Dragon Age II Xbox 360 Review
Publisher – EA – Developer – BioWare – Genre – Action RPG – Players – 1 – Age Rating – 16+ – Other console/handheld formats – PS3
It’s difficult for sequels, I mean, look at what happened with Matrix Reloaded. Dragon Age II could easily be seen as a quick buck, with BioWare capitalising on the success of Mass Effect and exporting the accessibility of the game to the Dragon Age franchise; surprisingly, however, it possesses detailed, morally ambiguous quests and engaging characters beneath the shiny exterior. Gone is the traditional tactical battle system, instead DA II touts an explosive action orientated battle system which is innovative for the series as is the fully voiced main character. However corners have been cut and it’s not just the sacrifice of traditional RPG elements on the altar. Technical issues and asset recycling unfortunately leave the game feeling cheap in places, as if the enemies are just LARPers and the scenery might blow over any second. However despite the sometimes inconsistent level of polish, when it all comes together it impresses with some of the best. The focus on character development suggests that this is more of a flirtatious stop-gap before the next big step in the series. And to be fair, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of sex drama?
Fronting the almost 180° turn of the franchise, DA II is not in fact a direct sequel. The game tells the story of Hawke, a refuge of Ferelden due to events in Dragon Age: Origins who flees with his/her family to the city of Kirkwall. Events that occurred in DA: Origins can be imported as is common with BioWare titles but in order not to alienate new players this has little effect on the game. The game has 3 very distinct sections, which play out over the ten years of the game but the plot focus is vague; the hero’s journey structure is there but it lacks pace. To begin with a sum of money must be collected to go an expedition, which between various side-quests is a decent chunk of game-time. After such a build up to the expedition and figurative neon lights pointing at ‘bad evil stuff is going down’, it’s a real anti-climax to end up in the city again. Many years then pass as Hawke lives in luxury while sorting out some of the other refuges in the city. Hypocrisy, anyone? It’s not actually until the end of the game that the impending doom narrative kick brings the excitement in, which is frustrating. True enough, many of the choices made in the game have effects on the outcome of characters and events but over all it lacks drive or purpose. Its main function seems to be as a backdrop for chasing tail.
Having said that, I was quite open to DA II’s attempt to court me with its most splendid asset: its art style. Lavishly detailed hand-drawn murals and depictions of scenes described by the narrator coaxed my TV to display works worthy of being hung from any fantasy fan’s walls. This use of dark, minimally animated visuals was expertly used to lay the atmosphere down and, along with the sweeping orchestrated soundtrack, makes them probably DA II’s most salubrious elements. They also adorn the display during the many, many loading screens, but pretty pictures are pretty pictures. The Unreal engine is not being stretched on the Xbox 360 version, but the occasionally choppy frame-rate, disappearing characters, cut-off voice acting and even punctuation errors are not welcome. The real grimace point for me was when I ‘clip-walked’ through a huge dragon corpse. Also the strange Playmobile hair thing is still doing the rounds, although it’s far from ugly. Personally I quite like the new character design which has a slightly comic feel to it, even if most of the women seem to be remarkably well endowed, even Hawke’s mother. DA II has been undeniably well attended to on the presentation front and consistently sets a dark tone throughout.
It’s a shame however that Kirkwall itself is a claustrophobic, bland, empty place. The majority of the game is spent here and while there are various fluff reasons for nonsensical twisty street layouts, it never feels like a real place. The markets are devoid of bustle, docks lacking villainy and city gates harbouring no refuges; it just doesn’t match the information collected in conversation or from the plethora of books scattered around the gameworld. Regardless of whether this was an artistic design decision or due to budget restraints, the city ultimately feels unlived in and hollow. Even when opportunities to leave the city into the surrounding area appear, the feeling of escape is short lived. Only 3 maps present themselves, two of which are just day and night versions of Kirkwall, functional but they emphasises the feeling of being trapped. There are only a handful of unique outdoor areas and all of the dungeons save a few are recycled without even a lick of paint or blocking of areas. This also applies to the city, there was at least one instance where a quest led to a house that had exactly the same layout and contents (minus a dog, whinny mother and uncle) as Hawke’s home. This blatant re-use of assets can’t help but make me feel there was a lack of fervidness from the developers in developing the game world. Kirkwall could have been a very interesting place and the concept is intriguing, but as it stands Kirkwall feels more like the prison it once was than a city of dangerous opportunity.
