Retro Review: Dragon Age II

By far the least popular Star Trek spin-off was Enterprise, and it happens to be my favourite. Similarly, Stargate: Universe is viewed as having ruined that franchise, but I thought it was brilliant. Nemesis is my favourite Trek movie, and while it isn’t the most hated, it’s pretty close, usually beaten only by The Final Frontier and Insurrection (I also liked Insurrection). Mass Effect 3 was infamously lambasted by the majority of fans, but I thought it was the highlight of the franchise.

Hawke battles the Arishok in Dragon Age 2What I’m trying to say here is this: I have terrible taste in everything. So maybe it’s not surprising that Dragon Age II, another universally despised game, is one of my favourite Bioware games to date.

A needed overhaul:

The first thing I noticed about Dragon Age II is that its combat was much improved from that of Origins.

Now, that really isn’t saying much. Origins was probably the single worst example of RPG combat I’ve ever had to slog through, and the combat of DA2 suffers from a lot of the same problems. Ability cooldowns are still absurdly long, and mana and stamina are still insanely easy to deplete and slow to regenerate. These combine to make a game that is so much on auto-pilot that it would make the original Dungeon Siege blush.

But on the plus side, attack animations — even auto-attack animations — were greatly improved and now carry a sense of brutal, visceral power to them. I may have still spent too much time watching my party auto-attack, but at least it was a nice show.

Abilities in DA2 are also a lot more creative and powerful, so at least they felt somewhat worth waiting for.

Hawke fights in the moonlight in Dragon Age 2I won’t say that I actually liked the combat in DA2, but at least there were moments of it where I experienced something like fun.

The other thing that caught my eye right away was the graphical improvements. DA2 looks vastly better than Origins.

And I’m not just talking about the technical quality of the graphics, although that did take a big jump forward. Origins had no style, no personality. It’s like everything in its world was just copied directly from a handbook of fantasy cliches.

DA2, by comparison, has some very distinct visuals. Kirkwall is a city that oozes its own unique, albeit grim, personality, and the surrounding areas have a great sense of desolation about them.

I’ve heard many people complain about the reused environments, but I don’t see it as a major issue. The fact that the game only has one cave does get old after a while, but I felt the reuse of the environments of Kirkwall gave the game world a nice sense of permanence and reality.

But enough peripheral issues. Let’s talk about what actually matters.

The Gallows in Dragon Age 2The story:

I think I can sum up why I preferred the story of DA2 to that of Origins with one word: investment.

I never felt all that invested in the story in Origins. Maybe it’s my fault for playing as a Dalish Elf, but I never felt like it was my fight. I was running around the country fighting for people who oppress and abuse my people, and I had little to no chance to address any of the injustices I found all around me. It was very unsatisfying.

DA2 did a much better job of making it feel like my story.

I thought it was a very interesting change of pace that the game doesn’t begin with some world-ending threat. It starts as a much more personal story of a refugee family struggling to survive. It didn’t matter that I don’t much care about the world because I didn’t need to. I wasn’t trying to save the world; I was just trying to protect my family, and that made me feel invested in the story in a way Origins never did.

The lack of an over-arching threat to the world was a very interesting change of pace from the usual RPG storylines. I’m not sure I’d want to see it become the norm — there’s a reason epic storylines are so common — but it was an interesting experiment, and it very much played to Bioware’s strengths. It let them delve deeply into character plots and politics without it feeling like a distraction from the real threats.

My party in Dragon Age 2Even when the plot did expand to world-changing issues, I felt like I was given much more agency than I was in Origins. I didn’t have to accept the injustices of the world, and I was able to be almost as much of a revolutionary as I wanted to be.

BURN THE CHANTRY. SLAUGHTER THE TEMPLARS. FIGHT THE POWER!

Ahem. Anyway…

Of course, it goes without saying at this point that the characterizations were excellent. I’m particularly going to miss Merrill now that I’ve finished the game. And Anders. And Bethany. And Fenris. But especially Merrill.

I thought the interactions with other characters were much streamlined this time, as well. The icons on the dialogue wheel to give you an idea of the tone of each option were a fantastic addition. Those little blurbs Bioware writes are often very vague, and I can’t count the number of times I said something completely contrary to what I wanted to back in Mass Effect. It was a great assurance to have a better idea of what my dialogue options were.

Initially, I was a bit put off by the disappearance of the great Bioware ritual of talking to all your companions after every quest, but once I got used to it, I realized that having conversations only available when characters actually have something meaningful to say makes much more sense. It was incredibly tedious to have to open up a whole dialogue tree just to check if someone has something new to say.

The Arishok in Dragon Age 2Conclusion:

So yes, I have terrible taste in everything. But hey, at least I’m enjoying myself. Despite its poor gameplay, Dragon Age II was like a book I couldn’t put down. From beginning to end, it kept me engaged and eager to see what happens next.

Overall rating: 8.6/10

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2 thoughts on “Retro Review: Dragon Age II

  1. I liked the story and the way they used Varric as a framing device. The game definitely had potential, but I think it needed more time in development. Also I only felt involved in the plot when I played as a mage.

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