A Successful Tragedy
While critics and fans of the original Dragon Age: Origins voiced many negative feelings about the sequel, I feel that the some of it is unjustified (some are still pretty legit though). I’ll point out some of the overall themes, but for the most part this will be a spoiler free review.
You play as (Player Name) Hawke, a refugee fleeing Lothering with his/her family immediately following the fall of Ostagar (from the first game). You rally a couple survivors and escape to a distant port city of Kirkwall where you set off to support your family and make a name for yourself. Kirkwall not only has refugees flooding in from Feraldan due to the Blight, but also has an army of Quanari stuck in the harbor waiting to leave. To top it all off, an over zealous Templar commander has been cracking down on both rogue and Circle mages. The city is a powder keg, just waiting for a spark. The game itself takes place during the first game (Act 1) and then several years into the future.
I should preface this by saying I wasn’t a huge fan of Origins. I had it on the PS3 right around the time they had to release a patch to keep it from crashing all the time. I had an alright time playing it, but I didn’t feel like it was anything truly spectacular. I do remember feeling like the game hated me when I got to the epilogue, it seems like all the “good” decisions I thought I made were overturned. It wouldn’t have bothered me if it was like one or two, but it seemed like all of them didn’t listen to a word I said. It wasn’t until I found a lot of fan material (Yield by Beth Kindermann, Aimo on dA) that I gave it another shot and had a much better experience. Now on to DAII.
Fewer character creation choices. Instead of having an expansive list of races and pasts to choose from, you get to be a human (either gender) from one of three classes (warrior, rogue, mage). This may seem like a downgrade, but it definitely allows the writers to focus on one past rather than several (and believe me, it’s better for it).
Revamped dialogue. Dialogue now comes in a similar form as that of Mass Effect. Both the cinematic camera angles and a fully voiced player character with a narrower set of talking points. Instead of the “Paragon” and “Renegade” of Mass Effect, we have more ambiguous options such as “Diplomacy” and “Humor”. They often align themselves in a similar way, but only going for the “Good” angle doesn’t always yield positive results. It’s worth noting that I didn’t recognize many of the voices save for the ones reprising their roles. Even though it doesn’t have Steve Blum voice tons of dwarves (love ya Steve) the cast they did get does a really great job.
Action oriented combat. Combat is very different from the previous game. You are much “closer” to the combat in DAII, both from a camera perspective and the fact you have to press the attack button every time (I believe you can turn that off). It never really felt like button mashing to me though, it made each swing feel like something I did. I always felt distant in DA:O, like I wasn’t really there in the battle. Not the case with this game. It may put people off (I’m sure this was the first thing people complained about) but it’s definitely a system that does what it does well. Only complaint for me is that there’s no real variety for combinations, you just press the same button for every hit.
New visual designs. A brighter color pallet really makes the world pop out and feel alive. Many of the creature designs were also reworked. While Sten may have just looked like a dark skinned barbarian with corn rows, the Quanari in this game look closer to monsters. Like pseudo minotaurs (but with non-bull faces). Elves also got reworked (their eyes are a lot bigger) which helps differentiate them from humans. While the new designs might throw you at first, you can definitely see the effort put into them and by the end, it all feels natural.
Small World Space. This one is kind of a double edged sword but I’m ultimately listing it with the cons. On the positive side, the claustrophobic nature of the playing environment really enhances the tension that there is literally no where for these conflicting forces to go. You’re all stuck in the same area and there’s no escaping the inevitable clashing. On the other hand, this means that the players is going to spend hours looking at the same scenery. Probably the biggest detractor for this is nearly all the side missions will use the same map layout, just walling off other areas. Unfortunately, they leave the default area map up in the corner, breaking the belief that this is a unique space. They used this tactic in the first game as well, but the areas in there were more massive that it wasn’t very obvious.
Quanari redesign. While I wasn’t initially going to put this among the cons, it was pointed out to me how this could be seen as a step backwards. As I mentioned earlier, the Quanari went form being a people of essentially a different ethnicity to a rather demonic looking people that are hard to differentiate from the Darkspawn. While the new visual design gives them a much more imposing figure, I feel it was pretty unnecessary to change them from what they were before. I imagine they wanted to avoid the race card being thrown (the Quanari were essentially black to the otherwise nearly all white city) but I feel it was a missed opportunity to discuss real racial issues. It seems like most games that want to touch on the subject have to make sure wherever the prejudice lays, both sides have to be entirely different species.
Characters Writing. I can’t stress this enough. These are some of the most fleshed out and complex characters that we have ever seen in gaming. Forgive the hyperbole, but the writing for these characters is amazing. Everything from their back stories, their current conflicts, how they interact with each other, everything they do is both interesting and entertaining. They feel like genuine people and each is unique and memorable. Some comments I’ve seen have complained that the characters are angsty and over-dramatic. I can agree that some of the dialogue is rough at times, but these characters aren’t complaining about not being able to visit the mall on the weekend. When they stand up for their views, it’s often a matter of life or death (sometimes both).
Plot. This game shows that you don’t have to save the whole world in order to have a compelling narrative in an action game. Sometimes, just trying to protect those you care about is all that you need. This isn’t necessarily a happy tale, the story could really be classified as a tragedy. There are many times where our heroes either show up too late or can’t convince characters to reach a compromise. Some moments are definitely stronger than others but it’s still really compelling.
NPC Agency. An interesting point to note is that the player’s influence on the overall story is fairly limited. Despite being labeled as “The Champion”, Hawke is a just above average person and can only affect the course of the world so much. The player can however influence their allies. Your allies in the game are not only fun to have as companions, but are fully realized characters, with fears, dreams, anger and aspirations. No longer can you influence their opinion of you by showering them with gifts. This time around, you have to prove yourself to them with actions. This also replaces the Good/Evil bar we’ve had in so many games. You are instead judged by the team you take with you on a Friend/Rival scale. Each character has their own opinion of Hawke which will change based on how they feel about the player’s actions. It paints morality in a more realistic light rather than black and white.
This would not have worked if the two pros listed above had been phoned in.
Sexual Expression. For those that don’t know, this has been a pretty big hit with the LBGT community since all the romantic interests are bisexual. This has led to some interesting complaints from male players complaining when Anders comes on to them, but I say turn about is fair game. The sex “act” itself is fairly PG-13, but I do want to point out that the relationships themselves feel more genuine. This comes from them being built up over time in the game (we have a handful of time jumps) and we get to actually see characters become closer. In this way, it feels a lot more realistic than, say, the relationships in Mass Effect where the characters only know each other for a handful of months.
If you haven’t played the first game, the most your missing out on is some backstory and occasional cameos. You’ll most likely find this to be a pretty exciting game and engaging.
If you were/are a fan of the original, try to go in cold with this game. It definitely has a different feel to it and may prove to be an unpleasant experience if you are constantly comparing the two. I liked the second one more, but I know I’m in a minority. If you can, see about renting or getting a free trial if you’re still unsure.
I’ve tried out some of the DLC by now and I will say that if you play Legacy, make sure to bring a healer that can revive fallen comrades. It has a very poorly designed boss fight near the end where you will likely have all but one of your party die 3 times during the fight. The boss fight would only work well if your allies were controlled by a thinking human being that knows to run away from walls of fire.
Also, I’ve heard a lot of scary tales on the forums of some DLC content that’ll corrupt your save file (Mark of the Assassin seemed the most common). So wait to do some until after you’ve beaten the game.