Dragon Age II Review

Difficulty played on: All of them for at least 5 hours, mostly played on Normal.

Hours played: Roughly 65 hours

Console played on: Xbox 360

            Dragon Age II is one of the worst Bioware games I have ever played. It’s a real testament to the quality of their work, then, when their worst still manages to be so great.

            Bioware had a surprise hit with Dragon Age: Origins. It offered an old-school tactics based fantasy RPG clothed in the garments of a modern RPG, which appealed to a wide range of people. It featured an epic story covering the massive nation of Ferelden, a wide assortment of interesting and lovable characters, a deep and rewarding combat system, difficult decision making that changed the entire world, and one down-right hideous example of modern graphics. It was an instant classic, receiving both commercial success and critical acclaim. It was a given that a sequel would eventually be in the works. When Dragon Age II was finally announced, it had a lot live up to, and up to its release, it seemed as if it would succeed. The sequel takes a much different direction then the original. It isn’t an epic tale; it’s a personal one. The combat works just as well as a hack n’ slash as it does a tactics based game. The majority of the game is set in one city, and follows a structure that is completely different than all other Bioware RPGs. The dialogue system is taken right from Mass Effect, and you will finally have a voiced character. On paper, the concept for Dragon Age II is very ambitious, and could have allowed for many interesting gameplay and story elements that haven’t been seen before in gaming. However, the finished product just barely falls short in most regards, and ends up feeling rushed and incomplete. Yet it does enough right to still manage to be a great experience overall.

            Dragon Age II’s plot follows the character of Hawke and how he became the champion of Kirkwall, and his effect on the world. The story is told through narration by a sly dwarf named Varric, one of Hawke’s companions, as he is interrogated by a Chantry Seeker who needs to know the current location of the champion. It has very little to do with the Grey Warden and his battle with the Blight from the original, other than a few cameos, dialogue options, and the fact that the game starts with Hawke fleeing Lothering from the darkspawn during the original game. The story spans 10 years, but you only get to play through 3 of them, since the developers decided to skip over a lot of the minor details about his rise to power. This structure holds a lot of potential for seeing and living with the consequences of your actions in a decision based game such as Dragon Age, but Bioware really dropped the ball with decision making in the sequel. Many decisions can be very difficult to make at face value, but in the end, most decisions have the same outcome no matter what, making the game much more linear then it seems, and a lot of your seemingly life or death decisions become irrelevant. Another problem with the story is that it can feel very disconnected at times. Not until you enter the third and final act do the pieces start falling into place. Up until then, many story elements seem pointless and irrelevant, and you might have a hard time understanding why Hawke is so important.  On the other hand, Bioware decided to explore some very interesting and mature themes in their latest game. There is a very strong and neutral view on the idea of freedom versus security, as well as themes dealing with utilitarianism, morality, friendship, and guilt. The best aspect of these themes and ideas is that, unlike most RPG’s, Dragon Age II has a completely neutral stance on each theme instead of a good or bad, right and wrong stance. Each concept has multiple perspectives, and Bioware has acknowledged that there is no right or wrong one to side with, which added another level of depth to the game’s narrative. All in all, even with its faults, the story in Dragon Age II is well written, fairly well told, interesting and enjoyable.

Come at me bro.

             A definite improvement over the original is the personality of the protagonist. Hawke isn’t a nameless bi-polar mute hero. His personality is, at it’s a core, a person who just wants the best for his family, similarly how Commander Shepard from Mass Effect is a person who just wants what’s best for humanity. However, like Commander Shepherd, Hawkes methods and ideals are completely up to the player. All of this adds up to a developable character who has enough base characteristics to seem like a real person, but enough customization to make the player feel like they are defining Hawke. Hawkes friends and enemies share a similar quality.

