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Dragon Age II Review

Updated Thu, Mar 31, 2011 by borticus

You are Hawke...

I recognize that many other reviews have already been published for this title, but I'm hoping to offer a more in-depth opinion than you may have seen elsewhere. I have played through the entire campaign twice, and progressed about halfway through a third playthrough, and spent more than 150 hours in the city of Kirkwall. This will not be a first-impressions type review, or an uninformed look at nothing but the first few hours of gameplay. I intend to offer something deeper, and more complete. As such, be forewarned that an occasional spoiler or two may slip through, in the interest of offering a more detailed view of the pitfalls and triumphs of this epic RPG.

And epic it is! That word gets thrown around frequently these days, but Bioware has captured the true meaning in Dragon Age II. The sweeping impact that your choices and actions have on this world make it feel like a living, breathing thing, rather than just a backdrop for spilling blood. And while this review may err on the side of being critical of some features, the product as a whole is exceedingly enjoyable.

In Dragon Age II, you are Hawke - a refugee from the Blight that rolled across Ferelden during the events of Bioware's epic RPG, Dragon Age: Origins. After a brief struggle to flee your Darkspawn-ravaged homeland, you will find yourself embroiled in political intrigue, assassination plots, and a hunt for ancient relics of unimaginable evil. Although this is a sequel to Bioware's prior Dragon Age title, the world you will watch unfold in Dragon Age II is different enough that veterans of the original campaign will not feel bogged down with familiarity, while newcomers will not feel overwhelmed with lore while being introduced to the rich Tolkein-esque world of Thedas. While there is an option to import your DA:O save game into DA2, the choices made in the prior title do not have any direct impact on your new hero(ine), and merely result in a few different dialogue options and side quests.

Cautions

Lots of blood. Lots of gore. Lots of sexual innuendos and a few scantily-clad demons and pirate wenches. This is not a game for youngsters, and earns its "Mature 17+" rating. Despite its appearances however, very little actual focus is given to these parts of the game. They are just there, not shoved in your face for shock value.

I'd also like to offer a precaution for gamers that may be seeking a more action-centric RPG. Although the combat in Dragon Age II is a marked improvement over it's predecessor, the primary focus of this game remains the plots and stories that will unfold. Combat is a means to that end, and not the primary focus. You will need to do a lot of reading/listening in order to get the most out of this game.

Gameplay

87Very GoodLet's talk about the combat system. Even though it is never the focal point of a particular story, it nevertheless remains the glue that holds it all together. Combat is the reason that you gain levels, the reason you get better gear, and the reason you gather crafting materials for better potions and runes. And whether you like it or not, it is frequently the only solution to a problem in the world of Thedas.



Combat maneuvers and skill trees have been revamped and overhauled in fairly significant ways from DA:O resulting in a much more fluid and brutal combat system. Bioware has been quoted as saying that they wanted "something awesome to happen" every time the player pushes a button. They mostly succeeded, but the result is horrifyingly vicious combat that sees foes exploding in flesh shrapnel every few seconds. To counteract this act of spontaneous enemy bloodsplosion, fights have many more enemies, and most come in several waves. The result is battles that feel the right length, but end up getting tedious as there are never enough cooldowns and/or stamina available to execute those "push button for awesome" maneuvers after the first few foes have had their heads liquified. This frequently results in anti-climactic battles that go out with a whimper instead of a bang, or are over before you've even warmed up.

On top of this occasional disappointment, the skill trees themselves are a bit lackluster. While more intuitive than the design present in DA:O, it still remains very easy to create terrible builds that leave your character and companion completely ill-prepared to face your enemies in combat. To add to this, it is not possible to retrain yourself in the basic version of the game, and players seeking to try different builds or skills will either have to do a lot of saving and reloading, or purchase the Black Emporium DLC (which comes with an item that can be used to unspend all of your ability and stat points). Balancing certain classes' stat point expenditures is a tedious process as well. Mages are the only class that requires Willpower in order to equip their armor, while this stat controls every class' pool of available Mana/Stamina. The result is mages that are walking mana pools, and rogues/warriors that can barely execute two back-to-back maneuvers before being winded, unless they sacrifice stat points that could be spent to get them into better equipment or increase their damage output. And heaven forbid you go too heavy on sustained powers, which further diminish your already-feeble energy reserves!

