voice acting for the main characters is welcome, but the quality seems to be a step down from Mass Effect 2. Once again, there's a noticeable gap between the protagonists and the NPCs. Hawke isn't too bad but feels a bit forced when trying to stretch to fit some of the game's tone changes. Fenris has a solid voice actor who manages to make an otherwise bland character somewhat likeable, but Hawke's sister, Bethany, is one of the worst actresses in the game and does a poor job with several critical scenes. A lot of the generic NPCs don't sound very good, especially when they're trying to speak a fantasy language or use fantasy words.
Dragon Age II does not have much to recommend. It doesn't technically do anything extremely wrong, but it doesn't do much right, either. It feels like it's trying to mesh together Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, and the result is more of a bland sludge than a tasty peanut butter-and-chocolate combination. The characters are cookie-cutter, and the combat is dull and repetitive. Aside from a few interesting moments here and there, Dragon Age II feels like it's been spread too thin. There are occasional strong moments, but unless you're desperate for more of the Dragon Age setting, it would be best to replay Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect 2 instead.
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