Dragon Age II
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: EA
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: 1 player, DLC
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Well, here it is – the sequel to BioWare’s third person fantasy RPG, Dragon Age: Origins. This story kicks off somewhere in the middle of the first game and sees you playing a character called Hawke, fleeing “The Blight” (an invasion of demonic Darkspawn) with your family. The Dragon Age universe being a pretty derivative fantasy setting (you could cut and paste the whole plotline, characters, mythology and all into Oblivion’s Elder Scrolls and no one would notice), you get to choose whether to play as a Mage, Warrior or Rogue, as well as the sex of your character. Whichever you choose, Hawke is a major Mummy’s boy (or girl) – default male Hawke looks like he’s in his early ’40s, but runs around at her beck and call, pandering to her every whim like a bearded version of Timothy from ‘Sorry’ but without the nerve to even mention the fact that he’s 42. To make it worse, your Mum is a real pain (in game, that is; I’m sure your real Mum is lovely) and not easy to like or relate to. She constantly acts like a spoilt child; she ran away from home with an unlicensed mage (your Dad) before you were born, leaving your poor uncle to care for her elderly parents through sickness and old age, until their deaths. On returning decades later, she does nothing but moan about how she’s ‘of noble birth’ and should be living in the house on the hill, not down with the peasants where your uncle finds himself after some unlucky ‘investments’ have lost him the family estate...

Luckily for you, within the first few hours of play you’ll have achieved everything she wants from you (although by then she’s found something else to moan about.) Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the end of any clear motivation for your character. Unusually for a BioWare game, the story here is pretty weak. There’s no real villain or clear overall threat to be eliminated (the story skips forward by several years at various points so The Blight is over before you know it) and you’re already rich and the Lord of The Manor by the start of the second act, making the rest of the game feel like pointless distractions to enliven your dull new life of society parties and lounging around in your velvety finery, stroking your lovely beard. You’re supposed to hate Templar leader Meredith, who’s possibly a little over-zealous in her treatment of Mages, fearing that they’re all seconds away from being possessed by demons and becoming Abominations, or turning to Blood Magic and Necromancy, but she’s basically right. Almost every Mage you meet does one or the other (you actually have a Blood Mage and a borderline Abomination in your own party), so it’s hard to disagree with her.

Despite their somewhat questionable personal habits, your party is made up of a pretty decent mix of—admittedly somewhat stereotypical—characters (although I can’t remember the last game I played that had a nymphomaniac female pirate Captain in it!) As per usual in a BioWare game, they keep up a constant stream of amusing banter as you stroll about the land, with different conversations taking place depending on who you have with you, and now they even offer different options during conversations with NPCs and you can romance almost all of them. The only fly in the ointment is the exceptionally annoying Anders; he was a sarcastic and amusing companion in Origins: Awakenings, but now he’s been possessed by the spirit of justice and does nothing but rant on about killing Templars and the unfair treatment of Mages, disagreeing with everyone else in your party about almost everything and generally being a pain. Oh, and he’s also apparently gay now and doesn’t take kindly to being told ‘No’. I’ve never played any other game where I had to use more dialogue choices fending off another man’s advances… Unfortunately (unless you’re a Mage), he’s the only character capable of healing your squad for 85% of the game, meaning no matter how much you hate him you have little choice but to include him in your party at all times, unless you want to spend every penny you earn on healing potions—thanks for that one, BioWare. Luckily, there’s now an option to build up Rivalry as well as Friendship relationships, so rather than just leave when they really hate you, you can actually unlock new capabilities by constantly disagreeing with everything your companions believe in.

Scripting is mostly up to BioWare’s normal high standards, although there are several bits of NPC dialogue that obviously haven’t been given as much care as the main script (would a man really say ‘I wondered where I’d left that!’ after you return his brother’s mortal remains from a spider infested cave?) It also occasionally gets a little too anachronistic; Americanisms sound particularly out of place in a pseudo–medieval setting when everyone has British accents (except for the horrible ‘European’ accents, back from the first game, of anyone meant to be from neighbouring countries.) Thankfully, the main characters are all very well done; Hawke even reads his/her lines in three different tones (aggressive, helpful or sarcastic) depending on your previous dialogue choices, which is a nice touch. It’s a little distracting that among all the similar-sounding female voices in the game, the only instantly recognisable one is Welsh Elf Meryl, and she’s instantly recognisable as Gwen from Torchwood, although all credit to her, she does a great job.

