Dragon Age II is an RPG sequel to big hit Dragon Age: Origins, developed by Bioware and published by EA. It’s set in the same magical land as the previous game, starting in Ferelden but quickly branching out to the city of Kirkwall.
You begin as the human Hawke, and can choose to be either a warrior, rogue or mage, and whether you are male or female. Your initial choice does have an impact on which family members accompany you, but you will always end up in Kirkwall either way. The story begins as you and your family run from the Darkspawn hordes attacking Lothering (a town that gets destroyed in the first game) and it all looks hopeless, until a gigantic dragon comes to your rescue and turns out to be Flemeth – the Witch of the Wilds. Arriving in Kirkwall as a lowly refugee, you slowly work your way up through the ranks, eventually becoming nobility and Champion of the city. The story, narrated by your dwarven companion Varric, is split up into three acts, with a period of three years elapsing within each. So there we go, that is a quick look at the plot with the major spoilers cut out, though I will say that (similar to DA1) there are multiple story altering decisions throughout the course of it.
As you go along you have to recruit your companions, beginning with your sibling (either Bethany or Carver depending on your own class) and a warrior named Aveline from Ferelden. Varric will quickly join your group and it is up to you to recruit the others, entailing a completion of quests and conversations.
For a quick playthrough you can just complete the main questline or, for a more complete experience, there are numerous side quests, companion quests and rumours that can also be followed. This in turn allows you to level up, distribute attribute points and unlock talents or spells for your character to use. This is also true for your companions, who you must also level up.
And this is where the failings of Dragon Age II begin…
Let’s start off with the initial choice of character. In Origins you could choose between three different races (Human, Elf, Dwarf), six different beginnings (Human Noble, Magi, City Elf, Dalish Elf, Dwarf Noble, Dwarf Commoner) and the usual three categories (Warrior, Elf, Dwarf). In II however you must be a human, and your beginning is predetermined, the only option is the category. After playing the first game, this is a huge step down and just isn’t as interesting, especially as it limits everything else as well. The reason given for this is due the fact that your character now has a voice and having different voice actors for all of the different possibilities would be too much effort. This causes another problem of course – when I choose a dialogue option, sometimes Hawke doesn’t even say what I was intending him to say. The three basic categories of speech are helpful, charming and aggressive, but what the writing says and what comes out of Hawke’s mouth can be quite different.
Next is the map system. Once again it is pitiful compared to Origins, with the designers deciding that having numerous cities and locations was just too much effort. Instead you have Kirkwall (day), Kirkwall (night) and the outside area of the Free Marshes, all divided into smaller areas like the Docks and the Gallows. Everything within the games happens in these areas, and by the time you get half way through the second act you’re sick of seeing exactly the same thing over and over. The caves and warehouses that some of the side quests take place in are all exactly the same, and no – just because you make me enter it from a different doorway does not mean I won’t immediate recognise it. They were even too lazy to put in a day/night time cycle, you can just switch between the two at will. By the third act I wasn’t even bothered about doing the side quests, I just wanted the game over and done with to get a change of scenery. It doesn’t help of course that my playing of this closely followed my forray into the world of Skyrim, a land extremely varied and unpredictable in comparison.
There are other aspects which seem exceedingly lazy when compared to the first. The inventory system has a ‘junk’ category where everything gets put that isn’t useful, it has no monetary value given and is in general very pointless. Even the gift system of the previous game is gone, no longer do you have to guess and pry into the lives of your companions in order to get the right gift to the right people. The minute you pick up a gift, it gives you a quest for the companion. This may not seem like a big thing to those who haven’t played Origins, but part of the allure of the first was the sheer amount of interaction you had with your companions, including giving gifts to try and win their favour. Gone are the long conversations (or short and curt when talking to Sten) next to the campfire talking about everything from the past to licking lampposts in winter. Your companions now have their own personal locations where you can find them but they will only have a conversation if there is a quest corresponding to them. You do find out about some of their pasts, but there is really little chance to get to known them to them same degree as the Origins companions.
You also cannot upgrade your companions armour and, in the case of Varric, their weapon. Their armour does not remain at its initial level, instead it upgrades as the character levels up, but it still seems a rather odd thing to remove that control from the player. You can find small upgrades for each of your characters but overall they seem rather pointless and, because you have no input concerning the armour, you care less about what their armour does in general. The combat style in general has been degraded into basic button mashing (especially as a rogue or warrior) and the graphics certainly leave something to be desired.
I will say that your possible companions are quite interesting, with some of them having interesting backstories that are revealed through quests and all of them (apart from perhaps Carver) are quite entertaining to interact with. My personal favourite was probably the former-slave Elf Fenris who has a dark past but, if you choose the right options, can begin to open up to you. There is also Anders, an apostate with a dark secret, and the dwarf Varric is always good for a laugh. Similar to Origins you can romance certain characters (actually pretty much anyone apart form your siblings and Varric) but once you fully romance one, the others will be cut off as options. There have been complaints made to EA via its discussion boards about the sexuality of the characters (namely the relatively famous Straight White Male Gamer post), because everyone you can have a relationship with is bisexual, meaning that your gender isn’t an issue. The basic gist of the SWMG’s post is that Bioware should be catering to its main fan base, and they do not want men flirting with their character with no provocation. Bioware’s reply is that romance is for everyone, whether gay, straight or bi, as are their games. I agree with this completely, but it is hilarious that everyone you come across appears to be bisexual, it may have been more realistic to have one or two characters that are straight (see Alistair in Origins).
The other complaint about the characters is a small, silly one but still one that has come up many times between my housemates whilst playing the game. The female characters are ridiculously proportioned, Isabela should be doubled over in pain as her back gives way under her gignormous breasts. I understand making them fantastical and pretty, but there’s a point where it just becomes ludicrous. The Qunari look pretty cool and have changed a lot since the days of Sten, and just a hint – talking with them goes a lot better if you have Fenris with you.
All in all, Dragon Age II just doesn’t live up to expectation. Everything feels clunky and lazy, the characters (whilst still being interesting) just don’t have the depth as previous ones and really it’s the map system that tops it all off. I also really don’t understand the cameos from characters from Origins, apart from Isabela who is actually a main character. They just seemed pointless, Alistair and Zevran especially – not to mention the fact that you can have sex with Zevran randomly if you decide to save him. It seems as though they ran out of ideas, so decided to just recycle characters from the previous game.
On another side note – the sex scenes from Origins, the ones that caused so much eyebrow raising and muting of Tv’s – have been cut. You still get kissing and the lead up (like Fenris pushing Hawke up against a wall etc) but then a pesky plant pot or candle will obscure the shot and all goes silent. It’s not that I particularly want half dressed animations getting it on, but it was hilarious the first time it happened. Also the ability to call on your loved one for a booty call whenever is removed, the sex scenes are scripted into particular parts of the storyline and you can’t deviate at all.
Maybe that is my main issue with DA2: the fact that you cannot deviate from the set parameters, you can’t complete in any way other than the one given to you, is so very very boring. I’m probably not going to bother with another playthrough, unless I decide to attempt a different romance but the chances are slim. As the final credits rolled across the screen, I put my controller on floor and was so very happy that I no longer had to play it. It’s disappointing really, especially when considering how much I enjoyed the first.
Apparently there is a third instalment coming out, set in Orlais, and hopefully it will be a vast improvement on this one.