Dragon Age II Review
Over the last decade-plus, BioWare hasn't really made a bad game. Sure, there are a few people out there that just detest Jade Empire or couldn't stand the mildly-compromised action in the first Mass Effect, but most people have absolutely loved every BioWare game going back quite a while now. Such is the case with Dragon Age II, but BioWare's sliding onto some pretty thin ice with this release.
This game doesn't so much continue the tale of Ferelden and the beginning and end of a Darkspawn-swarming Blight as it throws it all out, instead telling the story of a few unrelated people somewhere else entirely, doing something altogether less important than what we saw in the first game. It almost feels like the first Dragon Age would have been the better sequel.
There are some major positives to the structure of Dragon Age II, and most of them pay off early. First, you get to immediately start playing in a big city, and don't have to wade through hours of gameplay to see the epic scale you expect out of a big RPG. Unfortunately, you rarely leave the city itself, and there's no real epic sense of anything else here: there's no preordained villain, there's no journey, there's no prophecy or destination to travel to. Gamers have given BioWare a bit of crap over the years for offering up similar "become the chosen one and fulfill the prophecy" stories, but maybe this is going too far in the other direction.
Still, your adventures are mostly true to the Dragon Age name and style, and the new characters you travel with, and even plenty of the ones you fight, are just as interesting and unique as you expect out of the Canadian studio. Combat involves a pretty standard range of enemies and monsters, and while it's obvious that BioWare wanted to make things feel bigger and badder than the first game, they had some technical issues to overcome, too. The biggest one is that putting a dozen or more combatants on the screen at once gets a bit taxing, so your enemies appear usually in three or four waves. They often appear behind you, too, leading you to wonder where all these monster closets are. In fact, it seems that most of the monster-type enemies (and even many humanoids) have been set up to simply appear in a cloud of smoke, so your strategic plans will have to wait until the fight starts. In addition, the same estate/mansion and underground cavern level designs are reused over and over in DA2, and while they've done this before - Mass Effect 1's exploration-oriented planet missions are the most obvious example - here, you'll see it in quite a few of the major story quests.
Much has been said about the removal of the high-level "tactical" view in this PC version of Dragon Age II, but I found that it's not really an issue once you get started playing. I was still easily able to swap around between the four characters in the party, issuing orders and picking my favorite people to control. And fighting here is quite a bit more exciting, too, as you'll find that all classes have larger-than-life moves. Mages spin and flourish as they fire projectiles from their staves (and casted spells are more explosive). Rogues dash, cartwheel, and fly into combat. Warriors, well, OK - warriors aren't that much different. Enemies burst into exaggerated showers of blood and body parts, reminding you more of a comic book than a gritty, realistic depiction of combat.
The old spell combo system - the option to combine one character's abilities in a certain order for maximum effect - has been replaced with what BioWare has named cross-class combos. You can put an enemy into a weakened state (disoriented, staggered, brittle, and the like) with one character, and then you use another character's ability that takes advantage of that temporary weakness. The problem I found is that you have to get pretty meticulous with your party's tactics slots to make it work. You see, the issue is that most of these abilities have cooldowns far longer than the actual Disorient-type states last, and the AI will gladly use these abilities when you're not controlling that particular character. You'll weaken a monster with one party member, then switch to another for a nice finish, only to find that the AI has just used the ability, probably on an altogether different enemy. You can use the tactics system to disable automatic use of certain powers to work around the problem, and these combos aren't even really necessary to win on normal difficulty, but anyone cranking up the difficulty is going to find themselves fighting with, not working with, the party AI.
If it seems like I'm glossing over what many gamers consider to be the strongest part of a BioWare game - the character choices and the personalities you meet - I'm doing that purposely. Since this is now by far the most enjoyable part of the game, and in many ways the only part that stays entirely true to the first Dragon Age, I want you to experience that without any semblance of spoilers at all.
It's not that Dragon Age II is less of a game than its predecessor, but the concept and plot aren't nearly as far-reaching. If you don't mind a smaller story driving yet another signature game from one of the world's best RPG developers, then you'll have fun, even if the combat is just a little off-putting in ways that become apparent in tougher fights. Considering that Dragon Age II was made in less than a year and a half, it seems that they realized they couldn't make a game with the same scope as the first Dragon Age (which took more than five years to finish). Maybe BioWare should have insisted that EA let them devote a full two years to this game, but if they actually did and EA refused, then that could be the first real sign that the big bad publisher might be getting a little too greedy with BioWare. The team certainly did still manage to ship a huge and satisfying game after having only had a relatively short amount of time in development, but RPG fans have some pretty high-level expectations, and the final product here simply fails to live up to many of them.
Dragon Age II is a fine RPG, but it lacks the kind of lofty ambition that has made BioWare famous. All I can hope for is that a good two or three years is spent on the next game, and that it comes out swinging with a much more hard-hitting story.