For a long time during the build up of Dragon Age 2, I had feared (fueled by Dev comments) that Bioware would be departing from the style that Dragon Age: Origins employed and the fans of the game enjoyed to the perhaps slightly more successful Mass Effect formula (forgetting the fact that Dragon Age is the first installment of a completely new Intellectual Property). My fears were almost realised and my expectations significantly lowered upon the release of the demo (You can find my impressions of the demo here) that I almost regretted having pre-ordered the signature edition. It’s usually quite rare that a demo has disappointed me, only for the full game to surprise me in a good way.
Back in July last year, Greg Zeschuk of Bioware stated when interviewed by Joystiq that “I think one of the key things we’re working on in Dragon Age II is the technology. I can confirm that we’re doing a lot of work on the Dragon Age engine, and doing a lot of stuff to pump it — to make it visually super hot.” There’s definitely been some visual improvements, but this was quite an ambitious statement to make – it may be different on the PC version, but not once did I truly get the feeling that the game was visually “super hot” or “stunning”. Having said that, there has been improvements, particularly in the character model department. In particular, the main characters seem to have gotten a bit more attention to detail and standout from generic NPCs.
In terms of the good, the Qunari are probably one of my favourite models. Their look in Dragon Age 2 is a pretty big departure from how the Qunari were presented in Dragon Age: Origins. They are physically imposing (as they were in Origins) but look much more menacing now, with the addition of horns and body tattoos (usually red). Unfortunately the game doesn’t really go to any lengths to say why the Qunari here are different from those we encountered in Ferelden. (There are small elements one can glean but that’s idle speculation at best). Both the Humans and Dwarves come off as slightly “cleaner” in appearance than their Origins counterparts.
It’s not all good though. As I mentioned in my demo impressions, Flemeth has been given a new look and for continuity’s sake it’s disappointing given that our hero meets her during their escape from Lothering. Don’t get me wrong, she looks great but it doesn’t mesh well with our (Read: My) impressions of Flemeth in Origins. If this new appearance was adopted during our second meeting with Flemeth, it would have been better and more explainable. The next thing is the Elves’ new look. With the exception really of Merrill (A Dalish mage Companion) who is absolutely gorgeous, Elves are incredibly frail looking (They might break when the wind blows) and the facial makeup is a bit of a departure (for the worse) than in Origins. Depending on your save game import (if you imported an Origins save game that is) Zevran might make a cameo appearance in your Dragon Age 2 game. Unfortunately, because of the new Elvish look, Zevran looks positively horrible and for a feared and well-known assassin (bed room hi-jinx aside), not at all menacing.
One final point on models and one that leads me to believe that Bioware can’t have put too much effort into that sector is Isabella and the case of the floating daggers (This also extends to other characters to an extent – sheathing weapons into non-existent sheaths, for example). If you don’t change her starting weapons, you may not notice this but once you do, the daggers hover in mid air, not making contact with her back at all while sheathed. It’s a bit of an immersion ruiner, when you watch a cut scene and see that going on. There’s also the matter of the Darkspawn but my opinion on them hasn’t changed much during the time the demo was released and now.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Dragon Age 2 would be showing you around the Free Marches more than it does. In fact, apart from the Escape from Lothering quest at the start, you’ll be spending the majority of your time in Kirkwall and it’s surrounding areas. While it would have been nice to have been given more of the Free Marches to explore, as we did Ferelden in Origins, this doesn’t necessarily hold the game back at all. The unique (you’ll see why I say this soon) environments are pretty visually appealing, conveying how the environments should look and feel based on the in game lore. The Wounded Coast for me, was probably the most enjoyable on my first visit. Walking along the Wounded Coast showed it pretty much lived up to it’s name with multiple ship wrecks along it’s length. In Origins, we didn’t get to see what a big city Chantry looked like but Dragon Age 2 delivers that and the building is as grandiose as I imagined one might be.
We’re always told that recycling is good, right? Well, in the context of rubbish, yes, yes it is. But in the context of game environments? I’m inclined to say not so much. Most games these days seem to recycle environments to an extent and in a small dose, it’s relatively easy to ignore/sweep under the rug. Unfortunately for Dragon Age 2, the rug just isn’t big enough. The game makes extensive use of recycled environments, something that becomes increasingly obvious during side quests. You might have visited a “different” cave 10 times, but it’s been the same generic cave each and every time. Well, it’s not entirely the same, as you might enter from a different location and some passageways are blocked where others previously blocked might be open.
