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The GoodBioWare has long established itself as the supreme king of Western story-driven RPGs (a position Obsidian challenged lately with the fantastic Fallout: New Vegas). Storytelling and writing have always been BioWare's trump cards; and in these aspects, Dragon Age II certainly does not disappoint.
I applauded the writing and the characterization of its predecessor, but the sequel scores perhaps even more points there. The writing is exceptional. Even the most regular conversations are written in a clever way, taking advantage of a rich vocabulary to convey the emotions of the participants. Listening to these conversations is a pleasure too, since voice acting in the game is consistently excellent.
I loved the character casts in all recent BioWare titles, but I think Dragon Age II steals the show. Stereotypical characters are recurrent in video games, and even the company's previous works weren't completely devoid of them. In Dragon Age II, the characters are charismatic and likable without being traditionally cast into familiar roles. The dwarf Varric, for example, manages to be believable and interesting without reviving old stereotypes related to his race (compare him, for example, to Oghren from the previous game). But Varric is not the only one; every single companion I've met in the game comes across as a real person with plenty of sides to like or dislike. Among all comparable games, the cast of Dragon Age II comes close to being my favorite.
BioWare always loved to create chemistry between the characters by letting them have random or scripted conversations when put together in the active party. Dragon Age II pretty much achieves mastery in this aspect. Companions will constantly comment on whatever strikes their fancy; they will emotionally respond to quest-related events and actively engage in conversations more frequently than in any other RPG I've seen. This tightens the bond between the player and his party members to even higher degree, to the point that I was literally sad to complete the game because I knew I won't be meeting those people anymore.
Humor has always been a distinctive trademark of BioWare's games, and again I feel that Dragon Age II beats everyone else in this field. Listening to the characters constantly poke each other with sarcastic rejoinders is an ever-growing pleasure; I laughed out loud on more than one occasion. My personal favorite was probably Varric's initial description of his revenge quest, in which he presents himself as a Rambo-like character defeating a whole gang of mercenaries with his crossbow, complete with "tough hero" comments accompanying every shot; it soon turns out that that wasn't at all how things went, but Varric couldn't resist the temptation of showing off. But I'm sure every player will be able to pick his/her favorite among the many pearls that are the dialogues of Dragon Age II. Seriously, the humor in this games rivals some of the best examples I've seen in games or other media; it never actually turns the game into a comedy, but provides comic relief in most subtle and humane way.
I'm sure many people disliked the main plot of the game. But to me personally it seemed more interesting than the world-embracing fantasy drama of the predecessor. The story of Dragon Age II is like chamber music: less effects, but more subtlety. BioWare always liked inserting political and social conflicts into their games; Dragon Age II is pretty much dedicated to them. There is no world-saving in the game. Hawke's initial quest is simply to financially support his/her family. As the hero tries to gather enough money for a profitable expedition, he gradually becomes familiar with the political situation in the city of Kirkwall. In the end, of course, the main quest smoothly turns into saving this city, but it is nevertheless quite different from the usual epic adventures with chosen heroes.
What I liked in this story is just how mundane, down-to-earth it is. The medieval world of Dragon Age II is surprisingly realistic. It has very few obligatory fantasy elements. You can replace templars, mages, Qunari, and elves with modern-day ideologies and cultures, and the story will not lose its meaning. In this aspect, Dragon Age II is very close to Witcher. Those two games also share an "urban" setting; both are confined to a large city and its surroundings.
I'm not fully at peace with the designers' idea to set the game entirely in Kirkwall. At the same time, I applaud their attempt to concentrate on portraying the urban life of a medieval society. What the game loses in scope it gains in focus: Kirkwall will stay in your memory for much longer than any settlement or location from the previous game. It is a city that you grow to love and hate; you become attached to it, identifying yourself with the hero.
The hero's personal story is also worth noting. In the beginning Hawke is just a poor, clueless refugee from a destroyed country. Gradually, he becomes popular and eventually rises to the status of a city champion. This might sound like a typical RPG story, but few games managed to present it in such a way that it really grows on the player and convinces him. For comparison, look at the story of Oblivion, which had a very similar premise, but failed to translate it into a gripping narrative.
