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We find out whether BioWare's Dragon Age sequel builds on the triumphs of the original...
The original Dragon Age - released in 2009 under an 'Origins' moniker - was a triumph for traditional, PC-led Western RPGs. Lauded for its classically modelled styling, if you zoomed out as far as the camera would go and squinted a lot, you could almost have been playing the original Baldur's Gate that BioWare was striving to spiritually succeed. Combat remained true to the complexity and strategic depth synonymous with PC RPGs of yesteryear, shunning the simplified suites made prominent by the rise of Western RPGs on consoles. Now, just short of a year-and-a-half down the line, BioWare has moved on from the lands of Ferelden to a new location in the Dragon Age universe called Thedas.
The game kicks off at an exhilarating pace, seeing the player learn the ropes and destroying hordes of enemies set against a narrative framing device which features a Dwarf recounting 'what happened' to your character. This first hour flies by and a rich tapestry of exposition is revealed, detailing the events of the previous title. Hawke is the champion of Dragon Age II, and is customisable: he or she can be a Mage, Warrior or a Rogue, each with their standard fantasy perks and flaws, though it should be noted that they must be a human this time around. Appearance can also be modified, as can the now-familiar attributes and ability trees, as the game progresses.
Fleeing the evil Darkspawn, who have ravaged their hometown, Hawke and his family reach the huge city of Kirkwall. Here, the game continues to impress as Hawke is given the freedom to explore and complete a massive number of optional missions in order to raise the required coin for an expedition that he plans to embark upon. The range of quests is certainly diverse, if a little unimaginative, with each task also providing further understanding of the setting and associated lore. The Free Marches, the realm within which the game is set, is beautifully described and the writers have done well to cleverly weave together various bits of archetypical fantasy tropes with a fresh and interesting perspective. The lore sees both Mages and Elves discriminated against, and there are some allusions to real-world issues with varying degrees of subtlety, the most notable of which is perhaps the representation of the Dalish Elves with parts of British history.
Your protagonist has found a voice this time round, using it to great effect as the player chooses from the dialogue menu to respond in either an aggressive, money-fishing, or comedic fashion, among others. This mechanic has evolved from Origins, now much more akin to the Mass Effect wheel, using prompts rather than text-heavy options, and it is a change for the better. The voice acting is adequate, but usually fails to invoke much emotion, especially when an early tragedy inexplicably appears to barely affect the characters at all. A lack of Hollywood-style sheen seen in the likes of Mass Effect and Uncharted may also contribute to the relatively poor acting in Dragon Age II, as some of the dialogue can be jarring and reminiscent of last-gen vocals.
This notable absence of polish can be seen throughout the game. The visuals, while a marked improvement upon Origins, still look muddy and dull compared to most recent titles. BioWare still seem to struggle with water and liquids in particular. Furthermore, the game also features some technical bugs, and although some of them can be forgiven due to the massive size and non-linear nature of the game, there were still moments when the errors were game-breaking. Loading times are again an issue, with the joy and fluidity hindered somewhat by the constant jumpiness, weak collision detection and loading screens. The feel of the game in general is also a touch lightweight which, coupled with the setting, makes it feel more like the Fable franchise than anything else and does detract from the heavy, serious atmosphere that BioWare were likely aiming for.
Furthermore, the art design looks pretty uninspired compared to Molyneux's baby and other fantasy games. For all the slickness of the back-story animations and all the quality of the writing, Dragon Age II looks astonishingly bland. Brown mines, grey coastlines, green hills - very little in the game has any artistic flourish or creativity, and it's disappointing that with such a rich canvas there is nothing appealing about the aesthetics of the world. This problem is compounded by the heavy re-use of assets, which are repeated so often that even navigation can sometimes be a problem, with players unsure as to whether they have actually visited a place before, or rather if they are in an imitation of a former location.
Nevertheless, despite the presentation issues, Dragon Age II is great fun. The combat is well suited to console play with the game imposing limitations upon the scope of usable abilities, definitely helping to streamline the experience. Striking enemies feels weighty and effective, and magic can be joyously devastating. The arrangement of the quick-use abilities wheel means that characters of all types can comfortably switch between basic combat types and also apply liberal use of special attacks. Additionally, there is depth to the combat, and most experienced RPG players will want to meddle with the tactics system, a condition/reaction rule-set for each party member, which provides a welcome layer of strategy to the real-time fighting.
The opening 15-20 hours are spent in Kirkwall and as Hawke gathers new party members and upgrades, their skillset and his wallet, the game really shines. It's easy to get caught up in the narrative and environment, and the versatility of the missions and characters means there's rarely a dull moment. Throughout this time, it's easy to forgive the game's various presentation flaws and the other niggles it has as it is a great experience playing as Hawke in the build up to the 'Deep Roads' expedition, and indeed during it.
It will come as a crushing disappointment to most players then, that happy with how things have gone so far, the game decides to never move on from this stage. For some reason, pretty much the entire game is set in Kirkwall, and although the contexts for the missions begin to change, the content remains the same. Fortunately the story remains compelling for the remainder of the game, as does the combat and character interaction, but it really is a shame that Hawke is restricted to such a narrow sliver of the world.
In comparison to its sci-fi sibling Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age II demonstrates a staggering lack of ambition. Set against the open exploration of the galaxy, Kirkwall and the surrounding areas are claustrophobic to say the least, and the game suffers significantly for it. For all its superb attention to detail, intriguing character development, dungeon plundering and sharp combat system, Dragon Age II never dares to wonder or indeed wander, and surely that is exactly what an RPG should be about.