It’s not just limited to caves either. The other place you’ll likely notice it is in the various dungeons/hideouts in Kirkwall that your quests might take you or bad guys might be, in addition to a few others outside of Kirkwall. This is probably the main point that is really holding back Dragon Age 2 from being able to stand amongst the great RPGs of yesteryear. It certainly makes only staying in Kirkwall and surrounding areas less appealing as game time drags on. About twelve hours in, on my first play-through, I was longing to escape Kirkwall and pay a visit to the biggest city in the Free Marches, Starkhaven.
After playing the game, I have to admit that the combat has grown on me a little. As I mentioned in my impressions of the combat in the demo, it is Fast paced, flashy and it empowers the player utilising over-powered techniques. Not much has changed it that department, but as I also went on to mention, it is a bit of a spam fest and departure from the more traditional RPG styled combat Origins had. It’s still quite the button masher in some aspects, but it’s less bothersome and only becomes truly annoying in drawn out fights where I might have pressed the A button at least a couple hundred times. A few of the tougher boss fights have left my thumb a little sore from the encounter. In my opinion, the game does just enough to make this aspect relatively unnoticeable except in the scenarios I mentioned.
One of the aspects of combat to me, screams influence from Final Fantasy. Randomly and dare I say, magically appearing enemies. Not so bad/tolerable by itself but couple it with waves of enemies, (Yes, I said waves of enemies) and it becomes a little too much. In the standard encounter, you will beat the enemies on screen, only for a new wave to magically appear ready to avenge their fallen brethren. Some encounters have no additional waves at all, while many have at least 1 or 2 extra. A great and extremely powerful mage (Flemeth maybe?) is definitely at work in the Free Marches, making all these opponents appear for me to slaughter.
Skills and skill trees have been given a bit of a touch up. Warriors can only fight in two handed or one hand and shield style, Rogues in dual wield or archery, while Mages do what Mages do best (casting spells, I think!). In an overview of the skills, there appears to me, that there are a deal less than there were in Origins, though as you progress the skill tree most of your skills can be further upgraded. Whether that compensates for the lower amount of skills remains to be seen. Also different from Origins, is the specialisation skill trees. In Dragon Age 2, only the player character has access to the three specialisations available to each class, while your companions have their own special skill tree that is unique (Except for either of your siblings).
This seems to work well overall, however it seems to be the case that as you get closer to end game, your companions start getting stronger than what you do, if you upgrade their unique skill trees. Something that A) Makes me think that specialisations in general are a bit under powered and B) I am/going to be the Champion of Kirkwall. Why are my associates stronger? I’ve seen a few people raise the point so I’m reasonably confident I’m not imaging it (I hope – heheh). Like Origins though, you will be able to learn your specialisations at levels 7 and 14.
The only specialisation I’ve been impressed by so far is Blood Magic for the mages. It’s one that received a fair bit of criticism for being weak and practically useless in Origins – not worth spending your skill points in or learning, except for the initial stat bonus. In Dragon Age 2, Blood Magic comes across as considerably more useful, albeit it’s still not the great set of offensive spells you might expect it to be as you encounter NPC blood mages throughout the game (Or during Origins for that matter). Why’s it useful, you ask? You’ll find out in just a minute.
One of the other major changes to combat, is to sustained modes. Sustained modes are spells or talents, that are activated and remain activated unless de-activated or removed. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could easily manage four or more sustained modes on your characters, boosting them. In Dragon Age 2 however, they are more consuming in terms of stamina (Warriors/Rogues) or mana (Mages). It’s great in the sense that balances your character better when you have to decide between having more than one sustained mode active, or just the one and being able to use regular abilities. The double-edged sword is that some abilities require a sustained mode be active to be able to use them. It becomes a pain in the arse switching between them to use your abilities. And this, my friends, is why blood magic comes in handy for mages. Because blood magic when activated uses your health to cast spells, instead of mana, you can have multiple sustained modes active without worrying your ability to cast other spells (just protect your mage well).
In Dragon Age 2, Hawke’s companions are mixture of returning characters that featured in some part during Origins or its DLC content and new. For example, a certain (ex)Captain Isabella could be met in Origins and taught the duellist specialisation. Anders was a companion in Dragon Age: Awakening and he’s back with a twist while Merrill featured shortly during the Dalish Elf Origin. Fenris, Avelline, Varick and if you have the DLC, Sebastian Vael are all new. With the exception of Anders, who I haven’t particularly liked since Dragon Age: Awakening, Dragon Age 2 has improved over it’s predecessor in the Companion department.
