Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dragon Age 2 Review

Dragon Age Origins was a mixed bag. The PC and console versions differed greatly. With Dragon age 2 Bioware set out to elevate those differences. The changes were for the better. Dragon Age 2 is far superior to its predecessor. It doesn’t outshine Origins in all aspects, just where it counts for most RPG’s: combat, character, and story. Dragon Age 2 nails these three key components.

I think the biggest barrier for someone who loved Dragon Age Origins will be the smaller scope that’s in Dragon Age 2. You can only play as a human (In Origins you could play as a human, dwarf, or elf). There isn’t an all-powerful great evil that needs to be banished. But you do change the landscape of a city, and that may have larger consequences in future Dragon Age games.

The magnifying glass is zoomed on a city called Kirkwall. Aside from a few small outlying locations around Kirkwall you don’t venture out into the world. Focusing on one location is almost unheard of in today’s RPG’s. Luckily Kirkwall is an engaging setting. There are lots of sidequests, and the companion quests are very well written.

You play as Hawke, a refugee who escaped the “blight” that ravaged the lands in Dragon Age Origins. All the events in Dragon Age 2 have already transpired, but they are misconstrued as tall-tales and legends. A dwarf named Varric (think Han Solo…but with an exposed chest) has been asked to retell Hawke’s story.

Hawke is a hero, called  “The Champion of Kirkwall.” But how did he become “The Champion”? That is the story the plays throughout the course of 6 years in Dragon Age 2.

I was pulled into the story. Hawke does change Kirkwall, but you have to play through the game in order to find out how, and in what way. Good or bad…or neither. It’s ultimately based on your decisions. There are three big set piece events in Dragon Age 2 and the choices you make effect the city of Kirkwall, and may have even further reaching implications. 

The Mass Effect style dialogue wheel is far better than the static text of Origins

Dragon Age Origins really was two different games. And what worked on the PC just didn’t translate well on consoles. Dragon age 2 scraps the combat system found in Origins and ups the action quota.

Dragon Age 2 works similarly on PC and console. It’s less about numbers floating above people’s heads, and queuing up attacks. Now when you click a button attacks happen instantly, even if you’re a mage. Want to shoot a fireball? Just unleash the spell, whether or not the attack hits is no longer based on a “behind the scenes” numerical value. If you want to hit someone just aim and shoot, or if you’re a warrior or rogue, just whack ‘em!

The combat has that visceral God of War feeling. When you land a hit with a sword, you feel the weight behind the strike. It’s just right. No more having to select an enemy, slowly move into position, and hope that your attack connects. Just jump in and hit the guy! Melee is brutal and satisfying in DA 2. Combat is something I look forward to, instead of dreading like with Origins.

That’s not to say the depth has vanished in DA 2, it’s just deemphasized slightly. You can still micromanage your team’s abilities and take control of them whenever you like during combat. Combat can still be paused, and attacks can be queued. When the pause is released, then all hell breaks loose and your team fires off their abilities all at once.

Personally I like to stick with controlling only one character at a time. Most of the time your AI controlled teammates will function properly without you needing to coddle them and manage their movements. But there’s instances where the AI just has a brain-fart, and just stands around not using their abilities even though they’re told to do so. It doesn’t make sense that I switch onto my mage and they aren’t healing even though that’s their top priority; this doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it brings some of the hardest fights to a standstill.

Another problem I have with the AI tactics is that you’re not given enough tactic slots. You have to level up in order to unlock more. Why to I need to level in order to unlock more slots so the AI can function properly? I just don’t get that.

The visuals are better than Origins, but texture quality is still lacking

I’d also recommend the PC version of DA 2 over the console version. I did mention that you don’t have to control your squad individually; you can just play as Hawke and for the most part everything works fine. The game just flows better when you switch back-and-fourth between team members, and it’s still sloppy to accomplish that without a mouse and keyboard.  

Your also limited on the amount of abilities/spells you can have mapped to the face buttons of a controller. With a mage this can become a problem, as there are just too many spells. And having to pause the menu and go into a sub-screen just to find one spell is a tedious process on consoles. With the PC you can have most of your abilities mapped to hotkeys--it’s a quicker and less cumbersome system.

And then we come to the visuals. Dragon Age Origins was just kind of a gross game to look at. Everything in Origins looked like it was covered in mud. It was just an ugly, ugly game.

Dragon Age 2 looks better. Not by much though. Some character models are nicely detailed, but almost all the textures in DA 2 seem just way to low res. It also doesn’t help matters when the game has horrendous load times. I played mostly on the Xbox 360, and I experienced load times up to 40 seconds long. That’s way to long, I’m sorry…this game isn’t a visual stunner, so there’s no excuse. But if you’re playing on the PC then these problems are lesser. The game looks much crisper and has a cleaner overall look to it.

I really wish they had taken the graphics a step further. The early concept art featured a caricaturist art style, with elongated features for many of the different races. Everything shown had this painted look to it. But aside from a few racial differences (the Qunari look completely different from their Origins counterparts) the game really doesn’t stray too far from its predecessor.

This is a Bioware game and characters are Bioware’s specialty. DA 2 really steps out from Origins to feature a cast of characters as interesting and well developed as any I ever seen; even the cast in Mass Effect 2.

The aforementioned dwarf Varric is my particular favorite, he really is a smarmy bastard—but in a diviner way; and deep down his hearts in the right place, even if his mind is centered on booze and women. Then there’s Fenris, an Elf who had magic burned into his skin. He’s a powerful ally but he hates mages, and if you side with them he’ll voice his opinion every time.

Some times I mix and match my party members just so I can hear their conversations. Even when you’re walking around each party member has something to say to one another. That’s attention to detail. And it wasn’t something I found in Origins. 

Characters--like Fenris here--are what makes DA 2's story more interesting

I couldn’t stand listening to anyone talk in Dragon Age Origins. But DA 2 is different. Each character has something interesting and there’s a Mass Effect-like sidequest structure in which you’ve got to do something for each companion later in the game.

The best character really is Hawke though. Just having a fully voiced protagonist brings so much to the table. The mute hero from Dragon Age Origins was okay, but you don’t realize how much more interesting a conversation can be until your character actually talks.

The Mass Effect dialogue wheel is a nice touch as well. Although, I do think there’s more depth and options in the dialogue present in Mass Effect 2, DA 2 does an admirable simulation. Stale lines of text be damned, Bioware just does things right.

From the combat, to the characters--Dragon Age 2 is a big step in the right direction. And I really was skeptical of this game at first. I was wondering if it was going to be a rushed sequel. But it really isn’t. The combat is solid, and the story is much more focused. This isn’t a short game either. It took me 45 hours to beat…and I’m starting a second playthrough soon.

Dragon Age 2 is a really well made game. Bioware really went back to the drawing board—literally in some cases—and came up with a superior sequel. While DA 2 doesn’t completely break away from the Tolkien mythos, it does tell a very good story from top to bottom. Where Origins was wobbling on it’s feet, Dragon Age 2 is steady and sure-footed. It’ll be very interesting to see where Bioware takes Dragon Age from here.

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