Change is coming to the world. Many fear change and will fight it with every fiber of their being. But sometimes change is what they need most. Sometimes change is what sets them free.
When Dragon Age II was announced it was met with great rancor that I have not seen since Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was revealed to be cel-shaded. The scope has changed, the graphics have been more defined and stylized, the world is now totally different and the gameplay has become something unlike it was before. A metamorphosis occurred; change has finally come, and in many ways, it was worth the risk.
Dragon Age II is a different beast all together than Origins, but at the same time it is a now more familiar world. The land of Thedas has finally been fleshed out, the conflicts, while smaller in scope, is more focused and personal for our hero Hawke, the champion of the city of Kirkwall. Like Mass Effect, Hawke is a single character you control along with several party companions as the game spans a ten year period, told in a framed narrative. It is in this ten year timespan we see the tale of Hawke play out in its full glory.
I will be frank with you upfront. The storyline in Dragon Age II is the best written video game storyline I have ever had the privlege to play. It is dark, tragic, emotional and sympathetic all without it being too pushy into forced territory to twist emotions. There is humor but it is downplayed and for the most part realistic rather than random quirks and stereotypical fantasy jibes. The story within a story narrative works wonders here, and while it has been used as a device before in games, it has never been used like this.
The world has been fleshed out through the story too. As I said the focus is now tighter, but a smaller scale game does not necessarily mean an inferior one. The world of Kirkwall is varied in it’s own way, and it becomes familiar as time passes. You have events and side quests that affect the city as time goes by, and sides that eventually need to be picked with the growing dissent and fracturing alliances within the city. You see racism, the suppression of belief and unchecked greed play out in the city. Those who survive either succumb to what occurs or roll with the changes. And so much happens at once it is difficult to wade through it, but rewarding to see how the story plays out, even when it is not to your benefit.
And what do I mean by “not to your benefit“ exactly? Well, in the first half hour you lose a party companion permanently in game. There is no way to revive them, no way to save them, no way to sacrifice someone else. They are gone, and it is all because of the choice of character class you play. Think about this for a moment. This is an unavoidable event that occurs, and for the average gamer it would likely upset them to no end. It takes a lot of ambition and trust in your story to permanently kill a character off like that, and whats more is that with the eight possible companions in the game, each of them are still at risk if the story demands it so. Characters will leave, often permanently, if certain conditions are not met. Heck, out of the eight companions that are recruitable, I only have five of them left because of my choices in game.
And you know what, I can accept it. The ten year span the game has allows this type of fluidity to occur. It enhances the storyline immensely instead of it being a stereotypical RPG fantasy epic. There are no loyal warriors that, despite your decisions, will stay with you if you are not careful. There is no way to even appease everyone in game, unless if you are savvy enough to figure out where everyone’s allegiance lies and try to manipulate events to do so. Even the actions of your comrades and your reaction to them can lead to a grisly end, one that in a narrative such as this makes sense and showcases brilliant storytelling that makes this the best written game thus far. But in game itself, with the gameplay to contend with.….not so much the best idea.
And that is Dragon Age II’s biggest weakness. The story takes precedence over the gameplay. Normally this is not a problem. For the most part, the gameplay in Dragon Age II is adequate and frantic, but lacking in many departments. Not the initial mechanics, which have been revamped. The new talent tree system is amazing, and lets customization be a primary concern for character building. You can specailize in one area of mix and match around five or six different talent trees, being a jack of all trades or a master of one. The gameplay is more action based, but the ability to be tactical still remains as in Origins, and the friendship and rivalry system is the most realistic way of dealing with the differing group dynamics in game. It makes the paragon/renegade system in Mass Effect look like a joke in comparison, allowing you to have rivals in your party who will fight for you even if they hate you.
But even these changes are mired by setbacks. The item inventory is still cluttered and your companions cannot equip any new armor, leaving a lot of the games armor useless to all but Hawke. The side quests are often unannounced and it is possible to miss them if you are not careful, missing out on possibly important story elements in game. The map system is still too obtuse, although adding the mini map in the right hand corner does help. The use of talents and items are also limited; turning into fetch quests to find the ingredients for potions, poisons and rune crafting. These minor things add up, compounded with the story elements that many gamers will hate if they don’t enter Dragon Age II with an open mind to how it should work, rather that what they expect will work.
Dragon Age II also changed with it’s artistic style. The races are more distinct and defined than before; sometimes to the extreme like the retcon of the Qunari race in game. The art style is more fantastical, in the territory of Warcraft III; there is more color and exaggerated features this time around with all the races, although hints of the original art style remain. Since this is a more personal story than a sweeping epic, the environments are less varied and will have a lot of back and forth to them to complete quests; although since you are in a major city, it does make sense to go to and from place to place in a familiar setting.
Graphical problems still occur though, at least on the 360 version. Hollowed NPC’s litter the streets leading to no collision detection, and sometimes in cut scenes the game jumps between two different aspect ratios, at least on a normal television without HD. Even the text is a bit tiny and difficult to read at times, which is pretty much inexcusable. There is also a lot of canned animations in the game. It’s not a problem with something as big as this, but it is noticeable.
As for the sound, it enhances the game immensely. Inon Zur composed the soundtrack and pretty much hit it out of the park, creating his best work since Men of Valor in 2004. From sobering soliloquies to triumphant symphonies, the music ranges the gamut of emotions that the story demands, has an other-worldly edge to it’s familiar instrumentation and compliments the events of the game perfectly. The sound effects are well, despite some repetition and simplicity to them. Finally, the voice acting is fantastic, rivaling the work in Biowares other epic, Mass Effect 2 in both quality, quantity and weight. But at this point, Bioware pretty much gets a pass in that anyway, so very little has to be said.
So change has finally come, but are you ready to accept it? Dragon Age II
is as close to a legendary game one can really get. It changes how stories can play out in game immensely, having a fluid narrative that is able to take itself seriously and it is not afraid to make tough decisions that would rip apart the very fabric of the gameplay based on your own actions, however guided it may be. The gameplay takes a backseat here, and that is a turnoff that may hold it back in terms of it’s pros and cons, but don’t let the score fool you. Dragon Age II
is a game that stands with recent epics like Heavy Rain
. It is a game that must exist for us to move forward, ushering in change in more ways than one.
Final Score- B