I appreciate the freedom of being able to specialize my character and companions in ways of my choosing. But I feel like a better balance could be struck between freedom of choice and ease of play.



The new UI for sorting your inventory is a welcomed improvement over DA:O

The skill trees are only part of a UI overhaul that was sorely needed. Players familiar with DA:O are likely to weep with joy when they see the updated inventory screen, even though managing your limited inventory space is still a royal pain. Why a game puts such a relatively low cap on your inventory space, then fills every nearby barrel or crate with a bit of vendor trash, is beyond my abilities to understand. It's a waste of time for no other reason than to waste your time.

Before I move away from talking about the UI improvements, I feel obliged to bring up the new crafting system. Although still a bit of tedium to gather components, you will no longer find yourself hauling around buckets of extra ingredients, and you no longer need to invest skill points into these side projects. Instead, in DA2, once a resource is "discovered" it can be used indefinitely, and any crafting station in the game now offers you unlimited access to that particular resource, and you simply spend your hard-won wages to pay to have the items crafted for you. This updated crafting system wins a gold seal of approval from me, since it streamlines the process without eliminating the option of crafting, and still makes sense within the greater context of the world. After all, I'm a hero, not a herbalist.

Beyond overhauled UIs and complicated combat mechanics, the bulk of the game is actually spent interacting with the epic story that is unfolding for Hawke and his/her companions in their new home of Kirkwall. It starts slowly, and I found it difficult to bring myself to care about much of the story early on in the game, since the focus is so shallow (earn lots of money!). But then I came to realize that didn't matter, because I did care about something -- my sister, Bethany. We escaped the darkspawn horde, lost our brother, made a bargain with a dragon, saved a handful of otherwise doomed refugees including our own mother, and have stayed together through all of this. Despite having no sympathy or interest in my goals during the first "act" of this game, I still cared about my sister and mother, and trying to make a better life for them.



I think that's where the brilliance of this game's script lies... At the core of the story, DA2 is still a fantasy epic on rails. But the unique part here is that you get to choose every detail of the train that takes you to that destination. This makes it feel less like you're watching a plot unfold, and more like you're making it happen, even if it happens to end the same way every time. Every Hawke ends Act 1 by accompanying an expedition to the Deep Roads, but not every Hawke brings his sister or brother along with him/her. And while this one small choice will not affect the final outcome of the game, it will have a profound effect on your personal journey to that destination, one way or another.

The inclusion of so much voiced talent, and so many different options to experience during your journey, has apparently taken its toll on the inclusion of additional art assets. Throughout the hundreds of quests you will experience in this game, all of the action will take place in the same 20 or so maps, re-used in various ways by blocking off passages or inserting new furniture. It got so bad on my first playthrough that I honestly considered not completing a mission simply because I knew that it would take place in the same cave system I'd already explored dozens of times previously, and would likely include some of the same enemies that I'd already slain a thousand times prior. In the end, I was always glad that I completed these missions, since they each offered more insight into the world I was living in and more opportunity to listen to another brilliantly-written script.

Graphics

82GoodThe character models and meshes of this world have to function well on two different levels: Combat (seen from about 5-20 feet from your character) and cutscenes (sometimes so close to a character's face that you can count their individual freckles). To call this a challenge is a bit of an understatement. And to be blunt, I don't think that the execution of this duality was successful.

The majority of your gameplay is spent listening to characters speak, and responding to them. During these scenes, the camera is positioned in very cinematic ways that highlight the speakers, sometimes zooming in so close as to only show their mouths. Given that so much of the game's rendering time is used to portray these close-up shots, it's disappointing to see so many blatant flaws shine forth while interacting with characters.

