I was pretty excited when I first laid my greedy eyes on Bioware’s Dragon Age II. The first one sucked up a good portion of my time, and though it had its flaws, in its own special way it did a satisfying job of sating my grumbling RPG urges. So it was a little unfair of Bioware to send, just to get a chance to peek at the loaf through a hot oven door.
But the sequel is finally here, and I’ve had enough time to digest my thoughts about Bioware’s opulent second course.
Dragon Age II is (quite understandably) set in the same mythical world as its predecessor. It’s also set slightly after the events of the first game. That’s great for two reasons. The first is that it gives this title a history to draw from; gamers had a great time slicing and dicing their way through Ferelden nearly two years ago, so it was only natural to let them continue to explore a world that is ready-made and well-realised. The second reason is that it let Bioware use one of its now well established tricks: cross-pollinating sequels and prequels using prior save games. That’s something we expect to see as an industry norm in any future epic sagas like these, and Bioware is leading the charge. The scholar in me thinks it’s great because it links together narratives and gives a richness and depth to the titles experience, which immediately sticks it above its peers. My cynic is just glad that the hours I spent levelling my mage in Bioware’s original was not so obviously misspent. Take that, opportunity cost.
But just because Bioware has put serious thought into building its games linked together in clever ways does not mean that it’s going to be presenting you with an updated version of what we’ve already seen. Dragon Age II is a title in its own right, and it’s done quite a few things very, very differently. The extent to which that either enrages or impresses you is going to depend on what your personal preferences are. But under its scaly skins it’s still an RPG adventure. Its got spells, demons, warriors, and elves for Africa – or in this case, Ferelden.
What is immediately obvious is that Bioware have taken a different tack to the way your story plays out. In the original you were a heroic figure on a legendary quest. In round two, things have been upended. The game is partially played through the eyes of Varric, a portly dwarf who is regaling the tale of your character’s conquests. The game begins with you acting out his version of events, which are a little… exaggerated. As the game quickly develops, he becomes an important fixture in your party and plays an integral path in the story’s plot in his own right. The story itself has been expanded – you play as a hero-to-be who escaped with his family from Lothering to Kirkwall, a fortress city by the coast where you try to begin a new life. And your quest to become the “champion“ begins there.
The shift in place necessitates a shift in feel, and Kirkwall – with its grubby streets and metre-thick walls – is a foreboding and claustrophobic place. As I was playing through the game I was trying to pin down what exactly it was about Kirkwall and the other environments that so intrigued me. In a way. There’s a definite Lord of the Rings feel to the game’s playable spaces (and not that nice cartoon version, the nasty, violent, New Zealand one). The LOTR analogy is apt, because as well as the title being a chance to crack some Darkspawn skulls, it’s also a microcosm of our own world, today, right now. In that slightly emo Tolkien-esque way, Dragon Age II manages to hint at some complex issues. Issues of race, issues of choice, issues of discrimination, issues of sex, of religion, of power and politics. Videogames don’t often do this. It’s heartening to see one that can pull it off without being trite.
The game’s story telling is not just driven on by Varric and his musings, which (unfortunately) are a little few and far between. In its place is Bioware’s iconic conversational storytelling. Taking a page from Mass Effect’s book, the conversation wheel is used with full force, and the options you can choose have a subtle (but important) effect on the way your character responds to new events. This subsequently affects the way your adventure plays out and how well you navigate through the story. On the whole, Dragon Age II does a pretty decent job of bringing you into its lore and, while it does have a few minor pacing issues, its storyline and the way it ties events into those that have come before all point towards storyline fiends getting a worthwhile experience.
But there are some issues with the way Dragon Age II presents its experience to you. It would be unfair to say that the title does a bad job of providing you with a graphical experience that’s worth the price of admission – but it does have a few niggling areas that detract from its otherwise excellent performance. As RPG titles go, it’s definitely got the makings of an engrossing time. Spells look amazing, the blood and gore of maces and swords is all nicely rendered and artfully done. The background environments (while a little bleak, soulless and repetitive) are at least displayed well. And by well, I mean, quite well. The design team deserves a cup of tea and a biscuit, because the game looks complete, thematic and interesting.
