A tale of one city - A review of Dragon Age 2

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Dragon Age 2 make several departures from its predecessor, both to the detriment and for the advancement of the series, and some that will be either be perceived as a welcome change or a jarring adjustment. Like its precursor, Dragon Age 2 is a highly enjoyable RPG adventure set in a high fantasy world. There are mighty dragons, powerful mages, devious rogues ad noble warriors, all set in a world that rarely becomes tired or tedious due to its political and moral ambiguity. More visceral and animated combat, a more personal story, and some slimmed down RPG elements are some of the things that have changed with the sequel, and whether you find these changes welcome or not, Dragon Age 2 is still a challenging and thoroughly enjoyable adventure that takes you from gutter-rat to champion of your new home.

It's something of a trope within the fantasy genre that the protagonist is a special, important individual who must overcome some dark and ghastly threat looming over the land. Dragon Age Origins took this route and it travelled it pretty well. It comes as a surprise then that Dragon Age 2 does away with this setup and instead tells the story of Hawke - a refugee who flees the Ferelden blight with his or her family and travels to Kirkwall in the Free Marches. Borrowing a leaf from the Mass Effect series, you now control a single, voiced character. This means you can only play as a human, sacrificing character customisation for a fully voice-acted protagonist. Some players will bemoan being unable to play as an elf or a dwarf this time around, but the added connection you feel to your protagonist is worth the cut in customisation, and this also compliments the personal story being told. That said, you can still choose to play as either a warrior, rogue or mage, and you and your companions are given room to manoeuvre inside these classes to carve out their own specialisation, whether that be in taking hits, dealing damage, providing support or raining down magic-fuelled death from the skies.

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The Qunari certainly look more distinct and fearsome this time around.

Over the course of the story Hawke rises from street-rat to champion of Kirkwall and the game mainly deals with Hawke's involvement in the important political events that have huge consequences for the world of Dragon Age. Yet, while each individual act in the game is geared towards a specific goal, there's a distinct lack of an overarching challenge to keep you all that interested in the long-term. While this does help keep the narrative personal to Hawke as he witnesses and reacts to the changing political problems of Kirkwall, it makes the overall story seem disjointed and sporadic. The only real hint at a larger threat and greater goal comes as sequel bait at the end, and while this is genuinely intriguing, it's slightly frustrating that no such goal manifests earlier. In addition to this, the entirety of the game takes place in Kirkwall and its surroundings, meaning most the game is set against a perpetual backdrop of an aesthetically unchanging city.

While the main story can fall a little flat at times and the samey environments are a shame, it's good to know that Bioware once again delivers with character. You can't take on the political shitstorm of Kirkwall on your own, and early on in the game you'll recruit your fellow adventurers to take the flak alongside you. As always, they're a diverse bunch, spanning different races, classes and backgrounds, and most importantly different personalities, motivations and aspirations. A lot of the time their agendas will be completely at odds with your own, meaning that you'll conflict with different companions depending on how you play the game. Unfortunately, this isn't to say that choice has as much influence as in Bioware's other titles. You can export your completed save file from Dragon Age Origins, but very little of what you did in the last game seems to have a bearing on the plot of DA2, save for a few cursory cameos and nostalgic references, and at least one important action you could have potentially made in the first game is out-right retconned in the second, which is shame for a series that offers itself as providing choice with consequence.

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Conversing with the characters is actually a major driving force in the game.

The combat has been given a lot more visual appeal this time around. Fighting in Dragon Age Origins often felt very sedate, and while this allowed time for tactical contemplation, it still wasn't particularly enthralling visually. Dragon Age 2 cranks the attack speed right up, and each class has their own lavish and spectacular animation to accompany their relentless barrage of swings and mana-blasts. Warriors swing their two-handed weapons with devastating force, rogues launch a barrage of nimble dagger stabs and slashes, and mages twirl their staves with acrobatic dexterity. This change in pace is largely just an aesthetic one, however, and the tactical planning and precision of the series is still here. It is possible, on the very lowest settings, to rush in with your party and mash the attack button until a crowd of body's lie cooling at your feet, but on anything above casual it's an absolute necessity to put some thought into your party composition, skills and tactics.

