Game Review: Dragon Age 2

Last week I finished playing Dragon Age 2, Bioware’s sequel to their hit RPG game Dragon Age: Origins. Like I have done with my previous review for DA:O, I won’t be going into the gameplay mechanics. There are plenty of reviews about that. When it comes to RPG game reviews, I’m much more interested in the person’s impression on the overall story than the nitty gritty of the actual gameplay. I’m not saying gameplay isn’t important, but I don’t place it too high on my list. If you want a review that talks more about the gameplay, then I would suggest checking out the other popular game review sites out there on the Internet. The following post may also contain spoilers so read at your own risk.

Let’s start with what the game is about. You play as the character Hawke who you can make as a male or female. Unlike DA:O, which allows you to choose which race you get to play (elf, dwarf, or human), you are only able to play as a human Hawke. Classes are still picked (mage, warrior, or rogue) as well as customizing the look and name of your Hawke. The class you choose for Hawke becomes kind of important to the story as it dictates the fate of one of the characters you are acquainted with at the opening of the game. If you played DA:O and have a saved game, you can import the saved game into DA2 to shape the background of the story. The actions of your Warden is acknowledged in the game and even opens up certain quests depending on how you played DA:O. Once the player’s selection has been made then the story begins.

DA2 charts the struggles and rise of Hawke from being a near poverty-stricken individual trying to make it in the city of Kirkwall after fleeing with his/her family from the Blight in Ferelden to the Champion of Kirkwall, a well respected noble and Hero/Heroine of the city. As Hawke, the player gets to decide if the rise to power has been taken through diplomatic or ruthless means. There is also a brewing conflict between mages and templars which gets aggravated over time as the story progresses. Unlike DA:O where your Grey Warden character is a silent protagonist, DA2 has a male/female Hawke who actually talks and interacts with people. How you interact with people like in DA:O will determine how people view you.

Like DA:O, Hawke encounters a number of supporting characters who can aid him/her on this journey. Bethany and Carver are Hawke’s siblings. Bethany and Carver are twins, one with the gift for magic and the other a warrior respectively. Aveline is a former soldier of the Ferelden army and another fellow refugee who escaped the Blight with Hawke and family. Varric is a dwarf with the gift for storytelling and who is skilled at the crossbow he lovingly calls “Bianca.” Anders is a renegade healer mage who is possessed by a spirit called Justice. Fenris is an escaped elven slave from the mage city of Tevinter who is out for revenge against his former master. Merrill is the shunned Dalish elf who wields the power of blood magic. Isabela is the sexy and skilled pirate duelist who gets shipwrecked in Kirkwall. And finally, if you download the Exiled Prince for DA2 you get the extra playable character Sebastian, a religious prince from Starkhaven who has devoted himself to the Chantry and its teachings.

A lot has been said about this game. Opinions about the game are quite split down the middle. Some love it and others hate it. And then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle. I belong in the “somewhere in the middle” camp.

In my opinion, I don’t think this game is the best it could be. I agree with the complaints people have about this game, which I’ll outline in a little bit. What I don’t agree with is the opinion concerning DA2 being the worst game ever made. There are some good moments in the game, and I still had fun during the many hours I plugged into it on my 360.

Let me start with what I don’t like about the game:

1. Recycled environments. This is one of the biggest complaints about the game I’ve read about in official reviews, blogs, and game forums. It does get annoying to have to lead Hawke through every replica cave, corridor, and room. It really embodies the feeling of deja vu. It’s hard to believe the developers are that lazy to bother with creating new and different environments to explore. The purpose of RPGs is the ability to explore and to uncover the world at your leisure. Running in and out of places that looks like everything else is not fun.

At least Bioware has a sense of humor since they write in a joke concerning a sense of deja vu in their other DA2 DLC Mark of the Assassin. Depending on which characters you take with you for that quest, there is a point in the game where one of them remarks, “Have we been here before? Why does every room look the same?” Clearly, this is in reference to people’s complaints about the recycled caves and dungeons in the main game of DA2.

