Dragon Age II Review
Dragon Age: Origins was a superb role-playing production that delighted hardcore fans of the genre. The game had several technical deficiencies that could be either tolerated or overlooked for the sake of classic BioWare depth and atmosphere. For the sequel, the team has worked to clean up the presentation, and they’ve also added a more streamlined approach to the gameplay, presumably for the sake of accessibility. …the latter is confusing. While every developer seems intent on focusing on a casual element these days, a game like Dragon Age II has a very specific – and very demanding – demographic that isn’t interested in “streamlining.” And yet, it’s still here. That, along with a storyline that seems to exist permanently on the outskirts of a larger plot, drags down an otherwise excellent game.
Graphically, things are much cleaner and more refined. They sacrificed a fair amount of detail and texture to achieve this significant growth, but with much better cut-scenes and tighter environments, it’s a decent trade-off. We still get the standard drawbacks commonly associated with Dragon Age, like the pop-ins, clipping, and collision detection issues, but they’re less glaring than they were in the original. The bottom line is you really can’t be a graphic whore; you’ll likely be disappointed. But the fans only need a game that gives them the illusion of being part of an epic, meticulously designed fantasy world. That much is a given, as most every area perfectly fits the style and atmosphere, although some places do seem a little bland and devoid of activity. The visuals aren’t a highlight, but at least they’re better.
The audio consists of sweeping orchestral tracks and a ton of voiceover work for a great many distinct characters. Both of these greatly enhance the experience, as much of the voice acting is stellar (with a few exceptions) and the music always serves to bolster the effectiveness of the fantasy. The only problem centers on another technical hitch; the balance always seems off, as the soundtrack, effects, and voices never quite seem to gel correctly. Some voices echo while others disappear behind an effect of some kind, and you may have to change the volume a few times. But given the huge amount of effort expended regarding the music and voices, it’s easy to ignore the smaller, albeit continuous, issues. No matter where you go, what you do, or who you meet, everything always has this appropriate, almost surreal quality. That’s a huge plus for any RPG fan.
The gameplay and its corresponding mechanics and systems have come under the most scrutiny, and that’s because of the marked “accessibility” change. For the record, the gameplay works beautifully; it’s a seamless, flowing style that involves both strategy and timing, and you will once again spend plenty of time building, equipping, and setting your characters for battle. The Tactics alone can take up a chunk of time (and no role-player will complain), and deciding on a new skill or allocating points that increase inherent statistics remains a focal point. You can pause combat at any time with the L2 button, where the radial menu lets you issue new commands and use potions and other items. It also lets you take a breather and take a look at the battle; an invaluable feature that is at the top of my must-have list for RPGs. And of course, you’ve got your equipment and inventory, which must be managed.
In this way, it’s every ounce a role-playing game, and will absolutely reward those who are patient, strategic, and precise. There’s no doubt that Dragon Age II encourages the player to dive into the available depth and locate the best solution. I spend a fair amount of time changing, upgrading, and shifting, and that’s exactly correct; it’s what I want to do in this type of game. The addition of pressing X to execute a basic attack doesn’t feel like a drastic change, nor does it negatively alter the core combat mechanic. You can assign up to 6 skills for the purpose of fast action and you can still select any of your party members at any given time. I’m also fairly convinced the Tactics section is more customizable and complex than ever, so for those who wish to play at an advanced level, that option is definitely still here.
That all being said, this sequel feels…I’m searching for appropriate adjectives… Perhaps “compressed” is a good word. While skills are now separated into specific talents, it seems that we have less overall abilities, and the three-class restriction (Warrior, Mage, Rogue) hasn’t gone over well. Many of the hardcore are going, “wait, I can’t even select a race?!” I’ve never been one to get caught up in such trivialities, but it is noticeable in what’s supposed to be a complex, intricate RPG. Plus, they’ve limited what characters can equip; a lot of the stuff can only be worn by the main character, Hawke, and some party members really don’t have access to much. Lastly, I have to say that it seems more possible to get through the game with default Tactics and simplistic approaches to battle. Not sure that was possible before.
I will say that the emphasis on choice seems to be more intense than ever, as we can almost always choose to vent a certain personality. Depending on our responses and actions, the story can indeed shift; this is most reminiscent of Mass Effect 2. Sometimes, your decision won’t have a visible impact but other times, the consequences of a rash reply can be irrevocable. Furthermore, I do like a few of the changes, including the “ordering” of equipment and items. I’ve never thought it made much sense that all stores always have everything; here, we plunk down some coin for a particularly rare item and, as would be expected, place the order. On top of which, going beyond the weapon enchantment option, we can hunt for various raw materials that might prove useful when in the hands of a skilled tradesman or craftsman.
As usual, the story is a huge focus and while I do enjoy the plot progression – which seems more focused with a more defined central character – I think a lot of the game feels a little…well, trivial is probably the wrong word, but it often feels as if we're always skirting the biggest issues. On the other hand, the rise of the Champion feels just about right: a fleeing refugee who, through a series of important decisions (of which we have lots of control), becomes a savior of mankind. Personally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the story in Origins, which never really grabbed me. I’m not overly impressed with the sequel’s plot and characters, either, but I do prefer this plot in comparison to the last game. And the writing really is tremendous; just reading the pieces of history you find is enough to convince you of the influence of a fine scribe, and the dialogue is also really solid. We should never overlook great writing in games.
Dragon Age II is a great RPG. I want to make that perfectly clear. I also want to make it known that I’m not harping on the technical misgivings (which I could easily do, if I didn’t understand the game’s overall purpose). The depth in terms of gameplay and control is here, and if you wish to fully immerse yourself in yet another top-quality BioWare adventure, you won’t be disappointed. However, I just can’t figure out the need for words like “streamlining” and “accessibility” when it comes to extraordinarily niche titles designed specifically for hardcore fans. Stranger yet, this all came from BioWare’s own design team; I refuse to believe these changes came about due to player feedback after Origins. …no RPG fan would want a simpler, most straightforward presentation when the original setup worked out just fine.
Again, chances are, if you’re a follower of the genre, you’ll probably like this game. You might even love it to pieces. But since when does a slightly more mainstream approach – and it is indeed slight – have any place in a production like this…? And why does the game still chug and freeze at times? …and yet, why can’t I stop playing? Right now, I am a mix of happy/pleased and downright confused.
The Good: More refined visual presentation. A lot of great voiceover work and fantastic music. Accomplished writing and dialogue. Overall gameplay mechanic works very well. Decision making is a huge plus. Plenty of depth to satisfy most fans.
The Bad: Graphics can be a little bland. Audio balancing issues. Frame rate can chug. Storyline isn’t quite engrossing. The “streamlining” of the gameplay is a bizarre design choice.
The Ugly: “…is…is it going to freeze…? …no, guess not.”
3/10/2011 Ben Dutka