Bioware, modern masters of the western role-playing game, can seemingly do no wrong. They’re on a winning streak the likes of which the RPG world hasn’t seen since Final Fantasy games were numbered in single digits. From Knights of the Old Republic through Mass Effect and the original Dragon Age, Bioware has reinvigorated and redefined next-generation role-playing with an astonishing blend of story-telling, intricate character development and rapid, action-oriented gameplay.
With two more entries in their role-playing canon due out this year, Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3, Bioware have high expectations from the video gaming community. Can Dragon Age 2 live up to the heights of the first fantastic fantasy fable?
Dragon Age 2 is a sequel in name only. More intricately connected to the game world created in Dragon Age Origins than a Final Fantasy game but not a follow-up to the same character and plotline as is the case in Mass Effect 2. Instead Dragon Age 2 focuses on another aspect of the grand, broken land of Thedas after the event of Dragon Age have concluded.
Players who have completed the original game are able to bring in their game save to influence some of the political allegiances of Thedas as well as some of the returning secondary characters. This provides some additional motivation for fans of the original but isn’t as dramatic as Mass Effect 2 was.
Dragon Age 2 is told as a flashback, a narrative device not to dissimilar to something like Big Trouble in Little China, complete with the embellishments of an unreliable narrator. Varric, one of your Dwarf companions, recounts the tale of Hawke, “The Champion of Kirkwall,” and his/her rise to power. You play the part of Hawke and, within the span of a decade, you will change the world of Thedas forever.
Far from the mute hero of the first game, Dragon Age 2 features a much more fleshed out main character for you to inhabit and enlists a motley but powerful group of companions to support the player, all of whom are voiced with meticulously wonderful detail.
With thousands of lines of dialogue and hundreds of cut-scenes Dragon Age 2 could become bogged down by expositions if the characters weren’t interesting enough to back it up. Fortunately almost every character is not only voiced exceptionally but also provide excellent counterpoints and companions for Hawke as he rises to power. Simply having some of these characters in your party can mean the difference between life and death, time and time again.
The difference in scale between Dragon Age Origins and the sequel becomes apparent as the player moves through the narrative. Almost the entire game revolves around Hawke’s rise to become the Champion in Kirkwall and the various political and theological problems that he encounters. Far from the continent spanning storyline of the first Dragon Age or the universe spanning plot of Mass Effect, Dragon Age 2 can feel a little restrictive in its approach to telling a fantasy epic.
But this change in scale also lends Dragon Age 2 one of its strongest components, the detail. Kirkwall and the surrounding land has more than enough to keep players enthralled for the 30 plus hours they will spend defending and exploring it. Indeed, by restricting the size of the adventure, Bioware has made the story the focus of the game, rather than the journey.
Like the original, Dragon Age 2 is also influenced by your decisions as you move through the game. A Bioware staple, the decision tree branches with almost every conversation you have with anyone in the Thedas world. Decisions are made easier this time around with the addition of symbols giving an indication of whether you responses will be positive, negative or playful, amongst others. Keeping your nose clean or being a right, royal dickhead is as simple as pie and lets you graft your character in the way you feel right.
You will encounter any number of enemies on your travels throughout Kirkwall and the surrounding dungeons. Whether they be human monsters or monstrous monsters, Dragon Age 2 keeps the enemies varied enough to keep the action fresh and engaging while as allowing players to develop different battle tactics to survive the hoards that threaten within and without.
Combat in Dragon Age 2 has been somewhat simplified to be more accessible and action oriented. That isn’t to say that it’s been dumbed down though; players with advanced skills will be able to tweak and modify the command schemes to astonishing levels and become battlefield gods with enough practice. Aside from controlling Hawke in battle (although players can switch between characters with the press of a button), you can also set up strategies for your remaining companions that will dictate exactly how they perform in battle, something along the lines of Final Fantasy XIII but with more fluidity.
As Hawke and his companions become stronger and more powerful they open up greater abilities that assist in battle. Choosing where each characters strengths lie is crucial to balancing your party throughout the game, too many strength weak mages and your party will suffer, but conversely too many melee heavy warriors and ranged enemies will become impossible. With dozens of options available for each class, multiple replays will be mandatory for any completists looking for the full Dragon Age 2 experience
Dragon Age 2 does suffer some slight graphical issues at times and can be a pain to load, but considering some of the epic battles that players encounter as magic flies about the dozens of participants in some fights, Bioware have done an astonishing job at maintaining exceptional quality for the majority of the time.
As good as Dragon Age 2 is, there is still a lingering thought that Bioware are just teasing role-playing fans with what is yet to come with the almost inevitable sequel. But with fantastic moral elements coupled to an engaging story and breath-taking characters, Dragon Age 2 is still an amazing entry to the Bioware winning streak. One can only imagine what they have in store for us with Mass Effect 3.