Change can sometimes be unnecessary, resulting in a product that no longer captures what made something great once. This is not the case with Dragon Age 2. The second in BioWare's fantasy-set RPG series goes through a few changes that make the game incredibly fun and accessible to new and old players of the franchise.
Dragon Age 2 tells the story of Hawke, the acclaimed Champion of Kirkwall. The entire story of the game has already passed, but is presented to the player in a framed narrative, a story within a story so to speak. Hawke's journey is told by one of his party members, a dwarf named Varric Tethras, to a Seeker of the Chantry who is looking for Hawke. From there, the what happens in Dragon Age 2 is up to you and your choices.
Hawke is the Champion of Kirkwall, but what exactly did he do on his rise to power? That is the question the game's story will address and it serves as a great driving force for the narrative. The choices presented are choices that shape this hero and his legacy, a very unique way of story presentation.
The sense of time that passes in-game as the story progresses is impressive. Characters change their clothes, side stories start developing and actions taken early in the story will have an impact later on. The large scope of Dragon Age 2 is evident after you finish the first act.
The combat in DA2 has received a bit of an action boost compared to Dragon Age Origins. The design philosophy of "button equals awesome" shines here and when combat initiates, players are in for a very entertaining experience that removes slow and dull moments. The action is not without its problems, though. Compared to the more tactic and strategy-oriented gameplay of the original, combat has lost some depth. Playing as a rogue or a warrior, you will have little trouble slicing enemies to death without utilizing your abilities completely. It doesn't make various class abilities useless, but it makes them more optional than anything else, unless you're playing on the "Nightmare" difficulty. While you can still assign your teammates to perform actions when certain triggers occur, you will still find yourself babysitting them occasionally.
Cosmetically, Dragon Age 2 combat has received some more attention. Animations no longer look as stiff and robotic and you can get a real sense of the attack hitting the enemy, whether it be by blade, arrow or magic. Even better, enemies can explode in a wealth of gore and viscera upon their expiration. Players who chose to create a Rogue in Origins will also be happy to know the backstab animation has been replaced with something far more impressive and bad-ass. Although, pretty as it might be, it can't excuse the elimination of depth to the title, something we certainly expected and wished for more of, not less.
Whether or not you choose to dictate orders to each of your characters individually or let their automatic actions kick in via Combat Tactic slots, the action picks up immediately and each encounter is a ballet of magic and martial weapons, augmented with the inclusion of the Cross-Class combo. The Cross-Class combo is something akin to what occurs in BioWare's Mass Effect 2 when players combine biotics to create devastating effects.
Similarly in Origins, you could have a Mage cast a frost spell and use Stonefist to shatter an enemy. Dragon Age 2 takes that idea and implements it with a bit more depth. Warriors, Rogues and Mages all have methods of dealing different kinds of status effects. Stagger, Disoriented and Brittle can all be taken advantage of by each class, resulting in a lot more damage when used together. This feature adds a great deal of thinking and strategy to each encounter and as a result, each fight is varied, entertaining and often a bit of a puzzle. This is one feature from Origins I'm happy to see expanded. It works, it is rewarding, and it promotes utilizing each class for their respective abilities.
A large change from Origins and its expansion (Awakening) to Dragon Age 2 is found in the companion armor system. You are no longer able to customize the armor of each individual party member, a feature that required micromanagement, more than some players desired. Instead, Dragon Age 2 predetermines each party member's outfits, but allows for purchasing different upgrades for their armor that increases its stats or adds slots for runes. If you weren't a fan of your entire party looking rather unusual and mismatched, that will no longer be a concern. However, like Mass Effect 2 did for that franchise, players lose an important and often rewarding RPG element to the game.
The loot system also endures a make over as well in Dragon Age 2. Items that are obviously better for Hawke or his/her teammates will be ranked by stars (a maximum of 5), so going over inventory and equipping better items has become less of a chore and much more simplified. Item sets also make a return, granting various bonuses when worn together.
One gripe about DA2 that was also found in Origins is the lack of enemy variety. Seemingly, almost every bad guy is going to be your typical mercenary, darkspawn or demon and they're be carbon copy classes. Granted, this is a fantasy game and those are the kinds of enemies that show up in those settings, and you can see some variety in the very large enemies like ogres or dragons, but more new enemies would have helped the game out a lot.
