Review: Dragon Age 2 (PC)

Dragon Age 2 (PC) Grade: C+

Dragon Age 2 is a game that takes chances. It’s still wrapped in the trademarked Bioware gamplay that’s existed since 1998, but you can almost see their “avoid this” checklist as you play. Yet are the risks worth the reward?

A lot of mechanics are changed this time around. Most for the better, despite the cries from the Internet that the game is “dumbed down.”

The most notable change is character development. As they level, each character gains ability points which they spend in skill trees. Anyone whose played an RPG in the last 10 years will recognize the idea.

You’ll likely pick abilities from everywhere, as it’s rarely worth filling out an entire tree. Each character also has a unique set of abilities that make sense with the characters’ backstories.

As usual, you make a character and pick up pre-made NPCs along the way. This is my least favorite of Bioware’s fundamental game decisions. I love the emphasis on story and character, don’t get me wrong, but I hate being pigeon-holed into taking an NPC simply because I need a specific class. That can also lead to trouble down the road as characters come and go.

An important shift is in the rogue department. Lockpicking and trap disarming are no longer separate skills. They simply rely on an ability score. I was pretty thankful for this change. I usually like to play a warrior, which means I rely on the rogues Bioware supplies. In past games, these rogues had underdeveloped lockpicking skills.

Also gone is the idea of using skills like bluff or intimidate to get extra dialogue options. I always hated wasting points in these skills. You still have plenty of dialogue options, only now they exist primarily for roleplay purposes.

Though the mechanics are stripped down, there’s still depth to combat. Each class has distinct tools in their arsenal, and you will need all of them to overcome the waves of monsters Bioware throws at you this time around.

I played through on casual mode which is insanely easy. My approach to Bioware game’s is simple. The first time through I play a rogue. Rogue’s are almost mandatory and, as I said, Bioware’s pre-made rogues generally suck. I usually play a caster my second time through on normal difficulty. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can stomach a second time through DA2.

Dragon Age 2’s story is a bit odd. It took a while to really understand what they were trying to do, and I appreciated their attempt. But it just doesn’t work.

The premise is great. The entire game is a story being told by Varrick, a smug dwarf who likes his shirts open to his navel. This device is used cleverly a few times, as Varrick exaggerates the tale, and you become an unstoppable killing machine.

You are <name> Hawke, a refuge cast ashore in the town of Kirkwall. Slowly but surely you and your family must find a home and eek out a living. And this is where the premise collapses.

The story takes place in three acts, most of which are filled with a truckload of side quests. The typical RPG conventions add nothing to Varrick’s tale. Can you imagine listening to this story?

— We walked back into the tavern again. Hawke switched out companions. First he gave Anders a new staff. Then he gave me a new ring. Then we went to the armor shop and sold our old gear. Then we were attacked by random slavers again. We picked up their treasure. Then we sold it. Then Hawke went to his house and checked his mail. —

It doesn’t help that for most of the time there’s no unified plot either.

— SPOILERS —

In act one, you’re simply trying to save enough coin to go on an expedition. In act two,  you’re trying to help broker piece between Kirkwall and shipwrecked Qunari. In act three, you’re trying to keep the Templars and mages from killing each other.

I appreciate that it’s not another save the world plot. It’s just not really compelling.

Fenris, Anders and Varrick just annoyed me.

Fenris is an ex-elf slave who has magic etched into his skin. Translation – he’s mad a lot. He hates mages. I never used him unless I had to.

Anders is an ex-Gray Warden mage who joined with a spirit. He’s also the only one who can qualify as a healer. At the end he might leave your party through various means. That can make things pretty hairy if you’re out of potions and don’t have another mage with a heal spell.

Varrick is a range-based beardless dwarven rogue. He’s smug. He has a big puffy shiny face I want to punch. And no matter what you do he won’t die. He can’t. He’s telling the story.

Aveline and Bethany worked best.

Aveline is a Templar’s wife who joins you very early. She slowly rebuilds her life in Kirkwall. I think she works well because you aren’t simply told her story, you experience it with her.

Similarly, Bethany is your sister. She’s there from the start, though she leaves early. (It should be noted that Bethany might not be in your game depending on your character).

— END SPOILERS —

The story is still passable. Bioware is simply a victim of uninspired design in too many places to keep the game interesting.

Though the combat works well, the encounters are miserable. Except for a few bosses, every single fight goes the same way. You run around a corner. A few guys jump you. You kill them and two more waves spawn as you fight.

This gets especially tiresome in sections of the city at night. You’ll face fight after fight after fight from different gangs. Eventually, a member will drop a note with a boss location. Once you kill the boss the attacks stop. But I very nearly quit the game out of boredom with these fights.

Another problem is the environment. For the most part you’re in the same handful of zones for the entire game. There’s no real travel at all. There are outdoor zones, but it’s just a different icon you click on the map. The idea of progressing from one area to another and stumbling across random encounters or ambushes is present in a very limited format.

It feels lazy.

Then there are various odds and ends for example. I saw the story finale for my elven mage companion Merrill long before we actually completed her story. She was in my party. I entered her house. Varrick was there, though he wasn’t in my party. I talked to Merrill and her cutscene played. I talked to her again and the cutscene with Varrick, which I was supposed to get played. It kind of ruined the suspense.

I was told to talk to Anders for most of the last act, but his story was actually finished.

The whole set-up is strange. Instead of a central hub (like the Falcon in KOTOR or the campfire in Dragon Age: Origins) your party members are scattered through out the city. You explore the city in a party, so many times you’ll need to talk to someone whose in your party. When this happens you have to go to their house where a cutscene will play that forgets the fact the person was with you the whole time.

It feels like the bulk of the work for DA2 went into streamlining the combat system and creating something different storywise. Unfortunately, the experimental nature didn’t quite mesh well with traditional RPG fare.

The quick turnaround between Dragon Age 1 and 2 is probably to blame for many of the faults here. It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot more to come. I just hope there’s a bit more effort put into making the action encounters and making sure the story isn’t hindered by game mechanics.

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