2. Insignificant Quests. I don’t enjoy the side quests where my Hawke would happen to loot a treasure chest and all of a sudden I get an active side quest telling me I have just found an object that may belong to this person. Go here and return said object. Once I get to the place and click on the person who has a designated quest marker above their head, I receive a quest complete notification, some money, and a short word of thanks from the owner of the lost object Hawke gives back.

I can see the advantage in getting extra money on the side when you find these lost and found objects, but other than that the whole fetch this and return that becomes pointless. I prefer optional side quests to have a bit of backstory added in. It would be nice to have connected with these strangers even briefly to know why this item is treasured or why even bother to bring it back. Or if that’s too much trouble, why have these lost and found quests thrown in? It would have been better to just leave them out of the game entirely. The amount of money you get for each returned object isn’t really worthwhile.

3. Lack of interaction with your companions. I don’t understand why Bioware takes this out of DA2. Part of what makes DA:O an amazing game to play is the ability to click on a character and be able to have a conversation when you want to. It adds to the RPG experience and you get to know your traveling partners really well. In DA2, Hawke is only allowed to really talk to his/her companions when their is an active companion quest in your journal telling you that you have to go to this person’s house or this tavern to speak with so and so because they have something they need to discuss.

I’m still very attached to all the characters in DA:O because I really feel as if I know them. DA2 makes it hard to feel too emotionally attached to any of them. A lot of the interactions you get in DA2 feels like you are only scratching the surface of who they are. For a game that takes place over a period of several years while DA:O is only in the span of a year, you would think you would know each and every companion down to their pet peeves and what they like to eat. Most of the time, the companions in DA2 still feel like strangers despite the amount of time that passes in the game.

4. Inability to change companion character(s) armor. Bioware takes away the ability to customize the armor of your companions in DA2. The most you can do is change the weapon your companion is using and upgrade their current armor and that’s about it. In DA:O I had a lot of fun changing the look of my companions when a better armor set became available to them. Players have said the developers took away some of what makes an RPG an RPG, and not being able to change the armor along with the weapons your companion is using is horribly cheap.

5. Wave after wave of enemies that spring up out of no where. This is another huge complaint players have about DA2, and I agree with this one. I’m all for a challenge, but it becomes tedious when after killing one batch of enemies another wave reappears out of thin air. It becomes a case of, “Where the hell did you come from?!” Conserving inventories of health potions, lyrium, and stamina draughts become nearly impossible when you are dealing with crazy waves of enemies. Most of the time they are low level type of enemies that should be easy to defeat but becomes harder to do when your party is still trying to recover from the first wave. And a second. And a third.

6. Flirty Hawke. I only played as female Hawke so I can’t judge male Hawke yet. On my first playthrough I romanced Anders since my Hawke was a mage. Every time I selected the heart option to flirt with him, the voice acting for flirty Hawke was insanely horrible. Players had issues with the voice actors for male/female Hawke being terribly acted, but I didn’t think it was too bad. My main problem was the tone of voice Hawke had when she started getting flirty with Anders. I dreaded selecting the heart icon because I would cringe every time she delivered a romantic line to woo Anders. Maybe it was the cheesy, flirty dialogue written for Hawke that made it bad. Maybe it was how it was voice acted. Whatever it was it almost made me wish Hawke was the silent protagonist in those moments.

7. The dialogue wheel. I don’t like how the conversation options gets dumbed down for the player. Pretty much there are icons that tell you how each line of dialogue is going to be delivered: a green leafy branch to indicate a diplomatic option, a purple comedy mask to indicate a comedic response, or a red two swords crossed option to indicate an aggressive, gruff response. The icons change slightly to indicate more helpful, charming, or aggressive responses, but the player gets an idea of how you plan to shape the personality of your Hawke. And of course, if you plan on romancing any character in the game it is indicated with a heart icon.

