BioWare are a powerhouse when it comes to action RPGs. They’ve made Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Dragon Age and, perhaps most notably, Mass Effect. Dragon Age: Origins released a couple of years after the first Mass Effect game, giving BioWare time to contemplate on what the strengths were in their previous games and how best to amalgamate these into a new release.
The Dragon Age series follows a format more akin to KotOR than Mass Effect, returning to the ‘pause and play’ style of combat, rather than the duck and cover mechanic seen in their sci-fi franchise. It means for a more strategic game, where harder modes rely on micro-managing your team to eliminate potential errors in pre-set tactics.
Jim wrote a PlayBack for the first Dragon Age earlier this year, saying that he felt it had aged poorly, but that nothing was fundamentally wrong with the game itself. When I returned to DA:O, after seeing it on a Steam sale, I had the luxury of mods to minimise its kinks. I thought it was excellent – more so than the first time around. The variety in level design, the characters, the stories (both for each area and the overarching plot): they all came together for a great experience and created a cohesive world that urged the player to save it as tensions built.
That’s where Dragon Age 2 comes in. The first game set a high bar for it to meet, and it felt like the sequel took a look at its expectations and said “That’s a lot of effort. Let’s not do that.”
I’m not completely critical about Dragon Age 2 – it’s definitely a good game. For one, the combat showed a marked improvement on that found in the first game. The speed of attacks has increased and class specialisations have been simplified into trees, making for a more streamlined level up. Dragon Age 2 also offers a free DLC that lets the player re-spec their characters at any point. If you’re stuck on a certain fight that would benefit from a warrior resistant to magical attacks, rather than a brute wielding a giant hammer, you could take a swig of a re-spec potion and not feel like you’ve been choosing the wrong talents all along.
Constantly editing characters takes away from the atmosphere of the game, but when there’s such a heavy focus on combat, it’s important to make sure your team is always prepared. There are a handful of specialisations for each class to choose from, with multiple companions to spread them between. Despite this, it’s still nice to have the option of testing different combinations on the same character.
As with all BioWare games, there’s a lot more to Dragon Age 2 than just the combat. The cast of characters is likeable and, depending on how you role-play, you’ll grow to love some and hate others. Certain characters clash in personality and your decisions will make some become your friends and others your rivals. Unlike the first Dragon Age, there are actually benefits for the characters not liking you; they can unlock different passive bonuses and will behave differently in important scenes.
It’s also nice to see a high degree of variety in romance options, particularly when it comes to the way same-sex relationships are handled. There are three male options for female characters, and two options for any other gender combination. Annoyingly, the romantic dialogue I came across was clumsy and ham-fisted, so I feel any appreciation for this should be as half-hearted as BioWare’s efforts to simulate emotion.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, here comes the barrage of insults. The writing in this game is not as impressive as in the first, both in the gravity of the situation – which is hardly apparent until the second half of the game – and in the dialogue.
The story is split into three separate arcs as your character progresses through society over the course of ten years. It would be expected that a huge amount of progress would take place over each multi-year interlude, but it just feels like the characters have had a promotion in their individual fields, and have otherwise been frozen in time since you last had them in your party.
Your actions in each arc can unlock side-quests later on, but decisions feel ultimately meaningless. Saving someone’s life feels like an important decision at the time, but usually leads to little more than a codex entry or a short letter. At worst, you’ll find out that your decision has blocked later missions, rather than resulting in an alternate route for the story.
Thanks to the wonder that is mods, I didn’t have to contend with some of the simpler, but equally irritating problems console players would have to face, like the inability to change companions’ armour. It’s strange that BioWare didn’t include such a simple detail, when even minor changes like this could make the RPG experience much more interactive.
In the same vein, conversations with companions are restricted to side-missions, where you’re told a character wants to speak to you and are shrugged off with the same line of dialogue when you speak to them at any other time. It removes the natural progression of relationships and makes friendships with companions feel far less organic than in Origins.
My biggest complaint with Dragon Age 2, however, was the small pool of maps that it recycled. I was warned before I started that the scenery doesn’t change much, but I thought “That’s not a problem; cities are huge and there’s a lot of potential for a story contained in one area.” I thought wrong.
It wasn’t that each quest was set in a cavern, or in a warehouse, but that the layout of these areas didn’t vary. You could fight through enemies on a map in one district, travel to a ruin on the opposite side of the city and find an identical map, but with certain pathways obstructed and others open.
Even on the Exiled Prince DLC (which unlocks the companion Sebastian Vael), the ‘new areas’ are the same maps as before. They disguise this with new skins and some props, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re the same maps you’ve been fighting through for the last 20 hours. Seeing as companion data needs to be stored on the initial install, it’s disappointing that a DLC that costs £5+ doesn’t offer new areas. No wonder BioWare have promised that Inquisition will have all companions available in the vanilla content.
If you haven’t played Dragon Age before, whether I’d advise playing DA2 or not depends on what you would expect from it. If you’re only looking for a rundown of the plot before Inquisition, playing Dragon Age 2 is your best bet. The plot of Dragon Age: Origins is good, but the overall story is predictable and well explained in the sequel.
If you want to play for the gameplay, the writing, or to experience the Dragon Age world, I would say Origins is the better option. Dragon Age 2 is good in many ways, but its multitude of flaws are made all the more bitter by its predecessor’s success.