While the heroes of Dragon Age: Origins were busy saving the world, Hawke and his family were running for their lives. Their tale of survival and triumph amidst a city on the verge of turning on itself is the focus of the darker, grittier Dragon Age II.
Fleeing from the Darkspawn hordes to the neighboring state of Kirkwall, Hawke and his companions soon discover that the seeming safe haven isn't without its fair share of monsters, though they aren't as easily identified. The stranded members of a fierce warrior race sow the seeds of fear and uncertainty among the citizens and officials of Kirkwall, while the tension between the dangerous magic-users and the mage-corralling Templars grows more volatile with each passing day. In the middle of it all is Hawke, destined to become the Champion of Kirkwall in BioWare's eagerly anticipated action role-playing game sequel. His or her rise to power is a given. How Hawke gets there is all up to you.
Dragon Age II is the latest title from BioWare, one of the most consistently stellar development teams, and the sequel to one of the greatest western-developed role-playing games of all time. Sure, it's still a sequel, but BioWare's Mass Effect 2 took home a ton of Game of the Year awards for 2010. If any development team can strike gold a second time, it's this one.
Weaving Tangled Webs: While the close confines of Kirkwall and its surrounding area left me longing for the wide-open expanse of Ferelden, BioWare wove a million stories into this naked city, and by the time the credits roll the many divergent plotlines come together in ways I never expected them to. In a way, Dragon Age II plays out like the season of a television crime drama. Recurring characters appear, their true significance not coming to light until later in the game. Aside from a few mindless fetch quests, nearly every mission eventually leads to something much larger in the grand scheme than it first appeared. Unfortunately the similarity to a television drama extend to the game's ending, careful not to offer a clear resolution to the plot in order to make sure players return for season three.
Friends Old and New: It wouldn't be a BioWare epic without a selection of colorful companions to fill out your adventuring party, and Dragon Age II has something for everyone. Devoted fans of the series will welcome the return of Merrill the elf mage and Isabela the saucy pirate, fleshing out characters that only played small parts in the original game, while the mage Anders from the Awakening expansion makes a somewhat triumphant return. Newcomers Varric the roguish dwarf and Avelina the human warrior add depth, emotional impact, and the odd moment of comic relief to the story. My personal favorite would be Fenris, the former elven slave with a body covered in glowing tattoos crafted from the magical material Lyrium. This tortured soul with his chilling voice (courtesy of Gideon Emery) and bleak backstory was definitely a high point of the game, even if he wouldn't sleep with me.
Fighting the Rather Good Fight: I agonized throughout my time with Dragon Age II over whether I loved the new, action-packed combat system or hated it. Much like Mass Effect's clunky combat system gave way to the third-person shooter action of Mass Effect 2, the second Dragon Age does away with the auto-attacking massively multiplayer-style combat in favor of a battle system relying on button-mashing mixed with special moves. It took a trip back to the original Dragon Age to realize that I favored hacking and slashing over pointing and clicking. The new system gives battles a more visceral feel, while still retaining some of the strategic positioning of the original game. While I do bemoan the loss over Origins' flashy finishing moves, overall I feel like BioWare's taken the fight in the right direction.
The Adventure Confined: Dragon Age: Origins was a far-reaching tale that took you and your party members across (and underneath) an entire continent. Dragon Age II limits you to the city of Kirkwall and the area just outside its gates, offering a measly handful of locations to explore as the plot unfolds. The limited scope makes sense in the context of the story, a tale of simmering social tension reaching a boiling point over the span of many years. Trapped in the city you cannot help but get tangled in the ever-expanding web of intrigue. Still, it's a forced captivity. Dragon Age: Origins left you with no choice. You had to either defeat the Darkspawn or die. In Dragon Age II you're never given the option to simply get the hell out of Dodge. That's because this isn't your story. This is Hawke's story, and slight variations in personality aside, you'll do what Hawke did and you'll like it. Or not like it, in this case.
Recycling Dungeons & Dragons: Ten hours into my first play through of Dragon Age II, I had seen nearly all of the dungeons the game had to offer. This is due to there only being ten or so dungeon environments in total. The same cave that leads you to an Elven burial ground in one quest becomes a set of caves created by slavers in the next. Maybe a door will be shut, cordoning off an area, but the overall layout remains the same, right down to the areas you can expect to be attacked in. The fact that there are so few locations to explore in the first place makes the repetition all the more noticeable.
Players of Dragon Age: Origins will find themselves fighting familiar foes as well. Most of the creatures in the game are carried over from the original game. You'll fight the same spiders, undead creatures, abominations, and demons as you fought in the first game, with few exceptions.
Sloppy Seconds: Along with the recycled monsters and repetitive dungeons, there are several little annoyances that heighten the feeling that Dragon Age II was a rush job. Textures pop in and out, sometimes disappearing altogether for extended periods of time. I had characters disappearing during dialog scenes, long speeches delivered by the very air itself. Vocal cues do not match up with the story; I had a relatively new character console me over the death of a character they had never met, and another character claiming they did not have access to a certain large piece of equipment several hours after we had regained said piece of equipment. Even the music suffers, with long-stretches of adventure un-scored, while the simple act of picking up a herb off the ground is greeted with a triumphant two-note fanfare that always felt completely out-of-place.
Dragon Age II lacks the scope, freedom, and polish of the original game, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. The game's narrow focus results in a much tighter narrative, a dark and gritty tale of political and social intrigue that plays much better on a smaller stage. It's an economical production, and while the shortcuts taken to crank out a sequel sixteen months after Dragon Age: Origins are sometimes jarringly evident, the play and its players do a fine job of stealing your attention away from the low-budget scenery.
Dragon Age II was developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, released on March 8. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the main story on the Xbox 360 as a custom female rogue character, logging around 30 hours. Dabbled with a male warrior and a female mage, long enough to get the Mass Exodus achievement for getting one of each class to Kirkwall. Slept with Isabela, because damn, and Merrill, because she's voiced by Eve Myles of Torchwood fame.