I just don’t like having these dialogue indicators in the wheel. I prefer the dialogue system set up in DA:O, where based on how the line of dialogue is written you as the player can decide if you are going for nice, funny, or evil. The surprise is how your companion reacts to your choices without really knowing if certain lines are supposed to be delivered as they seem in the dialogue options. Occasionally in DA:O, some lines of dialogue are labeled as “Persuade” or “Intimidate” when you need to get a character to do or tell you something. DA:O’s dialogue system actually makes you think carefully about what response you choose.

The new dialogue system in DA2 takes the guesswork out of the conversation. You already know what to expect by choosing a certain option to get a desired result. Too much hand holding in my opinion. I know in DA:O I have chosen lines of dialogue which I think is meant to be funny only to find out my companion is highly offended by what my character just said. I want little surprises like that.

8. The decisions you make don’t really matter. DA:O makes everything you do and say matter greatly throughout the game. Sometimes certain things you do end up carrying certain consequences later in the game. Whether it’s good or bad remains to be seen until the end of the game when you get the text epilogue of the results. Decisions carry so much weight in DA:O you have to think carefully before proceeding.

DA2 doesn’t really make you sweat much when deciding to do this action over that action. The end result will pretty much be the same. The decisions you make in this game are not much of anything, or they are subtle in terms of whether or not you will see the character again in a later act or if it opens up a follow up quest later in the game.

This is why I love DA:O. You can keep playing the game over and over again to get a slightly different retelling of the same story. Should I put Anora or Alistair on the throne? Should I side with the elves or werewolves? Should I choose to do Morrigan’s Dark Ritual? There are different possibilities in this game. What doesn’t change is the need to kill the Archdemon and rally enough allies to help you in your cause, but each playthrough will be slightly different from the last. DA2 won’t give you too much control over how the story will turn out. You can’t prevent one person from doing the unspeakable, which brings me to number 9 on the list.

9. The ending. I’m not complaining so much about Anders turns terrorist and blows up the Chantry like a lot of people seem to have an issue with. I’m talking about how abruptly it ends after Hawke fights and defeats Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars in Kirkwall. You get the final cut scenes of the game followed by some cliff hanger ending where Leliana of DA:O has a few words exchanged with Chantry Seeker Cassandra who has been interrogating Varric about Hawke and the events leading up to the full scale war between templars and mages. Leliana mentions how the disappearance of both Hawke and the Grey Warden can’t be a coincidence and then it just ends. Roll credits.

I would have liked to have had at least a text epilogue like in DA:O where you find out what all the companions have done since parting ways with the Champion of Kirkwall. The most you get is, “Yeah, this happened. Everyone except Hawke’s chosen love interest separates from Hawke due to life getting in the way. There is a war. Hawke disappears. No one knows where to find him/her. The end.”

DA2 is a story meant to end on a somber note with no real resolution or sweeping sense of victory like in DA:O, but the developers could have done a better job at wrapping the story up. From what I’ve read on the Internet, players feel as if the writers ran out of ideas and just tacked on that ending. Or because the development stage for this game was too short compared to DA:O, the writers didn’t have enough time to fully flesh out the story. I also believe a lot of the characters and their romances weren’t fully developed, but I’ll save my gripes about the game’s romances for another post.

DA2 does have its faults, but the game isn’t an entire train wreck like a lot of gamers who played the game make it seem. Here’s what I do enjoy about the game:

1. Combat System. Combat is infinitely better in DA2 than DA:O. As people have described, the combat is more real time rather than pressing a button and seeing what happens like in DA:O. Mages in DA2 aren’t too much of the weakling fighters that they are in DA:O, and can actually hold their own in battle. The upgraded look of the different mage staffs you can equip throughout the game are much cooler than the ones you get in DA:O. It gives the mages in the game a more bad ass look to them.

2. Items marked as trash. This is definitely useful. Whenever I picked up an item in a chest or crate in DA:O I used to struggle with whether or not I should throw something away or sell it. Most of the time, you are never sure if a certain item may be valuable or important later in the game. DA2 eases the player’s worries by marking certain items you pick up as “trash”. It’s up to you to wipe out the junk from your inventory or sell it in a store for extra money.

