In a move that is nearly possible to accomplish these days I managed to complete Dragon Age 2 (DA2) in 38 hours, playing it pretty much non-stop when not working over the course of four days. When I say I played it non-stop, I mean I devoured the game, every side quest I could find and even went online to insure that I hadn’t missed anything. In this modern era, at the age of 33, it is far more difficult for me to dedicate that amount of time to any game, much less one game in four days.
The night before DA2 unlocked for me on Impulse (got the signature edition), I completed the Witch Hunt DLC for Dragon Age: Origins. Witch Hunt was literally the last piece of content I completed for the original Dragon Age (DA1). Looking at my Steam account, I see that I invested around 95 hours into DA1, this includes the Awakening expansion and every piece of DLC that was released for it. I mention this only to give you my background into the Dragon Age universe. I have read the comics and both novels as well. I did draw the line at the Facebook game as I definitely don’t have time for another one of those time-drains.
DA2 takes place both during the first game and then follows around ten additional years in the life of the main character Hawke. Your Hawke can be male or female, and a choice of mage, rogue or fighter. Gone are the origin stories of the previous game, as this game tells a rather specific story about one character.
The story of DA2 is certainly one of its key points, which is the case with many BioWare games. DA2 moves you from Ferelden (the setting of DA1), to that of Kirkwall. In fact, DA2 takes place almost entirely within the confines of Kirkwall or its very adjacent areas. Gone are the party moving sequences and gone are the random encounters of the first game. Kirkwall is a town that has been besieged by refugees who have fled the Ferelden Blight. It has also become host to a group of stranded, Qunari warriors, the mysterious, but deadly horned fighters, of which you may recall traveling with one DA1. This has led to a Kirkwall that is rather like a powder keg, ready to explode as the residents despise having any foreigners within their kingdom. In addition, the lives of the mages in Kirkwall, trapped within the Templar’s circle, continue to suffer as they are being cracked down on and in some cases being made tranquil in order to maintain order.
As is often the case in BioWare games, your choices will resonate throughout your game. For starters, the choices you made in DA1 can be imported into the game, which will have at least a slight effect on what is to happen. In addition, you will find yourself making choices that will affect the lives of your family members, romance options and ultimately the fate of the land of Kirkwall itself. It is these stories, blended together that will make-up much of DA2. All of this is actually told through the rather unreliable narration of Varric, a dwarven Rogue who is part of your journey and tells the main story to the Chantry inquisitors.
"…the story does manage to shine in DA2."
More than any other element, I do need to mention that the story does manage to shine in DA2. You have the opportunity, based on your choices, to go on a variety of quests, quests to help others fall in love, fantastical showdowns that likely never happened, quests in which one wrong choice can lead to the deaths of loved ones and of course quests where a wrong move can lead to the death of countless innocents. These elements combine to offer up what is a solid story and a solid group of characters that you play with and encounter, some you may even grow to care about.
When I move to gameplay, I must admit that this one category was a somewhat divisive issue and a part of nearly every discussion about DA2 since BioWare announced that it would be altered from the more tactical DA1 that was released. Gone is the detached camera and what is offered in its place is a more Mass Effect inspired, closer camera experience. This would lead to some slight issues for mages and characters who rely on ranged abilities. Still, despite initial fears, DA2 will still allow you to pause it at any moment and issue orders. This will still be the best method of control as the orders that are directly given are almost always better than the A.I. tactics that you can set.
The melee combat is far more engaging this time around. The abilities tend to come about faster and the combat animations are smoother in general. You definitely are given the opportunity to be a death dealer here and depending on your weapons choices, you can take out entire groups of enemies in a single strike. The abilities that you have access to are more refined, seem to make a bit more sense and feel slightly more useful than in the previous game. My one complaint was that I never felt that my high level melee abilities quite matched those that I used in DA1. Still, I can acknowledge that when used in the proper combinations, the Rogue can deal out massive amounts of damage in a very short amount of time.
Magic use is also a bit more refined this time around. While I appreciate how the skill trees allow you to select a rather diverse amount of choices, this time around you cannot really give healing magic to every mage character. In fact, while it felt like the number of destructive spells increased dramatically, I felt like the number of healing spells diminished significantly. As a result, healing becomes a much more dubious prospect, as you are limited by what spells you can cast and the sometimes dreadfully long cool-down phase of the more powerful healing abilities. Still, due to changes on friendly fire, you can essentially use the best spells whenever you wish without any fear of hurting your party. They also did away with the spam spell Cone of Cold’s ability to freeze literally anything.
Refined is also the best way to describe the whole crafting of resources skills in the game. Because of the way that you collect resources and how seldom you seem to find the types of items that you need to forge runes or make potions, I found myself simply skipping these abilities. I am certain that others made more use of these things, but even in DA1 I was not much of a poison-maker or bomb user. I was also somewhat disappointed in terms of rogue abilities like disarming traps and opening chests. Largely because there weren’t as many traps offered up and that the contents of locked chests seldom seemed to be worth the hassle of keeping a rogue in my party.
