Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
Life isn’t easy in Ferelden. Civil war, the Blight, and Landsmeet politics have nearly torn it apart, and while we were formerly privy to the palace drama and inner workings of the highest echelons of the country’s seats of power, there are other stories to be told. In Dragon Age: Origins there was a small village that players passed through during their first steps on the road to becoming the Hero. The village itself was little more than a rest stop on the road, but there were people there, the everyday kind that could care less about whose butt warmed the throne. After the would-be Hero left the village, the people there were all but forgotten, and mentioned only briefly later on as a footnote, when it was announced that the village of Lothering had been razed by the Darkspawn. It is toward these people that the BioWare writers have turned their attention when crafting their story for Dragon Age II.
I won’t repeat too much of my preview here for the sake of time and space (you have games to play, after all), except to say that the early scenes you ventured through in the demo act as both a tutorial to the game’s mechanics and a prologue to the story. Not everyone will survive, but what fun would it be if they did? Arriving in Kirkwall by ship (not on the back of a dragon as the legend says), Hawke encounters another setback. In case you haven’t studied your Thades geography, Kirkwall is actually an independent state in the Free Marches. Life for Ferelden refugees (even those of lesser noble blood) is difficult here, but Hawke is one of those people who maintains his optimism no matter how bleak things might appear. He’s determined to carve out a new life for himself and his family in this foreign land, and perhaps reclaim what he can of the family fortune while he’s at it. There’s never a shortage of those in need of someone with a couple of fast sword arms, so he’s able to begin to make his way through a series of compromises. Initially, I was not thrilled with the disjointed nature of the storytelling, as it made my experience seem more like a participant in an interactive movie than a player of a game, but this dissipates after completion of the initial “tutorial year,” which only comprises about the first hour of actual play time. Very early on you’re given a choice of alignment-based tasks that help to determine your path. There are also plenty of new companions to make friends with, and if you find yourself missing Oghren, Varric is quite the character. Talk to people and listen in on conversations around the markets and pubs. You’ll hear tales of the Warden beginning to trickle out, and discover that something is killing off Ferelden’s pigeons. Unlike the Warden, whose only mission is to stop the Blight and restore the crown, Hawke has a house, a job and responsibilities. It’s not all about the mission. Hawke is a fully fleshed-out person who serves to add to the realism and immersion of the experience. And don’t forget about your romance opportunities. It wouldn’t be a BioWare game if you couldn’t find that special someone, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Just don’t expect your companions to be as easy as First Knight. If you’re the kind of RPG gamer who needs to be spoon fed all of the information to solve a quest, you might be disappointed. Though most quest instructions are fairly straightforward, others are more cryptic and require actual thinking. If, on the other hand, you grew up playing Zork and MUDs, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. While the humor is missing, this is a much richer story with a darker tone. It’s similar to that 1,000-page book that you find yourself finishing in three days. You’re so compelled that you just can’t put it down.
You can import a save from Origins or pick one of the preset story defaults. If you import, however, be careful. I experienced a strange bug that would sometimes result in a corrupted save, and thus a corrupted profile. It starts out when you save your game and receive a message that the save failed because of an “unknown error.” Upon checking on this, however, I noticed that the save was accomplished, and it just appeared that the message was wrong. However, later on in the game, the autosave system begins to kick in at odd times and tries to save randomly during two crucial cutscenes. While the autosave is not itself the problem, the following load screen for the next cutscene is, as it’s impossible to save and load at the same time, so you find yourself locked in a loop. There’s no solution to this except to exit the game, after which your save, and possibly everything saved for that character, is doomed. My suggestion is to disable autosave once you begin, but if you choose to leave it on, make sure that you turn it off before commencing the Tranquility quest. I didn’t experience this bug during games in which I did not import a saved game from Origins.