            Just like Origins, II features a wide variety of characters, be them friend or foe. Most of the important ones are very well developed up until the very end of the game. Hawke’s companions are a unique and diverse group of people, and they all feel like real, relatable, and likeable people, if you’re inclined to their personality. Highlights are the wise-talking, sneaky yet charming dwarf Varric, the suave, serious, and mysterious elf Fenris, and the half-abomination healer and Awakening veteran Anders. It’s also a special delight to hear Hawke’s companions bickering while in the party, as it both adds a lot to the game and characters, but can also be incredibly fun and hilarious to listen to. An important aspect of the game is Hawke’s family, and they are integral to both the story and many of the decisions that happen to affect the story’s outcome. A lot happens to the Hawke family, a fair amount of it bad, and Bioware manages to pull off a few moments that are difficult to watch (in a sad way), and some decisions, one in particular, that are insanely hard to make. The villains are also fairly well developed, but are exposed as villains far too late into the game for them to really have an impact on the player. In the end, Dragon Age’s characters are a cool and lovable bunch that manages to liven up the stellar story.

            Origins looked terrible on consoles. It was almost comical how bad it looked, and it was one of the rare cases where bad visuals detracted from the whole experience. Dragon Age II does a much better job in the graphics department, but it still isn’t all that special. The city of Kirkwall looks fantastic. Each area has its own unique feel, and as long as you don’t look too closely, the city walls and buildings are well detailed and vibrant. Characters, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. People faces and facial animations are generally fantastic, and is a definite improvement over Origins. However, everything else is just a pain to look at. Textures are blurry and uneven, and some would be only passable last generation. Minor objects, such as crates or lanterns, look terrible up close. One area that II does excel in is its representation of blood, combat, and magic.Weapons look fantastic, blood is think and dark, and things such as fire and ice look absolutely phenomenal. It’s a nice treat to watch an enemy burn for the first time, as they turn orange and black as they fall to the ground. Overall, the graphics of Dragon Age II are decent and even fantastic in some areas, but too many people and objects look undetailed and blurry for it to be all that proud of.

            The audio here is just as good as it was in Origins. Like all Bioware games, the voice acting is top notch, often bringing out and strengthening some already great characters. The music is also very well done and is placed perfectly with each situation. It can be hard not to get the blood pumping after some of the battle songs. The sound effects are also a blast to listen to. From the sounds of opening a crate to the sound of raining fire balls, Dragon Age II hits the nail with its audio effects. However, I did experience a few hiccups here and there where a characters voice would just disappear for no reason, or a characters line of dialogue wouldn’t even appear. Still, these are just minor problems with an overall fantastic audio component. There are other parts to Dragon Age II, however, that were not as good as the original.

Mages always have more fun.

            The customization aspect of Dragon Age II is one of the few components of the game that is truly over-simplified, especially regarding inventory and items, but still manages to have great class customization. You still have the same options when equipping your main character that you had in Origins, but your party members do not. While Hawke can equip various combinations of gloves, helmets, suits, boots weapons, and trinkets, his companions only get to change their trinkets and weapons. It does help to focus the game more on Hawke, but it is a shame that you can’t make each party member look the way you desire. Inventory and equipment in general has been a large down grade from the original. Most items look the same and have similar qualities, and there is significantly less items in the world then there was in Origins. Rune crafting and poison making have also become pretty useless. Unless you are playing on Nightmare difficulty, you most likely will never have to use any poison or enchant and item with a rune during an entire play-through. Classes have been much improved over the original, with each class being very unique from each other, having many more viable specializations, and making sure that the rogue is no longer useless when no being controlled. There are three classes to choose from; rogue, mage, and warrior. The rogue is a quick melee or ranged attacker that can either focus on maximum damage output or debilitating enemies. Mages are the most all-around class, as they can play as damager, a buffer or de-buffer, or a healer, but are weak to direct attacks. Warriors are the easiest class to play. They focus on either doing damage or taking damage, and are always using melee attacks. Each class has six unique talent trees and three specialization trees the build off of two of the other six trees. Each tree is unique for each class, and finding the perfect combination for your Hawke is a blast. But a good class system is meaningless without a good combat system.

