STAFF REVIEW of Dragon Age 2 (Xbox 360)

Thursday, March 31, 2011.
by Adam Dileva

Dragon Age 2 Box art It feels like it?s been a long time since I?ve finished and absolutely enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins, yet it?s only been a little over a year. It was expected that a sequel would come out shortly after considering how well the first game did, though I wasn?t expecting it this soon. Now Dragon Age 2 is here finally, though despite the 2 in the title, it feels almost like a different game.

You don?t continue your quest from Origins; instead you are now a completely new protagonist that takes place in the same era and setting. Dragon Age 2 (DA2) tries to be a sleeker and more streamlined experience that emphasizes on gratification in smaller but more frequent doses.

Rather than a huge undertaking and becoming the savior of the world like in Origins, DA2 feels much more like a hometown adventurer trying to make a name for themselves in a much smaller area. Just like how the difference in the two Mass Effect games changed from slower pace and tactical to almost a quicker paced shooter, that?s how it feels like in DA2. Everything is much more streamlined and faster paced, but this might alienate the fans that loved how the first game played. Tactical control is still there for those that want it, but it?s completely unnecessary now that DA2 is more of an action-RPG rather than a tactical one.

If you have a saved game from Origins (and Awakening) you are able to import your save when starting DA2 which will bring over any decisions and outcomes that you?ve completed over the course of the games. While you can?t import really much else, it?s entertaining to see events that transpired in the first game be referenced to based on what you decided while playing.

Unlike the Origins, you play as a human named Hawke (just like how Shepard was always the name of the protagonist in Mass Effect) and choose whether to be a mage, rogue or warrior (and male or female). DA2?s story begins essentially as Origins is finishing, with Hawke fleeing Lothering due to being destroyed by Darkspawn. You need to get your family to the next known safe haven city ? Kirkwall. As you arrive, you find that the city has been closed due to the flood of Ferelden refugees.

Hawke starts as just another citizen but will eventually become the ?Champion of Kirkwall?; the first section of the game is explaining (with you playing and determining the choices) how Hawke got to that point. The story telling is done in an interesting manner where your friend Varric is being interrogated by a mysterious Chantry Seeker named Cassandra trying to find the whereabouts of Hawke. As Varric tells his story, sometimes he?ll embellish what actually happened and you get to play a sequence where you?ll be killing Darkspawn in one hit and making them explode before Cassandra interrupts and wants the truth of what really happened (where you?ll replay the section being much harder of course).

One thing you?ll notice instantly is that DA2 doesn?t do a very good job at explaining what actually happened in Origins (and Awakening). Sure you get some of the basics, but if you?ve never played the first game, you?re going to be confused what a Grey Warden is, where Darkspawn emanate from, what the Fade is, and simply the sheer scale of how important the champion from the first game was in relation to saving the world. My wife who was watching me play (and didn?t while playing Origins) kept asking ?who?s that? or ?so what happened before?? when certain events were referenced as if you are supposed to know (or remember).

The majority of DA2?s story will take place in and around Kirkwall. This makes the story feel more community driven and that you?re supposed to care for your new home town, but it also makes the sheer epicness of Hawke?s story seem downplayed and nowhere near as ?important? as it was in Origins. You?ll sometimes wonder what the main overlaying plot is at times, and it does get tied together at points, but there are long gaps between plot narratives that can make some lose overall interest in the overlaying story. Instead of crossing the continent to take on the Archdemon like in Origins, you?ll be taking sides of different factions within the cities and doing many errands which simply didn?t feel as important or encompassing.

The biggest game changes in the sequel would have to be the combat, skill trees, dialogue wheel, and the way the story is told. Let?s begin with the combat as it?s what you?ll be doing for the majority of gameplay. As mentioned before, fans of the tactical style Origins excelled at can still be done on a whim whenever you please for absolute control of your characters in battle, but honestly aside from a few boss fights, I never needed to (though I played a warrior).

As a warrior, I was able to play the whole game (combat) as a button masher (though obviously toggling buffs and skills as I went) without much need for ?tactics?. There?s a new mechanic called cross-class combos which allow party members to debuff and then exploit openings on enemies for massive damage. Each class can eventually debuff an enemy that another class can exploit easily to take down hoards of enemies quickly. Rogues can leave an opening for warriors to do massive damage, warriors can leave enemies open for mage spells which they can leave an opening for a rogue to finish them off. If you do use the tactic style of gameplay you?ll make use of these exploits quite often but I found I never really needed them until later on against much harder enemies and bosses.

