From the Blighted Ashes
PC and console gamers rejoiced in 2009 when they got their hands on BioWare’s fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins, which opened up a fictional world filled with intricate characters, politics and various races and factions all bent on their own well-being. The game world, the sprawling continent of Thedas, was revealed during the course of the game to have an immensely detailed history, consisting of various ages to mark the passing of time and important events as well as being rich with historical figures. The first game in the series, including the DLC that was released for it, only scratched the surface of this meticulously crafted universe, generally focusing on the events in the land of Ferelden and following the exploits of the last of the Grey Wardens fighting against the encroaching Blight of the Archdemon and his hordes of darkspawn. This mere glimpse at Thedas still left ample room for many additional stories to still be told within its confines. Enter 2011’s eagerly anticipated sequel, Dragon Age II.
This time around, players will take on an unfamiliar protagonist, instead of continuing the Grey Warden’s adventures in a post-Blight Ferelden. But BioWare has made sure there are connections to the first game in the series, as events from the original campaign are repeatedly referenced in Dragon Age II – in fact, if you load up a save-file of a cleared Origins playthrough, specific details of plot choices you made in the first game are reflected in the characters and world of the sequel. A few familiar faces will also make appearances, as anyone who has played the demo already well knows! But make no mistake – this is a separate, original narrative. Players will still be able to choose either a male or female lead, and select from the three familiar classes (rogue, warrior, mage). However, the player’s race this time is restricted to human, as clearly dictated by the game’s storyline, which brooks no variations in character origin since only one background works for this tale. The trade-off is that, this time around, players no longer have a silent protagonist – the main character, Hawke, is fully voiced, whether male or female. The initial character creator features the obligatory, insanely detailed appearance options; the game goes so far as to give separate sliders for beard and stubble, so you can modify to your heart’s content.
In order to give gamers something familiar to allow them a point of entry into the story, the game opens on Hawke’s family fleeing the burning village of Lothering, shortly after the Grey Warden has passed through the same village in Origins. Hawke, having recently survived the betrayal and slaughter of King Cailan and Grey Warden Duncan at Ostagar, is intent on guiding his family to safety through the darkspawn hordes of the Blight. This provides a way for players to orient themselves to the time and place where they’ve jumped into the middle of familiar events. This familiarity ends quickly though, as Hawke and his family are soon transported outside of Ferelden, to Kirkwall, where they must find refuge along with hundreds of other Ferelden refugees. Very soon, the game advances the timeline by a full year, and when gameplay resumes, news filters to the player that, in neighboring Ferelden, the Grey Warden has vanquished the Blight (speak: the events of Dragon Age: Origins have transpired). Even though unexpected and slightly disorienting, Dragon Age II is now free to tell the tale of Hawke exclusively, without having the Blight to worry about.
I greatly appreciate this approach to the story-telling. The last game in the series also took characters from low stations in life and elevated them to hero status, but Hawke spends the initial part of the game trying to secure his family’s future. There is no immediate theme of a lone hero saving the world, as Origins was guilty of having. Furthermore, Origins laid out the plot for the remainder of the game pretty early on – true, there were twists and side-quests, but players roughly knew what they were heading for. Not so in Dragon Age II. Hawke’s ambitions at the outset of the game are not grand in any way, and thus his story provides a bit more personal appeal; in a good RPG, emotional investments into characters are crucial. Even though some players may be put off slightly by the seemingly pointless quests that occur frequently in the early stages of the game, there are repeated reminders strewn in of the personal loss and tragedies that Hawke and his family have suffered, and it really endears them to the player – I could connect to my characters on a more personal level right away. While no one can accuse the plot of offering up all its momentous elements too soon, it does eventually take players on an incredibly powerful journey, and may tug on a few heartstrings here and there.
