My torrid love affair with Dragon Age 2 began as something else, something bitter and full of disdain. Now, over thirty hours later, I’m no longer hell bent on slandering BioWare’s good name with accusations of carelessness and greed. While many of my gripes endure despite my change of heart, there is something wonderful at the core of this game. But we have to get one thing straight before I tell you the tale of my tulmutuous tryst: Dragon Age 2 is a sequel in name alone.
It begins with my confession:
I enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins about as much as I enjoyed watching “Anne Frank: The Musical” on my first eighth grade field trip. I appreciated its efforts to regale me with an intricate, dense fantasy plot, but I found the dialogue, combat, and visual presentation completely devoid of the magic it boasted.
I gave it my all and progressed through the plot until I hit the ten-hour mark. I had yet to experience any sort of fun. When the horse is dead, I get off, harvest its parts, and build a better horse. Or I pay BioWare to do it for me.
But they gave me… something else. Something that was very, very unhorse-like, when I knew they were completely capable of making me a unicorn.
I take comfort in BioWare’s commitment to excellent storytelling and gameplay, confident that whatever they put in my hands will deliver an experience certain to shame rivals who claim to compel audiences. The wrapping came off and my Xbox 360 hacked and wheezed in its outdated stupor, chewing on what we both hoped would be a worthy successor to the game I so desperately wanted to love.
I began with a saucy-looking Ebon Hawke, an obscure reference and a rogue with a penchant for stabbing. She later became “Princess Stabby Hands” as I came across one of the most perplexing glitches, where my Hawke appeared perpetually unarmed, yet always maintained a fighting stance. When I executed attacks, she jerked forward with pointed hands, stabbing. And stabbing. With nothing. I turned off my Xbox for the night and gave it another go the next morning. The glitch was gone, but not forgotten.
Several things irked me right off the bat. First and foremost, a tale within a tale. Yes, you’re playing out events that already happened. A hook-nosed dwarf with a ferocious patch of digital chest hair recounts the tale and I’m left wondering who decided that putting Varric in charge of garnering player sympathy would be a good idea.
All dwarves ever do is lure you into the mines of Mordor and get your Gandalfs killed. Thus, they suck.
The introduction to combat offered me swift relief from my burning indignation and I eventually came to terms with the retelling. As a rogue, I was rewarded with some of the most satisfying dual-weapon combat I’d ever come across in an RPG. When I unleashed my first critical strike, I was hooked. It was fast, responsive, and exactly what I wanted. Unlike the next ten quests I suffered.
Because nearly every single one of them revolved around mages. I began to feel left out as a rogue, realizing that unless you were a templar or a mage, you had absolutely no business opening your mouth within Kirkwall.
The team behind DA2 is so in love with its own concept of mages as tortured satan magnets that they are the central focus of just about every quest.
If you’re not rescuing or punishing a mage, then a mage is plotting to ruin your birthday two blocks over you while you try to help a street urchin mage find his missing pile of magical dead rats.
Players who chose to go the swordy route are like the well-adjusted kids in bizzaro-world school, ostracized by the goth kids because they just don’t have enough problems.
I hated this game for the first three hours. I’m not even sure why I kept playing, but it might be proof of my latent masochistic tendencies. I do owe some part of my patience to the dual wield ability, “double fangs.” It was, by far, the single most satisfying move in the game. Mainly due to the fact that I would just picture Hawke using that move to stab the game in its nonexistent face.
What unfolded over the next few days was one of the most unusual changes of heart I’ve ever experienced. I began to appreciate the simplification of party character equipment. I delighted in expanding the talent trees, creating a skilled shadow assassin from the ashes of a shiv-wielding alley stalker. These characters elicited emotions from me… finally. I actually felt like Hawke had forged a friendships and bitter rivalries. Rather than have characters utterly loathe you for two dimensional reasons, they each abide by their own moral and social codes. They respond to your actions accordingly, becoming kindred spirits or glaring respectfully from a difference. Regardless of whether or not you’re liked by them, they actually gain abilities simply by having some kind of relationship with you.
There’s no right or wrong. The Mass Effect-esque conversation wheel helps make that gray area even more obscure as answers no longer have a good guy/bad guy designation.
There are diplomatic, charming, sarcastic, greedy and righteous answers that help build Hawke’s personality from the ground up. Your choices will help to determine the unprompted quips.
For all these wonderful new changes, there were so many elements that took me three steps backwards. Kirkwall- always Kirkwall. The quests had different names, but the locales were all the same. A new destination occasionally popped up, but visits there were always fleeting and marked by a rinse and repeat style boss fight. The graphic improvements made these new environments novel at first, but everything eventually blended into one big map of disappointment.
Yet I couldn’t stop. I needed to know what would happen next, what would become of me and the party I’d chosen to accompany me to the end. Characters are not static fodder for your boss fights. They make choices. They betray you. You betray them, and they make you pay for it.
I had written this game off as a piece of mediocrity early on, but a few more hours of effort let me see the dawn of something greater. There was a glint of hope on the horizon and I believed for a moment that all I knew was wrong. The darkness would give way to light and Dragon Age 2 would rise up and take its rightful place as the one true sequel to Origins.
But then it stabbed me in the face again as each glitch surfaced, as the imperfections burned through my denial.
This game had everything I wanted from Origins, but never received. Yet in return, I was not allowed to experience the same kind of story.
The circumstances were not so dire; the battles just weren’t quite as epic knowing that very little was on the line. There’s no danger of an all-consuming blight. It’s just a moment in time within the confines of Kirkwall. Even though I kept pushing onward, I still asked myself why time and time again. If it wasn’t for the people, I probably wouldn’t have cared. The plot wasn’t strong enough to carry the game for me.
There is something wonderful to be experienced here and there are days of fun to be had, but it shouldn’t have taken me hours and hours to uncover that. It lacks a certain polish, as though the team behind it almost didn’t want it. It shouldn’t have been the basis for a sequel- a spin off perhaps, but not a sequel.
Just because the events of a game take place after its predecessor doesn’t necessarily mean its worthy of the numeral 2.
Here’s The Rundown:
+ The combat is faster and ten times more fun
+ The graphics are strong improvement over Origins
+ Compelling characters and unique interactions give each player a tailored experience
– Glitches and gaps make the game seem rushed
– It takes three steps forward and two steps back from Dragon Age: Origins
– The Confines of Kirkwall get old fast
Dragon Age II was developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. It was released on March 8th, 2010 for the price of $59.99USD on Xbox 360 and PS3 and $49.99 on PC. A copy of the game was provided to us for the purposes of review by the publisher. It was played to completeion on normal diffulty in about 30 hours by Stephiroth while she wore nothing other than a Mass Effect t-shirt with a picture of Garrus Vakarian on it… with her N7 wristbands… and N7 scarf…