A Tale of One City
When I first reviewed Dragon Age II, a huge factor for me was the revamped combat system. Having played the original on console, my experience with it was completely opposite to what most of my friends, who played it on their PCs, felt. Even compared to my console brethren, my time with DA:O was a very troubled one; perhaps I’m just not adept enough at handling these types of control schemes.
Dragon Age II, however, streamlined things enough so that I was actually able to trust my companions to follow the behaviors I had set up for them in combat, letting me tackle boss encounters with more confidence in my team. While there were still a few especially tough battles during which the AI became next to useless (healers charging headfirst into a fray, tanks failing to capture enough aggro, DPSs running their own side-battles and pulling mobs away from the main brawl), the experience as a whole became much more manageable.
Going back to the game now, to finally finish the story, I was able to see past the advantages of the combat system and notice a few other aspects that I hadn’t properly considered before. The most egregious one would most likely be the limited number of locations the game let me explore. While the list of quests and side missions to be completed is quite lengthy, the same set of mountains, trails, city streets, sewers and caves are recycled over and over again, with different enemy groups placed into them to constitute being in a unique quest location.
Apart from this somewhat cheap approach to padding the game with plenty of quest content and only a minimum of locations, meaning a lot of backtracking through the same areas over and over, the characters and overall plot of the game generally did not pull me back in this time around. Granted, several years have gone by in the meantime, but I couldn’t quite muster up the interest in characters like Merrill and Aveline, whom I found to be among the dullest of my party. Similarly, Hawke and Fenris always had a bit of a rivalry in my game, so it came as no surprise (or great loss to me) when he ended up being the only party member that deserted me during the finale.
I still maintain that I like the idea behind Dragon Age II: the story of a family, swept up in the tide of Darkspawn besieging the land in the aftermath of the Grey Warden’s Battle of Ostagar, then making their way as refugees to the relative safe haven of Kirkwall. A story which then spans the next several years, in incremental chapters, detailing the family’s life and Hawke’s rise to Champion of Kirkwall. It confines itself to a much more civic scope, dealing with local troubles like the unrest caused by a host of Qunari occupying the city, and the rift between the Mages and Templars within the city walls. It’s a soap opera, basically, set within the mythos and realm established in the Dragon Age universe.
At the same time, it may not be for everyone. The story is much less grand, without the threat of world-spanning implications hinging on your every decision, and thus could come across as less focused. I suspect, had I stuck to it in one continuous play through, it would have had some more impact on me than it ended up having. And while the theater-style recycling of sets was a bit of a let-down, overall I still prefer it to its predecessor.