As the second major chapter to a series Bioware had long wanted to make, Dragon Age II is a mess of contradictions. Despite the issues that I had with Dragon Age: Origins, I enjoyed it and fully expected the second chapter to blaze a trail in the same way that Baldur's Gate II did. After installing the game, I had to present my e-papers to EA's draconian DRM police. That should have been the first sign that something wasn't quite right.
The story isn't the problem, and if you had held onto your saves from Origins, you can import it to see others mention the results in a nice bit of continuity. In DA2, you play the role of the would-be Champion of Kirkwall, Hawke, who is either male of female depending on your choices at the start. Fleeing the ravaged village of Lothering on Ferelden with your family during the events of the first game, Hawke and the others eventually meet up with Flemeth — think a female Gandalf-like personage — and strike a bargain to flee to Kirkwall. One cut scene later, you're there.
Hawke's story spans about 10 years as told from the vantage point of Varric, a dwarven ne'er-do-well being interrogated by a Seeker of the Chantry. Using this mechanic, the game is divided into episodes that end in key moments before fast-forwarding a few years to the next big event. It's not a bad way to tell the story and, despite some of the clichés, nicely moves things along. At this point, I was anticipating exploring a city that sounded rife with intrigue, skullduggery, and as much mortal danger as Amn or Baldur's Gate.
Not all of the characters are as interesting, though. Some of the character-specific quests help expand who they are and why they do what they do, but not all have the same impact beyond providing more experience and money to buy backpack space. A lot of the subtext in the previous game is glossed over, with the exception of the hulking Qunari, who were given a major overhaul. It's hard to shed the feeling that I've seen some of these character-types before. Only one or two shine from this mess, not the least of which is Hawke, who actually has a voice, much like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.
Icons make it easy to decide whether you want to be "nice," "naughty," or simply sarcastic. It turns what could have been an interesting sense of verbal fencing into simply picking whatever you want to follow based on a picture. Party members won't voluntarily leave your party until much later, tolerating your weaving moral center with a "rivalry" and "friendship" system. It keeps them close regardless of what you might do until you're practically at the end of the game and the really difficult choices are finally made.
Getting to where the story shines often means dealing with the rest of the gameplay, which seems unable to decide whether it wants to be an action game with some RPG elements or maintain its ties to the classical feel of Baldur's Gate, as Origins had done. Instead of old-school charm tweaked for modern players with degrees of control, DA2 instead tries to simplify things to the point where you really don't need to do anything more than click the mouse. Veterans coming in from Mass Effect 2 might start feeling as strong a sense of déjà vu, as I did.
The result is a split personality that wasn't there before. There is equipment, but many choice pieces are monogrammed with the main character's name and can only be used by him/her. You can shape your party with a selection of class-specific skills, though the list had been whittled down from the first game, reducing the choices you can make. You can decide how to shape the story through dialogue choices at key points, but these use simplified phrases that deliver the gist of what will be said as opposed to saying what you want. Taken altogether, there is a sense that more had been removed than added to the game.
DA2's focus on telling the legend of a very human Hawke also removes the need to pick races. Missing out on this option isn't too traumatic, since the gameplay still allows you to pick a gender, change a face, assign points to attributes, and pick skills to shape the class. No two Hawkes will be exactly alike.
After experiencing the architecture of Orzammar and Denerim's disheveled streets, Kirkwall's world comes off as second-rate. There are constant reminders of the Neverwinter Nights engine and its tile-based construction. Every fancy mansion seems to have been made from the same mold, only with a different set of locked doors through which the player funnels. I saw the same table with a mug and burning fire next to it so often in cave dungeons that I wondered if the Pier 1 in Kirkwall was selling them as a set.
Maps reveal that there is often more to explore, but the doors are shuttered for no reason other than to keep the player from going too far off the beaten path. Wagons conveniently block caves until a quest needs them. NPCs often stand around like mannequins waiting for their cue. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if all of this weren't so obvious, but the static city of Kirkwall often makes many of these strange behaviors stand out.
