Dragon Age II – The PS3 Attitude Review
Dragon Age: Origins was released in November 2009 to great critical reviews, and quickly gained an almost fanatic cult following, due to its engaging story, range of interesting characters, and ridiculous amount of choice afforded to the player. However, despite its mostly positive reception, the title also had its fair share of flaws, so the question is, has BioWare successfully rectified these issues with Dragon Age II, or exacerbated them?
In Dragon Age: Origins, the game allowed you to create your own unique character from scratch, but in Dragon Age II you are forced to play as Hawke, a human from Lothering. However, like in BioWare’s other awesome RPG series, Mass Effect, the developer still gives the player a lot of freedom. In fact, apart from the above details, pretty much everything else about Hawke can be tweaked to your heart’s desire, including gender, facial appearance, and class.
The three classes from Origins return (Warrior, Rogue and Mage), and they still feel different enough that you’ll want to try them all. The six attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Magic, Cunning and Constitution) also remain from the previous game, with the player gaining three points to spend on these attributes every time their character (and other party members) level up. Talents and specialisations, meanwhile, have been made easier to manage, but we’ll get to that later.
You can also change your character’s first name, which helps to make your character feel unique, despite the fact that every gamer essentially plays as the same character. Whilst party members and NPCs will refer to you as Hawke in spoken dialogue, your character’s first name will constantly appear in text throughout the game, such as in letters, codexes and journal entries, successfully making your character more personal to you.
The story in Dragon Age: Origins was absolutely the highlight of the game, and thankfully, Dragon Age II doesn’t disappoint on that front either. Set over a ten-year period, the story is actually told in flashbacks; the game opens with a mysterious woman interrogating a dwarf called Varric. The woman, whose name is Cassandra, introduces herself as a Seeker (think of them as elite Templars from the Chantry), and questions Varric about ‘the Champion’.
This interrogation acts as a framing device for the game proper, with Varric narrating the story, both for Cassandra and, more importantly, the player. Rather than being a direct sequel to Origins and Awakening (so don’t expect anything quite as epic as another Blight), Dragon Age II stars Hawke, a new character to the series. After his home in Lothering is destroyed by darkspawn, Hawke and his family become refugees and flee to Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches with a disturbing history.
From here, Dragon Age II tells the tale of how Hawke goes from being a homeless refugee to the Champion of Kirkwall, battling Qunari, blood mages and Templars along the way. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like the most original RPG story, but BioWare are truly masters of storytelling, so there’s plenty of twists throughout that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and everything builds into an unbelievable finale, which will no doubt have massive significance in the next game in the series (and the inevitable DAII DLC).
The characters of Dragon Age II are also just as memorable as their Origins counterparts, and will often make their own decisions, some of which may surprise you, making them feel like real people with real faults, rather than one-dimensional characters from a lot of other RPGs. BioWare have also done a great job in making DAII accessible to Dragon Age newcomers, but also keeping other players happy with lots of fan service, including references to Origins and Awakening found throughout the story and cameos by several popular characters.
Let’s start with the combat, which has been much improved since Dragon Age: Origins, to the extent that the two battle systems are almost not recognisable as being part of the same series. The combat in Origins always came across as somewhat sluggish, and the player consequentially often felt oddly separated from the battle. However, fights in DAII are a lot more fast-paced, and almost feel more like they’re part of a hack and slash or action game rather than an RPG.
Don’t worry though, as there’s still a lot of strategy to be found, due to the game’s talent system, which allows Hawke and his companions to learn new abilities when they level up. Many of these talents are recycled from Origins, but there are plenty of original abilities too, and it’s been revamped to make it easier to keep track of all your companions’ abilities. Similarly, specialisations also return from Origins, allowing your party members to focus on a specific area of their class, such as Duellist or Assassin for Rogues, giving characters access to further abilities.
Strategy also comes from the incredibly deep tactics system, which allows you to set your companions to follow specific commands in pretty much any combat situation. A simple example is to set them to automatically use a health potion when their health gets low, but you can also set far more complicated commands, turning your party into an unstoppable unit. Unfortunately, for some reason best known to BioWare, you cannot change your companions’ clothing or armour, although you can change their equipment, and Hawke himself is free to wear whatever you want.
Speaking of Hawke’s companions, you’ll spend a lot of your time talking to them and other characters, using the new dialogue wheel, adopted from the Mass Effect series. You almost always have at least three choices of dialogue, so you’ll have to use your own inference skills to choose the best response. Becoming friends or rivals with your party members is a massive part of DAII, so we won’t spoil anything here, but just know that all your companions have interesting pasts, and we recommend talking to all of them whenever you get the chance.
