Dragon Age II

There's a good game in Dragon Age II desperately trying to get out, but it feels far too buggy and disjointed to recommend.  Some good character writing is what will no doubt salvage the game for some, but the actual combat is fairly uninviting, and the overarching story never seems to amount to much.  On a good enough sale, pick it up if you want to be a Dragon Age completionist, but honestly, you wouldn't be missing a whole lot if you skipped it.
Dragon Age II
Date published: Dec 23, 2014
2 / 3 stars

Dragon Age II is an action RPG developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts.  After the rickety but charming first installment and the quite excellent follow-up expansion pack in Awakening, Dragon Age II arrived when it did with a lot of hype, and grand expectations to fill, and it mostly falls short on all of them, which is a great shame.  Quite honestly, this is probably Bioware's first big misstep, and those aren't words I bandy lightly.

Right, now that I've hurled the cards at the table so hard they've probably embedded themselves inextricably into the surface, lets back up a bit.  It isn't all dire, there's some fun to be had here, but there's enough wrong with it that I simply cannot recommend it.

The story feels all over the place and poorly-structured

The game puts you into the World-of-Warcraft-style exaggerated clogs of a human warrior, rogue, or mage, surname Hawke.  You can give them whatever first name you like, it never comes up, and in grand Bioware tradition you're referred to throughout the game by that moniker.  Already we see the reduction of the past game taking place in character creation, as the character options are reduced to classes - warrior, mage, or rogue - and you cannot choose your race, which is always human.  This ties into the backstory of the character - again something without variety this time, as you are the eldest son or daughter of a family fleeing Lothering, which as you may recall from the prior installment, gets overrun and burned down by the darkspawn blight.

The over-arching story feels more like a bunch of side-quests cobbled together into something vaguely resembling a story, and while I won't comment on specifics so as not to spoil it for those whom may not yet have played the game and are perusing this review to see if it's worth it, suffice it to say there isn't much sense of an ultimate goal in Dragon Age II, and that's a large reason why it feels so schizophrenic.  You only really get sense of a real, threatening objective about 9/10s of the way through, and most of the game up to that point made me feel more like I was playing the errand-girl progression system of a MMORPG than a more solid and thoughtful plot of their single-player cousins.  And indeed, this shall be the chief let-down of a lot of people to this game: Bioware has a reputation for good (if arguably not great) storytelling, and it's pretty much dropped the ball here.

It's easy to understate how important that fact will be to many whom are seeking this title, because chances are they sought this game on the promise of a return to narrative-focused CRPGs, and you don't really get either here.  There's the usual various branching trees conversations, but I never really got the feeling in this one that I was having any sort of agency to shape Hawke's characters: the same overarching story happens regardless, and there aren't many character decisions which affect yourself or the party in any meaningful way.

Combat in the game feels very MMORPGy,
with a focus more on action than tactical thinking

Dragon Age: Origins' prime combat mechanic was the tactical mode, which allowed you to command your party with a more granular control than the usual single-character focus slant you would see in many other competing modern RPGs such as Skyrim, but that has mostly been abandoned here.  It focuses more on MMORPG-style single character combat that is very action oriented. While it maintains the pause function and party control during, I found myself rarely needing it.  There isn't much of a difficulty to this game in the battles outside of the boss battles, and even in those I found myself passing through without much difficulty as long as you make sure you attend to the usual RPG rigmarole of making sure you stay on top of gear, and tweaking the tactics screen to make sure your party actually uses the twenty dozen health potions you have laying around.

It feels like tightening up the mechanics has actually resulted in making the game seem empty.  In Origins, the complexity of the tactical combat is a lot of what kept the mechanics floating, and now with it boiled down somewhat to an admittedly more mechanically-sound and streamlined approach, there hasn't been much done to give the game some other teeth or something else to occupy time.  To be honest though this comes down more to the encounter design, which feels more like hindrances than threats, and after fighting the twentieth randomly-spawning group of identical clone enemies it wasn't hard to envisage a well-worn control, c, and v, key on some developers desktop.  It certainly has the air of the clone brush to it, and when it feels as though they were trying to artificially lengthen the gameplay length.

Oh, and the obstructive visual effects during combat that magic in particular throws around are still here, with the added bonus of a camera that fights you somewhat, and graphics bugs that only compound things.  I had one recurring one where everyone would just turn into floating heads, the rest of their gear invisible.  And other ones that would make everything load as what I imagine to be a placeholder rainbow texture.

Some of the character writing is the one appeal DA2 has

I've always said that Bioware writes better characters than it does actual narratives, albeit while relying on some obvious tropes, and in no game by them has this been clearer than with Dragon Age 2.  This is basically where the game hangs its hat when it comes to content that's actually quite enjoyable, and a couple of the characters (Merril and Verrick) really stood out to me as interesting takes or turns on the tropes that they exemplify.  That's not to say that even that is even - Awakening fans will probably be mortified to find that this sequel has it out for Anders, one of the better-written and well-liked characters from Awakening has been both poorly-written (doing things because the plot demands it more than anything) and basically warped into a weird antagonist in Dragon Age II.  By the by, however, the character writing is the silver-lining to the otherwise drab and unguided bit that is Dragon Age II.

The less said about the romance plots the saner I'll be I think - I'm hardly one bothered by sexual content in games, and indeed I've often found it quite puzzling that graphic depictions of dismemberment , but the moment we flop out a pair of oft-badly rendered titties it becomes an adult game, but the way in which Bioware presents it isn't all that great and quite shallow.  It comes across as fanservice really, and its quite disappointing given the general quality of the rest of the character writing.

At the end of the day, this is a pretty below average game that can be called competent at best, and boring at worst.  And that's really the ultimate sin any game can make, as far as I am concerned: to me, it was pretty boring.  I completed it once, and then never looked back until it came time to write this retrospective review, and after that second playthrough, I imagine I won't look back again.  A boring game is a pretty dreary prospect indeed, especially with so many other games that compete for my attention.

The Final Word: Not Recommended - There's some decent character writing to like in Dragon Age II and the actual progression seems tighter, but to me at least, it isn’t enough to salvage a dry combat system that isn’t very involving and a very poorly-structured overarching narrative that seems cobbled together at the very best.  A completionist fan might find some value on a sale, especially in the characters of Merril or Varrick, but otherwise, it’s easily skipped.