Review – Dragon Age II
ESRB Content Descriptors: Blood, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content
The Scoop: Political tensions in the City of Kirkwall are rising, and it’s up to Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, to decide the city’s fate.
Editors Note: While this game is available for Xbox 360, PC, and Playstation 3, this review is based off of the Xbox 360 version.
The Set Up: Dragon Age II presents a well-hashed dark, political theme with a fantasy twist. In the city of Kirkwall, two forces are grating against one another: the Mages and the Templars. Each side has its supporters, and the main plot points and side quests all lead a showdown between the groups, forcing the Champion of Kirkwall to choose a side. But be warned: Some of the actions of these organizations can and will affect Hawke and her party members, sometimes in horrid ways. So choose your side wisely.
The story is told through the point of view of Varric, a rogue Dwarf who was a member of Hawke’s party. And the best part is this: Varric is not a reliable narrator. At all. This keeps the story of the game moving as you, along with his interrogator, try and figure out if Varric is telling the truth, embellishing facts, or outright making stuff up. It was frustrating at first as the game’s main story isn’t all that clear, but as the game progressed, it became somewhat humorous and mysterious. Just what happened that lead to Varric’s capture, and is the Chantry Seeker interrogating him a good guy or a bad guy?
What’s Hot: Besides the political shitstorm brewing in Kirkwall, there are a lot of excellent features of Dragon Age II worth pointing out:
- The Story: If you’re looking for a linear plot like with Dragon Age: Origins, you’ll drive yourself crazy. Dragon Age II features three Acts, each one with a series of main and side quests. Each quest contributes to the overall story, which is more of a political drama than a plot point checklist. It’s an interesting approach, and the more I talk about the game with friends and fellow fans, the more I can appreciate what they tried to do. Kudos for trying something new!
- Pick your class: Just like in Dragon Age: Origins, you can choose between Warrior, Mage, or Rogue as your character’s class. I played the game through as a female Rogue named Ebon (Get it? Ebon Hawke? Yeah, I’m lame, I know). For the nonmagical classes, each has two weapon talents to choose from. If you’re warrior, you can either focus on shield and sword or two-handed swords. Rogues can duel wield daggers or focus on archery. The choice is nice because the rest of your party will fill in the gaps. Rogue Isabela favors duel-wielding daggers while Varric prefers archery. Warrior Aveline likes shields and swords while Fenris likes two-handed weapons. It’s a nice variety depending on your personal preference for playing the game.
- Wheel of Morality (turn, turn, turn. Tell us the lesson that we should learn.): With the dialogue improvements and fully-voiced PCs that made Mass Effect stand out, Dragon Age: Origins’s use of sentence-choices seemed like a step backwards. But Dragon Age II the Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel, with the addition of symbols to let players know whether their choices are Angelic, Comedic, or Hellish. It’s a drastic change from the first game, and a little “You got your Mass Effect in my Dragon Age!” I didn’t like it at first simply due to the drastic change, but now going back and playing Dragon Age: Origins, it’s clear this style is the best way to play.
- Combat: Combat is so much more fluid with more stylized specialty moves and easier targeting. Plus mages aren’t incredibly senseless and do realize that magic staffs can also be used as clubs. Stamina/Mana also regenerates in battle at different speeds depending on the character’s class and bonus gear. It takes some getting used to, especially compared to Dragon Age: Origins where the PC would just point and shoot without much interaction on the player’s part. But for button mashers everywhere, this is a positive upgrade!
- Maps with Arrows: This was one of my biggest complaints about Dragon Age: Origins; it was so difficult to figure out where you needed to go. It’s now incredibly easy to see exactly where you are on the map and exactly where you need to go next. The only downside is I kept catching myself staring at the map instead of my surroundings, so I’m not really learning the lay of the land.
- Font You Too Can Read: Calligraphic font is pretty, and all, but difficult to read when it’s tiny. Dragon Age II uses a normal sans-serif font. It’s not calligraphy, but it’s still pleasing and simple. Yay!
