Dragon Age II isn’t a direct continuation of 2009’s Origins title but does happen to be set in the same world. The focus this time is on the adventures of Hawke, a former resident of the land of Fereldan, who players join as he flees the deadly Blight with his family. He then takes up residence in the nearby town of Kirkwall where events unfold further.After the initial tutorial, masqueraded as the opening scene, it’s revealed that the whole game is actually the recollection of Hawke’s rise to the title of ‘The Champion’ told by his dwarf companion as he’s interrogated by the local religious group. You play through the lengthy gaps between these scenes as he talks them through a decade’s worth of events.
As with all good RPGs (role playing games), players are offered a series of roles to choose from to determine their future skill set and weaponry. The three available are classic options; Warrior, Rogue and Mage. The warrior serves as a physical powerhouse capable of handling two handed weapons or a sword and shield combination. Rogues are faster and more cunning fighters able to handle a bow or dual wielding weapons. The mage is a magic focused individual blessed with an array of spells and the ability to use a staff. Fans of Dragon Age: Origins may be disappointed to know that you are only able to be a human character rather than a dwarf or elf.
Further customisation is available so you can choose your facial features from a number of presets or mould your dream avatar from scratch. A name change is also up to players however the surname of Hawke is fixed. It’s clear at this point that Bioware have certainly put a lot of effort into upgrading the visuals from Origins and it has paid off. Character models are solid, textures have been refined, animations have been smoothed out, facial details are less rigid and the lighting has been given a well deserved boost. This adds up to a game that looks far more in keeping with this generation of consoles.
This has also has an impressive effect on the environments which now have an identity of their own and fit in perfectly with the high fantasy style the game is aiming for. Unfortunately the dungeons are very linear with little room for deviation and are often recycled. This is a shame when the rest of the game world and lore seems so rich in detail. Also in line with the new style there have been changes the various race appearances. The most noticeable being the elves and Qunari who have seen an almost complete redesign.
The developers have been throwing around their intention to make give players the skills to ‘think like a general, fight like a Spartan’ and they’ve stuck to that. Once again you only control on person at one given time but combat is much more immediate so when you press attack…you attack. This eliminates the slightly delayed and less button mashing system that Origins had, but at a cost. Skill trees are now slimmer and seem to lack the variety that made the first title so strategic. On the other hand there will be plenty of people that find this streamlined system to be far superior as it does offer up the immediate thrill of viscerally slicing enemies up into a pile of bloody chunks.
Veterans of the series will be pleased to hear that the macro style tactics are still in place so players can program the actions of their companions. This gives the options to set certain conditions to activate certain abilities or actions which are constantly adhered to by your allies when you aren’t controlling them. For example you can set a character to use a health potion should their health get below 50% or perhaps to use stealth to escape from enemies if they are surrounded by 3 or more opponents. It’s a system that’s very powerful if you want to create a custom set rather than depending on a preset one.
Alongside this, players can still press the L2 trigger to pause the action and bring up the radial menu. This gives access to all the items, skills, spells, movement and tactical options you could ever require. Switching through characters, a single action can be manually triggered should the artificial intelligence fail or perhaps you feel the need for a certain action at that point. This fills the ‘think like a general’ side of Bioware’s intentions and should satisfy those out there who spent the majority of the previous games combat using this feature.
On the list of features to be streamlined is the inventory. Hawke is the only character that can mix and match armour found throughout his adventures. All companions have their preset outfit which can be upgraded a mere four times by finding ‘companion armour’ in very specific places and chapters. This is great limitation when the previous title only limited this based on class i.e. mage, rogue or warrior. Nevertheless other characters can be equipped with various weaponry, belts, rings and amulets. Another absence from Origins is the ability to have two weapon sets. So if you are used to switching between firing arrows from afar before changing to dual daggers for close combat then you’ll possibly be disappointed.
Dragon Age II isn’t just about the combat though. There’s plenty of conversation to be had with both your companions and non playable characters. These have been upgraded with a Mass Effect style dialog wheel and show a sample of what your character will say as well as the intentions/attitude behind it. So if you want to be confrontational then choose the crossed swords response or if you want to offer up a sarcastic response then choose the two masks. This shapes your character and your companions feeling towards you. It’s even more interesting now that Hawke has been given a voice to express his thoughts with.
The attitudes and choices also go towards shaping the world as you play through the game. The overarching story is less grand than Origins save the world premise but does once again focus on the political conflicts especially between Mages and the Templars who don’t trust them. Mix into this the Qunari and their feelings towards humans and it turns out to be quite a bit of potential for chaos. Fortunately to compound the main plot there are plenty of opportunities to complete side quests which drastically increase the longevity of this title.
Bioware have pulled another winning RPG out of their studios with improved visuals, a new striking art style and a intriguing story. However, Dragon Age II is undoubtedly a game that will split opinions. Some will prefer its streamlined and more instantly satisfying approach to combat while others may feel it lacks strategic depth and options, especially in comparison to Dragon Age: Origins. Whether you fit into the former or the latter there’s still plenty to enjoy and a rich adventure to embark on.