The main story itself is actually fairly short, especially for an RPG, which is why it’s good to know that there’s a huge amount of side quests to keep you entertained. Quests can be started in a number of ways, including simply talking to people, finding special items, or receiving letters at your house (which also serves as the equivalent of Origins’ party camp, although in DAII your party members all have their own bases). Some of these quests are simple, but many are just as engaging as the main story, so we won’t spoil any of them now, as you have to experience Kirkwall for yourself.
As you can probably tell, there’s a huge amount to do in Dragon Age II, and we haven’t even mentioned everything. Many other gameplay elements from Origins are present in DAII, and have been improved in the transition, such as crafting your own items like potions and grenades, enchanting your weapons with extra powers, and discovering the hundreds of codex entries throughout the game world. It is also worth mentioning that the clunky interface of Origins is a thing of the past, and the menus are subsequently much easier to navigate. You can also toggle the time from day to night whenever you like, offering new quests and combat opportunities.
While Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t a bad-looking game, it also wasn’t exactly great-looking either, and its lacklustre graphics and low-resolution textures were arguably the biggest possible criticisms of the title. It is not surprising then, that BioWare have seriously rectified this with DAII, bringing the series’ graphics much closer to the awesomeness of Mass Effect 2. The updated engine gives more detailed textures, improved lighting effects, and much better looking character models, but the load times do get a little too long at times.
The performance issues that plagued Origins have also been toned down considerably, but haven’t quite disappeared completely. Slowdown and frame rate stuttering were major problems in Origins, and unfortunately they also rear their ugly heads in DAII when there is a lot happening on-screen. There is also a fair amount of texture pop-in, but again, it’s nowhere near as bad as it was in Origins, and Dragon Age II is a very pretty game overall.
Unfortunately, there are also a few further issues of presentation that suggest aspects of the game were rushed in order for BioWare to meet the release date (after all, it’s only been just over a year since Origins). Without a doubt, our biggest gripe with DAII is that, despite looking fantastic, there is only one city in the whole game, which is where you’ll spend the majority of the 30-60 hours it will take to complete it – just imagine the majority of Origins being set in Denerim and you’ll get a fair idea of what it’s like.
Similarly, certain cave and dungeon areas are used over and over again, and simply given different names. This lack of locations is not necessarily a big problem, but it means that the game can get more repetitive than we’d have liked. Kirkwall is a big place with several different sections to explore and interesting people to talk to, but after just five hours or so you’ll most likely have seen the majority of all the areas in the game. This is a real shame, because apart from its overuse of certain locations, Dragon Age II’s presentation is a huge improvement over Origins.
Unlike its presentation, the sound design in Dragon Age: Origins was already class-leading, and thankfully this is still the case with Dragon Age II. Some of the weapon effects sound a bit generic, but when taken as a whole, DAII is an aural (as well as now a visual) treat. From your character’s footsteps to the background noises of the city, it all comes together to give the impression that Kirkwall is alive with activity.
The game’s original soundtrack is equally awesome, and was once again composed by Inon Zur, who not only scored the music for Dragon Age: Origins, but also many other videogames including Crysis, Fallout 3, and Prince of Persia. If we were being harsh then we’d say that DAII’s soundtrack isn’t quite as epic as Origins’, but to be honest that’s like saying that The Godfather Part II isn’t as good as The Godfather, as it is still amazing.
Finally, another standout element of Dragon Age II is the game’s voice acting, which is incredible across the board. Both male Hawke (Nicholas Boulton) and female Hawke (Jo Wyatt) do a superb job delivering their lines (especially considering just how much there is), as do all of your companions. It is also worth pointing out that this time Irish, Scottish and Welsh voice actors join the cast, giving a greater sense of diversity to the people of Thedas.
There can be no doubt that Dragon Age II has major improvements over its predecessor in terms of graphics and combat, and the amount of choice given to the player within the story is unparalleled. However, this doesn’t change the fact that certain aspects of the game have clearly been rushed in order to meet the release date, most noticeably the overuse of certain locations. This is a shame because, as good as it is, if BioWare were given a few more months on the game then we could have had something truly special on our hands.
As it is, we simply have a very good game, which includes a gripping story with engaging characters and an interesting (albeit, slightly too small) game world to explore. If you’re yet to try out a Dragon Age game then you can’t go wrong with DAII, but fans of Origins may find themselves coming away ever so slightly disappointed. The good news is that if the developer can take the best of both games, and we’re confident that they can, then Dragon Age III could even rival a certain other BioWare-developed RPG series.