What’s Not: The game isn’t perfect. Below are the issues I had with Dragon Age II. Some can be written off as me being nit-picky, but it really did affect my approach and opinions:
- Glitches: This is the biggest issue I had. During my first play-though of the final battle in Act 3, all the texture mapping disappeared, and I fought what I call Mesh Demons. My Hawke and party members were fine, but all the enemies had no texture mapping; it looked like from the neck down they were snowmen. I’m on my second play-through now, and two new graphic glitches have appeared: Wall of White and Disembodied Heads. Any sunlight/spotlight effect in the game has been replaced by an opaque white wall. I can’t walk around in the Deep Roads and fight enemies because I can’t see anything, and moving around inside buildings in Kirkwall is darn-near impossible. And townies no longer have bodies; everyone in Kirkwall is wearing an invisibility cloak with the hood down. I even rebooted the game, and the graphical issues were there. However, 24 hours later when I went to play, graphic issues all gone! I polled a couple friends who were also playing the Xbox 360 version, and it seems I’m the only one who had these specific issues. One of our editors, though, couldn’t pick up treasure or loot from fallen enemies; the game refused to acknowledge it was there. I can see graphic issues popping up for PC players who don’t have a proper graphics card or updated drivers, but this is the Xbox 360 version of the game. Good luck explaining the loot-issue, though.
- Character Customization: There are plenty of facial features and hair styles to choose from when creating your custom Hawke—including hair styles from Dragon Age: Origins. The only problem is, whenever you start a new game, you’ll play as the default Hawke first: white, short black hair, blue eyes. And even if you decide you like the Default Hawke, you cannot alter the default look. I liked Default Hawke, but I wanted to give her a different hair style. Nope! Couldn’t do it! Why couldn’t we have selected what our Hawke looked like before the opening cut scenes? Because in my mind, Varric is telling his interrogator, “The Champion of Kirkwall is this blue-eyed girl with short black hair… Did I say short black hair and blue eyes? Silly me, I meant long red hair with green eyes…” Along with that: if the Hero of Ferelden can be a Human, Dwarf, or Elf, why does the Champion of Kirkwall have to be human? A Dalish Grey Warden broke a lot of stereotypes in Thedas; Dragon Age 2 clearly hasn’t embraced diversity. It may be important for the story that Hawke be human, but wouldn’t’ve added more fuel to the political fire had the Champion of Kirkwall been an elf?
- Friendship/Rivalry Points: Your party members judge you on every decision you make by handing out Friendship or Rivalry points. It’s like little score cards that grade Hawke in some sort of twisted competition. This is not a new feature for BioWare games, but in Dragon Age II, there’s little rhyme or reason to how your party members react, because sometimes doing what you think is the noble route will anger the rest of your party; and sometimes being a prick will make them all extremely happy. I started basing my answers off of who I had in my party and which route they’d prefer, but even that backfired. I can understand Anders the Mage not liking me if I agree with a Templar, but when a blood mage threatened to kill me and I chose to spare her life, Anders gave me +10 Rivalry points. I reloaded the save file and killed the blood mage instead. +10 Rivalry from Anders. You can’t have it both ways, blondie! I resolved the personnel issues by shunning NPCs from my party. Hawke: “Oh look, a wounded puppy! Let’s bring it to the vet!” Fenris: +25 Rivalry. SHUNNED!
- Lack of Personalization: Either the entirety of Kirkwall is REALLY dumb, or not enough care was taken to write multiple lines of dialogue. I watched my friend play the game as a mage. She kept walking up to Templars and anti-magers, and they would ramble on and on about how mages ‘must be contained’ and ‘aren’t really human’ and ‘please, don’t you see they must be stopped?’. And they do this all while staring her character directly in the face, just to the right of which is this huge and obviously magical staff that marks her as a mage. Even the party members were hit with the oblivious stick. When completing Fenris’s side quest in my Rogue game, I brought Bethany with me. It wasn’t until after the side quest was finished that Fenris threw a fit Bethany used magic and how dare I bring a mage with me. I was rather disappointed there was no dialogue option for Hawke to scream, “She has a giant magic staff glued to her back! How did you miss this?!” It was sorta funny at first, but now I just feel like the NPCs are remarkably unobservant and/or the game expected me to play as something other than a mage.
