‘Is that it?’ – that pretty much summarises my response to most of Dragon Age II, Bioware’s sequel to the much acclaimed Dragon Age: Origins, a title I previously declared to be enjoyable but flawed. Admittedly, following up on a game like the first Dragon Age game was always going to be a tall order. The game itself was, for what it was, very good. A competent and in depth stat-based RPG in the MMORPG-lite style with a slightly glossy mask on, the main criticisms levelled at it; that it was too complex, too ugly and unforgiving, were pretty much (aside from the ugliness) what made it so appealing to those that loved it. It was meant to be a number cruncher at heart, rewarding the attention to minutiae and statopondering. It was never really going to appeal hugely to the widespread gaming market on a large scale. So to deliver a sequel, the quandary was presumably; do they keep the same formula and retain the same demographic without bringing in new fans, or do they overhaul the gameplay and court the more casual market, while risking losing their current players?
Well, let’s give it the once over and see what they did.
The party mechanic is largely intact, with the ability to choose whether to level your comrades/animals/slave golems (seriously) yourself, or leave it to the game to do it for you. Micromanagement in all its facets remains and, indeed, has been expanded, with far more skills and abilities to choose from, with almost as many groups of abilities to choose from as there were actual abilities in the first game. So far, notch one for maintaining current audience.
This is the part where I dust off my big ‘inconsistent’ stamp for my verdict on the storyline/narrative aspect of the game. As with the first game, the different aspects of the storytelling and narrative in this game are of differing quality, but in surprisingly different ways to the original. I criticised the first game for its somewhat poor implementation of a solid, if unoriginal, country-spanning story arc. The same cannot be said of Dragon Age II. The narrative progresses in a manner which is, in my opinion, far more immersive and natural than its predecessor. Voice acting, in particular, feels far more natural and jars less. The silent protagonist still grates a bit in an otherwise fully-voiced cast, but that’s the choice they made and far be it from me of all people to decry deference to traditional game features. Characters feel more rounded and less like cookie-cutter clichés…mostly (see saucy pirate Kiera Knightly-sound-a-like Isabela and innocent, naïve necromancer Merril for a couple of exceptions). That being said, Anders can sod right off. That amalgamation of every single brooding Final Fantasy character spliced with Bella from Twilight (yes I’ve read them and yes, they are evil and wrong) escaping being labelled as clichéd only due to being so annoying and hateful as to prevent categorisation, just the memory of his character makes me grind my teeth. On the other end of that particular improvement/decline see-saw, the scale of the overall story is severely reduced.
Whereas in the first game your adventure saw you rise from insignificance to demon-murdering glory across a whole country with a population and the world’s fate at stake, Dragon Age II’s story sees you rise from refugee (from the events of the first game no less) to [Spoilers] kicking of a mage revolution in the city. That’s right, a city. Bit of a comedown from a whole country don’t you think? What will we see in Dragon Age III, a story where you start as a beggar and make it all the way to owning a shop? I joke, but in all seriousness, the story just feels much smaller in scope where you actions feel like they have a lot less consequence. You just don’t feel like you matter as much, which in an epic fantasy game is something of a step back. Indeed, all the levels of the game are set within the city, other than a small number of brief excursions to the coast or underground. This further limits the scale of the game, especially as these areas never vary and you find yourself going through the same areas with the same enemies. It gets very repetitive. Yes, you could argue that it allows more focus on the actual impact of your choices on your surrounding society, sacrificing scale for focus and perspective, I ask you this, would you rather be remembered for saving the world from demon hordes, or for preventing civil unrest in a city? Anyone who answered the latter, you are clearly destined for a role in local government and plainly stumbled on this review by accident.
The visuals, while improving on the originals, are again somewhat… odd. The cut scenes, as you would expect, are a visual treat, but whenever the actual game engine gets involved things get choppy and bitty rather rapidly. It’s not that they’re especially bad, they’re just a bit off. I can’t quite shake the feeling they’ve been cut out of paper rather hurriedly and glued on top of the backgrounds. They feel rather ragged and frayed. Perhaps my standards are too high having spent time with visual feasts such as Mass Effect and Skyrim, which are unfair comparisons, but I will not apologise for high standards damnit!
So, all things being as they are so far, it seems the game, while narrowing focus has remained pretty consistent with the original right? Ah yes well, now we come to the battle mechanics. With regard to the mechanics: where, in the first game, you queued up actions for your team, planned strategies based on the situation and lay of the land and reacted on the fly when things didn’t go your way. The challenging tactical battle that rewarded good planning and teamwork. Well, in Dragon Age 2 you run up to a baddie, hit x, then hit x again, then repeat ad nauseum until they fall down. Sometimes if it’s a tough fight you might hit Y or B if you’re advanced and feel like showing off. Of course, I’m simplifying this to make a point, but I cannot stress how much of a change from the original this is. We’ve gone from a NeverWinter Nights (and Baldur’s Gate for older gamers) style mechanic, to a Capcom style action-RPG slugger. Yes, your stats make a difference and you have skills to use, but at its heart, the combat is now a hack and slash chop-em-up. Gone is the feeling of tactics and planning, replaced by a frantic run and hack bludgeon fest. It feels like such a regression in sophistication and is, in my mind, the biggest problem with this game. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like that sort of game. I do not say it’s a mistake because of any inherent dislike of that style of game. Is a mistake because it simultaneously alienates the fans of the original’s tactical combat mind-set, while not blending enough with the stats-based character system and inventory to truly ingratiate itself with the more casual gamer market. Those who will enjoy the more simplistic combat mechanic will still be put off by the in depth micromanagement, which is still necessary for progression in the settings above easy. The old fans will find little fulfilment in another hack and slash corridor-clearer, made even worse by the expectations set from the first game that this would be a more considered experience.
All in all, Dragon Age II is an enjoyable game, when approached in isolation from the first game, but that’s the problem. This game will take a vast majority of its players as a legacy from the first game and that comes with inherent expectations of the game from that legacy. In trying to make conciliations to the more mainstream gamer, the game has, to me, fallen between two stools. Neither fun and simple hack and slash game, nor true technical considered squad combat game, it feels like it has risked alienating its original audience, without really moving its paradigm enough to truly entice new players. The feeling of dislocation for the fans of the previous game can only be worsened by the departure from the standards of the first game and the expectations of the new game set from that game.
Is Dragon Age II a bad game? No, it’s actually a very enjoyable fantasy RPG with excellent narrative structure. Is Dragon Age 2 better than the first game? In some ways yes, in some ways no. It is, in reality, if subtly different game and therein lays its problem.
If you loved the first game, don’t expect the same from the second, but do give it a try, if only for the excellent storytelling. I would suggest, however, adjusting your expectation of the game style, or you may find this a frustrating experience.