Single you won?t be crossing the world on a massive quest, you?ll actually be spending most of your time within the walls of Kirkwall in the slums and underground dungeons. Yes you?ll venture out into the mountains and marshes sometimes though not very often unless you?re doing many sidequests. You?ll be backtracking and visiting the same areas over and over again looking for new items for quest or whatnot. Because of this, the world in DA2 feels extremely small once you visit the same dungeon or area for the fourth time. You?ll quickly learn your way around Kirkwall because of the repetition, but dungeons being constantly recycled was quite a downer. ?Oh, I have to go back there?.again??

As you fight enemies and finally clear a batch blocking your way through, more waves will spawn either right on top of you or behind you out of thin air. This can make it hard to round around and place your team exactly where you want them, as the battlefield could change as soon as a certain wave of enemies is complete. Oh, and you see that bag of money on the ground you want to pick up? You can?t until every enemy in the vicinity is cleared. I?ve actually not picked up quite a bit of loot because I?ll go to loot something but can?t because something just spawned and I have to clear them before doing so; fair enough. I kill the wave but then another wave appears (out of nowhere) way up ahead, so I need to go kill them. After I do I?ve either long forgotten about the loot in the first place or don?t want to backtrack to get the coin and items. It?s a good thing I never need to buy many upgrades as I always forgot to go back for loot (until the next jaunt through the same area later on). You can see where this annoyance is going.

You?re going to notice pretty early on that you also can?t upgrade any of your party?s armor, only weapons and accessories. While this doesn?t seem like a big deal, and I?m sure it was done to make things more streamlined, it feels like a downfall as I don?t really have much customization outside of Hawkes armor. It took a while to actually figure out until I saw every armor piece will always say ?Hawke only?. You?ll find some upgrades for your party as in they?ll get bonuses to specs, but you?ll unfortunately never be dressing them how you wish or giving them hand-me-downs.

Leveling this time around has also been changed (though I prefer the skill tree method now) for the better. As you level, you?ll have attribute points to spend into the main stats like strength, dexterity, willpower, magic, cunning and constitution much like more and Bioware has done a great job at explaining what each stat does (and your current bonus) for your character and how it will affect them. You?ll also gain skill points to put into a skill-tree to build your character exactly how you want to play them. For example, my warrior uses a one handed weapon and a shield, so I dumped all my early points into that spec to make them a better tank. Eventually I branched out and learned skills (activated and passive) from other trees becoming a much better rounded character overall. You can determine what role you want to play and what skills to learn whenever you wish. By the time you max level, you?ll have more than enough points to learn almost every skill, but it?s all about how you develop your character as you go.

Obviously inspired by Mass Effect, the dialogue wheel returns with much more emphasis on choosing what you want, not just simply the good, bad and neutral choices. Amazing voiced as always, conversations can be quite entertaining themselves and sometimes you?ll see the good, bad, neutral choices, but many of the times you?ll have to actually decide on your own on how to progress the conversation without the visual aids. All your choices will affect how your teammates feel towards you which can then make them a true friend or rival (which they then receive a strong bonus either way).

All these changes make it feel like Bioware is trying to appeal to a broader and newer audience rather than quench the thirst of the original fans. I know I felt a little disappointed to be playing the majority of combat as a hack-and-slash rather than a much more tactile approach that was needed in Origins.

Aside from Hawke and Varric (which is a given because I was making the decisions), I never really emotionally connected with many of the characters like I did in Origins with Shale, Alistair, Morrigan and others. Some familiar faces will make cameos and I actually found those quick visits to give me the biggest smiles throughout Hawkes story. All the simplification felt very unnecessary and the ?closed in? feeling I got from the story telling just didn?t have the big impact on me that Origins did. Not that Dragon Age 2 is bad in any way, but it doesn?t hold a candle compared to its predecessor and feels completely different.

You?re going to get what you always do with any Bioware game; amazing voice acting, dialogue and a story that will have you playing for dozens and dozens of hours while trying to complete everything before it?s all over. There are moments that were compelling and felt very strong but it was too far and in between to keep you hooked like Origins did. I enjoyed the game for what it was but you have to go in expecting a new experience and something different from Origins and I don?t want to knock it for what was I expecting, but rather rate it for what it is instead. This may be Dragon Age 2, but it is not Dragon Age: Origins 2.

Overall: 8.3 / 10
Gameplay: 8.2 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10


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