Dragon Age 2 Review

By Steve Watts, Mar 16, 2011 1:30pm PDT

By almost every measure, Dragon Age 2 is a superior game to the original. It's received a much-needed visual overhaul, the characters are more relatable, the writing is smarter, combat is more finely-tuned, and level progression is clearer. Despite the layers of polish, though, this installment feels like it’s lost some of its predecessor's charm.

The game picks up in the midst of events from the first game, as the protagonist, Hawke, flees with his or her (in my case, her) family from the Blight. They make their way to the northern city of Kirkwall, and Hawke has to start her life anew in an unfamiliar place, running odd jobs for smugglers and mercenaries.

In fact, even after I gained a reputation as Hawke, odd jobs made up most of the game. Kirkwall’s various political factions, criminal enterprises, and shop owners apparently spend most of their time asking adventurers to solve their problems. As a result, sometimes it's hard to see how the disparate fetch quests add up to a complete plot.

The story-within-a-story is delivered by a dwarven party member named Varric, explaining the life and times of Hawke to an investigator called the Seeker. Unfortunately, aside from a few clever "unreliable narrator" moments, this window dressing is fairly irrelevant. By the end, it becomes clear that this piece is more to set the tone for future installments than to have any real impact in this game.

The main plot is composed of three vignettes, visiting significant moments in Hawke’s life with years passing between them. The conceit works as a functional way to deliver long plot threads over the course of a decade, but it adds the side-effect of feeling episodic. The major threat isn’t established until the very end, and the middle "episode" seems like a detour.

The missions and pacing, though, are much improved; thanks in large part to refined combat mechanics that make the game feel more natural on a console. The tech trees are clearer, and special abilities pack enough visual punch to make this game feel modern. The measly six hot-keys still feel limiting, but it's easy enough to find a few abilities that you favor and rely on the combat wheel for the rest. Plus, a wider variety of enemies stave off Darkspawn fatigue.

Difficulty has been tweaked, making Normal mode a bit easier. On this default setting, the pause-and-command tactics are really only necessary for particularly large crowds and boss fights. Hard Mode is the new standard-bearer for those who prefer strategy at every turn, and Casual can almost be played like an RPG/action hybrid.

An RPG is nothing without its characters, and Dragon Age 2 ups the ante of interesting, relatable companions. Like the first, your decisions impact how much they like you, but they won’t wander off. Disagreements with party members even come with rewards, in the form of passive stat boosts. While I found a few characters boring, the party as a whole was full of unique characters that I actually liked talking to. Since the entire game takes place in and around Kirkwall, you get the sense that these are friends with their own lives in the city, and they happen to accompany you on missions.

These conversations build out deeper characters than just what the usual battle chatter in other games would provide. As a result, the relationships become more meaningful. Members on good terms with Hawke would engage in playful banter, and even those that disliked her showed begrudging respect. After I chose a romantic partner, I was particularly impressed to hear other characters casually mentioning the relationship, and Hawke's lover even came to offer comfort after an emotional story moment.

Hawke herself was a standout as well. After the nature of the first game forced the protagonist to be a blank slate, BioWare reversed entirely and gave this one a defined personality and character arc. The improved facial animations can even express subtle changes in mood, showing everything from suspicion to wincing at a painful memory.

While dialogue trees still keep the "good" and "bad" paths, the middle (aka "boring") option has been replaced with sarcasm. It usually errs on the side of good, but I gravitated towards it just to hear Hawke’s latest cutting jab. And these dialogue moments keep alive my favorite feature from the original Dragon Age: gray morality. Hawke is asked to weigh in on quandaries that really have no right or wrong answer, and sometimes I actually had to step away for a few minutes to think about my decisions.

But all the quips, moral choices, combat improvements, and great characters can’t mask that this game just feels smaller. In an industry that aims to outdo itself with sequels, the journey doesn’t carry the same epic sense of scope. The Hero of Ferelden saved the world in Dragon Age Origins; the Champion of Kirkwall in DA2 merely nudges some politics. The game hints that there are larger factors at play, but we never get to see them for ourselves. There’s something to be said for giving us a smaller, more detailed slice of this world, but I wish Hawke felt like more than a footnote in its history.

[This Dragon Age 2 review is based on a retail copy of the game played on a retail Xbox 360, purchased by the reviewer.]

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