Dragon Age II
Dragon Age II review: Dragon Age II's direction is going to make old-school RPG fans likely ask why BioWare is courting the masses of console players instead of them
- Combat is fast and fun yet retains much of its strategic appeal, Kirkwall serves as grand adventure hub in the spirit of Baldur's Gate II's Athkatla, BioWare creates another memorable character in Varric
- Game lacks "epic feel" of Origins, framed narrative feels a bit gimmicky, PC players lose large battlefield view of combat, final battle falls flat
Dragon Age II's streamlined mechanics and more action-oriented combat should appeal to console players, but hardcore fans of PC RPGs may feel slighted.
The biggest difference, for me, is setting. Kirkwall serves as a grand adventure hub in the same way that Athkatla does in Baldur's Gate II. After the prologue, you spend the game in or around Kirkwall. Split into districts, just like Athkatla, Kirkwall also shows the disparities of how Dragon Age II's people live: The high-and-mighty occupy the clean, imposing structures of Hightown; the middle class and workers fill Lowtown (also the location of the elven alienage); while the most pathetic -- the poor refugees who fled the blight in Ferelden -- languish in Darktown, the undercity.
Combat is fast and frantic. It's received the "streamlined" treatment as well, but improvements to the Tactics system has made combat much more enjoyable for players who don't want to micromanage their party members. I played half of the game relying on Tactics and the other half giving out individual orders; while I enjoyed the turn-based feel of giving the characters their own sets of orders, I also found myself enjoying letting the Tactics dictate their actions instead of me. The followed their attack routines fairly well. The only problem I had with the system was my allies' failure to use healing and stamina potions under the proscribed conditions (when the stat bars had fallen to 25 percent), but it wasn't hard for me to pause the action and order them to take a swig.
Combat and level advancement is also streamlined. The foes you face essentially come in three varities: swarms of weak cannon fodder that you can dispatch in a few attacks (even one spell can kill these buggers), stronger foes with "full" health bars, and boss-type enemies such as Ogres, dragons, and, of course, actual bosses. Playing a mage, I was still able to take advantage of the many aftereffects of Dragon Age magic: Winter's Grasp and Cone of Cold can still freeze enemies (especially if you take the skill enhancements for these spells that bring about the "brittle" stat), and Fireballs and Firestorms can stun the bad guys as well. I especially like how some melee abilities complement some spells, allowing fighters to smash foes in brittle state, for example. Each set of skills is along its own "tree" (more of a circle in some ways for some) that features improved abilities for basic skills and other abilities that unlock based on your relationship to the character. Gifts are practically gone, too; you sometimes find items that you hand out to your allies, but these are scripted moments. The enjoyable puzzle of figuring out which gift "belongs" to which party member is gone.
But the changes to combat do offer some disadvantages; foes come at you sometimes in waves, throwing sheer numbers at you instead of challenging you strategically. These waves or foes are pretty dumb, too, frequently concentrating on the enemy nearest to them instead of seeking out spellcasters, who frequently pose the greatest threat (spellcasters remain overpowered in Dragon Age II). Sadly, a number of fights fall into the "kill one wave, prepare for the next, and keep slaughterin'" rhythm.
My greatest nitpick to combat is the missing strategic view. PC players could pull combat back so far that they'd get an almost top-down perspective in Dragon Age: Origins. This is missing from Dragon Age II -- the pulled-back view on consoles looks pretty similar to what's in Dragon Age II's PC version. This makes it more difficult to place long-distance spell attacks where you want them, a significant frustration to a player who favors mage above the other classes.
The framed narrative is new to BioWare's story-telling repertoire, and frankly, I found it kinda unnecessary (other than as another opportunity to showcase Varric). The conversations narrators Varric and the seeker Cassandra engage in aren't very interesting -- expect for those few times when she catches Varric (or gets him to admit) when he's "embellishing" the story (this is especially funny at the end of the prologue, despite the serious subject matter it covers as Hawke and family escape the Darkspawn). But the conversations between the two as the story jump from one time period to the next in Hawk's life really doesn't add much to the story. I don't want to label it as unsuccessful, as I relish when developers attempt alternative methods of telling a story, but Cassandra is just too much of a straight man against Varric's outlandishness.
The framed narrative does serve one good purpose: it allows Hawke to live with the consequences of his or her actions. Characters weave in and out of Hawke's life, some offering opportunity, and others dispensing death. It heightens the importance of each decision you make, knowing that, somewhere down the line, you may pay a price for the decision you make.
The rest of the story is engaging. It's a very human tale of freedom vs. protecting society. When someone has the power to destroy civilization, how tight of a rein should they live under, considering the very real dangers demons and blood magic pose to the rest of the world? This mage-vs.-templar debate underpins the story, but BioWare throws in other factors as well: the pathetic life the refugees from Ferelden lead in Kirkwall, the influence corruption can have on a city, and the exploitation of workers. If you import your save from Dragon Age: Origins, decisions you made in that game can be seen in its sequel. Sadly, the game does lack the epic feel of the original. Let's face it -- when you beat an Archdemon in the first game, any other foe sorta pales in comparison.
At the end of Dragon Age II, I'm not sure how I feel about the story. What was the message? Is it one of the importance of freedom? Is it a cautionary tale on how power can corrupt? Dragon Age II flirts with both of these messages. But as a game, its streamlined mechanics and more action-oriented combat should appeal to console players, but hardcore fans of PC RPGs may feel slighted.
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