Tooth and Claw
While the original Dragon Age was released for both PC and home gaming consoles, the experience for gamers wasn’t the same across the board. The series uses real-time battles, during which the player controls the main character, but has the option of directly taking over any character in the party and switching back and forth at will. In absence of the player’s influence, characters follow previously assigned tactics, a la Final Fantasy XII. That’s all well and good, although I’ve never been a big fan of such a battle system, but in the case of Origins all versions were not created equally; PC gamers received an easier-to-manage battle system, providing the beneficial ability to zoom out of a battle into a top-down view, an improved method of issuing battle commands to characters, and a vastly superior battle-command interface. This didn’t make the PC version of the game easier, but it did create a schism between the PC and home console iterations, which were severely handicapped during intense battles, and I personally felt much of the enjoyment was sucked from the game.
It was for this reason that I was quite weary of playing the sequel once again on the Xbox 360, and why battle system is such a significant aspect of the game to me. I am pleased to say that the battle system, this time around, was not a detractor for me as I found it to be more intuitive and user-friendly. The core of the battle system is unchanged – you still assign tactics for your characters to use in pre-determined circumstances, and can set specific characters to behave in certain ways. In this way, you can set one warrior as a damage-taking tank, while another warrior’s talents are specifically tailored by the game to make him a damage dealer. Players can let the game set up tactics based on a few decisions they make, such as what role a character should fill or what talent trees he or she should pursue. The game goes so far as to insert skills your characters learn into their pre-existing tactics rosters, sometimes re-ordering their skills to make them optimized for battle. Even when switching a character’s primary role, the game immediately builds them an optimized battle plan utilizing any useful abilities they’ve learned already. The player can be very involved in this process, or take a more hands-off approach, depending on individual preference and play-style.
The combat itself flows smoother and faster this time around. Characters hustle from enemy to enemy, and generally respond much more fluidly in the middle of a skirmish. By contrast, when going back to Origins‘ battle system, the characters seem to be mired in molasses, their control is slow and drunkenly sluggish. Characters now don’t stay engaged in combat through an initial button-press; every sword-swing or staff-blast must be triggered separately, causing me to mash more frantically on my buttons during combat. The reverse is also true: cease any controller input, and your hero will not continue combat (although enemies will, so be warned!). It’s a small change, but it lends a more involved and active feel to the battles, which are more visceral than before; enemies will frequently be flung backward by critical hits, or be ripped apart in gratifying sprays of gore and fleshy scraps. Spell effects are beautiful as well, and the chaotic barrage that happens during tense assaults makes my heart beat just that tiny bit faster in joy!
Dragon Age II‘s menus have been taken back to the drawing board. In the previous game, navigating the many menus was an arduous task, involving shoulder triggers, bumpers, the d-pad and face buttons. Screen after screen had to be cycled through, some of which looked way too similar to each other, and sometimes the only way to perform a screamingly simple action was to track clumsily back and forth through unnecessarily cluttered screens. This has been condensed quite a bit, and made more manageable through the use of a wheel-based menu hub, from which all other menus are directly accessible. Quests, quest progression and information discovered about your immediate surroundings are displayed in the Journal (previously known as the Codex), which has also been streamlined quite a bit. Nonetheless, I felt that navigating the Journal itself still took a lot of trial-and-error scrolling through lists of entries, possibly missing the one entry you were looking for; new information is only marked as “new” until you scroll across it once – whether purposely or accidentally – and there’s no indicator telling you in which section to look for new content when you enter the Journal. In contrast, you receive nice, colorful in-game indicators of new Journal entries, but the Journal itself does not mark them in a very useful fashion.
One of the game’s biggest blunders comes from the littlest of oversights…quite literally! I am incensed that Dragon Age II is yet another title to be released with a difficult-to-read font size used in its writing. I know it’s a very small (pun intended) detail to get worked up about, but my feathers are ruffled quite specifically because it’s such a minor issue; there’s just no excuse for it to not have been addressed by BioWare prior to distribution! Moreover, the Dragon Age series has been quite heavy on much of the world’s flavor presented in written form for those gamers that want to take in all that the game has to offer (I am one of those completionists; hence my personal affront at this). What’s worse, there are times when this oversight actually impacts the game negatively on more than just a cosmetic level: several times when I was trying to plan ahead for my characters’ training, I couldn’t tell what a specific ability’s prerequisites or level and skill restrictions were, or I couldn’t see why a particular weapon or armor was unusable, since that information was written in such a small red-tinged font that the words just blurred into an illegible mess on my screen. The original Dragon Age wasn’t plagued by such a bungle. Tsk tsk, BioWare!
