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SummaryAn admirable idea with unfortunate execution.
The GoodBioware's kind of been stuck in a rut for awhile. KOTOR was a huge deal for the company, but every game they've released since then has just felt like a retread of it. Solve the problems of three quest hubs with binary decisions then move on to the final quest hub while gaining influence from your party members with your decisions. Dragon Age II tries to break from that, being instead about the long-term consequences of the Champion's actions on the city of Kirkwall, which would have been a game I'd loved to have played.
As is typical of Bioware RPGs the player's party is composed of a small group of developed characters. One character, Aveline, stands out as possibly my favorite character from a Bioware game. Indeed Dragon Age II is more her game than it is Hawke's; she's at the center of more major plot points than Hawke is, and she only pulls the player avatar in to help her out with them. Some characters, like Varric and Fenris, are entertaining or have engaging back-stories/quest lines, while others, like Isabella and Merrill, seemed to have been hastily grafted into the game only to add additional characters to the playable party. Also having Anders's entire transformation from the lovable scamp of Awakening to the brooding cynic of DAII happen between games instead of during the game was one missed opportunity out of many.
Incidentally, if you've ever wanted a Xena: Warrior Princess game that isn't completely awful, Dragon Age II might be worth picking up. The female Hawke is a decent Xena sound-a-like, one of her pre-set faces is a dead ringer for Lucy Lawless, and Merrill is even a pretty close analog to season 1 and 2's Gabrielle.
The BadAny good things I've said about the game above can be safely ignored. The actual execution of the game is so half-assed and amateur that whatever strengths the game has are hidden behind piles of bland tripe. It'd be nice if I could say that the game was a victim of its release schedule, but I think it's worse than that. I think DA2 was intentionally designed to be as cheap and quick to develop as it is so that they could push it out and pick up some capital to continue developing The Old Republic with. Every part of DA2, from the good to the bad, was designed to be low-budget.
I should start with what ought to be the main character of Dragon Age 2: the city of Kirkwall. If you're going to set an entire RPG in a single city then you had better be putting a lot of effort into that city. Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn both thought so highly of their main city that they put the city name in the title! Even globetrotting games would put huge amounts of detail into their capital cities, such as Final Fantasy VII's Midgard or Morrowind's Vivec. Kirkwall has nothing in common with any of these cities. The town has an upscale neighborhood, two slums, a church, a bordello, a pub, and a government building. That's it. That's the entire city. Sure there are books you find that go into the lore of the town, but all they do is prove that all the interesting stuff happened to the town before you got there.
The time skips of the story are also equally under-developed. The prologue of the game races through what ought to be valuable character development as fast as it possibly can. This utterly destroys any sense of scale in regards to Hawke's rise to power; in half an hour she skips from refugee to well-known footpad in Kirkwall's underworld. Worse than that, however, is how little changes in the time skips. Every piece of architecture and every citizen in the city remains unchanged over the seven years that the game takes place. Only store inventories and the locations of some barrels change. I have never seen any game be so lazy about one of its key features. They could have reduced the time skips from being three years in length to being one month in length and nothing about the game would have to be changed.
Just as lazy is the storyline of Hawke's rise to power, which ought to be a key feature of the game since those exact words are on the back of the game's box. In truth her grand epic story is that she was friends with the captain of the guard, came into some money, and was in a position to duel two important personages. Nothing else in the game has lasting effects outside of the individual quest lines. For me the gold standard of "rise to power" video game stories remains Suikoden II, which had both a solid storyline focused on the player avatar as well as a mostly optional expanding base camp that grew from the player's actions. Dragon Age II ought to have both of these things, but it barely makes an attempt at either.
Something must be said for the game's combat, which is functional, I guess, but profoundly stupid. It's still based on a single player version of MMO combat, which is still not a bad idea, but it still doesn't care to learn how to do it right. I played through team and raid content in two expansions of WoW, so I'd like to think I'm qualified in speaking about how good MMO fights are made. Positioning, reading enemy patterns, and disabling enemy powers are all crucial elements. DA2 has none of this. Every fight in the game that isn't just a Dynasty Warriors style kill-em-all bloodbath can be beaten by nuking the enemy mage while distracting any adds that go for your mage. The most complex enemy in the game is dangerous because, while he will attack, sometimes he will also dash. Dragon Age 2 is like playing God of War with the enemies from Dragon Quest.
And how many adds there are! Every single combat in the game consists of at least three waves of enemies jumping into the fray; totally unfazed at how you cut down their allies in three hits. One quest in the game involves stopping a flood of poison gas that is killing a district of the city, and no less than 60 mercenaries jump into the gassed district in order to stop you. Some people must really love their job.
I want to compare this to Baldur's Gate II because I think it makes a good example of what a silly mess Dragon Age 2 is. In Baldur's Gate II the party could get ambushed, while walking between districts in Amn, by cutthroats. At the start of the game these confrontations could be dangerous, because while the cutthroats might not possess magical items they were still skilled fighters, and they had a wizard with them who knew the same common spells as the player's party's wizard. As the game progressed, and the party grew and acquired mystical and enchanted items, these attacks became trivial engagements, as the party had far surpassed simple hoodlums. In DA2 the street thugs are always evenly matched to the player, because someone somewhere thinks this is how game balance works. The only reason as to why there are street gangs that can match the abilities of the Champion of Kirkwall is because these are the high-level Act 3 thugs and not those low-level Act 1 thugs.
The Bottom LineDragon Age II is the game that people were worried Bioware would make when they signed a publishing deal with EA. It cuts every corner, puts in the barest minimum of effort, and was designed with the kind of disregard for craft typical of annual franchise games that are only living on their names.
I won't call Dragon Age 2 a scam, but it is a failure. Its ideas are worth revisiting, but I'm not sure I can trust a Bioware game with Dragon Age in the title anymore. How will I know if, this time, they actually are trying to make a proper game?