- OMGBLOOD: Even with “persistent gore” turned off, enemies erupt whenever slain. Their blood pressures have got to be through the roof for geysers that large to explode from their chests. Did Zach Snyder direct this game? And don’t forget the weapons that cleave bodies in half. My rogue sliced and diced people with her daggers, earning her the nickname “meat grinder”. Even hitting a target with an arrow can cause the enemy’s body to shatter, their limbs flying in every direction. So much for turning “persistent gore” off.
- OMGBOOBS: The puberty fairy was extremely generous to all the women in the game. How can they not have back problems? It wasn’t until I got to Kirkwall that it seemed Bethany’s boobs… shrunk. Which spell is that again, vegrandis pectus? (Or did they all have big boobs in the beginning because of Varric’s mighty-fine story telling abilities?) And after seeing Isabela’s Dragon Age II make-over, I get the feeling the female characters weren’t designed with female players in mind.
The following I also didn’t like and have little impact on the game, but I still feel they’re worth mentioning:
- Makeovers for Everyone: Most of the races in Thedas received a make-over, but it’s the Dalish Elves and the Qunari that received plastic surgery. The Dalish now look waifish, ears as big and pointed as Yoda’s, and have very distinct facial features. The Qunari now look like a purple Los Diablo. Where did those giant horns come from? I clearly remember Zevran and Sten looking like humans—just the elf was shorter and the qunari was buffer. It’s like when Star Trek debuted Klingons with ridged foreheads. On the whole I like the makeovers, especially Flemeth’s, but the canon nuts are going to freak…
Dragon Age: Origins cameos aka What Happened To Your Face!?: Play your cards right in the first game, and Alistair, Zevran, and Leliana will show up in the second… and be barely recognizable. While Alistair looks like he hasn’t slept since the Blight and Leliana’s crows feet cry out for Oil of Olay, poor Zevran received the same plastic surgery the rest of the Dalish did. What really tripped me up was Alistair’s uncle, Bann Teagan. One of my favorite NPCs from Dragon Age: Origins went from “You’re kinda cute” to “Where the hell did that NOSE come from!?!”
- Inventory System: ALL the armor is customizable to Hawke. You never get to change your companions’ armor. And while it’s nice to not have to constantly micromanage it, what if you want to change what they’re wearing (cough-Isabela-cough)? In Dragon Age: Origins, I invested in certain characters, always making sure they had the best my inventory had to offer. In Dragon Age II, I can only manage their weapons and accessories and pray their armor won’t fail them.
- OMGANDERS: I came down hard on this character in my review of Dragon Age: Origins — Awakening. I just didn’t like the whiny Alistair-wannabe mage, and wasn’t at all thrilled he was back in Dragon Age II. Anders, however, does have a huge fan following (search for the character on deviantArt and you’ll see what I mean), but this gal ain’t a fan. I did give him the benefit of the doubt and turned him into my band-aid box, maxing out his healing abilities and depending on him to keep my NPCs from dying. It’s nice to see he’s a bit more badass in Dragon Age II (he ate a freaking Fade demon!) and the overall rugged look almost makes me forget the whiny cat-lover he was in Awakening. Almost. I still think he’s Edward Cullen in disguise. The Fade demon even makes him sparkle.
Final Verdict: Dragon Age II isn’t so much of a sequel but another chapter from the same mythos. Normally I’m against such things as I feel it doesn’t make the game truly a sequel (see my rant in the Dragon Age 2 preview), but this game is sort of changing my mind. (I still don’t like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords and never ever will.) I’m also happy to report that some of my fears about this game were proven wrong. (Most were proven right, though.) If you’re looking for another chapter in the Grey Warden’s tale, this isn’t the game you’re looking for. But if you like dark high fantasy entrenched in politics, bad guys, and chaos, check it out. Beware of disembodied heads, though…
[Images via Dragon Age Wiki]Review - Dragon Age II,