As the successor to one of the most influential and awarded games of our time, Dragon Age 2 has a lot of proving to do. Expectations were high when it was first announced and now that it’s been out for more than a week, how did it fare?
Grab a seat, hit the jump and listen to my tale, but a word of warning: there are spoilers abound.
The game is told through the eyes of a dwarf named Varric Tethras, captured and interrogated by a chantry seeker named Cassandra Pentaghast. From the onset, it is established that something has gone dreadfully wrong, and the seeker aims to unravel the mystery by listening to Varric’s tale.
The game starts off with a bang. Through Varric’s narrative, you will take on the role of Hawke, the eponymous champion of Kirkwall and a refugee from the blighted Ferelden village of Lothering. On the run from the disaster that has befallen their beloved hometown, he seeks sanctuary in the city of Kirkwall and is thrust in a deadly game of politics, betrayal and power.
Unlike Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 tells a more personal story within a confined space. You will follow the humble beginnings of the champion: from his exile to poverty, his serendipitous meetings with a diverse group of heroes, and ultimately his involvement in the political affairs that is the lifeblood (and destruction) of the torn city.
Kirkwall is a city teeming with life. People are clearly defined by their social castes as well as located in different sections of the city based on their standing. As an impoverished refugee you begin your first year in lowtown, the poor district of Kirkwall.
You then begin your rise to fame and power through a series of chance encounters with a series of powerful heroes, such as the pirate queen Isabela, the haunted Grey Warden mage Anders, the honorable soldier named Aveline, and the adventurous rogue dwarf named Varric, to name a few. Each companion tells a story of their own, and it is up to you to influence their lives as you see fit.
Kirkwall is a powder keg with a number of political conflicts threatening to destroy it at every turn, and every year you spend in it unravels the mystery behind Varric’s tale. From refugee uprisings to Qunari plots, down to the long-standing feud between the mage’s circle and the templar Chantry, you will witness the downfall of the city through the course of three long years.
Though not as epic as the first one, Dragon Age 2 does succeed in telling personal stories effectively. I found myself touched by the people of Kirkwall, and near the end of the game I felt more familiar with the city and its denizens than I ever was with Ferelden.
Like Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2 deviates from its predecessor and focuses more on combat and quick resolution. Each encounter is thrilling: combat is resolved at lightning speeds, leaving you gasping for breath if you didn’t bother pressing the spacebar to pause the action.
Unlike Dragon Age: Origins, the need to pause incessantly has been removed. With a streamlined tactics system that allows you to customize your companion’s actions better you can control Hawke more and focus on sleek actions and skill toggling with a simple touch of a button. Basic healing aids and stamina potions are mapped to dedicated buttons (I remapped mine on the F and G keys) and a targeting key (mapped to R by default) allows you to attack the nearest enemy.
Simplicity is the name of the game, and Dragon Age 2 delivers. The interfaces are bare and at first glance may seem unfinished, but as the game proceeds you will find yourself thankful for this lack of visual complexity.
Each user interface element functions as it simply should be, from skill descriptions, menu navigation down to attribute allocation. Even equipment is streamlined, with each companion having their own preset armor, and at times, weaponry. You may customize your character from head to toe, but your companions’ armor can only be improved by locating upgrades hidden in the game. Most may frown at this lack of customization freedom, but it is in this simplicity in design that makes the game a joy to play.
Conversations are similar to Mass Effect 2, with each statement’s tone defined by an icon. For example, Agreeable replies are represented by a green leaf icon, witty replies are represented by a purple mask, and direct and/or rude replies represented by a hammer. I found this particular change in the system refreshing, allowing me to have more control over the way conversations go.
Let’s be honest: Dragon Age: Origins, despite all its intricacy and majesty, had a drab and visually unappealing world. Armor, though imposing, are either bulky or distasteful, and characters were awkward to look at. And it seems Bioware has taken great lengths to make sure that Dragon Age 2 is pure eye-candy.
Kirkwall is vibrant, with each location clearly defined not only by story but by the way it looks. Hightown is majestic with its towering apartments and a glorious view of the templar chantry, while Lowtown is a dry, dusty hovel with the alienage tree being the only welcoming sight.
The clothing designs have also changed drastically from the first game. In Dragon Age: Origins, my Morrigan (an arcane warrior) wore massive armor, making her look like a supermodel thrust in a really awful outfit. In Dragon Age 2, female armor fits them perfectly, with pauldrons and chestpieces contoured specifically for the one wearing them.Image taken with all visual settings set to very high and Bioware’s hi-res texture patch applied
Your companions are also a sight to behold. Each character is defined not only by their lore but also by their clothes: Isabela with her pirate motif and matching bandanna, Aveline with his marvelous soldier’s armor, Fenris with his sleek tight-fitting suit and lyrium-infused tattoos, and Bethany with her long-sleeved dress with a unique chainmail blouse. You’ll find yourself stopping for a moment to admire your characters at certain points in the game.
Dragon Age 2, though not as expansive and epic as the first one, succeeds in two things: simplification and rapport. It’s a great entry in the series and a good starter for any RPG newbie with its easy-to-understand systems and insanely fast gameplay, provided that you don’t compare it too much to Origins. All in all Dragon Age 2 is an excellent game, and I can’t wait to see what Bioware comes up with next.
Game title: Dragon Age 2
Average time to complete: 30 hours
Completed using: a Core 2 Duo rig with a GeForce 9600 video card and a Core i7 rig with a GTX470 video card.