Even the interface looks plain in comparison to Origins, which had added small details such as a scrawled map for each location and brass-like embellishments to make it seem like a window to a world of fantasy. These small gripes add up like pinpricks across the 50+ hours it took to grind through it. At least the characters show some nice visual detail along with one or two choice spots in Kirkwall, and the final battle almost makes trudging through the mediocrity worth it. If you remember how complete the ending was in Origins, you might as well prepare for disappointment now.
Combat is also much faster and more action-packed; it skirts the edges of being a full-on hack 'n' slash and sheds the pretense of hanging on to anything from Origins. It does look good, though, especially with all of the special effects. If you're a mage, every confrontation creates the impression that time and space are going to be ripped apart. Rogues can bizarrely hold their own, and warriors are, well, damage-soaking warriors. You can still pause combat with the spacebar to issue commands to individual party members, move them around the screen, and attack in real time. Higher difficulty levels require a lot more tactical thought, but it would have been nice to toggle friendly fire without having to crank up the difficulty.
Default attacks, though, are largely useless until players spam special abilities in nearly every battle. Each of these also has a cooldown timer before you can use it again, but it isn't as unmanageable as it can sound — most of the time. Occasionally, waiting on skills can slow the pace of a battle. At one point while I was waiting for a spell to recharge, I ran in circles around an enemy so that my party members could pick it off with ranged attacks as it chased me.
Enemies also have a tendency to materialize out of thin air like banshees, and this happens in nearly every fight. There's so much of it in Kirkwall that I began to wonder how the city had managed to last as long as it did. Every fight goes nearly the same way. The first wave comes in, and then the second wave teleports support behind your party. I had enemy soldiers materialize around my party at a spawn spot several times because I had gotten into the practice of moving them away from the frontlines to seek a better choke point, knowing what was going to occur.
The tactical view, once used in Origins to get a bird's eye view of the field, is something that I'd grown addicted to using, but it's been removed from DA2. This created a number of awkward moments when, instead of scrolling back on the wheel, I was spinning the camera around and pushing it to the edge of the screen to catch a staircase at which I wanted my party to be repositioned. In some of the worst cases within enclosed areas, I had to angle it down to get a horizontal view of the room and guesstimate where my cursor could click. Sometimes it worked, but other times, it mysteriously didn't.
The quests deliver a few nice story-based rewards alongside a lot of lazy filler. When I found an object in a dungeon, I suddenly got a quest notation in my journal for it. I didn't even need to find the guy it belonged to since he was indicated on the automap, as if the object in question had told me where to go. Once I delivered it, it simply disappeared from my inventory and I received a few coins for my trouble. Most others are of the "go here and kill this" variety, or "find this and report back to me" type. Few, other than those in the main story, ever go beyond this level of detail. The more exceptional ones include choices which, because of the episodic nature of the narrative, can have implications years later. However, these are few and the actual implications aren't all too impressive, other than creating the occasional special dialogue choice.
It isn't so much consolitis that consigned the sequel to the pit of disappointment for me, nor is it crying over PC-flavored milk because it doesn't try to harness what the platform is capable of doing. Instead, the wholesale changes reflect a deeper problem in assuming that your audience isn't as smart as it was to enjoy the first game. It makes the only answer that of dumbing down the sharp edges in an effort to appeal to a wider audience.
Change by itself isn't a bad thing, but there is a thin line between streamlining a game to make it more playable — e.g., the interface, improvements to inventory handling, party management or sharpening the underlying technology — and in making changes that simply insult your audience's intelligence. This is the same audience — on both consoles and PCs — that relished learning how Origin's combat system worked, pored over each skill tree in planning their characters, and replayed it over and over again. It wasn't perfect, but at the same time, it didn't scare enough people away to make it seem like a tragic mistake.
One can only hope that a future installment will learn these lessons and return the Dragon Age series to the fore with the kind of risk-taking and storytelling that the first game had handily delivered. It is also difficult to ignore how these sweeping changes pushed Dragon Age into this direction. After so many exploding corpses and fireballs flung around like medieval bullets, Dragon Age II will make me think twice when I see another blood-splashed ad shimmying to guitar riffs and beckoning me to step back into the next dungeon on Thedas.
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