The problem with the graphics is not necessarily visual, it’s instead a problem of form. Because Dragon Age II’s graphical quibbles are directly related to the platform that you’re playing on. Unlike its elder brother, the title was designed for the PS3 and it shows. For humble PC gamers like myself that creates a little bit of a disconnect. The HUD seems conspicuously empty, textures seem a little bland, high graphical setting aren’t very well optimised and the visual complexity that we are used to seeing in run of the mill RPG titles has been pared back and “streamlined”. I’m not suggesting these create insurmountable problems, but they do on some level alienate the PC gamer from what’s right in front of their face. Which is a shame, because the PC’s processing and GPU power is light-years ahead of its living room counterpart, and it’s frustrating to see it so obviously kneecapped.
But there is a commonality between these two mediums, and Dragon Age II has made it an amicable one. The audible experience on display is pretty damn good. There is a vast improvement on the ambient and combat noise of the original; spells crack with the energy of the fade, crossbow strings sing with menace, and shields bash like battering rams. It’s not quite like you’re there (because there never existed) but for an imagined world of magic and might, it’s a laudable simulacrum. Unfortunately, as is becoming obvious with this title, it’s let down by an Achilles heel. And that is its voice acting. Some of it is excellent, Flemeth appearing once again as the Witch of the Wilds is stupendously portrayed, Varric with his roguish mannerisms and laconic wit is another stand out. Even Hawke is likable enough. But the rest, unfortunately, are not. With a title like this where dialogue is so central it’s hard to get everyone ringing like bells, but there were some dismal failures. Street thugs do not need to sound like Jason Statham mugging you in a Putney bathroom, and it’s mildly offensive to portray Dalish Elves as an offshoot of the ‘folksy’ Welsh. These moments of cringe undercut what is for the most part a fairly solid experience, and one that is augmented by some excellent writing with clever attention to detail.
The choices you’d have made in your conversation options affect you’re character’s world view. And that means he or she will yell different things before charging into the fray (which is a blissful relief from Dragon Age I). And the fray is pulled off with reasonable skill. The combat is competent, fun and uniformly engaging. It’s got everything you’d expect in an RPG romp, but it’s been optimised for gamers who play with two thumbs. The combat is more ‘arcadey’, more hack and slash, more violent. There a lot of blood, a lot of gore, a lot of swagger and not much nuance. An obvious result of the different design choice is a combat experience that’s more intense but less strategic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I had a great time casting lightning storms over Kunari and watching them explode into supermarket value mince; it was primal, it was fun. But it also meant that I didn’t need to think as much about what characters I was utilising, and how I was using them. Perhaps that’s also a little unfair, console gamers are more than capable of strategy and unit selection. It’s just that with Dragon Age II on the PC the level of combat sophistication that the first title offered so readily was a little hard to discern. Even with difficulty modes ramped up and your characters intricately levelled it still didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t wrong, it wasn’t not enjoyable. It was just different. And for purists that will be disappointing.
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this difference is what’s been changed under the hood. Dragon Age II is missing some genre staples. Gone are the complicated menus for sorting your ill-gotten loot, and in are star ranking systems for infrequent item drops. Want to totally change your party’s kit? Think again, full customisation is reserved especially for you. Because you’re worth it.
I could see the reasoning: only the most dedicated find succour in trolling their weapon stashes for the most appropriate pain-giver. But perhaps Bioware over-reached on this one. Simplicity is all well and good. But RPGs are not yet ready for i-inventories. The same ethos is present when levelling skills and attributes. Out has gone skill-trees and in have come flow charts and dynamic pathways. Again, difference. Not rage inducing or store-returning, not at all (and if you do you’re foolish). Instead we have the accessible, the simple, the easy to use, the plug and play. It’s a new spin on an old format. But I was left with the niggling unease that Bioware has mistakenly ignored role-play gaming’s raison d’être.
So what to make of Bioware’s Dragon Age II? Is there a way to summarise its good attributes and its odd failings? Dragon Age II is an excellent RPG by any objective standard. It has a great story, great characterisation, great intrigue, replayability, and atmosphere in spades. But PC gamers who were perhaps holding out for the title to breathe life back into their medium, they may be disappointed. Dragon Age’s straddling of both worlds comes only at the expense of one, which the hardcore will find dreary. But for those who are looking to have a go, and can afford the price tag that comes with that, should grab this title by its dragon-honed horns. All of its faults should be taken with a good dash of lyrium dust, and balanced against its enjoyable experiences. Because while it has bent some of the staples of the genre out of shape, as a total package it will certainly fill the bellies of any RPG fan, leaving only the loyal few hungry for more.