After customizing your character, you’re once again fleeing from Lothering. Pay close attention to mom and your siblings after you customize. These three characters are “matched” to yours in an effort to maintain a family resemblance. How blatant this is depends on how far you go with the customizing, but they’ve gotten it down to the two sisters having identical cheek bones. Saving, checking your inventory, leveling up and accessing your journal are all accomplished through the start button radial menu. The new design for your inventory is much less cluttered than before, and more clearly defined for better efficiency. Characters that are ready to level-up are now indicated with a less-obvious flashing arrow on their portraits, so pay attention to the left side of your screen after defeating an enemy or completing a quest. When leveling up, in addition to modifying attributes and abilities, you now have easy access to your tactics and resistances. It takes more than your primary attributes to succeed (and wear shiny armor) in Dragon Age II, so spread the wealth accordingly. Otherwise, you might find yourself wearing the same tattered leather armor throughout the entire game. When the time comes to add special abilities, use the triggers to cycle through the ability trees to find the right mix of skills for yourself and your companions. One nice added touch is that all new codex entries immediately open for reading on receipt, so you’ll no longer accidentally miss one and have to go searching for it when you need it. Quick Heal has a time-delay clock now, and while I still found this to be unnerving in the heat of battle, it achieves the desired result of preventing the game from becoming too easy. And speaking of survival, unlike the first game, you can’t just bring your companions along to the fight. You now must actively use all available characters and their skills to survive certain battles. Get used to cycling through with the left bumper and making the most of everybody’s talents. Remember those stamina potions you got in Awakening but never really used them? Well, your stamina usage has been tweaked a bit, and now you’ll find yourself in need of the potions when you come up against large numbers of enemies. Rune-crafting and potion-making have gotten both simpler and more complex. Instead of collecting every crafting component yourself, you merely need to find a source of acquisition (an elfroot patch or a silverite deposit), and then you’ll perpetually have access to it, so you won’t have to craft them yourself on the fly. Just place an order at a local shop or from within your home (from Bethany I suppose) and your items are instantly added to your pack as long as you have enough coin to pay. I’ve read the complaints about the game being on rails, and while this is true at some points, there’s an open vastness to experience at others. It’s clear that there was an emphasis on Kirkwall itself, which could make the outdoor quests seem less than spectacular in their lack of roaming opportunities. Another nice addition is the automatic junk feature – if you can’t use it and it’s of no consequence to anyone else, an item will automatically appear in the “junk” section of your inventory. Throughout Dragon Age II, Hawke can acquire two specializations: one at level 7 and the second at level 14. And just in case you thought your Blood Dragon armor was long gone, it’s actually waiting for you inside your house (don’t ask me how it got there, but I suspect a purple dragon that wears stockings had something to do with it). To save you some time, some quests need to be completed during the day, and some at night. Toggle back and forth while in your world map to alter time and make this happen. Overall, with all of the changes to just about everything, including gameplay and interface, I must confess that it’s been a long time since I played a good button-masher, and bugs aside, I had a really good time.
The medieval-style animations for the storytelling gaps are a nice artistic flourish. Graphics are improved (upgraded engine, not a new one), and while some of the dungeons are merely color-coded hallways with little to admire, some of the landscapes are picture perfect and breathtaking. The terrain is also more textured this time around, so keep an eye on the landscape for paths and stairs up to the next level. Sounds are very realistic and include the sounds of birds that once or twice I actually thought were outside my window. Character banter is interesting and informative, but not once did I find myself laughing out loud, which is something I really enjoyed about the first game.
My experience with Dragon Age II was not always fun, as the save bug was literally game-killing, but almost all of the boxes are checked for it to be a great game. It has a fantastic adventure story, compelling characters that you truly get to know and care about, and more action than I’d ever anticipated. The interface changes take a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, the action will keep your blood racing. If you find yourself not thrilled within the first half hour, give it another. The first hour is a grind, but you’ll be greatly rewarded once the adventure truly begins. I’m not in love with this game yet, but I’m willing to give it a second date.