Dragon Age II: First Impressions

If you were a fan of the first Dragon Age, word has surely dropped from the apple tree that it’s sequel, creatively titled DAII, has hit store shelves to much split opinion. Some people really dislike it and I can see why. For my part, I’ve enjoyed it. In it, I’ve found a beautiful game that expands the more you put into it. I’ve found combat that is strategic where you want it to be, action where you need it to be, and satisfying with the blood-spattered character only found in the Dragon Age franchise.

See, the thing about Dragon Age 2 is that it’s not Dragon Age 1. Usually sequels follow the same mold as their predecessor. Not here. DA:O was massive. DA2 is a handful of locations. DA:O was strategic. DA2 is about action. DA:O gives you lots of freedom. DA2 hands you a character, a personality, and doesn’t let you gear out companions beyond rings and amulets – and very few are named beyond “ring” and “amulet.” DA:O has a strong plot thread leading you through the experience. DA2 doesn’t become clear until the end (or so I’m told). These are huge departures. And can leave you wondering, “what happened?”

Consoles are what happened. Unlike Origins, console design seems to take prominence over many of perks PC players grew used to in 2009. Instead, what we have is a visceral RPG experience that keeps the dice rolls and adds class-combos for even greater destruction. The experience both on both PC and console seems uniquely fitted to a console audience – and that’s not a bad thing. What we’re seeing here is a gap being bridged. There is enough to love here for both groups of gamers.

Early on, it’s easy to wonder what your goal is. The game starts slow, almost painfully so, once you’re out of the introduction. Once you make it to Kirkwall, what is the point? Act I opens with you trying to secure a spot on an expedition to the Deep Roads. The expedition leader is a curmudgeon, however, and makes you buy your spot. And so your questing begins, scraping together meager pieces of coin to afford the journey. Patience is your friend, however, as you soon discover the mysterious amulet you were to deliver actually holds a powerful secret. Before long, you’re knee deep in slavers, bandits, undead, and giant spiders. (Arachnophobes? Might want to take a pass on this one.)

These first quests really help you get to know your companions and I found myself playing with a tankless party just because I liked the characters more. That’s a testament to the great writing Dragon Age 2 has to offer. Choosing to have Hawke be fully voiced may remove some of your imagined autonomy from the first game, but it does allow you know him, and through his interactions, everyone a little bit better.

The story this go ‘round is actually pretty contentious among gamers. At ten hours in, I’m not nearly qualified to talk on it, but the word on the street is that Dragon Age 2 suffers “second novel syndrome,” where the second book in a trilogy is often lackluster compared to the first and final entries. While we don’t know what Dragon Age 3 might offer, we know enough to expect it. From what I’ve done and read from others, it helps to take the long outlook, where you view the game not as a single continuous epic adventure, but more as the sum of many parts leading to Hawke’s eventual becoming of the Champion of Kirkwall. These are the makings of a hero and not necessarily a hero’s quest.

There are some down points, however. I’m about ten hours in and I’m already noticing some repeat maps. On one hand, this is annoying but I’m not overly bothered by it yet. The combat is satisfying enough to make up for it and only grows progressively more so each time you level up. Time will tell whether this becomes a major issue.

I’m also a bit bothered by the fact that gear is much more limited. Why is Hawke the only one who can change clothes? All of the armor has a “Garret Hawke” restriction on it, making it so the only useful items your party can use are weapons, amulets, and rings. While there are some neat and powerful items they can equip, especially so now that mages are some of the flashiest combatants on the field, what with their fiery-electrical boomsticks and whatnot, the lack of creativity in naming (literally, lots of stuff is just “ring” or “amulet”) and the star-based rating system really undermines the immersion the game seeks to generate.

Overall though, I’m very happy with the game. Perhaps one of its biggest accomplishments is that it made me want to play Dragon Age: Origins again. I never finished it the first time, and there are just enough little hints to make me want to go back without making me feel lost. I can’t wait to level up some more and see how my character evolves. And how about those Deep Roads? I hear it’s dark down there.

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