Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: Dragon Age II (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Bioware, along with Bethesda and Square Enix, has carved a reputation in the gaming world as one of the premier RPG developers, so expectations for Dragon Age II have been suitably high right up until launch. For all its strengths, I must admit that I was not a fan of Dragon Age: Origins and I was less enthused going into the sequel, however there are games that represent a pleasant surprise and I am happy to say that this is one of them. Fans of Dragon Age: Origins will scoff at some of the games made to the gameplay and story mechanics, but for me it hit an RPG sweet spot of sorts and I am very happy to recommend this title to other gamers.

Bucking a common trend in RPGs, Dragon Age II begins after the events of the game and the story is told mainly through flashbacks. You assume the role of Hawke, a male or female protagonist you can assign the role of a warrior, mage or rogue to at the beginning of the game. Forced to flee your home of Ferelden because of the darkspawn, you and your party wind up in the bustling metropolis of Kirkwall. As a refugee, your rise from noble warrior to champion is a long and arduous one and much of the game follows this storyline. During the early hours of the game, you recruit various members into your party, each contributing their own skills and abilities to the effort. After spending a year working in servitude in Kirkwall, the story begins proper with your efforts to escape the slums and ally yourself with the Dwarves to undertake a dangerous mission into the Deep Roads, which turns into a double-cross and the events in the game take may unexpected twists and turns from there. To give any more away would be venturing into spoilers, but suffice it to say that he story is a long and emotional journey that will resonate with you long after the end credits roll. Some RPG clich├ęs exist here, but the story and the narrative structure make Dragon Age II an investment in time well worth making.

The gameplay in Dragon Age II is weighted heavily towards action RPG mechanics, with button commands doing most of the work in battle. Each member of your party has their own skills and abilities, and you will quickly find that having a balanced team of rogues, warriors and mages is essential to survival. Warriors are skilled are melee combat, mages are great for distance and magic attacks, and rogues are skilled at picking locks, opening chests and disarming traps. Each member of your party has skills that can be upgraded when you level up, either via an auto level-up function for casual gamers or a manual system that allows you to micromanage what your party members can do. The battles can be either complex or simple depending on your preference. You can assign abilities to specific buttons and just mash away, or use the intuitive in-game menus to assign specific directives to your party members and take a more tactical approach to combat. How much damage you and your enemies take, as well as the availability of helpful items like health potions and injury kits, depends on the difficulty selected. Whether you’re a casual gamer looking to kill a few hours or a hardcore RPG lover out for a challenge, Dragon Age II definitely has you covered on both fronts.

The first 10 hours of the game large revolves around various quests in Kirkwall and the surrounding areas, which are accessible via a map that comes up whenever you leave a given area. Through this map, you have the ability to fast-travel to various locations in an instant, which is a great help in keeping you from getting lost but this might put off RPG fans who prefer the free-roaming abilities of Oblivion. Despite the impressive world you are in, the game feels very linear and the map and travel system makes it impossible to get lost, but also limits exploration and discovery that some fans crave in a game like this. As such, Dragon Age II will feel more streamlined and consequently dumbed-down to fans of more complex RPGs, but this also opens the game up to the more casual gamers that would rather follow the story and not get overwhelmed. The quests themselves are nicely varied and often broken up into several parts, so those who are spurned by monotonous fetch quests and pointless side-missions in other RPGs won’t be too put out here. Not every quest is fun and there are moments where certain quests drag on, but more often than not the quests are fun and engaging.

Graphically, Dragon Age II is neither a leap forward or a step back for the RPG genre. The world is impressive in scope and everything looks great, but there was nothing in this game that made me pause and admire it. The character animation is stiff and wooden at times and the framerate goes all over the place in hectic battles, so people looking to nitpick the visuals will definitely find a lot to gripe about here. Where Dragon Age II shines is in its audio, with both the voice acting and orchestral musical score being first rate. Using the radial conversation system found in the Mass Effect games, you have the option to tailor your responses to suit your mood and the situation. You can either be overly agreeable, a sarcastic twit or a rude bastard, and the benefits of all three responses can vary throughout the game. Being overly agreeable can lead to bad choices, while being rude to everyone also brings about some missed opportunities. Regardless of your choices, each scenario is acted out with superb voice acting and it does a great job at bringing the story to life in a way that is lacking in many RPGs.

Despite being less than enthused by Dragon Age: Origins, I am actually surprised at how fun and accessible Dragon Age II has proven to be. Despite being more steamlined and linear than it’s predecessor, this is a still and fun and challenging RPG that will keep you busy for several dozen hours, but the time taken to fully upgrade your characters and the various outcomes that your actions determine definitely encourage multiple playthroughs. If you’re green to the RPG genre and are looking or a good entry title, this is a good place to start as it is complex enough for you to feel accomplished but it rarely overwhelms. If you are a hardcore RPG fan and are thinking twice because of the linear nature of the game, I still recommend checking it out because there is a great story here and one that, if nothing else, will provide some good fantasy escapism to tide you over until Elder Scrolls V comes out.

Rating: 8.5/10

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