|Dragon Age II|
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: 1 player, DLC
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
- BioWare banter present and correct.
- Plays better than the first game.
- Made me look forward to upcoming sequels to some better games.
- 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.