This is a different beast from the previous instalment, and you’ll either love its bold new direction or get stuck seeing the changes. It covers the modern components of a classic RPG by having compelling combat and a diverse storyline with rich and rewarding characterisations. The major change this time around is a greater focus on action and conversation with very little open world exploring.
Dragon Age 2 flows on from the events of the first game. The Darkspawn blight has been defeated and the countryside is in ruins. You play as a noble forced to flee your estates with the remainder of your family in tow. Eventually you are forced to try to make your way to the city of Kirkwall, where you join other refugees trying to gain access. Although entry to a wealthy and handsome game character in foreign climes should normally be fine, you quickly discover that your family’s status now means very little and you are forced to build your life anew amongst the city’s troubled inhabitants. This is a new land known as the Free Marches and the events of the Darkspawn and Grey Wardens seem very far away. Instead, you have local issues to deal with as extremist racial and religious factions in and around Kirkwall seem intent on creating war.
Most gaming situations see you in conversations with key players in each of the sections of city, from those human elements that hold the power (the Viscount, the Chantry and the Templars) to the subversive elements wishing to have more impact in local affairs (the uncompromising Qunari, the impoverished Dalish and the repressed mages). Missions revolve around solving problems and dealing with people rather than necessarily killing monsters or questing for magic items. It’s a refreshing approach. The majority of this game involves coping with the politics of the world, rather than just its monsters. Subtleties abound as you grapple with everyday choices, not only for you and the other characters in your party, but also for the different inhabitants of Kirkwall.
You are encouraged to explore the city to find quests, however the more you play, the more you realise that the overall narrative is fragmented. Each faction places different demands on you and somehow you are slowly forced to choose sides. As you progress, you may well come to appreciate that there is no overall enemy or villain in this game. Rather, there are various interests vying for control and you need to work out how to keep these extremist forces mollified so that the city doesn’t erupt into anarchy. When the forces at play are finally revealed it feels totally justified. How rare is it to play a game where the story is as exciting as the battles?
The combat may surprise you, as it has changed to focus on real time attacks that require you to actively control your character like an action RPG, rather than the style seen in games like ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ or indeed the first Dragon Age, where the character simply repeats an attack once a target is chosen. Fights have now become a frenzy of action, with targets and gore aplenty, and you soon realise that you have to swap between characters in your party in order to unleash the most devastating attacks. The increased focus on action in Dragon Age II recalls the shift between the first and second Mass Effect titles. It’s a change you will either quickly become addicted to or lament. If you go back and play the first Dragon Age, you’ll keenly feel the difference in combat pacing. It’s surprising to receive such a visceral thrill from an RPG combat mechanic.
Dragon Age 2 immediately shines in the graphical department. All character models and facial animations have been drastically improved, so now you don’t look like a demented mannequin every time you cut to a character screen. Voice acting takes centre stage in all conversations, providing a level of intimacy that the first game couldn’t achieve.
The only major gripe is easily identified early in the game. You never get the chance to just go off and explore. Each section comprises either corridors or distinct areas and there is very little you can interact with. You will come across caves and doorways which you can’t enter until you unlock the quest later on. Many missions involve the same house structure or cave map with doors blocked off or removed. You may initially be frustrated by not being able to interact with the world on the level of a game like Morrowind or Red Dead Redemption, but in time you may grow to appreciate just how tightly the game is plotted. Each new character race you meet opens up more problems to be solved. You come across characters that refuse to cooperate with established ones and find that that your efforts are undermined by other unforseen elements. At its heart, Dragon Age 2 is a political fantasy game with a strong combat focus.
It’s up to you, as the player, to decide whether this it to your liking, but this player liked it a lot. It’s rare to play in such a well realised world that the creators are keen for the gamer to experience rather than aimlessly explore and yet BioWare seem provide this again and again.