The first game was distressingly ugly and this one’s not much better, although a welcome change in art style means the different races now look more distinct. The warlike Qunari are now huge muscular archetypal demons, with large goat horns atop their (now blue) heads, rather than just looking like humans with weird hair; Elves are much thinner, looking fragile and delicate, while Dwarves look fairly similar to before, although with more human-looking faces. Even returning characters now look different (three of your companions have actually appeared somewhere in the previous game and its expansions) and, confusingly for anyone who played the old game recently, most of them sound different too. Unfortunately, the character designs are the only thing that’s improved graphically since the first game. Textures are extremely low resolution and look awful in the many conversation close-ups and cutscenes, and The Blight has apparently caused some kind of worldwide polygon shortage (maybe the Darkspawn eat them?) with every model in the game being woefully low in detail. It’s only made worse by attempting to add it back using those horrible low-res textures. The only models that escape the awfulness are the main characters, giving the impression that you’ve all somehow fallen back in time and landed in a PS2 game. PC gamers might be thinking ‘that’s what you get for being a console gamer’, but any FPS that came out looking like this on the 360 would be laughed out of town, and unless they own a graphics card with at least a gig of RAM, they’re going to be in the same (ugly, angular) boat.

The various locations are also unbelievably bland—although a few areas probably looked nice in concept art, something went terribly wrong in their execution and there’s nothing here that’ll impress anyone who’s played any console newer than a SNES. It’s impossible to fathom how the same developer that could come up with the awe-inspiring vistas of the Shadowbroker’s Lair, which was just one item of DLC for Mass Effect 2, could put out an entire game that looks as dull as this. Even worse, you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer within the first five hours of gameplay—the entire story is set within a very small area of the world, most of it within a single backwater town. The same small locations are endlessly recycled, with the only differences being the occasional locked door (or blank wall, with the mini-map frustratingly still showing the whole area beyond) blocking your way. One of your companions even makes a joke about revisiting a warehouse (on about the eighth time you have to go there), so it’s not that BioWare weren’t aware of the issue. Annoyingly, they’ve tried to squeeze extra playtime from the limited maps by hiding valuable loot, quest items and crafting ingredients in out-of-the way places. I don’t have a problem with rewarding the player for thorough exploration, that’s half the fun of the game, but it hardly counts as exploring when you’ve already been there half a dozen times on previous visits. That’s not fun; it’s a chore and a pretty cheap trick.

Gameplay-wise there have been several changes since the first outing, almost entirely for the better. Combat is now faster and directly controlled by button mashing, instead of just pressing a button to start attacking and continuing automatically. It now plays much more like a hack ’n’ slash game (albeit a pretty crap one), and thankfully eliminates the constant stream of ‘get off my back!’ from your character when you tried to prompt him to do something he was already doing (albeit really slowly.) You can still use ‘Tactical Pause’ to set up actions for all your party members individually, or use the extremely deep (and slightly less confusing than before) Tactics Menu to program their behaviours for any given situation. Beyond manually positioning them for every fight, there doesn’t seem to be a command to stop them running headlong into every trap and ambush on the map though, no matter what tactics you give them. Unfortunately there’s still no overhead tactical viewpoint available on the 360 version, but it’s gone from the PC now too, so at least there’s a level (lowest common denominator) playing field. In another bit of rather unnecessary and vaguely insulting dumbing-down, enemies now frequently and bloodily explode into hunks of meat, even from attacks from a bow and arrow! Worst of all, on defeating the first wave of an enemy assault, new enemies now appear out of nowhere, spawning directly in front of your eyes—often right on top of your location, rather than running in from the edge of an area. It looks ridiculous, it spoils the gameplay and it ruins the immersion. It didn’t happen in the first game, so why now? It also makes the sensible tactical approach of placing melee characters at a choke point to slow the enemies down and attacking from a safe range with your Mages nonsense because, without replaying the same battle, there’s no way of knowing where the enemies might come from. The difficulty level of the game is just as unpredictable; mid-level boss fights are often more difficult than the bigger set-piece battles; side quests are harder than the main plotline and the final battle is a drawn out but unexpectedly easy anticlimax. Despite a minor nerfing from the first game, magic is still far more powerful than melee attacks (particularly against crowds of enemies mindlessly rushing you, which accounts for 95% of the battles you face.) A half-decent Mage can destroy an entire wave of enemies in a second on Normal, although the higher difficulties still present a challenge for veteran/masochistic players.

