You’ve got red on you…
To make Origins, BioWare re-animated the corpse of J.R.R. Tolkien and from the recesses of his mind the land of Thedias was born. To this, they added religious intolerance, inherent racism and a mythological backstory which was compelling enough to get even the most die-hard fantasy RPG geek excited. Once this new, epic world was created and brimming with potential for large scale battles, subtle plot twists and under-lying political tensions – BioWare dumped Tolkien back in his grave and left him spinning by whacking an industry standard ‘Kill the bad guy’ plot on top. Dragon Age 2 attempts to rectify its predecessor’s mistakes by making full use of the large scale and wonderful world that BioWare created. It’s an RPG that wears its mythology proudly, which is something that to my mind makes it stand out from the crowd.
Our opening scene to Dragon Age 2 introduces us to Hawke – He or She (your choice!) starts Dragon Age as a refugee from Lothering. For those of you who are not familiar with the original Dragon Age, Lothering was a city wiped clean off the map by a horde of Orc-like creatures, the Darkspawn, who were the main focus of the Origin’s plotline. Hawke managed to escape, with family in tow. What follows is a fractured dash across “the Wounded Coast” with a group of generally dull companions, culminating in a rather messy combat finale. It’s a clumsy opening that takes Dragon Age 2 several hours to get over, as the game charts Hawke’s rise from straggly refugee to the Champion of Kirkwall.
I had to make a genuine choice…
The main plot of Dragon Age 2 is presented as a ‘story-within-a-story’, as told by an associate of Hawke’s. The effect of this is that you are playing the edited highlights of Hawkes adventures in Thedias – no more boring goblin-slaying, getting lost and other general periods of down-time. It’s all action, all of the time. The decision to tell Hawkes’ story in this way is a clever one, stripping out a lot of the drudgery which can sometimes make RPG’s like this feel like a chore. It also allows the story to cover a much greater timespan than most – 10 years, to be precise. In this time-frame you follow Hawke from bedraggled escapee to world-conquering hero, but it’s not a straightforward rise to glory.
The main plot takes place in three distinct affairs – visiting significant moments in Hawkes life, sometimes with years passing between each episode with Hawke and the gang. While each section of the story line feels some-what cut off from the last, the episodic feel actually works well at delivering long plot threads over the course of a decade or so. Unfortunately, the major plot line isn’t established until the very end, making the previous 30 hours of game play feel somewhat redundant. The main plot may feel like a pointless blunder, but there are plenty of more interesting side quests that keep you pleasantly distracted. It’s fun, really, even if it lacks some of the focus you’d expect from a company with Bioware’s pedigree.
The game’s developers have understandable copied Mass Effect’s conversation wheel and split most interactions into a three tiered system: saintly, aggressive, and the somewhat harsh cheeky. Only on very rare occasions did I feel limited by the choices of dialogue that were presented to me. Normally, I approach ‘moral’ games with the fullest intention of being the bad-ass punk rebel, swearing at kids and flipping off old ladies, but ended up as the reincarnation of some major saint, forfeiting rewards and helping kittens stuck in trees. With Dragon Age 2 I found myself flipping between responses depending on the situation – actually using the full dialogue spectrum, aware that I wouldn’t be punished heavily by deciding to be mean to one minor character.
Of course, as with any RPG the dialogue is second to the missions that our hero find himself recruited for. Most missions on DA2 are simple journeys A to B – often culminating in a giant battle at the end and a bit of chat to break it all up. Every single one of these side missions feel like they add something to the overall myth of the Dragon Age 2 world – be it a small piece of a much larger puzzle or a piece of lore that explains a piece of long forgotten plot line. In fact, even after I gained a reputation as Hawke, odd jobs made up most of the game. Kirkwall’s various political factions, criminal enterprises, and shop owners apparently spend most of their time asking adventurers to solve their problems. As a result of so many sub-plots and side-quests it is often difficult to determine where and when the main plot is moving forward, but eventually over many hours the plot is teased out, before finally coming into sharp focus with a thrilling finale.
One of my main concerns with Dragon Age: Origins was the lack of a real world map in which to explore, unlike rivals such as Elder Scrolls. Had I have known that the vast majority of Dragon Age 2 takes place within the same city; I think I would have appreciated Fereldens Map just a bit more. Outside of a few trips to the Deep Roads and a saunter to a Dalish camp, everything in Dragon Age 2 happens in Kirkwall. At first, I felt a little let down by the lack of escape from that single city, but ten years in the same place has its benefits: knowing a city backwards allowed me to fully appreciate what BioWare have created.
Dragon Age: Origins promised so much with its moral choices, and nine times out of ten failed to deliver. It was just too easy to worm your way out of situations with the right words or the sharp end of a sword. Dragon Age 2 however presents you with moral conundrums, which not only affect the plot line immediately, but have lasting ramifications throughout the game. For example, early on in the story line, I rescued a Mage from the grasps of the Templars. Three game-years later, his mother confronted me saying her son had entered the fade (a dream-like world) and ran the risk of becoming possessed by a power hungry demon. It was at this point I had to make a genuine choice, and one that I truly agonised over for some considerable time. Do I perform the magical equivalent of a frontal lobotomy and sever the boy’s magical ties to the Fade, or do I let him continue his path towards destruction but save him from an IQ roughly equal to that of a cabbage? In any other game, I would have let the boy become more of a danger to society and wandered off down the road, without a care in the world until the time came to slay him – but you just never know when a seemingly innocent decision in Dragon Age 2 will come back to bite you in the ass. In the end I performed the lobotomy, leaving the poor boy mumbling to himself as he wanders aimlessly around the city. Not only does this add real gravity to the game, it means that on a second play-through of DA2, one choice made differently may result in an entire new experience.
DA2’s combat is something of a double-edged sword (if you excuse the pun!). The class system has been
streamlined and redefined. For each class, every combat skill kills something in a new and exciting way. However, while in Origins, you built your own character from scratch, choosing gender, race (human, dwarf or elf) and class (warrior, rogue or mage) in its sequel, you are cast as Hawke – a human warrior from the kingdom of Ferelden. You can customise Hawke’s gender, appearance and class but, much in the same way as Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard, you are painting in the details of a character already framed. Skills on offer are well executed, varied, and more importantly each skill has a direct function – whether it be a move to catapult you out of a sticky situation with a backflip, or something which causes enemies to explode into a fine pink mist.
Like its predecessor, Dragon Age 2 is extremely violent, with blood splattering everywhere, as if the city of Kirkwall is populated by haemophiliacs with high blood pressure who explode at the sight of a slightly sharpened letter opener.
There are however several flaws in Dragon Age 2’s near perfect diamond – the overall tale of Hawkes rise from refugee to champion of Kirkwall is a little too fractured, and highlights just how little intrigue Kirkwall has to offer. It’s almost like the entire city stops for years at a time until Hawke is ready to return to do some more indiscriminate killing on the streets. In its attempt to streamline Dragon Age, it is all too clear where BioWare went a bit too far – only Hawke can change his armour around properly, while all other characters rely on a default set of items, carefully disguised as upgrades. What’s more, these characters are simply less likeable than the companions of Origins – the likes of Alistair and Morrigan have been replaced with dull Elves and sex obsessed pirates. Which admittedly some may prefer.
Despite all its shortcomings, Dragon Age 2 must be acknowledged as a step in the right direction for the Dragon Age series – a greater focus on plot and morality boosts the gravity and involvement of the plot, while a refined combat system injects some serious innovation and pace.
The Bad: Struggles with plotline. All set in one city.