Dragon Age 2 has got one hell of a legacy to live up to, developed as it is by BioWare, those legendary purveyors of all things good in the RPG world – from Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, through to Mass Effect and indeed Dragon Age: Origins.
Add in the fact that Origins courted the kind of reception reserved only for a select few titles amongst the games press and users alike, and the continued success of Mass Effect 2 (as recently reminded through its recent PS3 side-show) and you’d be forgiven for expecting rather large things indeed.
So, does it deliver? Well, yes; with a but. Permit me to explain.
DA2’s introduction reveals we’re playing through a tale told by Varric (a dwarf rogue you’ll meet early on), coerced into revealing the rise of Hawke, the game’s main protagonist, from refugee to champion of Kirkwall by the nefarious mage Morrigan.
If you’ve played Origins then you’ll know all about Ferelden, the Blight, the darkspawn, the Witch of the Wilds and so forth, if you haven’t then Dragon Age 2 does a decent job of bringing you quickly up to speed, either by introducing the relevant characters early, or by drip-feeding facts via various codexes dotted throughout the environments.
A nicely formed cutscene and initial tutorial later we find Hawke – family in tow – on the run from darkspawn – the tainted demonesque curse on the land. With their family home sacked they have no choice but to head to Kirkwall, a walled city where they have relatives and the promise of safety.
Immediately obvious is the change in graphical style, with Mass Effect 2 clearly an inspiration in terms of perspective and character models. While the numbers of enemies on screen simultaneously impresses there’s a general lack of sparkle within environments and models in comparison to the sci-fi epic. It’s visually sound, just lacking that ‘wow’ factor you might expect of BioWare.
In these early exchanges you’ll get to customise Hawke, from name and gender through to class (warrior, rogue or mage). Whichever you choose there’s no escaping Hawke’s voice, for us a little wooden and grating whichever gender you opt for.
I elected to take on the warrior’s role for review purposes, but also experimented with mage and rogue over the game’s opening sections. Rogue and warrior play relatively similarly with hand-to-hand combat key, the main difference in approach – backstabbing stealth versus one-man-army respectively.
The real difference comes via the mage who can be tailored to the player’s whims in terms of arcane or benevolent magiks (see, I used a ‘k’, means I’m hardcore) and used as both a kind of artillery, wreaking havoc from a distance and restoring friendlies to something approaching full-health as necessary.
Before you even reach Kirkwall you’ll have already had to make a few crucial choices which directly affect one or two of the characters closest to you. These choices are taken via the dialogue wheel as so successfully used in Mass Effect 2 for example.
Making the transition relatively well the wheel allows plentiful choice in his responses, allowing him to delve further where necessary and respond in the positive and negative. It isn’t all good news though due to the slightly aggravating decision to have one of the default responses being ‘humouress’; other choices benevolent, stern or (occasionally) romantic and enthusiastic.
Now I’m all for the odd joke but seriously, why give the option for every single conversation? It only serves to create a bizarre juxtaposition between it and the rest of the game’s serious tones of torture, genocide, oblivion; strange bedfellows indeed and serves to make Hawke something of a sarcastic champion if champion at all.
Moving swiftly on, let’s take a look at the combat. As the warrior class I spent an initial chunk of my time hit ‘x’ like my life depended on it – it did. This triggers the stock sword swipe which you can use at your leisure, other skills and abilities requiring not just the prerequisite ability unlocks via levelling-up but also enough stamina.
Consequently combat feels more like Double Dragon than Dragon Age at first, with tactical play only really coming into play when the story kicks in, enemy skill levels rise and your character’s abilities are unlocked. Deciding what to spend those hard earned attribute and ability points on is a captivating one; to specialise or branch out?
The amount of depth is impressive here, attributes (strength, stamina, constitution) all influence damage death and taken and which weapons can be handled. Abilities meanwhile and the special moves of the game – mighty blows, whirlwind strokes, and besrker states; a maelstrom of killing which when unlocked improves the fighting no end.
Your companions (three in your party at a time) are all levelled-up by your hand to so you can be in constant control of your party, ensuring complimentary powers and so on. In fact there’s even an option to set their belligerence in combat, ensuring your weaker comrades won’t rush straight into close-quarters fighting; while if you need to interfere more you can assume control of any of them at the click of a shoulder button.
Quests are many and (mostly) interesting, offering many, many hours of gameplay if you exhaust everything. You’re free to choose from story quests (the game’s meat and drink), character quests sought by speaking to companions in their homes, side-quests and more. That you can progress multiple quests at a time works well, although individual objectives can become blurred – a good job then that your Journal keeps a handy check on each quest’s progress.
RPG fans will lap this up and magazines are rightly praising it as a fine example of the fighting fantasy style dungeon crawler. We couldn’t recommend it enough for genre aficionados and even those simply wanting a something they can really sink their teeth into. For us however it falls shorts of some of BioWare’s past, and present, titles; with combat, dialogue and visuals all falling agonisingly short. We’ll look forward to a third Dragon Age, but not as much as we do the third Mass Effect.