Like in Origins, your party members will engage in idle chit chat as you walk about. For a lot of the dialogue it’s really worth stopping what you are doing to be able to listen to their banter (unless you’ve got the sound up loud). Again, like before, your party members will have opinions on your actions but Dragon Age 2 seems to have taken this one step further. Provided you the right companions in your party in certain situations, Hawke can lean on them to affect their outcome. In doing so, they might just reveal a certain aspect of their character you were previously unaware of (Fenris surprised me the other day).
Each of your companions will offer up quests to you as the years progress and ultimately offer up more to do than their Origins counterparts. The option to romance your party members makes a return as well and this time, it’s done a little more tastefully. Or less clumsy. You see the initial locking of lips and a bit of hugging, but the awkward “nude” scenes are gone, in favour of a fade to black. For those that aren’t aware, ‘sex’ scenes in Dragon Age: Origins had the models wearing some odd looking under garments. You can search Youtube for Dragon Age: Origins romances for a better picture.
When it comes to Bioware these days, an epic story is pretty much expected in every game. Dragon Age 2 doesn’t fail to deliver in this department. It gets a bit slow in parts but conversely, taking the time to do all the little things makes the story appear much stronger as you get a better picture of everything that’s happening. The style of story telling is different from that in Origins, as the Dwarf Varick narrates the story of the Champion to Cassandra Penderghast, a seeker of the Chantry. We know that our character has changed Thedas for ever and the Chantry is desperately trying to repair things but what happened between the Escape from Lothering and then? That’s what you’ll be finding out.
The game is broken down into acts. Completing the main quests in each act will progress the time line by a number of years. You can spend as long as you like in each act so long as you don’t finish the main quests, which gives you ample time to explore and dig into those side quests. The premise of the timeline progression is that the player gets to see the effects of his (or her) actions upon the city of Kirkwall, something that wasn’t entirely possible given the time frame for Origins (Except between the Origin Story and Main, then Main to the DLC expansions). The bad side of this is the game doesn’t always go into detail as to what you and your companions have been up to during the years you don’t play.
Speaking of quests, out of the box Dragon Age 2 offers a good 10 hours or more over it’s predecessor in terms of game play. While it’s not quite the Elder Scrolls epic in terms of things to do, you can easily squeeze anywhere between 40-60 hours out of your game, exploring and the like. Not everyone likes exploring though, but for those that do, there’s a handful of quests that you might not come across if you don’t explore. In Dragon Age 2, you can also check out your codex as in Origins, that for the lore buffs is great. The codex offers you more insight into Thedas and other things, as you find books, important locations, artefacts and so on.
Crafting is another thing in Dragon Age 2 that has been changed for better or worse. In Origins, Crafting skills (potions, poison, traps and then runes in Awakening) required you to gather or buy crafting resources that were limited and they had to be learned and improved to make use of higher level recipes/plans. In Dragon Age 2 however, there are no longer any crafting skills for the player to learn, instead, he or she must locate these services in Kirkwall. Recipes can be bought to add to the amount of things you can make but crafting resources are essentially unlimited. Once you find a node (for lack of a better word) for a resource, it is available to you always.
The recipes require certain amounts of these resources so it’s up to the player to find as many nodes as they can, with the higher level recipes being more demanding. At the end of the day, beyond recipe demands, the only thing that limits crafting is how full Hawke’s coin purse is. This gives you a little more leeway in testing out the crafting products without worrying too much about wasted resources. Enchantments are also different in Dragon Age 2. You can no longer remove a rune from an item once it is enchanted, so if you add a new rune (if it doesn’t have a free slot available) it will destroy the previously applied one.
First Day DLC
Whether you like it or not, First Day DLC is here to stay. And Bioware certainly do love their First Day/Day One DLC. What’s First Day DLC you ask? It’s downloadable content that is available on the day the game releases. Whether it be a bonus for pre-ordering, a limited edition or from some other promotion (such as this). As is often the case (and it certainly was in Origins), this DLC tends to be quite powerful and acquired in game early on, meaning with few exceptions, you won’t even bother with the standard gear available. Bioware have however bucked that trend slightly with Dragon Age 2, as the majority of First Day DLC I’ve been able to use so far, begins to lose it’s importance after the first year, meaning I have to go out and source new equipment.
Dragon Age 2 is a game that has a lot of potential to exceed it’s predecessor and cement itself as one of the best games of 2011. As I mentioned, the game surprised me with how good it was in comparison to how I felt about the game after playing the demo (grim expectations). It’s no where near perfect though and while it suffers from a few niggly things here and there which can generally be overlooked by what’s great about this game, it’s the big things like recycled environments that really hold Dragon Age 2 back. Were it not for the recycled environments, it’s entirely possible that this game could have been getting a 9 or higher for me, but as it stands it won’t be.