Equipment selection has been greatly simplified by the fact that all your companions now wear their own clothes. If you can’t use a particular magic hat no–one can, and you’re free to sell it without spending ages testing it on everyone to see how it compares with their current attire. Your friends can still use any weapons or accessories you find (although there’s no longer the option to carry two sets of equipment, one for ranged and one for close fighting), so it doesn’t completely eliminate the need to juggle equipment around. This is made harder by the fact that each of your companions now has their own home location (rather than all gathering at a campsite where you can manage their equipment as in Origins), so you can now only swap stuff between your active party members. The linear skill development paths from the first game have been replaced with branching skill trees, giving you more choice in how you develop your character, although some skills are so much more useful than others (particularly the new Cross-Class Combo skills), that most player’s characters will probably end up very similar. Also gone are the crafting skills; player characters can no longer make traps, poisons or potions, which means you no longer need to carry thousands of obscure herbs and minerals around in your rucksack. Instead, you find a source of a particular ingredient out in the world, then buy any potions or runes you need that use that ingredient from your local potion stall (or via mail-order from your house.) Once found a source doesn’t run out, but some higher-level items need more than one source of the same ingredient, forcing you to keep exploring.

The dialogue system has also been updated - it’s now more Mass Effect than Monkey Island, with a dialogue wheel offering a range of choices rather than just a list. In a further improvement, every dialogue option now has an icon to help indicate its tone or likely consequence. DAII has no Charisma or Alignment tracking, so there are no options open to only the most noble or ultra-evil characters; no ME2 Renegade-style punching someone in the face during a chat here.

Perhaps most disappointing and annoying of all for players of the first game in the series, the choices you made previously have no real impact on the state of the world. There’s an amusing cameo from Alistair (the constantly moaning heir to the throne from the first game) if you managed to banish him, but that’s about it. Anyone who felt ripped off that the final piece of DLC for Origins, which promised to reveal what had happened to Morrigan and her Messianic Devilspawn baby then did nothing of the sort, should prepare to feel the same emotion come flooding back tenfold on realising this entire game does exactly the same thing. It also ends with the most blatant set-up for another sequel/DLC ever seen, just as it seems like the game is actually about to get going. The whole story is told in flashback by one of your companions and just as it seems like he’s caught up, at the point in a movie when something fantastic and exciting would happen, the game stops. Not only that, but the choices you make within the game have no impact on the outcome, beyond the survival or otherwise of a couple of very minor NPCs. The final battles are all pre-determined and unavoidable, due to some pretty ham-fisted plot devices, clearly designed to steer the story the way it’s meant to go, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense and robbing the game of any real replay value. Granted, all RPG’s do this to some extent, but BioWare games have always been about the choices you can make and their consequences – maybe they’ve always been an illusion, but they’ve never felt like a cheat before.

If there’s one positive to have come from playing the game, it’s that it’s increased my anticipation for the other two major Fantasy RPG sequels due this year; Oblivion sequel Sky Rim and The Witcher II, sequel to the out-of-nowhere smash hit PC game. Seriously, if you’ve got a PC and even a vague interest in Fantasy RPGs but haven’t played The Witcher, do it now. It’s what Dragon Age 2 should have been. Everything from the lack of plot to the low-poly modelling, rough textures and uninspiring, constantly recycled locations make this feel like a rush job, done on the cheap; can you say ‘cynical cash-in’? It’s telling that BioWare, obviously worried about future pre-orders, not only produced a Limited Edition only available to people who pre-ordered, but also gave away a free Mass Effect 2 download code for ALL purchases of DAII registered up to the end of April, presumably to ease the pain…

Best Bits

- BioWare banter present and correct.
- Plays better than the first game.
- Made me look forward to upcoming sequels to some better games.
Worst Bits

- Your choices make no difference to anything.
- Weak story with no clear villain, motivation or overall plot.
- Looks and feels cheap and rushed.
- No real replay value; it’s exactly the same second time around.

by: Smurfzursky

Copyright © Gamecell 2011