Hair is one of the biggest culprits, frequently clipping right through characters' ears or neck when they speak. Clothing occasionally does the same. This lack of detail is forgivable on the larger scale of combat, but glaringly obvious when your entire screen is filled with the visage of a man with a lock of hair sticking straight through his ear.



Lighting is another downfall of these intimate dialogue scenes. Throughout every zone in this game, there is very little in the way of dynamic or direct lighting. Every close-up scene in the game is shot in a diffuse light that detracts from the potential impact these scenes could have, and fails to highlight the subtle details that have been added to character faces and gestures. While this may have been done to maintain some sort of realism (real life is very rarely lit well), it results in the lack of cinematic flare that the camera angles, animations and dialogue attempt to portray.

Despite these faults, I must admit that the overall look and feel of the graphics and animations of DA2 are indeed excellent. In particular, the movement of characters' mouths in sync with their dialogue is an unbelievable triumph in the world of RPGs, even capturing subtle tongue motions of characters that speak with foreign accents. Fluid and dramatic combat animations have changed combat from the occasional drudgery that was seen in DA:O into sequences that look more like a well-choreographed ballet, punctuated with exploding bodies and blood splatter by the gallon. There is an occasional inconsistency on various spell effects, though (e.g.: "Elemental Weapons" looks like a last-minute texture hack job, while "Arcane Shield" results in a complicated shimmering bubble effect that obscures and warps the character's entire appearance) and Archery still lacks the imaginative animations of other weapon types. But these are minor gripes in an overall experience that looks and feels unified, fluid, and breathtakingly epic.

A warning, however: As of this time, DX11 graphics suffer frequent crashes and other failures. Despite making the game look even greater, those improvements come at the heavy cost of stability. This technological failure shouldn't be overlooked lightly, as many bleeding-edge gamers take it as a personal insult when the software they purchase fails to live up to their top-of-the-line hardware.


Sound

97ExcellentFrom an ethereal score that simultaneously evokes a sense of dread and hopefulness, to the visceral screech of a steel blade grinding through armor and bone, Bioware has managed to portray a range of sounds that are just as grounded in reality as they are otherworldly and fantastic.

The primary characters are so well acted that I found myself thinking of them as real people...

The most noteworthy of the sounds of this game are the hundreds of hours of voiced dialogue that is shared by every character and NPC. Even random 'flavor' NPCs sprinkled around the city of Kirkwall will occasionally interact with one another in ways that mean absolutely nothing to the flow of the remainder of the game. They've been included solely for the purpose of giving more life to the backdrop against which the epic struggle of the main plot is set. And even though many of the same voices are re-used by these unimportant characters, their lack of importance makes it easy to overlook this point.

The primary actors - the male and female Hawkes, and all of the companions - are all written and voiced so realistically and expertly that I have found myself talking about these characters as if they are real life acquaintances. When a fellow gamer of mine told me about how the plot of one of these companions turns out if you make different choices, I was honestly affected on an emotional level - I couldn't let that happen to a friend of mine! Without such skilled voice acting, I doubt I ever would have felt this connection to my party members. My absolute favorite part of these voiceovers, are the ones that play out seemingly at random while exploring Kirkwall and its surroundings, as your companions begin to chat away with one another as if you're not even there. As if they have a life all their own.

But voices aren't the only authentic and immersive auditory treats contained in this game. From the chest-shaking BOOM of a massive fireball connecting with its target, to the rumble and crash of a charging ogre smashing through your ranks, each sound has been crafted with the same cinematic attention to detail that the dialogues have been given. Armor even creaks and squeaks during dialogue scenes, if an armored speaker is motioning with their hands or arms while they speak. Surround sound and environmental effects have also been used to great effect to help pull you even deeper into the game.


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