A Champion Has Risen – Thoughts On Dragon Age II

March 24, 2011

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.

So go ahead and bring it.

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!

Uhhh...fine day for a bloodbath?

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.

A fully-voiced and expressive Hawke.

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.

*smooch* *smooch*

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.

Spoilers ahead! Avert thine eyes!

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…


  1. I play like you. When my male Hawke was betrayed by Isabella, I sold her out. No forgiveness. And for some reason I took it really personal even though it’s a game.

    • I played like putting myself in Hawke’s shoes and making made my decisions based on what I thought my Hawke would do. I didn’t really let things get personal until Anders. Mostly because I really didn’t want to romance him in the first place (to be honest, Varric would have been my first choice! So upset when I found out you couldn’t) and so his shenanigans at the end were like adding insult to injury.

  2. That really sounds great. I am quite behind on my Bioware games, mainly becuase any time I have spare time I’m usually obsessing on some random MMO.

    • To be honest, March has been waaaay too crazy for me and I really should have been holding back on my DA2 purchase, but you know how quickly my self control falls apart when it comes to Bioware games 😛

  3. I also played a female Warrior, a templar through-and-through. I also let Isabela leave in a (frightened?) huff, and I didn’t even do Anders’ and Merrill’s quests in Act 3. You want to kill templars? Er, nope, sorry. You want me to help you talk to a demon? Riiiight. You really asked me this? Funny, though, Merrill stuck with me right to the end helping me kill the circle mages and I had her at 100% rivalry.

    Obviously my Hawke romanced Fenris, and I completely agree with you about the romances. Compared to Origins, they were totally flat. I would have really liked to have seen the tattoos on Fenris’ chest or back, at least. But I guess I knew this wouldn’t happen because Mass Effect 2 went the same way. I have a sneaking suspicion that Fox’s Mass Effect 1 crap had a lot to do with this change. I don’t think we’ll ever get a nice romance from BioWare again.

    And I’m not surprised that your Anders romance was bugged at the end. The game is on the shelf until they either fix these bugs or release a toolset so modders can do the work the devs were paid to do.

    Ugh. EA has us by the balls and they know it. 😦

    • Yeah, Merrill hated my guts too, it seemed like no matter what I did her rivalry would just increase. And I liked her so much at the beginning too! But her obsession was just way too much for me. I sort of screwed her over in the second act, which was the only reason I relented and did her quest in Act 3.

      Fenris, Fenris…I was thinking about romancing him but I ultimately stepped back from him for the same reasons I stepped back from Thane in Mass Effect 2 — just way too much brooding for my taste 😛 Of course, after that crap Anders pulled at the end, I kinda wished I had gone with him after all.

      • He kind of gets over his broodiness in true BioWare romance fashion. 🙂

  4. further convinced i need to play this.

    • I hope you get it soon. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

  5. I’ve just started playing DA:O (picked up the Ultimate package in a Steam sale awhile back, just now getting to it) and am having a blast! But it sounds like the things I really like: the multiple origins, the combat, the exploration of different areas, and the romances; have all been removed or changed for the worse. Think I’ll wait until they release an ‘ultimate DA2’ and have it on sale dirt cheap. 😦

    • There were definitely things that I absolutely adored from DA:O that got scrapped in DA2. On the other hand, there also a lot of things from DA2 that weren’t in DA:O that I really, really liked. That ultimately makes DA2 worth playing, I think. In the end, both games have their pros and cons, but I got as much enjoyment out of the second game as I did from the first.

  6. I did not buy it. The demo was too much chatter and gratuitous gorefest combat that abandoned the idea of combat being “tactical” completely.

    You said nice storytelling, I say they were rejected in Hollywood and tried to make a movie with as little game as possible. The dialogue wheel is crap compared to the more refined text choices, but apparently that was too much effort.

    I don’t want to say this makes Dragon Age II bad. But the style and direction the game has taken really makes me wonder why I should not watch a movie instead of playing the game.

    • Combat can be as tactical as you want it to be. I ignored that aspect completely, but I’m sure people who choose to play it on the hardest mode can certainly do as much planning and strategizing as they please.

      DA2 literally is about a narrative that comes about of your decisions and actions you make during your playthrough. Perhaps you won’t understand how dismissing the story as “rejected in Hollywood” might be a little premature until you actually play it. But you have a point — if you are someone who already knows they won’t care much about game story, then yes, it is perhaps better for them to just go and watch a movie rather than put in the 30-40+ hours.

  7. Great write-up. I think DA2 is a very good game, but it took me awhile to get to that point. Initially I was quite disappointed that it was not like Origins, so for the first five or six hours I was forcing myself to play the game.

    Eventually the quests got better, then Act 2 happened and I’ve been hooked ever since. My first time through I played a rogue who sided with the mages and now I am playing as a mage cause they own face!

    I love the flexibility of the story; I chose a different ‘history’ so to speak to start off with and playing as a mage means having Carver instead of Bethany which gives the game a completely different feel.

    I also like that the game is around 30-40 hrs long, it’s not so overwhelming to do another play-through.

    • Yeah, admittedly I was a little confused by the first act. I too was quite disappointed at first that it as not like Origins, until the second act, much like you. I think that was when I finally understood the point of the story and realized what was happening. In some ways, while it had a lighter feel than Origins, I also felt DA2 was somehow the more “mature” game given its themes.

      I plan playing as a mage on my next playthrough too, whenever it may be (because to me, 30 hours IS a lot!) because I do hear many things change. I look forward to having Carver instead of Bethany, for one.

  8. Okay, I didn’t read most of this because I haven’t finished the first game — but, would it be a fun game to play without having done so? Political and economic intrigue are my favorites!

    • I think it could be okay…I have a friend who’s actually going to be doing just that. He had no interest in the first game, but his interest is piqued by this one. He’ll get it, and forgo playing DA:O.

      It would be sort of difficult to avoid spoilers though, since the DA2 sometimes refers to the events in the first game, and companions make cameos, etc.

      • Honestly, it won’t matter at all, because, as I’ve said, all the cameos and import decisions are bugged anyway.

        Seriously, from the research I’ve done, it was like I didn’t even import at all, and the game said that I imported correctly.

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