Despite this when it comes to perforating flesh, DA II delivers fountains of blood that would make Lilarcor giddy. The combat system has been given quite the overhaul since its first outing and now boasts a much more visceral experience. Combat has a sense of energy, immediacy and chaos as enemies fly through the blood and magic-seared air, all gloriously envisioned by the tactical pause function. My rogue Hawke backstabs flitting in and out of the shadows as the tank crushes bones and mages rain fire from the sky – it’s probably the most visually explosive RPG combat I’ve played. The skill trees offer some interesting options, particularly the class-combos where rogues can inflict damage multipliers due to warriors stunning enemies or mages freezing their prey.
Difficulty-wise normal can be a button mashing fest, but hard and nightmare will give the veterans and strategy types a stiff challenge. Companions (up to 3) can be programmed with a fairly comprehensive set of commands cutting out the micro management faff (a godsend when playing on a pad) the majority of the time and is rewarding of clever troop designs. However on the harder difficulties it can feel like the enemies just have more health and hit harder as opposed to being smarter, which is likely the case. It doesn’t help that the game likes to spawn in waves of enemies, in plain sight I might add just after finishing the first wave. It feels like a cheap trick to extend the battles rather than make them epic. That said the suitably menacing monster design such as the ogres, desire demons and shades (even if they do look a bit like floating Geth) are fun to fight, but where are the damn dragons? I only fought three! Dragon Age, more like Bandit Age. Overall though, the combat is fun and delivers a fast paced action orientated experience which will probably irritate the hardcore no end; but after seeing Fenris jump through a cloud of blood to smash an enemy in the head with his giant two-handed sword, I was pretty much sold.
While the combat has been given a completely new face the RPG elements have mainly just been simplified. Sadly the only playable race is human (sorry elf and dwarf lovers) which makes sense taking the voice acting into consideration, but instead seems to reflect the racist under-tones of the game world. Hawke is the only fully customisable character – armour is restricted for companions – I must admit I missed the jigsaw puzzle of outfitting my team to take full advantage of their equipment. Grumblings of a Baldur’s Gate veteran aside, don’t worry there is plenty of rummaging through crates for junk, selling said junk, buying potions, looting bodies, comparing weapons DPS and all of the usual RPG lark, just with a lot less button pushing.
To be fair though, the real meat of DA II lies in the characters and side-quests. The role-playing takes front stage in DA II with its well developed relationships. All of the companions have various quests and some, if feeling so inclined, can be develop into full blown love interests regardless of sex. Early on Hawke can be down right sleazy with remarks such as, “Oh, I don’t mind a bit of pain” and “at least he’s got a nice body” often leaving me wanting to punch my female avatar straight in her smug trap. However the romances can actually develop into much more delicate relationships, the writing is generally quite good and is married by some excellent voice-acting. Inter companion dialogue is also frequent and interesting, even funny. Isabelle (Captain Sparrow meets Lara Croft) and Aveline (Jaheira clone with a splash of lawful good) interactions are of particular mention, I reckon they could base a game purely around those characters alone.
The side-quests have some very interesting characters also and present difficult moral decisions to make. In fact, they often provide more sustenance than the main plot does. How should I aid a blood mage gripped by a demon? Do I kill him and risk disapproval from my companions and employer alike or do I let him go despite what he’s done? The main plot also pitches decisions having need of the old moral compass but there is something more involving about the smaller quests. This is probably due to the game focusing maybe a bit too much on the relationship between Hawke and friends but it certainly does this well.
Thoughtfully designed character interaction and player choices define the core of Dragon Age II. It’s well supported by interesting side-quests and on the whole excellently delivered by a wealth of voice-acting. Despite a pedestrian main plot it maintained enough interest to keep me coming back which most certainly increased as I become more involved with the characters. Stylistically excellent from storyboards to cut-scenes, the atmosphere is consistently dark and broody. The exciting combat does have some issues with balancing and structure but it makes up for it with sheer energy and willingness to try something new. It’s a shame that the game world feels less of a place to explore but more a social hub. A contained experiment then for turning the series into an action-drama and placeholder than a true sequel, but it does it well. So the game is mainly an elaborate romance with a hefty slab of action and quest hunting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Dragon Age II: The Booty Years, will not be held up high as a classic RPG in years to come but for those that can look past the blemishes, this one might just be your type.