March 16, 2011

"Dragon Age II": Pared-down, yes, but it's got the original's soul (and it's still fun)

I was a huge fan of Dragon Age: Origins; indeed, I’ve playing it through two and a half times in a little over a year, and I would still be hacking and slashing had I not lost all my saved games following a botched PS3 hard drive swap. (Yes, I know, I need to move on.) Needless to say, I’d been eagerly awaiting Dragon Age II for many months, with the game finally dropping into stores—and into my anxious hands—last week.

Unfortunately, the new Dragon Age hasn’t been greeted with the same acclaim as its predecessor, with furious fans of the first game bemoaning the sequel’s pared-down scale (rather than an entire world to explore, you’re confined to a single city, named Kirkwall), the simplified character abilities (no more “skills,” such as persuasion and trap-making) and inventory systems (you can’t customize the armor of your companions), and the gratuitously recycled environments (expect to see the same dungeons, neighborhoods, and hallways over and over again).
In fact, anyone who’s played Mass Effect 2, a wonderful, sci-fi-oriented gaming epic, will notice more than a few similarities between that game’s “action”-style RPG gameplay and Dragon Age II—not that surprising, perhaps, given that both titles come from game developer BioWare.

Also gone: the choice of six different “origin” stories depending on whether your character was, say, an elven mage or a dwarven rogue—not that you can play as an elf or a dwarf in Dragon Age II anyway. Instead, it’s all human, all the time, with your character choices restricted to the three basic classes (warrior, mage, or rogue) and male or female.

So wait—any good news here? Luckily, yes. The graphics in Dragon Age II—particularly those of the console versions (I'm playing on my Xbox 360, by the way)—have been vastly improved, with smoother frame rates and dynamic character animations, especially during the fast and furious battle sequences.
Speaking of combat, you can still issue combat orders to their party via the radial “pause” menu (which allows you to fling a fireball here and a shield bash there), or build complex logic trees (“if three enemies are clustered together, then use ‘cone of cold’ ability”) that govern your comrades’ every action. And load times, especially when you're entering a new area of the game, are no longer glacial as they were in "Origins."

Most importantly, BioWare didn’t forget about the story, which chronicles the rise to power (as the marketing materials put it) of Hawke, a (male or female) protagonist who begins Dragon Age II in full flight from a ravenous horde intent on wiping out what remains of Hawke’s decimated family. Hawke’s journey may not take him across continents, but it does span 10 years—and as with the original game, you’ll meet a series of sharply drawn, sympathetic characters, some of whom will be familiar to “Origins” veterans. Best of all, our main character can finally talk—no more blank, silent stares, as in the first game.
What's interesting is that many of Dragon Age II’s biggest faults are present and accounted for in Mass Effect 2, a spellbinding game that also comes saddled with pared-down character customization features and locales that you’ll see over and over. (After nearly two play-throughs of ME2, I could probably navigate the Citadel blindfolded by now.) The difference, perhaps, was that I launched into Mass Effect 2 without ever having finished its predecessor, a game I ended up skipping after a few clunky, uninvolving hours of play.

For me, Dragon Age II feels smaller, more constricting, and a tad, well ... rushed, compared to DA:O. But "Origins" was a bear of a game, five years (if not more) in development—and not without its own faults, by the way. (I've probably spend many combined hours staring at the "Origins" endless loading screens.) Dragon Age II may be be as epic as "Origins," but it still has the soul of the first game—and it's here today, not three and a half years from now, with the promise of more DLC and sequels to come.

And here's the biggest question: am I having fun? Well, I wouldn't have played the new Dragon Age for 30 hours already if I wasn't.

So ... that's my somewhat conflicted, not-quite-finished-with-the-game-yet review. What did you think of Dragon Age II?

(Images: BioWare)

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