Dragon Age 2 is not Dragon Age. It seems like an obvious truism, but given the backlash Bioware's sequel has suffered, it is a statement that people seem to need reminding of.
Indeed, in doing something so dramatically different, Bioware has inadvertently given other developers and publishers all the reason in the world to keep their top franchises safe and stale — if you take risks, you'll piss off some very vocal fanboys.
The backlash would be understandable if the game was in some way inferior to the original, but, although it is a very different experience, Dragon Age 2 is a very high quality game indeed. Whereas Dragon Age was an expansive epic, Dragon Age 2 is a contained character-driven story. Hawke is a greater focus than any individual character in the original, and, thanks to some excellent writing, it has a far more dynamic and personable cast this time around.
Where the original game had locations all over an entire nation to explore and slaughter, Dragon Age 2 focuses in on a single city, with limited capacity to explore elsewhere. There's nothing wrong with this — indeed, urban fantasy is a genre long underdeveloped in video games, and Bioware was brave to take a crack at it with a very valuable IP. In the main, it works — the city of Kirkwall is vibrant with plenty of intrigue. There are enough plot twists and turns to keep driving you through the story, and the side stories are an interesting bunch.
The world of Ferelden might be more limited directly this time around, but its literature and mythology remain expansive. It's hard to understand why, after experiencing all of Ferelden last time around, Dragon Age fans would not appreciate a chance to take a microscope to its inner workings — I know I certainly did, and I came out of Dragon Age 2 with a greater appreciation of Bioware's world than I did going in.
Combat is vastly improved, with a far more dynamic and customisable system than previously. This time around there's a greater range of skills and abilities that are genuinely useful, meaning there's less of an inclination to spam the same skills ad nauseum. Comparisons to MMOs are apt: Dragon Age 2 is a game of builds and hotkeys, but MMOs have become a dominant gameplay structure for a reason — even a pen and paper RPG like the modern Dungeon and Dragon borrows liberally from World of Warcraft, because it's a dynamic and exciting approach to combat that doesn't neglect strategy.
To be fair there are signs that the team at Bioware laboured over a tight production time line — there's a few too many assets that are reused a few too many times for an RPG's own good — and about halfway through you're going to realise the reason the game is set inside a city is because featuring too many other locations would have blown out the development time.
But that's not much to complain about. Dragon Age 2 remains a mature, challenging, modern RPG. It's unfortunate that should there be a Dragon Age 3 Bioware will now be discouraged from trying to do something different.
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