Note: No spoilers, until the last few paragraphs, plenty of warning forthcoming.
Let me just start this post off by saying I was a huge, huge, huge, HUGE, HUGE fan of Dragon Age: Origins, so to say I was excited about Dragon Age II is the understatement of the year.
Of course, there were several things I was mindful of before playing. On top of some major changes to gameplay, I knew that DA2, while set in the same world and time period as its predecessor, will also take place in a different city and center around the life and adventures of a new protagonist, Hawke.
I won’t lie; there was just the teensiest twinge of disappointment when I first heard this news last year. Admittedly, so much of my enjoyment of the first game came out of my emotional investment into my human noble warrior, and the attachment I felt to her companions, the Grey Warden mythos, and Ferelden. Nevertheless, I was open to something new — change can be good, and BioWare has shown with Mass Effect that they are entirely capable of following up a game with a killer sequel.
My verdict: mostly good. Make that mostly very, very good. Despite some minor issues I had with the gameplay and story, I can truthfully say without disguise or exaggeration that Dragon Age II is probably one of the best fantasy RPGs I have ever played.
First of all, certain aspects from the first game such as the conversation system and user interface have been improved or modified to be much more functional and enjoyable, which should make even the most casual fans of fantasy RPGs feel at home. Some of the changes and their similarities to Mass Effect were not lost on me, like the addition of the dialogue wheel and the removal of multiple character origins so that the player only has the choice of playing Hawke, though we are still free to choose the gender and class of our character.
Some of these changes may make the game more appealing to a wider audience. I seem to remember reactions and opinions being quite polarized when I think back to Dragon Age: Origins, as in people either loved it or couldn’t stand it at all. As much as I enjoyed the game, even now I’d hesitate to recommend DA:O to just anybody. With DA2, however, I think I’d feel a little more confident about doing so, knowing there might be a better chance it will be well-received.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that the thing I liked most about the game is the story, and I think most of us will agree that that’s where the strength lies in any BioWare title. In fact, I think DA2 got the storytelling down so well, that it almost made the other RPG elements like combat feel trivial. I won’t deny that there were many moments of groaning and swearing at the computer screen — mostly times where I found myself being jumped by yet another gang of bandits, when all I could think was Arrgh! Get this stupid fight over with already so I can find out what happens next!
That’s not to say I felt combat was weak. Actually, I thought they’ve made it more fun and flexible than ever. Being tactical or not seems to be more of a choice. I did some micro-managing and issuing commands to my companions, but mostly I just played DA2 like any action game, hacking and slashing away with my warrior Hawke. Still, as much as I enjoyed splitting darkspawn skulls with my huge-ass sword and watching my foes explode before my unstoppable whirlwind ability, the novelty inevitably started to wear off and feel a little repetitive.
Hawke’s activities being restricted to the same city and its surrounding areas for the whole game probably didn’t help that very much. Dungeons all looked the same, and you also returned to some of them again and again. Kirkwall started to feel like a home, but it was still a bit of a downer to realize I wasn’t going to be adventuring anywhere else.
But like I alluded to before, the strength of this game and what makes up for its faults is its story, its elaborate twists and turns and the impact of the decisions you get to make. At first, I was a little skeptical. I was a couple hours in, and still there was no sign of any pressing danger, dire catastrophe, or malignant evil threatening to take over the world. Contrast that to Dragon Age: Origins, where almost immediately you are thrown into the midst of a blight and tasked to stop an archdemon. So, here was Hawke, running around doing quests in Kirkwall. What happened to my epic journey? Where’s the sense of urgency?
Dragon Age 2 turned out not to follow the basic formula, and I think I ended up liking the game better for it. Don’t panic — you still get to kill darkspawn and slay dragons, but for the most part, the story revolves around the politics and socio-cultural conflicts of Kirkwall. We only got a brief glimpse into the tensions between mages, the Templars, and the Chantry in the first game, so it was a pleasant surprise to be given the chance to delve further into these issues in the sequel. The set up made for more complex plotlines and having to make much more difficult decisions, which I can appreciate. I was not prepared for all the crazy surprises and shocking developments, but happy moments, sad moments, outrageous moments — I loved them all.
One major change I loved about DA2 (and likely had a hand in improving the storytelling) was a fully-voiced and expressive Hawke. I can deal with silent, but I can’t tell you how frustrating it was in DA:O to see my Warden stare blankly into space like a storefront mannequin even during the most emotional situations. In DA2 I delighted in having my Hawke wrinkle her nose in disgust, narrow her eyes in annoyance, or raise her eyebrows in a questioning manner. It made my character feel like a more realistic and unique individual, and like in Mass Effect, being able to give responses that reflected different emotions (nice, sarcastic, aggressive, etc.) also allowed for some downright hilarious quest situations.