3. Intimate storyline. I find DA2’s storyline weak compared to DA:O’s, but I liked the idea of a more intimate story setting. There are some arguments about DA2 not being much of an RPG game, but DA2 is really a small scale RPG story if you can call it that. Your exploration of the world is confined to the city of Kirkwall. There is no traveling to distant lands. The map is considerably smaller compared to the amount of exploration you get in DA:O.

DA2 doesn’t have a sense of urgency to save an entire world like DA:O does. Hawke is a refugee from Ferelden who escapes the Blight. Post-Blight, Hawke and family are trying to survive and start a new life in a new city where refugees like them aren’t particularly welcome in Kirkwall. The player watches as Hawke does what he/she can to make a name for himself/herself while trying to solve the problems of the city and its people in the process. At the very least, I like watching how Hawke and her companions try to live their own separate lives in Kirkwall. Stories don’t always have to be about saving the world on a grand scale. Stories about every day life and saving lives on a smaller scale can be just as interesting. I only wish Bioware had more time to really make the story much stronger.

4. The introduction of Varric. Out of all the new characters they have introduced to the Dragon Age universe in DA2, Varric is one of my favorites. It’s not surprising because Varric is a big fan favorite from DA2. In fact, both male and female players were a little disappointed to not have this charming dwarf as an available romance option. Oghren of DA:O has his own kind of charm in a drunken, potty mouth sort of way. With the introduction of Varric, though, I’d take the charming, storytelling, smooth talking dwarf over the boozy, crass Oghren any day. If there is one character I would love to see come back again in Dragon Age 3 (aside from Alistair of course) it would definitely be Varric. He’s a much sexier dwarf than Oghren.

5. DA:O cameos. Seeing characters you love from a previous game come back as a cameo, although brief, is always a treat. DA2 delivers on that. It’s fun to have Hawke interact with Zevran or meet King Alistair (as I put both him and my Warden on the throne in DA:O). Leliana also shows up, but she shows up regardless of what you do in DA:O I think. I could have had the chance to see Nathaniel from the Awakening expansion in my DA2 game, but the quest bugged out on me. I’m incredibly annoyed with this bug when Nathaniel is not dead in my Awakening save and I made him become a Grey Warden. I’ll just have to do another import save and watch the reunion between Nathaniel and Anders another time.

6. The graphics. The graphics in DA2 is an improvement from DA:O, but I have no real complaints over the graphics in DA:O anyway. This probably shouldn’t be under the “like” list, but for some odd reason the character design for Zevran and Alistair don’t quite translate well in the new graphics system for DA2. A lot of players noticed this too. Somehow characters like Zevran and Alistair who are easy on the eyes in DA:O become kind of ugly in DA2. Very unfortunate. Leliana is perfectly fine in the transfer, but who knows what happened to Zevran and Alistair in the DA2 transfer.

I think that about covers everything I liked or disliked about the game. When I started playing this game, I expected much worse from DA2. Instead, I found myself enjoying the game in spite of its flaws. I believe if the developers didn’t have to rush the completion of this game, DA2 could have turned out to be spectacular. I think the idea of a main protagonist stuck in a Catch-22 kind of situation is a good story. The writers just needed more time make it as complex and fulfilling as DA:O was.

Fans who loved DA:O had a feeling of being left wanting more. I’m also of that opinion too. I didn’t expect a happy ending from this game. DA2 was a prelude for the mages vs. templars war, which will become a huge part of the story in Dragon Age 3. What I wanted from the game was some kind of satisfactory conclusion or at least a better cliff hanger that leads into the third installment of the game. I think by the end of DA2, I was left scratching my head with more questions than answers.

This game may not be for everyone. Many don’t think it’s worth replaying and others do. My final thoughts on the game are this, play the game and don’t expect a sweeping epic like DA:O. Just enjoy the attempt Bioware made with this second installment. I came in with low expectations and ended up enjoying the game. I’m still a huge Dragon Age fan, and I hope Dragon Age 3 will get a more thoughtful and well-planned development stage than the second had.

Reviewer Rating: 7/10

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