In terms of the remaining presentation, it’s hard to find fault with the game. The graphics are nice to look at; while some of the city environments look a little bland, the countryside is generally pretty, and gazing off into the distance offers some spectacular views. Character models are usually gorgeous to look at, as they were in the previous game, but I felt that certain characters at times had a bit of an unappealing, almost plastic, look to their skin. Case in point: Bodahn and Sandal Feddic, the dwarven father and son team familiar to players from DAO. Sandal, in particular, looks as if he was dipped in hot wax, and with his vacant grin, I actually felt reluctant at times about approaching him for his services. His creepy grimace and doltish “Enchantment? Enchantment!” used to be comical, but are now somehow off-putting…or maybe that’s the point. There are still plenty of in-game cutscenes, and particularly the introductions of new characters were memorable. One such movie showed Fenris, a lyrium-scarred elf, punching right through a hostile guard’s chest and (presumably) ripping out his heart. I’ll take him on my team!
In the sound department, the music is easy to miss. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just quite subdued so as not to drown out the myriad of auditory cues that provide realism in the game. Environmental sounds, far-off chatter, everyday noise are all underscored by minimal music, usually only slight instrumental tunes or choral sounds. The real star in the sound department is, once again, the voice-acting. All major characters, and many, many minor characters, are fully voiced, and the characterizations are spot-on. Your various party members have different emotional motivations, and can usually be counted on to show this in their dialog. The flighty elf responds naively to her surroundings, while the rough-around-the-edges dwarf is a lot more to the point. I particularly enjoyed the weight and importance carried by the Qunari Arishok – just seeing and hearing him was enough to impress upon me to keep my tongue in check and tread carefully. However, I thought that the ancillary dialog could have been improved a bit for minor quests. For instance, when returning the mortal remains of a woman to her brother, Hawke actually asked him, “Did you misplace this?” It was a generic line, picked from a selection of similar lines to use for these quests, and it took me out of the moment. On the other hand, the banter between your party members at random moments is still quite entertaining, and encourages trying out various party combinations just to hear ’em all.
Player dialog is handled, like the new menus, through the use of a wheel-based response system. Each spoke on the wheel corresponds to a topic of conversation or a response to an ongoing exchange. Since Dragon Age, and BioWare in general, is known for letting players be as copacetic or callous as they have a mind to be, dialog choices often must be chosen carefully to reflect Hawke’s personality. Along with a quick written summary, each dialog choice is also identified as “good”, “bad”, or “non-committal” by through the use of visual icons for each. Now it’s easier than ever to take the high road all the time; conversely you can now always be sure you’re saying the most spiteful and unpleasant thing, if that’s what makes your boat float. Another time this helps is in getting your romance on. Now, amorous responses are clearly marked, eliminating much of the guess-work that previously existed for how to get personal with some of your party-members.
The Final Verdict
Dragon Age II will appeal to fans of the first game, with enough similarities to make gamers feel right at home. The first time I overheard one random citizen call another a “Nug-humping dirt farmer”, I smiled a quiet, knowing smile to myself. There are still plenty of minor quests that offer great rewards and extend the game significantly, and Hawke can still accept quests posted on the Chanter’s Board, in addition to quests picked up from anonymous letters and bounty notices. Unfortunately, the game’s environments require quite a large chunk of time to load on consoles – be prepared to sit and stare at loading screens for fifteen to twenty-five seconds each time you so much as enter a door to a person’s two-room house in the city, and again when you leave, which will happen quite a lot as you travel back and forth between areas to accomplish and turn in various major and minor quests. But this is a small gripe that I’m all too willing to look past in return for a game that plays as advertised and delivers a true immersive RPG experience, packed with player choice and emotionally relatable content.