Review - Dragon Age II

 

Comparing Dragon Age II to its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, doesn’t do it any favours. Despite offering a deep and engaging adventure it is difficult to shake the feeling that it’s a wasted opportunity - neither building upon nor matching the achievements of the first entry in the series.

Dragon Age II opens in the war-torn kingdom of Ferelden, where you assume the role of Hawke, one of a group of refugees fleeing from their burning homes. After making your escape you take to the high seas in search of safety and a new life. Arriving in the sprawling city of Kirkwall, you soon discover that the demonic hordes of the Archdemon are not the only hostile forces standing in your way. Rife with in-fighting, turmoil and segregation, the city plays host to your rise from illegal immigrant to hero over the course of a decade.

Hawke’s story is told through prolonged flashbacks with Varric the dwarf, one of your more charismatic companions, recounting the tale. Varric has the gift of the gab - never afraid to let the truth get in the way of a good story - so his audience, and the player, are left to question the validity of his claims. This framed narrative lends weight to your actions, even if it makes their outcome inevitable, as you are aware that you quest is destined to become legend.

This fantasy yarn lacks a clearly defined goal, a deliberate choice on the part of the developer. It’s not always apparent what exactly you are striving towards, with a number of subplots simmering under the surface, only some of which are fully developed. It’s an interesting approach which succeeds in keeping the story fresh, but it falters when pacing issues make it easy to loose sight, or be completely ignorant of your overall objective.

Certain plot elements may be imported from Origin saves, but Hawke is an entirely new character who, thanks to the non-linear elements of the series, you are free to mold. When designing your hero you are confined to the human race, though you may choose from a warrior, rogue or mage – three well-balanced classes – along with the usual face customization. Fans of the first game will be happy to see a few returnee cameos, some more prolonged than others, and fans new and old are likely to find something of interest amongst the colourful cast of companions.

Dragon Age II doesn’t hold back on gore

Hawke’s rise to power is assured, but how you get there is largely at your discretion. There is no shortage of side missions which will line your pockets with gold, award experience and swell the ranks of your party. Most of these quests are rather generic, but they succeed in keeping the player engaged by showcasing interesting characters and plotlines, as well as affecting other aspects of the game. Each companion has his or her own side missions which uncover more of their past, either distancing or ingratiating themselves to Hawke. Suitably fleshed-out, you come to genuinely care about your crew - ever wary of the impact of your words and actions on these delicate relationships.

Across each play-through you take part in hundreds of engrossing conversations. Utilizing a similar system to the morality based Mass Effect dialogue wheel, almost every response comes with a number of disparate options clearly labelled as being romantic, fair, sarcastic or stern. Brilliantly scripted and well voiced, these interactions remain entertaining throughout, and you may well find yourself rushing through the combat in an effort to return to the rich and immersive dialogue.

Battles are fairly straight forward, at least on consoles; a satisfying mix of button-mashing and none-too-taxing tactics that is missing some of the nuances of its peers. What it lacks in depth it gains in accessibility, though at times you may find yourself yearning for more challenging foes. The equipment system has been streamlined, removing the ability to tinker with companion’s armour, which frees up precious inventory spots to better prepare Hawke and ensures continuity in character appearance.

Dragon Age II’s most prominent failing is its claustrophobic setting. For the vast majority of the game you are stranded in the city of Kirkwall. Throughout the first third you are teased with the prospect of visiting different locales, eventually breaking free from the city around the ten hour mark to embark on an expedition to the cavernous Deep Roads. This is an exciting but painfully brief sojourn which concludes by dumping you straight back into the city. It soon becomes clear that your wanderlust will go unsated, as Kirkwall becomes the permanent setting for the remainder of your geographically challenged adventure.

Stuck in one place for tens of hours, it is easy to dwell upon abundant rough edges and questionable mechanics - faults that are more easily forgiven when on the move, visiting new and varied environments. The constant load screens become increasingly frustrating, marking what, in-game, is just a short jog from one street to the next. Having to speak to a merchant’s chest of wares instead of to the tradesman himself, a tricky job of finding just the right angle, is likely to be trying your patience well before the hundredth attempt. As cabin fever takes hold, these small grievances are magnified and start to spoil the experience.

Aside from the odd foray into the mountains, this is your home for the next 30+ hours

On the rare occasion that you do venture outside of the city walls – usually to complete a side mission in the surrounding mountains – you quickly come to realise that art direction and variety weren’t two of BioWare’s primary concerns. Dungeons are recycled ad nauseum, as what was once a mine shaft will soon reappear in countless others missions as a Dragons den or a smugglers hideout. These dull labyrinths soon make you long for the familiar streets of Kirkwall.

While it clearly lacks the scope of other BioWare RPGs, the contained setting does allow for a full realising of Kirkwall. It feels like a real city, populated by characters you come to know and trust, or distrust. When a character is missing from his regular spot in the market you take note, and likewise you are instantly aware of any new, unsavoury characters. Informative scrolls and codex are littered throughout the city, contributing to Kirkwall’s extensive back-story, making it easier to believe that it has stood for hundreds of years – a relic of an earlier age. The brilliantly atmospheric soundtrack adds character to the repetitive settings, yet it will inexplicably drop in places, leaving long periods of silence before it suddenly returns for no apparent reason.

Dragon Age II is repetitive and confined, yet anyone who enjoyed Origins is sure to find something here that will take their fancy. It falls well short of expectations yet the interesting characters, their riveting interactions and the tantalizing details of the land they call home do, in part, make up for its shortcomings. Dragon Age II is a limited yet enjoyable entry in a series which we have yet to see the best of.

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