Game Review: DRAGON AGE 2: Streamlined, More Epic Than Ever

Game Review: DRAGON AGE 2

Dragon Age II

From: BioWare

Reviewed on: PS3, PC (also available on Xbox 360)

Dragon Age II had a lot to live up to after the success of Dragon Age: Origins. In Newsarama’s preview of the game, BioWare told us they wanted to focus on three key areas: combat, graphics, and story. BioWare delivered. Dragon Age II is graphically gorgeous with a story that forces you to make truly difficult choices.

Broken up into three acts, you begin with your arrival in Kirkwall with your family as "Hawke," the customizable hero who becomes a legend in the land. Act 1 is all about recruiting companions and going on quests to raise money for an exhibition to the Deep Roads. Origins fans will immediately notice that there is not a party camp. If you wish to talk to a companion, you must travel to their “home.” Although they are spread out, this allows for more of each companion’s personality to shine through where they are located. It also makes sense story-wise that such varying personalities would not all live under the same roof. Even in act 1, it is clear that Hawke’s companions rarely agree with each other. Alistair and Morrigan’s squabbling in Origins will seem like child’s play compared to the differing ideologies of Hawke’s companions.  It is very important who you decide to bring with or leave behind on quests.

The story of Hawke’s rise to power is fast paced without hardly any lulls. The final quests of Act 2 and 3 will leave your jaw hanging. The writers have artfully weaved seemingly smaller quests into the larger picture. They truly reward players who decide to complete all of the secondary and side quests. Origins fans, especially, are going to be pleased with certain cameos in Act 3. The companion quests are particularly well done. Although all involve combat, Hawke will find him/herself in some interesting and humorous situations off the battlefield during these quests.

What is truly revolutionary about Dragon Age II is the relationships allowed with your companions. Relationships are no longer measured by “like” or “dislike,” but by friendship and rivalry. Becoming a 100% rival with a companion is actually rewarded with different cut-scenes than a 100% friendship. Hawke can still gain the loyalty of the companion despite friendship status, which remains locked except for certain key decisions in the main plot and companion quests. The friendship-rivalry scale allows for you to make decisions that might anger your companions, but doesn’t always cause them to leave the party or keep you from having a romance with them. Rivalmances have their own unique dialogue and scenes. All romance choices, except for Sebastian Vael from the premium content, are available for heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Family becomes another important relationship that wasn’t seen in Origins. Hawke has siblings, a mother, and uncle to please, or not if he/she so chooses.

Along with the new friendship-rivalry scale, the emotion wheel really gives you the opportunity to mold Hawke into the champion you wish him/her to be. Morality in Dragon Age has always been left up to the player. Nothing is black and white in this world. The emotion wheel allows for the dialogue to enter that grey area. Instead of just having “nice” and “mean” choices, Hawke can be sarcastic, charming, flirtatious, helpful, aggressive, diplomatic, or direct. BioWare has turned dialogue with NPCs into gameplay. Depending on how you handle conversations there will be multiple outcomes. The dialogue cut-scenes are much more cinematic than Origins. No longer are you just looking over your character’s shoulder at a NPC’s face. The cut-scenes now contain sweeping camera angles with both Hawke and the NPC moving around during the conversation. This means a sacrifice in how often you talk to your companions, but it does mean that each conversation you have with them is important and dynamic.

The combat in Dragon Age II is on another level compared to Origins. Each class is different from each other with multiple options on what kind of fighter you wish your Hawke to be. Each class moves in a distinct way: the rogue jumps quickly all over the screen, the mage uses their whole body to cast spells, and the heavily armored warrior really seems to have power behind every swing of their sword. The mage class, in particular, has a large amount of abilities and specializations for you to choose from, including force mage, blood mage, and spirit healer. “The First of the Maker”, a force mage ability, will make you feel like a Sith lord. Choosing to be a rogue archer was arguably the least satisfying combat choice in Origins, but that is not the case in Dragon Age II.  “Bursting arrow” and “Archer’s Lance” are both graphically pleasing and effective. For two-handed warriors, “Whirlwind” is the way to go - there is nothing quite like cutting a group of darkspawn clean in half.

Dragon Age II can be played as an action RPG, a traditional tactical RPG, or a combination of both. All of the intense tactics from Origins are still available, but if you would rather just assign roles like defender or healer to a companion that can be done too. While you cannot change your companion’s outfits, there is still plenty of loot to acquire and you can still change their weapon and accessories. Although it would have been nice to see it change each act, the look of the companions was another way to express their strong personalities. Throughout the game you can find upgrades for your companion’s outfits and apply runes to them. You can, of course, change Hawke’s look whenever you wish.

So is there anything wrong with this game? While the story and characters of Dragon Age II are truly outstanding, the repetition of dungeon maps is noticeable. Especially since Origins had so many different areas and layouts with distinct looks. Hopefully future DLC will provide new, varying maps. It should be noted, however, that the City of Kirkwall looks amazing. People walk in the streets, they greet you and your companions, and each neighborhood has its own feel.

The premium content available for Dragon Age II, while not necessary, is worth buying for true fans of the franchise. The Exiled Prince provides the story with a full companion, Sebastian Vael, with multiple quests, five achievements/trophies, and an unique perspective to the major conflicts in the game. The Black Emporium provides you exclusive gear along with the opportunity to change your appearance as you play.

In Dragon Age II, political and social conflicts introduced in Origins are taken to the next level. Relationships with companions and family are cultivated not over a six month period, but years. The story is exciting, controversial, and full of twists. At the heart of this game is your rise to power as the champion of Kirkwall. Like all BioWare games, your self-expression through the decisions you make is what drives the story forward

The ending will leave you speechless yet dying to know more. When I finally could come up with a word to describe my experience with Dragon Age 2 it was simply, "Epic."

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