Dragon Age: Origins was a strange sort of game when it released back in the Fall of 2009. Not to say it was bad by any means (Eddy gave it a good review), but the game seemed to draw on more of the old RPG conventions than newer ones. It still retained that BioWare dedication to character and story, but for those of us who got most of their RPG experience from games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, it was a little difficult to get into.
Regardless of what you may have thought about the original’s mechanics, the success it obtained meant that BioWare launched head-first into a sequel, dropping Dragon Age 2 a year and a bit after the original and all of its expansion. A lot of things have been changed, re-vamped or just plain dropped this time around. Does BioWare work their magic again, or should we call the Templars?
The major difference between the two Dragon Ages is the presentation of the story and the role you take as the player. Origins cast you as the nebulous Warden, who’s appearance, gender, and even race was up to you. There were also several different paths to take like the human noble, or the dwarf commoner. In Dragon Age 2, BioWare does away with the vast array of character options and sticks you in the role of Hawke, a human from the town of Lothering in Ferelden (the town was destroyed earlier on in DA:O, if you recall). While Hawke’s class, gender and facial features are entirely player chosen, being railroaded into one path feels very different from the open nature of DA:O. That’s not to say that making the game focused around one character was a bad decision; it feels a lot more like Mass Effect, especially with the new conversation wheel and having fully voiced discussions.
With any big changes there are inevitable problems, most of them stemming from the fact that Dragon Age 2 is far less morally ambiguous than the first. The story breaks down into three Acts, with each having its own small climax before building up to a huge one at the end. Dividing the game into three parts works well, but there was one overarching plot-line which I was aching to see tied up as it appeared in each separate storyline. Much to my chagrin, this was never fully resolved, just sort of swept under the rug.
Even though there’s no overall good/bad meter for Hawke, morality is still tracked for each individual companion. Even if you earn the enmity of a party member they’ll stick around, unlike in Origins where you could send certain folks off by making questionable decisions. There’s no real “gray” area in Dragon Age 2 to choose from either, you’re mostly in the middle of two groups of idiots and you’re left to decide whether or not you want to try to play the good guy or to exploit the situation. The game does bring up a few tough choices in the last act, but I found both factions so detestable that I just went with whichever one pissed me off less (even that turned out unsatisfactorily because of the weird involvement of the unresolved plot I mentioned above).
Dragon Age 2 definitely has an engaging story, but the “epic” feel is gone from the game. There’s a lot of cool stuff to do and the game will keep you interested for the 24 plus hours it takes to complete it, but for fans of the first it might feel a bit lacking. One high point is the stand off against the Qunari in Act Two; the dialog between you and the Arishok is very sharp, and the writers at BioWare have definitely nailed the alien aspects of the Qunari culture and how they view the human world.
Gameplay is also changed a bit from Dragon Age: Origins, but it stays closer to its predecessor than the story does. The game still has all of the tactics management that Origins had, and proper manipulation of your party’s behavior in battle can mean the difference between barely surviving each encounter and blowing through the game, carving up fools as you go. Because I wanted to experience the game without worrying too much about what to do during combat, I made Hawke a two-handed melee Warrior and left the healing and crowd control to the rest of my party. I mostly left the pre-set tactics for my teammates the way that they were, but I added a few conditional tweaks that made it easier for me to romp around the battlefield turning foes into blood fountains and not worry about whether Varric will drink a healing potion at the right time or if Anders will top up his mana when he’s running low.
You can definitely dig way down into the tactics system of Dragon Age 2; the claims on the Internet that this game was “for babies” are, as always, greatly exaggerated. While BioWare did tune it so the less involved players can still get through the game just fine, you’re rewarded for digging into the menus and building your own parameters.
The inventory system also got a small change for DA2, but nothing quite as drastic as what Mass Effect 2 saw. There’s still the plethora of weapons, armor, trinkets and belts to apply to Hawke and his companions, and the only major change is that you can only upgrade the outfits of your party as opposed to making them wear different sets of armor. This is fine with me, as Hawke can wear various suits of armor and you can still swap out ancillary items and weapons for the most part. If searching through a packed inventory and sorting items based on stats is your thing, you can do that to your heart’s content in Dragon Age 2.
One last thing I want to talk about are the graphics which got a bit of a tune-up this time around. Dragon Age: Origins was a little rough looking, especially for 2009, and Dragon Age 2 won’t win any awards in the looks department. However, once you get out of the bland and uninteresting backdrops of the tutorial and into Kirkwall and the surrounding areas, the art style does really shine. The primeval thaig in the Deep Roads has a few cool environments in it, and Kirkwall itself is divided up into different districts that each have their own unique apperance. There are a handful of repeated areas like the interior of houses or caves, but as the game progresses the art style flows naturally and complements the rest of the title rather well.
While it is a shame that BioWare ditched the epic feel and gray morality in favor of a simpler story, Dragon Age 2 is still a quality title packed to the brim with all the RPG goodness you’d expect from a BioWare game. I was totally glued to my TV throughout my entire time with the game, and I’m going back in right away to try the other two classes and see what other story options I can dig up.
That’s what I thought of Dragon Age 2. It’s a very strong game, and it won me over in short order. It seems that there’s a bit of hate for the game on this site though, so maybe you disagree? Have you tried DA2, and what do you think?
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