Quests are often considered the soul of Western RPGs, and if it is indeed so, then Dragon Age II has plenty of soul. Every quest I've done in the game, whether main or secondary, was well-written, believable, interesting, and uncovered yet another fragment of the rich tapestry of Kirkwall's life. Even the most simply structured quests allow the player to choose his/her attitude and make decisions. True, the main story develops in its own way and doesn't respond to player's actions very often; but concrete events can be drastically different depending on the player's input. Tough moral choices abound, and every conversation can branch according to the responses chosen by the player.
Each companion in the game has his/her own set of special quests; completing them raises their friendship or rivalry, and sometimes leads to romance (see the screenshots for more... err... concrete information). There are optional party members and all kinds of decisions and situations that involve your relationship with them.
I hope my one-line summary didn't make you think that Dragon Age II has been stripped of ability trees, equipment, and tactical combat. It resembles to Mass Effect in other negative aspects (see the "Bad" section), but it's still a "heavy" RPG. In fact, not much has changed since the first game in the way combat and character growth are handled. The higher speed of the battles is instantly noticeable; but it is still possible to pause at any time and give precise commands to all the party members. Equipment management is detailed and complex (well, at least for Hawke); you can equip armor of various kinds, including gauntlets, amulets, and rings, just like in any good old medieval RPG. Enchanting weapons and armor is back (enchantment? enchantment!), and there is still the joy of venturing into a dungeon and suddenly finding, when you least expect it, an awesome sword imbued with devastating power.
Same goes for character growth: exploring all the ability trees is a fascinating process, and specializing in one kind of discipline really pays off. The game constantly provides the feeling of reward, which I find essential for an RPG. You always want to go up a level just to be able to raise your constitution so that you can finally equip that cool armor, or complete your mastery of a fighting style. Each companion comes with unique and imaginative trees of spells and abilities, and it's a joy to try them out - obviously you can only scratch the surface in one play. The combat in the game is significantly easier than in its challenging predecessor, so the harder difficulty levels are the ones to recommend to RPG veterans.
The BadDragon Age II is much smaller, shorter, and less complex than the first game.
I like Mass Effect, but that doesn't mean everything those games did was good. Some of the features, in my opinion, hurt them badly: smaller-scope adventuring, bland level design, reduced customization. For reasons unknown, the creators of Dragon Age II chose to import precisely these unfortunate features. Even the "emoticon" dialogue system from Mass Effect, with its annoying discrepancy between the suggested choice and what the character actually says, found its way into the game.
The entire Dragon Age II takes place in the city of Kirkwall and a few wilderness areas around it. The tiny world of this game makes that of Jade Empire look like a giant sandbox. There is no traveling whatsoever in the game; you'll be spending all your time in the same place. It's true that the city is reasonably large, but confining the whole game to it would be equivalent to restricting the whole Baldur's Gate II to the city of Amn.
Due to this dubious decision, Dragon Age II fails to convey a proper feeling of exploration and adventure, which are so important to RPGs. By the end of Act I, you'll have seen all the locations the game has to offer. You'll be visiting the same locations over and over again; it's always "go to the Lowtown at night" or "meet character X at the docks", even during the final, third Act, when you positively begin to crave for a change of scenery.
This is made worse by the fact that even the few different locations are plagued by unforgivable "copy/paste" design. Almost all the caves in the game look the same; it's always an abandoned mine-like structure with wooden doors. I've actually witnessed a few locations being literally copy-pasted, i.e. having the exact same layout. It's even worse than the level design in Mass Effect games, probably also surpassing the monotony of Oblivion. The locations are small, narrow, and look as if they were created with some sort of a random generator.
All this isn't helped by drab and outdated graphics. Empty-looking corridors and passages with generic objects is all you are going to see in the game. Clearly, the effort that went into graphical design constituted about one tenth of what was invested in the writing. I hoped to see some physical interactivity, the absence of which bothered me already in the predecessor; obviously, I wanted too much. I'd be satisfied with a rich graphical world even if it didn't have the interactivity of Bethesda's works, but I didn't get even that.
Luckily, gameplay and character growth underwent much less "masseffectization" than the other aspects, but I still didn't understand why they decided not to let the player to change armor for the companions. You find plenty of armor for different classes, but you can only use it by yourself; companion's armor can be upgraded, but not changed. So if, say, you play as a mage and find an awesome plate mail, you have absolutely no way to use it. The fighters in your team will refuse to trade their old outfit for it, while you are, naturally, bound by the understandable class restriction.
Finally, though you are able to make decisions during almost every story-related quest, the main plot is still quite rigid; it cannot be compared in this sense to the freedom of choice you have in New Vegas.