DRAGON AGE 2 (Spoiler-Free Review)
So, I'll kick things off by letting you all know that, well, the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, was a fantastic game in my opinion that despite a few flaws turned out to be a fine entry into the modern RPG genre. It told a story that was as old as time itself and delivered in such a manner that felt unique. Bioware managed to craft a universe that was all at once familiar and not so. The conflict between those known as Apostate, or Mages, and the Chantry was one of the central themes in the first game. It also had a big bad Archdemon and a whole Blight to deal with. There was, as lead developer Mark Laidlaw put it, "a big bad on the horizon you could see and clearly target." It was a divisive title that definitely split people down the aisle in terms of loving or hating it.
Well the second game is no exception to the rule put in place by the first game. Dragon Age 2 will probably be awful to some, and to others, myself included, it will be fantastic. The story is approached in a different manner this time around with Bioware writers using a frame narrative to get the point across this time. Whether the charismatic and cunning dwarf Varric is really telling the truth the whole time, as he is the narrator here, is to be decided by the player. That, in itself, made this game unique as far as I'm concerned. You could tell the same story again and again in terms of the typical high fantasy RPG with you being put down in the eye of the storm and the only person who can bring about peace happens to be you. What we got instead is a tale of politics, of intrigue and of a conflict that, really, can't be decided just by going in and hacking away, though there's plenty of that. Perhaps that will put off some, but honestly I felt it made the story even stronger.
There are no easy answers in terms of the resolution to this story here. No sir. I really feel this was a strong tale that had a few low points, and some groan worthy dialogue aside in a few points, was just damn good overall. The constant struggle of Apostate against the Chantry was REALLY fleshed out here even moreso than in Origins and was definitely a major thread throughout. While we do have a big bad near the end it doesn't just wrap itself up, the story I mean, with dispatching said big bad. It is quite clea that this is merely the beginning to a much bigger and much broader tapestry that Bioware is in the midst of weaving.
The combat in the first game could, at times, be a bit vexing and I, thankfully, feel that the developers here made the combat feel more efficient, more streamlined. Origins felt more like a true PC RPG that got a slightly sloppy port to consoles and Dragon Age 2 feels like it had consoles more in mind this time. Mages still feel overpowered but warriors and rogues were brought up to a level of parity that felt satisfying. Playing the game on the harder difficulty settings, in particular, can be an exercise in frustration if you're not thoughtful in how you move your characters and tactically approach battles. There will be, in some instances, kiting one would have to do, but honestly I like that there can be a real challenge inserted into the combat that can lead to some REALLY intense battles. My first playthrough was on Normal just for the sake of experiencing the story. It still took a fair amount of time with me clocking in at over 32 hours (that's without doing the last bit of sidequests I had left in my log) the first time through. My subsequent saves have been made using a Beserker Vanguard warrior on Nightmare (The level of challenge is high but the fun is also VERY high) and a Force Mage that is also quite fun.
The romantic options are, of course, still available, and the numerous interactions between the various companions offers some humor that is highly entertaining at times. The first time through I ended up having a mage named Anders as my main squeeze. The more intimate scenes still are a bit, well, they're not GREAT, but all the dialogue options and sidequests that open up, even wardrobe alterations that get made can be worth it.
The level of customization has been diminished with this game similar to how Mass Effect 2 streamlined things in terms of UI and other such things. The management of equipment for companions no longer has you worrying which pieces of armor to equip them with, aside from accessories, and gives your fellow adventurers more individuality. I understand what they were going for here in terms of having each companion stand out instead of just either being a hodge podge of armor pieces or wearing something that, really, the character wouldn't sport (Kind of like Morrigan in Chantry robes in DA:O).
I've been pretty generous in terms of my review haven't I? I know, but that's because honestly this was a pretty damn good game. There are, however, flaws.
One of the biggest gripes I had with the game was the use of recycled environments. The amount of quest content was fine, but damn if I didn't get tired of going back to the same dungeons or caves over and over again. Seriously that got REALLY repetitive in a hurry and was, I felt, a definite oversight by this development team. That leads into the discussion concerning graphics. There really wasn't much of a leap forward here, but that's nothing too bothersome considering it still looks good. I could have done with some redesigns in terms of some of the Darkspawn but that's more nitpicking than anything else I suppose.
Another complaint I had was the Qunari themselves were utilized well in only one section of the game. I know this was just what the writers chose to do in terms of how the plot moved forward and evolved but damn if they weren't the best part of this game. The strongest writing in terms of pure plot and dialogue came from the sections involving the Arishok (their leader) and the Qunari.
All that said there was a lot here to like, in my opinion, and it was a definite risk to present this story in such a way. This was a story that honed its focus down to a city and its politics more than anything else. It opened the door for a much more epic, in scale, tale to follow and I am looking forward to the next installment. The combat improved and the story, though smaller in scale than the first game, still was sufficiently monumental. I enjoyed the HELL out of this game and I imagine I'm not the only one.