You can't have a BioWare game without a form of storytelling and Dragon Age 2 is certainly no exception. In fact, it has one of the better dialogue systems you can find in an RPG video game. Those who played the Mass Effect series will be familiar with the conversation wheel and its features. DA2 took that ball and ran with it by implementing a new feature in the wheel, adding different icons according to the kind of reaction the choice has (a la Fable). If an option is heroic, snarky, sarcastic or intimidating, they are all represented by an icon. Other icons appear in the form of contextual options, as well. If a player chooses to have a more cinematic approach to the dialogue, they can simply pick the icon of the attitude they want to portray. This feature works incredibly well and would be welcome to see continued in future BioWare titles.
The dialogue is witty, interesting and voiced by an exceptional cast who help bring the characters to life. The voice acting is unsurprisingly of relative high quality for the most part. BioWare has always been known for picking great voice actors and with the character of Hawke, they have not skimped out on either the male or female versions. The male version of the character embodies a great gentlemanly quality and appropriate smarminess, but the female Hawke's voice acting stands out on its own with an air of authority that the male voice lacks.
During the course of the Dragon Age 2's time span (10 years), players will experience many conversations and not many of them feel out of place or canned. Rather than utilizing a good/evil spectrum in Dragon Age 2, BioWare chose to use a different morality system that reflects upon your teammates and not Hawke personally. Of the many NPC companions you pick up, each one has a bar reflecting their opinion of Hawke. Conversation choices and in-game actions can both affect the friendship or rivalry of a specific party member. This system adds a great uniqueness to the party dynamic, as well as the actual role playing of the game, and is a great improvement over the approval/disapproval from Origins. In addition, contextual dialogue pops up often, offered in the form of conversation choices or cutscenes that trigger when you visit certain areas with different party members.
But what good is strong dialogue and storytelling when you don't have a background to put it on? Not to worry, Dragon Age 2 offers a large amount of side-quests and regular plot-related quests to ensure that time spent in Kirkwall is time well spent. Every quest offers information regarding the world, party members or just plain old loot. Every choice made has real consequences and rewards, allowing the player to create his own story very easily and as a result, the game begs to be played through multiple times to see even the tiniest changes.
One of the most noticeable improvements in the sequel, but still lacking in comparison to other current gen titles, is the graphics. Characters look less like cookie cutter versions of one another and actually possess a degree of emotional portrayal rather than just furrowed brows and smiles. Landscapes also get a makeover and result in slightly more interesting and varied arenas to do battle in, as opposed to plain looking fields. There is a problem ranging from how dated the sprites and areas look and we experienced a few glitches with models popping in and out. The background doesn't exactly pop with color, despite the change in art direction, but it's less dull than Origins. Graphics aren't everything, but in comparison to other RPGs in recent years - and coming from BioWare - Dragon Age 2 is still lacking in that department.
Dragon Age 2 is one of those games you won't be able to rush through and you won't want to. BioWare created an incredibly interesting world with DA:O and they have expanded on it in the sequel. Whether or not you choose to progress the story as quickly as possible or take the time and explore each individual side-quest offered, Dragon Age 2 is going to be a long experience for anyone, ranking in at around 25 hours minimum.
Unfortunately, compared to Origins, the conclusion of the story in Dragon Age 2 will leave players with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Origins was a self-contained and fleshed out story, chronicling one character's journey to save the land of Ferelden from the Blight, allowing you to travel throughout a vast land. The sequel's "confinement" to the city of Kirkwall and its surrounding areas feels somewhat limited after playing a much more vast game. While it fits the Dragon Age 2 story, it does feel like a step in a backward direction though.
If you were hoping Dragon Age 2 was going to be good, it is. Few technical hitches aside, DA2 offers a rich and fulfilling role playing experience that any fan of the genre or BioWare will be happy to get into and check out. Be warned though: those expecting to have a similar experience to Dragon Age: Origins will be disappointed in some regards, especially if you're going to be playing on the PC. Dragon Age 2 has been redesigned to be more console friendly (read: dumbed down) and as a result, loses on some features that made the PC version much more strategically minded. If you're willing to look past that, Dragon Age 2 offers a deep story, interesting characters and functional gameplay that can be as in-depth or shallow as you want it to be.
Dragon Age 2 is available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. The Xbox 360 version was reviewed.