This also helped me form quick attachments to my Champion and her companions. I liked how there were a lot more ways to involve them in my conversations and interactions with the game environment, and there’s definitely a more authentic edge to the way my party members would act or speak. It made me approach my companions in a different way than in other Bioware games, like caring more about those I liked and treating the ones I disliked more harshly. Involving emotions and other believable elements in the game seemed to have led me to react to them in a more realistic manner as well.
My romantic prospects, however, were another matter. In this area, I felt the first game handled things better, and it’s not just my bias for Alistair talking here, I swear! Simply put, in DA:O, romancing a companion felt like an epic tale unto itself; there was courtship, a clash of emotions, the surprises and unpredictability of a relationship, and the whole nine yards. As opposed to the innuendos and the sometimes cringe-worthy one-liners you get to spout in DA2 like a drunken date. Awkwaaaaard. And why is it that we are always stuck with emo guys?
Despite my little nitpicks, Dragon Age 2 is still overall a great game. I really can’t decide if I like it better than Dragon Age: Origins. Probably better, even though they both have their strong and weak points. However, one thing I know that can never be substituted is the warm and fuzzy feeling I first got when I played DA:O, that ineffable sensation that washed over me the moment I discovered I had a very special fantasy RPG on my hands. Like a first love, it’s a feeling that’s difficult to explain, once in a lifetime and unlikely to happen with any other Dragon Age title again. Still, while the first game will always be special to me, Dragon Age 2 is definitely a clear improvement overall. Bioware does it again, delivering a sequel absolutely worthy of its original.
Warning: Spoiler-free zone ends here. Do not read past image if you don’t want spoilers.
For those curious as to what I did, I played a female warrior Hawke, customizing her to make her look as much as possible like my character from DA:O for old times’ sake. As I said, I tended to treat my companions in a more realistic manner in DA2, and one of the things my character would not tolerate was whenever one of my companions would willfully lie to her or deceive her. For example, when Isabela revealed that she knew more about her lost relic than she let on, I turned my back on her, making her up and leave me, never to return again. Whatever, good riddance, pirate wench.
My sister Bethany the mage also played a huge part in how I approached the Mage-Templar conflict. I played the part of the doting sister, defended good mages everywhere, and defied Templar demands wherever I could. Even my mother’s death did not sway me in thinking that all mages were ultimately dangerous and needed to be locked up. I even romanced Anders (even though out-of-character, I really didn’t want to, ugh!) and as crotchety as he was to all my other companions, I put up with his crap because I figured he and Hawke meant something to each other.
It was probably my character’s romance with Anders that led me to side with the Templars in the end after he went all whackjob on everyone and blew up the Chantry. My poor, disillusioned Hawke just couldn’t continue fighting for the mages when the champion of the cause and the love of her life was responsible for something that heinous. Justice/Vengeance-possessed or not, Hawke couldn’t let Anders get away with it. I was pretty pissed off too, considering how I never really even wanted to be stuck with Anders in the first place. I gave him a chance and he blew it, so he had to die. Obviously.
Of course, right after sticking that dagger in him I realized I just killed off my one and only healer. Yes, it made the fight after that and the final battle with the First Enchanter such a pain in the ass, but damn it all, I wasn’t about to go and revert back to a previous save just to spare Anders, so I stuck it out. The First Enchanter, who had resorted to blood magic to become an abomination in the end (even though I offered him a way out for the sake of my sister and everyone in Kirkwall) pretty much just me think I made the right choice as well. Mages becoming dangerous when cornered was the major argument from Templar supporters, and the actions of the First Enchanter just proved them right, if you asked me.
Two great things happened after the fight — 1) I still got to kill Knight-Commander Meredith, who was much too batty to be allowed to live, really, and 2) Bethany rejoined my party so I got my healer back! So even though the final fight against Meredith was way more complex, I also had a much, much easier time.
I was ambivalent about the concluding narrative. Even though I sided with the Templars, my ending wasn’t so very different from those who I saw sided with the mages — mages everywhere still took a stand, finding hope in the events of Kirkwall. And all the companions dispersed, except for the Champion’s love interest, of course. In my case, that was Anders…and I still got the “stayed by my side” line even though I killed him. Well, I guess they meant it in a figurative, haunt-me-for-the-rest-of-my-life kind of way…