Over the years Bioware has been widely known as one of the best development houses in the video game industry. When they produce material you can almost guarantee that it's going to be 'gold'. With a resume that includes Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age it's easy to understand why that assumption is nearly immediately given when they release a new title.
Most recently, Bioware released a sequel to its hit 2009 Dragon Age: Origins. Dragon Age: Origins, for those who have never played it, featured a typical Bioware combat and inventory system mixed in with one of the best stories in the last decade. DA turned out to be one of the best games of the 2009 Holiday season and it isn't a surprise that Dragon Age II was guaranteed to be equally as successful... financially.
So how did the sequel compare to the original? Come find out.
The story begins with a man named Hawke, who has fled the nation of Ferelden after the king died. He ends up in a kingdom called Kirkwall, which seems to have some severe racial/social class indifferences. People around the land are becoming displaced due to the Blight and all seem to end up in Kirkwall, a group called the Qunari in particular. The Qunari are a group of hardcore warriors led by The Arishok (big horned guy you see on the game box and in the marketing campaign). The Arishok's intentions are unknown, but the tension he brings to the game is high. With any good game, The Arishok isn't the end of the battle, as a more vicious enemy awaits you (I won't say more). When you get much deeper into the game you learn why and what to expect. There's more to the story, of course, but that's the main body. Getting Hawke from lowerclass status to upperclass, and eventually champion, is the goal in the game ultimately with an almost crescendo in the last act.
This is the first issue I had with Dragon Age II. This is the reason why I don't play any Final Fantasy titles. The disconnect between Origins and this game is pretty severe. The best bridge you get between the two is a mention of the Blight and a brief stint with it (though you will make a return to it later). Other than that, the world that Bioware created for the sequel is pretty much a separate entity, which bothers me to death. I need a connection between the two games, as it clearly deserves a solid one. I appreciate Bioware's desire to expand the game's universe a bit, but this one feels just too separated. You will get cameos from folks from the original, which is a plus, but I feel like it needed more than that. It needed to be a solid slide from the first into the second. I understand why Bioware did what they did with the story and the world, but it doesn't mean I have to like it.
My second issue with the story is how absolutely contained it feels. It was as if Bioware was afraid to break out into the new world. Most of the story takes place inside of Kirkwall and you will have to do a lot of backtracking. For the first half of the game you'll run back and forth between districts inside of Kirkwall. You'll go from the Chantry (which is a high class area) to places like Lowtown, which is what it is named. Quests are indicated by arrows over each part of Kirkwall, so you'll be able to jump back and forth without wasting much time (which is a plus). You never really break away from Kirkwall and that's pretty damn disappointing. The success of Dragon Age: Origins started with defining a gigantic area to adventure through. It was as epic as Middle Earth, and you felt that when you played it. Dragon Age II is like watching Alien, where you know that there are different parts of the Nostromo to adventure through, but you're still very aware that the crew is trapped inside a ship in the gigantic universe. I don't like that trapped feeling and it hurts the game a bit.
With that said, Bioware does try to give you a variety of things to do within Kirkwall in attempt to breaking the monotony of being trapped. There are dozens and dozens of quests to complete; some ranging from difficult to easy-peasy. The quests have a small relation to the overall storyline, but there are some that are rogue. The first game featured quests, but I think this time around Bioware upped the ante with how many you are to go on. It helps that 'trapped' feeling a bit, but it never quite breaks away from it. I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but it feels a little long in the tooth at times. I was discussing this last night with Chris Stone and we both agreed that quests are certainly essential, but there are times when it's basically just a rescue mission or kill mission that serves little purpose to the game other than making you money (or getting you items). By mid game the quests started feeling like something you would run into in an MMORPG, which isn't a good thing. To Dragon Age II's credit the quests do start serving a purpose as you begin spiraling to the end. With all this said, i really do wish that there were more variety in locales like the first game. Maybe the story that Bioware came up with didn't call for that, but the game desperately needs that.
Moving on, but sticking with locations...
You will also find yourself in some uninspired level design, as most places you visit (such as caves) have little to no variety between them. For example, you'll visit the coast more than once and go to eliminate dragons or go to rescue mages from templars and you'll see repeating patterns inside the caves. The overall level design is pretty plain for a game of this caliber. The same thing you'll see in the coast cave you'll end up finding it in mountain caves. Again, it's very plain, drab level design for a game of this importance.