            Well, the meat of any game can always be found in the combat, and that is where Dragon Age II excels at the most. The combat has been bashed continuously since the demo was released, with people criticising the game for being over-simplified and for no longer being a tactics based game. Both these accusations are untrue. Although Dragon Age II’s combat is not as complex and deep as the original, the developers have a found a unique blend of hack n’ slash and tactics based gameplay that is unlike any RPG out there. The combat system looks very similar to Origins’, but it definitely has significant changes. There are still a maximum of four party members, there are still two abilities mapped to X, Y, and B (switch between each by holding R), L still pauses the game and lets you issue orders, companions can still be given pre-set tactics from a menu, and each party member still has a health bar and either a mana or stamina bar. However, there are a few differences that make Dragon Age II unique. You now have to press A for each attack instead of having an auto-attack feature (the horror!), combat is much more fast-paced and action oriented, and tactical thinking is no longer necessary for the game to be enjoyable. This description may put off many Origins fans, since it appears that Dragon Age II is simply an action game, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Dragon Age II’s method of playing all depends on which of the four difficulties the player chooses. The easiest difficulty, casual, allows for a straight forward hack n’ slash adventure that involves minimal to no tactical thinking. This is a really fun mode where the player can plough through enemies with ease and focus on the story rather than the action. Normal is still in the hack n’ slash vain, but unlike casual, it demands that the player pause the game and issue orders from time to time, especially during boss fights. This mode is perfect for players who haven’t played tactical RPG’s before, and want to get the basic downs before trying their hand at other ones. Hard is much more tactics based then the other two, and this is where the combat most resembles Dragon Age: Origins. You will still spend a lot of your time mashing A and using abilities in the middle of the action, but you will also spend a great deal more in the pause menu, making sure each party member is in the right spot, fighting the right enemies, and using the right abilities. Nightmare difficulty, the most difficult one, is almost completely comprised of tactical thinking. Almost each attack that your party delivers will have to go through you to make sure you survive, even in the more simple encounters. However, even at this difficulty, it doesn’t reach the same tactical heights that Origins did, but it is still very deep and enjoyable. Most developers wouldn’t be able to make each difficulty both unique and fun, but Bioware did just that. So if you want to play a tactics based game that’s similar to Origins, you can do that. If you want to play a more action oriented experience, you can do that as well.

            The most disappointing and worst part about Dragon Age II is the exploration and inhabited world of Kirkwall. It is also the part of the game that shows the most evidence for the game being rushed and incomplete. The player will spend the majority of the game in Kirkwall, only occasionally leaving to explore a few areas surrounding the city. Kirkwall is a vibrant, beautiful city, with unique districts, buildings, and inhabitants. That is, for the first five hours. You will go through almost every environment in Dragon Age II, a thirty plus our experience, in around five hours. That is just lazy and unacceptable. I can understand if Kirkwall was a large, expansive city that changed over the years, but it is anything but. The environments are small and feel disconnected, Hawkes decisions and actions have minimal effect on the city itself, and that city does not change at all over the course of the game, save for a few areas being closed off and Hawke changing his home once. Even the areas outside of Kirkwall are disappointing, as the game forces you to enter all of the environments numerous times, and there are not very many of them. Dragon Age II had a lot of potential to build up a city the felt like a character; a city that had depth, begged to be explored, and changed based on Hawkes actions over a decade of time. Instead, Kirkwall is a stagnant, small, repetitive, and underwhelming experience, especially when compared to Origins’ massive open world.

            Playing Dragon Age II is like eating a bowl of soup with a strand of hair in it. There is a lot to love; the story is well written and engaging, the characters are a unique and lovable bunch, the combat is fun, unique, and very accessible, the game sounds great and looks much better then Origins, and the classes feel much more balanced. However, there is also a decent amount of things to hate, like the repetitive and stagnant environments, the lack of focus in the story, the lack of character customization, and the overall feeling of being underwhelmed, especially when compared to the original. Sadly, all of these faults seem so easily fixed, especially considering the quality of the other aspects of the game. That is what I fear is the cause of Dragon Age II being a disappointment; the game feels like it was rushed to meet a deadline, and that many corners were cut. At its core, Dragon Age is a phenomenal game with many great ideas and concepts, enough of them that a year and a half is simply not enough time to develop them properly.



–          Great personal story

–          Improved and diverse combat

–          Great characters and classes


–          Terrible environments

–          Story lacks focus

–          Customization is limited

–          Not as profound as Dragon Age: Origins


Score: 8/10


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