A final note on gameplay is the addition of the friends/rivals system. In DA2, all of your characters fit within the spectrum of Friends/Rivals and your actions and choices will influence these levels, in addition to completing the quests for your companions. When you achieve a high enough rating within Friends/Rivals, you will also gain access to special skills and abilities that are unique to that companion. These will also affect your romance options down the road and can even determine whether or not characters leave your party for good.
Graphically, DA2 was a treat for the eyes. Especially once you download the 1GB high-res texture pack. I initially had issues with DX10 being on my PC, but switching in the configurations to DX9 seemed to clear out any real technical issues that I experienced. The spell effects were tight and slowdown on my PC never really reared its ugly head, highlighting yet another advantage to playing on a PC versus a console.
The sound effects were solid and really the helped keep the story moving. The orchestra score was solid, but not nearly as massive or impressive as the one that accompanied DA1. Yet again BioWare managed to knock things out of the park with a great cast of voice actors. From heroes, to allies to villains, the voice acting of DA2 is what really helped make the game feel like an epic experience.
"…I must state emphatically that DA2 is not a perfect game."
While I love the setting, franchise and developer of this series, I must state emphatically that DA2 is not a perfect game. By this point, the game’s many flaws have been detailed exhaustively just about anywhere you look. The game is set in a smaller area and as such you will find yourself revisiting the same areas again and again and again. They reuse assets at such a pace that by about half-way through the game you can pretty much figure out where you are going in certain areas.
DA2 still contains, as current as the end of March, a number of scripting errors. This mainly seems to affect the location and completion of some of the quests you encounter. Certainly I completed some quests that never seemed to clear from my guidebook. I have also seen errors described in terms of items not being where they should be found, as well as conversations that need to happen in order to advance relationships not occurring, although this one did not affect my romance.
I was also very disappointed in the way in which DA2 handled its weapons and armor. For the most part, any armor found by your character could actually only be worn by him/her. There were a few upgrades for your companions hidden throughout the game, but for the most part everything you found only helped you. In addition, the runes you have access to and even really the weapons you find are rather mediocre. I never really felt like any of the weapons I collected were all that powerful in comparison to those found in DA1. I also didn’t like how only rogue-classed characters can use two weapon fighting.
There are also a number of odd difficulty spikes found in the game that are compounded by the magically spawning enemies. DA2 seems to get lazy at some points and just start having wave after wave of enemies appear to artificially increase the difficulty of a particular battle. I would say at about the twentieth time a new wave of enemies appeared, I began to get annoyed. This also seemed to be the pattern of most boss fights or major sidequest enemies.
The boss battles of DA2 do deserve special mention in terms of being set pieces that tend to end each act of the game. I found them to be challenging, but very fun exercises. They often demanded the use of actual tactics and a combination of various character abilities in order to complete them. These are where some will be forced to lower the difficulty, in no small part due to how tough it can be to keep your party healed. One in particular took me over thirty minutes to complete and really tested my tactics and abilities. These battles tended to lend a more epic feel to the game.
Despite the endgame implication that your character had somehow done something truly epic and was a game changer for the world itself, many of you will be somewhat let down. In DA1, you were fighting the incarnation of the Archdemon itself, with the fate of not just Ferelden, but likely the world itself at risk. DA2 is really a much smaller game. Your character gives off the impression of being more self-involved and ultimately you really only manage to directly change things for the lives of those in Kirkwall. I was okay with that, as I get tired of the rather clichéd end-of-world scenarios that most RPGs have you rushing to head off. I like having a smaller story and a set ending to it. There are numerous endings included, but you will see rather quickly that there is little difference overall as the same outcomes seem to be achieved regardless of your choices.
While I enjoyed DA2 and played it like a madman from start to finish, I will not try and oversell the game. It was clearly rushed to the market, being released within 15 months of the previous game – which enjoyed a steady stream of DLC and a major expansion, which was released less than a year before DA2. Still, for a rushed product to still offer a quality story and some memorable gaming moments also needs to be considered. The ending was abrupt and certainly suggests a sequel in the making. In the interim, I am certain that BioWare will offer up a slew of DLC to keep people coming back to the game.
Ultimately, what really tipped the scales for me in DA2 were all the little things that game offered: Varric’s epic confrontation, Aveline’s social awkwardness, Merril’s inability to grasp sarcasm and even Anders’ constant sexual harassment all combine to make DA2 a great game. The cameos of several characters from DA1 are also welcome fan service to those of us who so loved DA1. I cannot stress enough how much your decisions can change things in DA2, in terms of how the game unfolds. You really do make decisions which can lead to the death of family members and even set the stage for different scenarios for at least one major boss battle. There is clearly enough to warrant a second play through. The Mass Effect styled conversation wheel is also a nice addition as it makes it easier to navigate through the dialogue choices.
With all of this being considered, I would say that DA2 is an easy recommendation to fans of DA1 and even newcomers to the series who may appreciate the more streamlined approach to the old-school style RPG. For a rushed product that is still battling bugs, the currently offered product still provides 40 hours of challenging and engaging gameplay. This combines to provide a good, but not great gaming experience.