Dragon Age: Origins was one of the most warmly received traditional style RPGs in recent times, and was a success on all formats. The marrying of classic, complex and deep RPG elements, with MMO functionality and a rich, fleshed out world was a winner, and the epic story and character development was lapped up by RPG fans.
It wasn’t for everyone, and certainly leaned much more towards the hardcore RPG player, especially those weaned on classics like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, and some less veteran gamers didn’t take well to the title.
This may well change, however, as the second coming of Dragon Age is upon us, and this is a sequel that isn’t afraid to mix things up, and in the process, will most likely cause a bit of a ruckus amongst fans.
Tale within a tale
Set around the same time as the first game, with some events running concurrently with the original plot, DAII casts you as Hawke, a hero (or heroine, it’s up to you) who is forced to leave their home of Lothering (which was destroyed in the first game) during the Darkspawn attack.
Eventually you make it out of the nation of Ferelden to the city of Kirkwall, where most of the game takes place, and embark upon a quest that sees your character become a legend.
The story, much vaunted as a framed narrative, is told by one of your companions in the form of a flashback, and events take place over several years. Your choices in the game change the course of this story, and ultimately decide the endgame.
As we’ve come to expect from BioWare, it’s an epic, interesting story that’s populated by believable and well voiced characters. In fact, little about the presentation can be faulted, and it’s a good looking title that’s polished and well produced.
Trimming the fat
It’s not long before you realise that DAII is a different beast to Origins, though. In fact, you won’t even get past the character creation screen before this happens. Whilst the original gave you the option of playing as a number of races, each with totally different prologues and open skill sets, DAII limits this to human-only characters and set professions of Mage, Warrior and Rogue.
It’s an instant sign of streamlining, and is the first sign for many that this isn’t going to be the same complex RPG we saw with Origins. You can create your own look, instead of the game’s default appearance, but there’s nothing in the way of real character customisation or stat tweaking.
Once you’ve chosen your avatar, you can choose the default background, one of two predefined stories that attempt to replicate the events of the first game, or you can import a save from Origins, which will bring in the events of your own game for a more unique experience. If you own the first game and have completed it, then this is the obvious choice, as you’ll encounter references to your action in the original tale. This is something that BioWare does very well, and it’s a welcome feature here.
Once into the game proper, you’ll be in familiar territory, and much of the same conventions remain. It’s a third person action RPG and your character has a selection of assignable skills to use, toggled by the right trigger. You can switch to direct control of any party members, and battles are fought in real time.
However, unlike in Origins, the MMO style of auto combat and queued actions is gone, replaced by direct control of your chosen character. Mashing A will spam attacks towards your foes, and hitting a skill button will instantly use it. There’s no more queuing up chains, like attack, spell, special move, attack, heal, and it’s all instant. This does remove much of the tactical play seen in Origins, and some will lament this loss. And although there’s some element of tactical play, such as pausing to set up certain attacks for different characters and avoiding using area effect spells against your own team, it’s a pared down system and one that is nowhere near as in depth as Origins.
Fortunately, the game’s tactics system remains, and you can still set up AI routines to use specific abilities automatically, thus increasing the effectiveness of your party. For example, you can set your healer to auto heal a character when their health drops below 25%, or you can set supporting ranged warriors to target whoever you’re attacking. It’s a flexible system that’s remained largely unchanged from Origins, and is one that more advanced RPG players will welcome.
Even with the blatant dumbing down, combat is nonetheless enjoyable, and getting the most out of your various character classes is a large part of the challenge. You’ll still want to plan your party carefully for each quest, ensuring you have the right mix of tanks, mages and range support and AI behaviour, it’s just a little more hands on and instant, and less tactical than before.
One area that I do dislike is the character advancement. Now limited to specific skill trees, characters are no longer flexible. Whereas Origins let you take a mage and, if you wanted to, clad them in armour and give them a sword, DAII limits this to specific classes and skills. A rogue, for example, cannot use swords and shields, or learn magic.
From a balance standpoint, this makes sense, and enforces the need to plan a good party, but it does limit your hands on role playing. Surely, if I wanted to, my rogue could use a two handed broadsword or learn a fireball spell? It’s my role playing, after all, and unless there’s a strange evolutionary schism in the world of Thedas that prevents certain people from even picking up a large sword, let alone use one, why can’t we create characters as we see fit?
Outside of combat there have been more changes made. As with Origins, you’ll explore a range of locations, conversing with NPCs, accepting quests and locating loot, but this time your main character isn’t mute. Hawke is a fully voiced character, and the game now adopts Mass Effect‘s dialog system, complete with good, neutral and bad responses.
This is a welcome change here, as the dialog system worked very well in Mass Effect, and does so here too. It helps to flesh out Hawke as a likeable character, and the streamlined summaries, rather than whole text responses, help to keep conversations moving.
Other game mechanics are still present, but again, some aren’t as complex as before. You can still craft items and manage a large inventory, and the gift giving and ally alignment system returns. There’s also a good deal of text to find and absorb, as you find books, scrolls and other information that fleshes out the world.
Sadly, though, the world is one of the major downsides of DAII, in my opinion. Whilst Origins took place across the whole of Ferelden, with forest, temple, city and mountain locations to name but a few, DAII takes place mainly in the urban sprawl of Kirkwall. Now, Kirkwall is an interesting place, and as far as fantasy cities go, it’s a great one, but the lack of traditional RPG world wandering is a shame, and the various dungeons and warehouses you’ll explore soon become identical cookie cutter creations that make you think you’re having déjà vu. It doesn’t help immerse you in the world, and does become a little dull as the quests roll on.
Catering to the masses
I was a big fan of Origins, and although I prefer real, open world sandbox RPGs, a la Oblivion, Fallout and even Two Worlds, Origins was a real, old school breath of fresh air, thanks to its deep combat system, tactical play and rich world.
Dragon Age II is a changed beast, and it’s clear that the developers have tried to appease players who shied away from the daunting complexity of the first in order to attract more revenue. It’s far more action-oriented than Origins, and the switch to more accessible game mechanics will certainly not impress the more experienced RPG player.
Still, even though it’s a streamlined experience, Dragon Age II is still a great game, if you can accept it for what it is: an action RPG. All of the quality hallmarks of a BioWare game are here, and with the strong and impressive story, great characters and simplified, yet still enjoyable combat, it’s a 40-50 hour title that’s definitely worth getting lost in.