For the last five days or so, I have been spending a lot of my time playing Dragon Age 2, the new installment in one of Bioware’s more recent rpg franchises. Dragon Age: Origins was fun (I never played Awakening), largely for the way you could get to know your characters over the course of the game. As well as complex conversation trees (with options available depending on how much someone likes you), one of my favourite features is the banter between other characters in your party that happens while you run around. So, how does DA2 stack up? Overall, I think it’s an improvement on Origins in almost every way.
I should mention, my partner (who’s posting here under the name Bluejay) has been very frustrated with Dragon Age: Origins in the past. Although he enjoys the combat mechanics, the things which should stand out in the series – characters and pivotal moral choices – regularly drove him mad. Exploring character when you dislike most of your party is no fun, and being given world-changing choices when you think the whole situation has been mishandled by NPCs all along is less satisfying. His opinions have coloured mine in hindsight; I enjoyed DA:O, but it does have its flaws.
DA2 follows the original very closely in most ways. Combat is the same, many if not most of the spells and abilities are familiar, and the characters stick to the Origins mold. You’ve got a wild female apostate mage (who is tempered by being rather naive); a noble-minded sword-and-shield warrior (who’s female this time and has less of a sense of humour than Alistair); an overly-sexualised dagger-wielding rogue (human female this time, but at least Zevran wore pants); I could go on. Where there is no obvious equivalent, hybrids will usually fit, e.g. Anders has Alistair’s personality with Morrigan’s values. There were many times where I felt that the conversations I was having could have been transplanted into Origins with no changes, and many of the battle quotes are the same lines.
I look forward to seeing what BlueJay thinks (he’s finally got Mass Effect 2 so it may be a while before he plays through more Dragon Age), but I think the characters are a bit easier to like for being a bit less extreme this time around. Aveline can be a stick-in-the-mud, Isabella’s incredibly selfish, Fenris is impossible to please… but they’re interesting. The new approval system really helps. Instead of having a like/dislike spectrum, where if a character disapproves of your actions you lose all chance of bonuses, in DA2 you foster friendship or rivalry. Reaching either extreme unlocks a special bonus for that character. Hawke’s companions won’t leave just because they don’t always agree with him/her, but naturally the plot will occasionally bring you to an impasse.
I loved this because while playing Origins, I came to the realisation that the game really discourages proper role-playing. You lost characters or opportunities if you didn’t try to appease everyone, so your Warden was much less likely to take their own consistent position. Additionally, with achievements for every major decision, repeat playthroughs were less about “my mage is going to be a racist human who’s determinedly independent and resents the Circle” and more about “I supported x last time so my new character has to support y.” DA2 allows Hawke to make whatever decisions the player wishes without leaving you concerned for your gameplay, and still provides multiple outcomes. It’s also a lot more relevant to Hawke, compared to the Warden poking his/her nose into everyone’s business because they happened to be there: the game focuses on the politics and factions of one city.
There are some downsides to the game that quickly became obvious, and while most of them are relatively minor things, they persistently bugged me. The entire game sports a single cave, which apparently has a hundred entrances because no matter where I entered, the map was the same. There’s one warehouse down by the docks in about three locations, and an odd sense of déjà vu when you realise the site of your quest is the exact location of an encounter two years ago. Basically, the maps are lazy. Specific environments exist for plot-relevant sites, but with the amount of side-questing the game send you on it’s impossible not to notice that places are duplicated. It’s also rather frustrating to find that certain doors can’t be interacted with despite the mini-map showing a room beyond; changing the map for each encounter surely wouldn’t be that much trouble. There are also a lot of quests which I experienced as complete non-sequitors, especially near the beginning when you’re just out to make some cash. Hawke picks up a random item while out and about (‘The One True Pantaloons’, anyone?), and somehow knows to return it to someone he/she has never spoken to, who pays him/her for the trouble. The only reason I ever knew to return items was because the quest log told me to – there was no logic whatsoever.
[Edit: Tim of Ctrl+Alt+Del has the same problem!]
Having finished the game, I do have to say I think the story is better than in DA:O. It’s a lot less clichéd, and I attribute this to the way it builds on its own mythology from Origins rather than just a generic fantasy background. DA2 focuses on issues of magic, demons and control, which were important in Origins but ultimately sidelined in favour of “hordes of
orcs darkspawn are attacking, simply because that’s what they do, and only you can stop them.” It has been widely said that DA2 is shorter, but the focus on one place and its cumulative history makes for a richer story in my opinion. If the franchise can continue to build its own identity it will be much improved – and the ending certainly implies more games to come, though probably not with Hawke. I approve of the way that this game links to Origins (complete with numerous cameos to look for!) without trying to be a direct continuation at all; if they keep this up, I may just be more eager for a Dragon Age 3.
PS: As a final, smug note, I noticed that Dragon Age 2 has health potions. Someone must have finally informed the Bioware staff that no matter how much more gritty and medieval it may sound, poultices do not work instantaneously and are certainly not intended to be drunk!