Speaking of confusion, I simply didn't like the inventory/attributes/ability system that was built for Dragon Age II. I could have named these individually, but they relate strongly to each other. The inventory system doesn't work as well, as you'll constantly find yourself collecting a ton of equipment that you can't use right away. You'll also end up moving most of that equipment into your 'stash' at your house until you level up properly. It's like dragging equipment around unnecessarily, which is a huge pain in the ass when you're trying to pick up other stuff. This also leads into why in the world are these three things separate in the menu system? The first Dragon Age did a great job with combining all three into one menu. It was a perfect way to get to know your characters and upgrade, move stuff around, etc. This time around the three things are completely separate menu items, which causes a lot of 'back and forth' movement. Again, much like the backtracking in the game it can get a bit monotonous. That's a minor complaint leading into a major one, which are the attributes leveling.
The leveling itself is pretty much the same, but in relation to your inventory it's a big 'force your hand' situation. Things that most players probably didn't concentrate on too much in the first game, like Dexterity or Constitution, will be a requirement if you want to access or use equipment. Bioware seems to want to force players to do things that gamers may not want to do. If you don't level up these things then you can't use certain armor or weapons. This takes the choice right out of the player's hands and puts it right back on a linear way of thinking. This was one of the brightest spots in Origins, but it seems to have been retooled unnecessarily for the sequel.
As for abilities, I really didn't have a problem with the abilities change that Bioware made. I think it's a bit smoother and easier to use. Instead of having an excel sheet of abilities to choose from you get an flow chart of abilities to choose from. Technically it probably isn't much different than the original, but it seems like it gives you a few more options to choose from in a non-linear fashion.
By this point in the review you have to be asking yourself, "Did this goober like anything about the game?" Surprisingly, despite my issues to this point I think the game is still teetering towards 'worth your time'.
The presentation value was more than I could have asked for from Bioware. I'm not a PC person as much as I'm a console person, so seeing facial detail, armor detail and a basic overall upgrade to the visuals for the game was vital. When people speak in this game their lips and face actually articulate what they're saying; that's a huge deal in comparison to the original. So when you see discontent arise on The Arishok's face you not only get his voice telling you that, but his face is also reinforcing his message. People will tell you that this sort of stuff doesn't weigh heavy with most games today, but those people are complete dumbasses. Getting you into the story or giving more dimension to characters in games like this starts with visuals. Someone in the industry that I know said it best last week when he was talking about graphics. He stated (paraphrasing) that they're the first thing people notice about a game. That statement is completely right and it's the first reason you'll purchase Dragon Age II, especially if you've never played the original. What's even better is that the transition from actual gameplay to cutscenes and back is nearly visually flawless. There just doesn't seem to be much visual separation between the two, which is always a great thing.
Characters aren't the only visual upgrade, as you'll find a lot more depth and less loading in the environments. One of the more breathtaking views is off the coast of one of the mountains. While the path around the mountain isn't very pretty, the background depth with a ship in the sea is pretty darn nice. Good background depth creates fantastic atmosphere, which is a huge plus (see God of War III for examples).
Visuals aside, the music really does help the cause as well. Orchestrated, beautifully at that, you'll find some pretty gorgeous music to go along with the epic title. Inon Zur's soundtrack drives the game and helps add more depth and personality through the adventure. Out of all the elements that Bioware got right with this one, Inon Zur's music is a central point to the presentation. It's perfect for the atmosphere of the game and it makes the game fun. Sounds looney, but the music keeps you going when the quest fails a bit.
One minor thing I would love to mention before wrapping this review up is that the save feature in the game has improved. I know, I know it's sounds stupid, but one of the dragging moments of Dragon Age: Origins was the tedious save feature. Instead of waiting for the game to start when the game starts autosaving Bioware has somehow found a way to keep gameplay going as the game saves. There are little to no stopping points for saving. This rings true when players want to manually save, as the game will instantly come back on when you choose the slot to save your game in. Again, I know it's not a big deal, but for hardcore Dragon Age fans it was a tedious method to save the game in the original.
So is the game fun and is the game worth your money? For me the experience was still good. Despite the feeling of restriction from the overall story and the inventory/leveling system, I still felt somewhat satisfied at the end the game. Regretfully the disconnect between the first and second game left me feeling a bit unsure on what is going to be done with Dragon Age III, but one can only put faith in Bioware that they are going to tie everything together. So, in short the game was still fun to play. Was it better than the first game? Not even close. With the overabundance of quests and the tedious back and forth traveling during gameplay it was difficult to fall in love with the sequel. As a gamer I never fully connected with the story and by the end it didn't leave me begging for more (Dragon Age: Origins made me want to go replay it again -- which I did twice). The game will satisfy those just looking for a questing adventure with a story that shows up later, but it left me feeling a bit starved, as if I didn't get enough to eat.
It's certainly rare for Bioware to produce something that feels a bit unfinished or disappointing, but for this reviewer this game could have used a few more months of developing for a Fall 2011 or early 2012 release. It just seems rushed and not thought through very well.