Second games in a trilogy are problematic for every franchise. The question of how much to keep, what to get rid of, and how many new things to add is far more art than science. Dragon Age: Origins was such a triumph of an RPG that its sequel was unlikely to measure up no matter what it did. Compared to other console RPGs, Dragon Age II holds up well. It just doesn't hold a candle to the original. The only things really wrong with it are numerous nuisance-level bugs, which are already fixed on the PC version by a patch, coming soon to consoles.
When I gave the game its score, I based it not on a comparison to the first game, but what it attempts to do and how well it succeeds in doing it on its own. The game feels like a frustrated younger sibling, living in the shadow of an over-achieving older kid. The story even features many nods to the bitterness of being a younger brother. In trying to be different, a lot of things inevitably get screwed up. But in the end, what emerges is good in its own right. It may make a terrible first impression, but I grew to love it.
The reason it took so long to get this review completed is that I only began to really connect with Dragon Age II in its closing chapters. I decided to give it a second play-through, and I enjoyed it far more through the second spin, then found more new things on the third. By this point, I was judging it on its own merits, not in comparison to Origins, and discovered a great little companion RPG. Unfortunately, testing this "little" game was 200 hours of my life. The moral: there is nothing little about any traditional RPG.
The truly amazing thing about the title is how much it changes with the decisions you make. Your party evolves with you in subtle ways. Hawke's dialogue with random townspeople is affected by how you play. Your path to the finish line is radically different each time, and, I eventually got hooked to the point where I'm distracted while writing this review: I want to go back and play some more, despite all the disappointments.
The choice you have to make in purchasing Dragon Age II is one of how much time you're willing to give it, and how much you're willing to forgive in comparison to its predecessor. Instead of a massive collection of awesome like the first game was, Dragon Age II is a series of tiny, subtle triumphs. It plays like drinking an unfiltered wine: you tolerate the unpleasant bits because the overall experience is enjoyable once you've acquired the taste. The story doesn't travel as far, but it definitely goes deep. There are no easy moral choices here, very little simple good and evil.
Before we get into story and character points, the controls are still functional and the base gameplay is relatively unchanged. There is enough customization with the control scheme that you don't spend the whole game holding down the left bumper to navigate menus. I appreciated this.
There are some small improvements in playability from DA:O. The gift mechanic has been cleaned up so that the only ones you have to worry about are the character-specific items. There is no longer any guesswork in regards to which characters like which things. Also, the skills tab that held things like herbalism, lock-picking, poison use, etc, has been done away with. Skills are now tied to attribute stats, the way they always should have been.
But then there are the bugs...
We were all waiting for the point when the EA acquisition of Bioware would start to show symptoms of an emphasis of profit over quality. Dragon Age II shipped as a product clearly rushed through the quality assurance department. Nothing froze, hung, or crashed, but there are quests you can't complete, items you can't pick up, and dialogue options that don't make sense. Near the end of the game, a cut scene even completely repeats. There's nothing catastrophic, it's just... annoying. I spun through the title on PC to look into the future, and that patch corrects all these issues. Long term it isn't a big deal. It's just a symbol of big corporate eating an important part of a smaller company previously known for its quality standards.
Somehow, though, Bioware managed to produce an experimental art piece with the blessing of big bad EA, provided they met the release deadline. For this risk, I think they should be rewarded even if it doesn't always work.
Like its predecessor, Dragon Age II warns you right off the bat that this won't be a cakewalk for the "champion", a quasi-customizable protagonist named Hawke. But unlike Dragon Age: Origins, this champion can only be a human from the lower rungs of the nobility. There's no option to be a dwarf or an elf. This thoroughly sucked, but within the confines of this story, had to happen.
Hawke's family brother Carver, his twin sister Bethany, and the nagging family matriarch Leandra -- is on the run from the Darkspawn at the beginning of the sequel, as the town of Lothering is overrun by the Blight. They meet up with a soldier fleeing Ostagar named Aveline, and they head to Kirkwall, where the rest of the game is set. Shortly after this prologue, the game jumps ahead a year, continuing after the events of Dragon Age: Origins.
If all of that read like a jumble because you haven't played the first game... er, you may want to play Origins first. If you want to completely understand what's going on, you also have to play the Awakening expansion. Furthermore, loading a saved DA:O profile rewards you with numerous references to the impact you made on the world in your first game. There are even specific side quests connected to some of them. This element is very cool, as it causes subtle shifts in some dialogues that are glimpses of the Bioware attention to detail peeking out through the EA assembly line.
However, Dragon Age 2 attempts to create a compromise between the layered, complex storytelling of its predecessor and the action-oriented cinematic dialogue of Bioware's Mass Effect series, with some Fable-ization thrown in too. Personally, I have an love-hate relationship with cinematic dialogue options, and this change felt like selling out to flash over substance. While certain moments are definitely more exciting, funny, and/or poignant due to this interactive movie format, it eats up memory meaning there's less story and it brings with it some dialogue prompts that don't completely match up to what your character ends up saying. I took more than a few accidental approval knocks from a party character because of this.
But the new way looks prettier, and there's a lot less camp chatter. So I am well aware I'm representing the minority opinion on this point. If you're a hardcore who preferred the first Dragon Age to Mass Effect... well, we just have to just accept that the glory days of text in role-playing games are over.