Dragon Age plays almost like a single player MMO. For most fights you'll need a sturdy warrior to take the majority of the damage with their hefty defence. You'll also probably want a way to keep your party refreshed with healing and supporting magic, while the rest of your gang concentrate on dispatching foes with force. Mid battle you can pause the action and issue commands to your party, which come in the form of executable skills that perform varying effects and consume stamina or mana, depending on the class using them. Essentially, this means you have to think carefully about how your four-strong party will use skills together to respond to the changing circumstances of each battle. Perhaps a warrior who has recently dished out some heavy damage now has the attention of too many foes and needs to activate an ability that drastically cuts attack but boosts defence, or maybe additional enemies have spawned on the battlefield, requiring your mages to deter in their damage-dealing so they can halt the reinforcements while your frontline party members finish what they're fighting. After awhile you'll likely build a team who works well together and that you take out with you regularly, and you'll likely form a solid routine. However, often times the game will throw different challenges at you, and these in conjunction with the games boss battles will ensure that you'll have to stay on your toes, rethink your strategy and adapt to stay alive.

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The game has antagonistic characters, but the lack of a real, persistent threat deters from the narrative.

While the core mechanics remained largely unchanged, Bioware have cut back some of the outlying elements of the RPG adventure that is baffling because there was nothing wrong with them in the first game. You're no longer able to select your companions armour, rendering the vast majority of the loot you'll pick up whilst dungeon crawling utterly useless for anything other than selling. It's quite disheartening to see powerful robes or sets of armour greyed out on the menu screen because they can only be equipped by a Hawke of a certain class, and while you can still specify certain weapons and accessories for your allies, the inability to completely kit them out is definite step back for the series. Other elements, like a scaled back crafting system and the lack of specialist bolts and arrows for ranged characters makes Dragon Age 2 feel less diverse in the combat department when compared to its predecessor. While these lessened features weren't particularly necessary in the first game, their neglect in the second is a shame.

Ultimately Dragon Age 2 feels like a simultaneous step forward and step back for the series, with improvements in combat and presentation being confounded by the unnecessary removal and simplification of the some of the secondary RPG elements and the limited environments. Yet despite some of the questionable changes, Dragon Age 2 is still a solid and very well-written adventure that offers a good challenge, fun and interesting characters and nuanced role-playing throughout. Not everyone will appreciate the lessened scope of the story, but the capacity for you to make decisions among the many questions draped in moral ambiguity makes Dragon Age 2 a pleasant experience.

I'd appreciate any advice/feedback on the review, mostly on the writing style and how well it actually functions as a review. Personally I felt it lacked cohesion, which may have been because I wrote most the paragraphs separately and in a random order. Also felt I missed out on a lot of things in the game, such as mentioning romances, commenting on art direction/style and sound, though I felt that I couldn't cover anything without making it more of an essay. Perhaps it needs trimming. Hmmm.

Anyway, all feedback is appreciated.

I'll have to come back tomorrow to give a more detailed critique as I'm not alert enough to give a decent and hopefully helpful critique but it is a solid review. The flow is pretty nice and you keep the writing enticing enough to stop me skimming over some of what you put down. Although I do want to know where you got that Qunari pic from as I don't remember fighting any in the Gallows.

As for the length, I think it's fine. As long as you keep it all relevant and interesting, it shouldn't matter too much whether it's 1000 words long or 300 words long. I've written, and tend to write, long reviews but no one's complained about the length yet. So yeah, as long as you keep it all on topic, length shouldn't be a big issue.

Sassafrass:
I'll have to come back tomorrow to give a more detailed critique as I'm not alert enough to give a decent and hopefully helpful critique but it is a solid review. The flow is pretty nice and you keep the writing enticing enough to stop me skimming over some of what you put down. Although I do want to know where you got that Qunari pic from as I don't remember fighting any in the Gallows.

As for the length, I think it's fine. As long as you keep it all relevant and interesting, it shouldn't matter too much whether it's 1000 words long or 300 words long. I've written, and tend to write, long reviews but no one's complained about the length yet. So yeah, as long as you keep it all on topic, length shouldn't be a big issue.

The images are all from Yahoo images. Would be Google, of course, but google images crashes my browser for some reason right now. You certainly don't fight any Qunari in the gallows. I think that must have been a pre-release screenshot. It looks like an in-game shot though, so I thought it good to use.

Thanks for the feedback, and I look forward to that detailed critique if you have the time for it.

 

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