Dragon Age II review

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Dragon Age II review

If you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of a load of laundry or a car ride thinking that if you’d just handled that conversation with the Witch of the Wilds a bit more aggressively, maybe things would’ve worked out differently, then you’re not only a gamer — you, friend, are an RPG gamer. And there’s no rest for the indecisive as the weighty, high-fantasy hijinks of Dragon Age II certainly give you enough virtual crises of conscience to keep you pondering multiple dialogue paths for several hampers’ worth of laundry.

Just enter knowing that this addictive timesink takes a little while to get off the ground because of a thing called “exposition.” Actually, make that a whole lot of exposition.

Dragon Age II’s sprawling, rags-to-riches tale of the Champion of a politically busted little burg called Kirkwall is seamlessly split into multi-year chunks of in-game time — recounted by a narrator who occasionally likes to add a little cowbell to embellish the game’s actual events. That narrator is a silver-tongued city dwarf rogue named Varric who’s being grilled on the decade-long rise of your character, the Champion Hawke. His interrogator is a forceful Chantry Seeker, a sort of internal-affairs investigator for the oppressive magic-regulating arm of the government. If this setup sounds a bit confusing, don’t worry: it isn’t in the game. The clever narrative framing device feels natural, and it reinforces that the mystery outcome of the main story — which you’re actively shaping throughout — has ramifications that won’t piece together until it’s all said and done.  

All you need to focus on is your (mage, warrior or rogue) hero and their exploits as you navigate some truly tricky waters within Kirkwall’s dense web of conflicting city factions and political interests. Your path to DAII’s conclusion is defined by your sympathies to (or intolerance of) specific social groups and their causes; being some namby-pamby fencesitter won’t get you very far. As the game opens, you’re a nobody in Kirkwall — a Fereldan refugee fleeing the catastrophic Blight (an event covered in 2009’s spectacular Dragon Age: Origins), only to find that your ancestral hometown is totally over the whole goodwill thing for displaced Fereldans like you and your family. After you spend the game’s first four-year chunk toiling to get your mom out of the slums, you’ll eventually move into nobility and beyond. But through it all, you’re asked to choose sides — whether it’s in the increasingly volatile struggle between mages and the oppressive Templars, or between the city government and a bunch of scary, shipwrecked qunari warriors who’ve taken up residence in town, or simply the friction between the haves and have-nots. Tracking all these shifting loyalties can be tricky, but amid all the political hopscotch, you’ll have your growing group of companions to alternately help and hinder you in your plight.

And as in Origins, your travel buddies (you can have up to three of them in your battle party or for traipsing around town, and they’re swappable at designated posts) give every event or conflict the bulk of the game’s emotional heft. In many ways, your friendship or rivalry with them smacks more of Mass Effect 2’s companion system than of Origins’ more freewheeling emphasis on relationships. In fact, the focus on romantic entanglements and winning over your partymates with trinkets to raise (or lower) their “Love/Hate” gauge is fairly different in DAII, due mostly to a significant retooling of that sliding approval meter and the ditching of the whole trial-and-error gift-giving mechanic.

This time, you’re instead faced with a “Friend/Rival” rating, as each of your companions’ affiliations with different factions directly affects whether they approve or disapprove of your handling of quests and other plot points. For instance, the broody former-slave elf Fenris has a hardcore stance against magic users — he thinks they should all be made “tranquil,” the equivalent of being lobotomized. Meanwhile, the militant mage and errant Grey Warden Anders — a returning character from Awakening, the beefy Origins DLC — won’t stand for mistreatment of his peeps and wants to dismantle the Templar brotherhood. Having them both in your party during a crucial decision point or quest can affect their Friend or Rival rating. If one of your companions ends up being your Rival, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ditch your group (and this scenario even has benefits, as a specific skill unlocks depending on which side of the spectrum the person ends up), but it can make life a bit unpleasant and awkward.

And if you decide to initiate a romance with one of your fellow travellers? God help you. Love muddles matters even more, as you’ll have to deftly juke and dodge complicated decisions to keep your partner happy. Do you rage against the Templars to prove to Anders that you’re in it to win it? Or will you take the opposite route to woo Fenris? Either way, the choices come fast and furious, so in some ways, you’ll have to commit to your stance or settle for your mates being strictly platonic. It took us a while to get a handle on how everything works, but your companions are so crucial to your emotional investment in the crafty plotline that it’s entirely worth the effort. Their interactions with you and with each other are the lifeblood of the game, and what makes it so stupidly irresistible. Though these conversations are slightly scaled down from Origins, they’re still wildly satisfying in both writing and delivery, including some hilarious barbs. From the bawdy, busty pirate Isabela (another returning Origins character) calling the uptight Guard Captain Aveline a “mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder” to the doe-eyed naivete of Dalish lady elf Merrill, you really have no duds in your group. And that’ll encourage you to simply eavesdrop on their impromptu party chats while wandering DAII’s locales.

Origins purists — which we considered ourselves until playing DAII — might chafe at some of the changes in the sequel. Rather than let you freely wander Ferelden’s wide world and kingdoms, the game’s scope (and storyline) takes a tighter, smaller focus, limiting your travels to Kirkwall and only a handful of locations in the outlying Free Marches. Sure, you can swap between night and day on the world map to access certain time-specific quests, but that doesn’t replicate the last game’s more epic feel. And though DAII sends you on a robust number of side quests — split into categories like Main Plot, Companions, and Secondary — many of the dungeon journeys are set in recycled layouts (like prettier versions of the planet-based side quests in the first Mass Effect), which can elicit yawns after Hour 35 of being directed to random spider-packed cave dungeon #17. But it’s a tradeoff we’re willing to accept in exchange for DAII’s significantly glammed-up good looks and more colorful palette.

We’re also happy with the improved combat controls, slimmed down to be quicker and much more instantly accessible than Origins’, without compromising challenge. Tussles with everything from hulking rock wraiths and giant dragons to the usual Darkspawn and garden-variety thugs run the gamut challenge-wise, from breezy easy to break-out-the-tactical-bent grueling. With the radial-menu system, you can instantly direct allies and choose their attacks in mid-battle, which is pretty cool, even if it’s necessary only in the toughest of battles or on higher difficulties.

Your inventory, too, has undergone a drastic facelift. Gone are the hours of tooling around and playing dress-up with your companions; this time, Hawke’s the only character you can fully kit out — the rest can receive only accessory and weapon customization. Their armor remains the same throughout, but you can “upgrade” them with rune slots that grant varying stat buffs.

Like any sequel, DAII isn’t without its sticking points. The game’s slow start (do we really have to collect all 50 sovereigns to enter the Deep Roads?) may leave impatient RPG fans clamoring for a quicker pace, and the smaller game world may make others pine for the less structured, wide-open feel of the original. Our advice: don’t give up. Next to its predecessor, Dragon Age II may be a slightly altered beast, but the minute Isabela slyly chirps “I like big boats, I cannot lie” (sound familiar, ’90s hip-hop fans?) to a Desire Demon in the murky Fade, you’ll realize this game offers some of the deepest, nerdiest, most worthwhile 40 to 60 hours you’ll ever love losing sleep over.

On Xbox 360

+ Crazy-hefty 40-plus-hour RPG experience with loads of choices and branching paths to tackle.

+ Great characters and fan-service nods for attentive Origins nerds.

- Recycled dungeons aplenty make for annoying déjà vu; slow start; tweaks may irk series purists.

? Why are nearly all humans English, dwarves American, and elves Irish?

9.0

 
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