Getting into the RPG elements, the new characters are enjoyable, even if they carry a bit of a whiff of "leftover ideas". The most instantly lovable new companion is Merrill, a nervous, awkward Dalish elf blood mage who is equal parts cute and creepy. She's good in a fight, and her quests take you inside some of the philosophical tensions within the Dalish. She's the "good girl who isn't so good" type that Bioware is fond of.
Aveline and Fenris, two fighter class companions, take longer to like. Refreshingly, Aveline actually is pegged into the Bioware gruff giant role (think Sten from the first game). I have a huge love for female tanks, so this scored major points with me. The thing that makes Aveline inevitably adorable is her awkward romance with another guard, but apparently the writers were so enamoured of that storyline that a romance option with her isn't possible, ruling out the only potential partner who isn't a crazy bitch... male or female.
Fenris is an escaped elf slave with lyrium burned into his skin like tribal tattoos, and the pain and bitterness left over from that process makes him a male crazy bitch. He's Kirkwall's answer to a goth kid, but he's a good front line fighter whose special move is what's referred to in-game as a "magic fisting thing". He's that tortured soul type calibrated to make girls swoon, but this facade starts to show cracks as the game continues, and when his slave mentality emerges through his bravado, it's actually quite fascinating.
Rounding out the romanceable (is that even a word) crazy bitches are companion characters who first appeared in either Origins or Awakening. Isabela was a minor rogue character in DA:O, but stands on her own quite well as a female Jack Sparrow type a reckless but ultimately moral pirate who frequently has to seek treatment for STDs. She fills the "likable slut" trope that Bioware always includes in its games, and she's much more than spank material. Isabella doesn't really have much invested in impulse control though, and she's drunk, immature, and violent a lot, making her a crazy, if fun, bitch.
Anders, on the other hand, is the best party healer available to you, and is definitely more interesting if you know his full Awakenings back story. But he's possibly the craziest bitch of the crazy bitches, and he fills the man-slut role Zevran took in Origins. Anders' angst involves a cat he had to give away, a break from both the Circle of Magi and the Grey Wardens, and a relationship with another male mage that doesn't end happy. Yes, Anders has a boyfriend. You have been warned, homophobes.
Rounding out the party is the lone dwarf character (who you can't date! What is with that?!). Varric is the narrator of the game's story-within-a-story, and a dyed-in-the-wool Captain Sassypants. Varric is crazy he has an abnormal relationship with his crossbow, Bianca but he is not a bitch, and part of his in-game job is to make the crazy bitch characters more likable by mercilessly mocking them. Through this, he cleanses away the emo, which would otherwise burn like a thousand suns as Anders and Fenris constantly complain about how terrible their lives are.
The bitching here has a purpose, however: to hammer home the central concept of what the game is about: Kirkwall is seriously screwed, and you're stuck there. What do you do? The giant, warlike, evangelically religious Qunari are squatting in its docks district. The place is also overrun by refugees looking to escape the Blight. More and more mages are turning to blood magic (a practice that is crazy and bitchy, and may contain demons). The templars, meanwhile, are resorting to fascism to keep order... because their leader, Knight Commander Meredith, is rumored to be a crazy bitch. And don't look to the Chantry the dominant church in Thedas to do anything about that. Crazy bitches in the organization mean even the devoutly religious can't have nice things.
The sheer amount of "crazy bitch" is the game's crowning achievement: everyone has an understandable perspective, but every single one of those perspectives is undermined by zealotry and desperation. With no existential threat to unite them, the various factions of Kirkwall are tearing the city apart.
Because there's so much to establish, early levels meander, since you're basically quest grinding to earn gold, and in the process, you stumble on characters and build your party. This was a result of having to tie things in to the events of the Blight in Origins, while finding a new reason for being in the sequel. A second blight would have made no sense.
Some things are the same, however, like an antagonist driven mad by devotion to duty. Knight Commander Meredith should have made an on-screen appearance much sooner, because she's strong, she's fiercely devoted to her cause, and she scares the piss out of anyone sane. Her presence is diluted, however, by a bevy of scowling hot girl sub-villains that are symptoms of the destructive lies the gaming industry tells itself re: what players want. However insufficient Meredith's role is, though, the fact that she's there at all shows that Bioware trusts its players to accept an older woman as something other than a nurturer. Yay!
Fortunately the mid-level gameplay picks up, thanks to learning more about your how screwed up your party members are. Then there are the repeated parlays with the Arishok, the warlike but principled leader of the stranded Qunari. The Arishok is a fantastic character, his story is great, and he could out badass Chuck Norris.
Then those singularly Dragon Age moments you don't see coming, but should have, start being thrown at you. There are plenty of heart-wrenchers, lots of laughs, and the climactic bang is a big one, both visually, and by what it represents. If the goal of Dragon Age II was to prime players for Dragon Age III, it succeeds. I want that game out NOW, damn it!
But I would rather wait until it's ready. And I hope that Dragon Age III is more like Origins and less like Dragon Age II, which seems to be what it's been set up to be. I'll give Bioware points for trying to do something different in their world, but they really did have it right the first time in terms of character building and the scope of the story.
And in Dragon Age III, maybe we'll finally be able to romance a dwarf! Why do dwarves get no love?! Some of us like dwarves!