Dragon Age II Review
Dragon Age: Origins developed a pretty loyal following, but more so on the PC than on consoles. The combat system didn't translate from the PC to consoles all that well, and there were other rough edges that made the game less appealing to console gamers in general. With Dragon Age II, it's almost as if developer BioWare was so conscientious of the original game's console issues that it set out from the beginning to make a more console-friendly Dragon Age game. On the other hand, if you really liked Dragon Age: Origins on the PS3, then you may not be too happy with those changes…
The story in Dragon Age II takes a different approach than in the first game. Rather than giving you a choice of character races, each with its own unique opening story, and then letting you basically write your character's history as you play, Dragon Age II puts you into the boots of a character named Hawke whose destiny it is to become the Champion of Kirkwall. You can change Hawke's first name, select Hawke's sex, and choose from one of three character classes, warrior, mage, and rogue. You can play with the character to create a unique look for Hawke, but you'll always be Hawke and always be human. And as for that character you spent so much time building in Origins, well, that character will have to remain a memory.
Dragon Age II's story is really a story within a story framed narrative in which one of Hawke's former companions, a dwarf named Varric, is interrogated by a Chantry seeker named Cassandra who is determined to get the full story behind Hawke's rise to Champion status. Why Cassandra is so interested in Hawke and Hawke's current status at the time of the interrogation are a mystery to you as the player, and so you'll have to play the part of Hawke as Varric weaves his tale. Varric provides the voiceover for the cutscenes between major chapters in the game, accompanied by some great brushstroke art work, but for the majority of the game you'll be playing through the events in Hawke's rise to greatness as if they were taking place in your present time.
The game's changes extend beyond the narrative style and narrow character selection. First of all the world has shrunk considerably in Dragon Age II. The vast majority of the game takes place in and around the city of Kirkwall, and while there are plenty of quests in the game to keep you busy for 30 to 40 hours or so, you'll be completing most of those quests in the city and its environs. The limited area naturally makes for a more linear story, and while there are those trademark BioWare choices you'll have to make that have an impact on the story there aren't as many as you'd expect and their impact not as great as they were in Dragon Age: Origins. There were many gamers who played through Dragon Age: Origins more than once just to see where they story would take them if they made some different choices along the line, but I don't think the motivation to play again will be nearly as strong with Dragon Age II.
On a related note, the conversation system has been modified from Dragon Age: Origins to reflect one that's more like in the Mass Effect series. A dialog wheel appears during conversations in which you choose the emotion and nature of your response more so than the text of it, especially since you'll never quite know what Hawke will say until he/she says it. This system works pretty well for the most part and makes the conversations feel more dynamic than a simple dialog tree could ever do, but there are also times when it's not quite clear what the nature of Hawke's response will be. I'm glad that the game doesn't simply let you choose between the "right" and "wrong" response options, but in a game that puts so much emphasis on the dynamics of inter-character relationships it would be nice if you didn't have to face situations in which you can't easily determine the "right" response for the type of character you want to play.
Dragon Age II follows in its predecessor's footsteps when it comes to imbuing its characters with complex and realistic personalities, which is particularly refreshing for a game in a genre rife with stereotypical characters. I like that the dynamic of your team is affected not just by the talent mix, but by the personalities of the team and how those personalities mesh with each other. It's interesting to listen to the conversations between the other characters in your party, and even the fact that such conversations take place in the game make your party members feel more like real people than NPC placeholders.
The combat system in Dragon Age II has gone through some changes, making it feel more action-oriented than Origins. Each attack requires a button press, so the game feels more like a button-mashing action game than an RPG in some regards. I think that the idea was to allow for button-mashing for those who prefer to mash, while still making it possible for those who prefer to pause the game to issue orders to party members or set-up tactical profiles for each one to do so. In truth, even the button-mashers will need to take a little time with the tactical profiles as they progress deeper into the game because by default party members seem a bit too gung-ho and too reluctant to dip into a health potion while needed. If not, they will find themselves in an increasing number of battles in which they're the last man standing on their side. Overall, I found combat to be more manageable in Dragon Age II than in Origins, which made the game overall more enjoyable for me. I had a lot of frustrating moments in Origin's battles that didn't seem to be repeated with anywhere the same regularity in Dragon Age II.
Dragon Age II is probably ultimately going to be as polarizing a game as was its predecessor. Those who really enjoyed the original may be disappointed in the game's smaller scope, recycled areas, and simplified combat mechanics. Those who didn't enjoy Origins as much may like Dragon Age II more for some of the same reasons fans of the original won't. All that aside, though, Dragon Age II is an enjoyable game, it just feels different than its predecessor. It's less a PC RPG and more a console RPG, and you'll have to decide if that difference is a good thing or a bad thing to you.
Final Rating: 85%. A smaller gameworld and recycled environments make Dragon Age II feel less expansive than Origins, but a number of console friendly game changes may make it more appealing to console gamers than its predecessor.