Bioware's pedigree of excellence is put to the test with Dragon Age 2, which can effectively be described as a controversial title that will no doubt polarize opinions in the gaming community. Contrary to the current wave of knee-jerk reviews abundant on the Internet, I will try and present a sensible overview on one of the most anticipated titles of 2011.
The story actually begins during the events of 2009's Origins, and spans an epic 7 year period told in traditionally captivating BioWare fashion, but not without a few hitches along the way. The protagonist of the story is a Fereldan by the name of Hawke, essentially a refugee fleeing from the Darkspawn Blight which has destroyed his/her hometown of Lothering. BioWare continues its strong tradition of enabling both male and female gamers to fully enjoy their character by including Mass Effect style voiceovers for Hawke, controlled by the very same 'conversation wheel' that allows you to pick a general stance of response, and watching Hawke play it out for you. It's an efficient, albeit somewhat limited system in the sense that it sacrifices true roleplaying in favor of a more cinematic experience, which is line with the faster pace of this title as opposed to the slower and more ponderous ride that was Origins. Hardcore dwarven and elven roleplayers will be disappointed to know that you can only play as a human in Dragon Age 2 , which was an understandable design decision given the fixed nature of the protagonist's family and the central role they play in the narrative. Whilst its predecessor was a highly customizable experience, Dragon Age 2 follows more of a 'strap yourself in and enjoy the ride' design philosophy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After a blistering opening sequence that doesn't skimp on the action, Hawke and family find themselves on a boat full of refugees headed to Kirkwall, a port city located in the Free Marches to the north of Ferelden, and the main staging point of the game. From there the story spans 7 years and involves everything from family tragedies, to Qunari conspiracies, and political tensions between the Templar and Mage factions introduced in Origins. The main plot once again suffers from the lack of a charismatic and overarching villain that was so badly needed in Origins, with the possible exception of the 'Arishok', a massive Qunari chieftain who shifts ambiguously from a stranded asylum seeker of sorts to something more akin to a rebellious militant. The choices you make, whilst disappointingly not having as much impact as the first game in the grand scale of things, are suitably 'grey' in line with the dark and gritty feel of the universe. The somewhat underwhelming main quest line is buoyed an absolutely fantastic range of sidequests and companion quests which will keep you busy for hours on end. But by the end of it all, you'll be slightly let down in realizing that no matter what path you took in the main quests the ending hardly varies. I would have liked to have seen slightly more freedom with the narrative, but it's pretty obvious that BioWare wanted it to end in a very specific way in order to set things up nicely for the eventual slew of DLC's and sequels. The aforementioned sidequests still offer the player the ability to change their outcomes depending on conversation choices , which should satisfy stalwarts of the RPG genre.
And now we arrive at the controversial combat system. Let me just say one thing - the age of the traditional isometric CRPG is over. With the abolishment of the top-down tactical camera, the Dragon Age franchise has well and truly entered action RPG territory. The console-ification is complete. The last bastion has fallen. We are all doomed. And you know what?
It feels damn good.
The sleeker, faster, and more robust combat system does away with the clipping and cumbersome issues that Origins had, and makes for a much more streamlined experience. Collision detection is active on all characters, which is a pleasant addition alongside position-unique animations. For example by clicking on a foe behind you Hawke will kick out with his left leg and connect beautifully. Initiate a 'Rush' move and Hawke will barrell into a pack of archers, sending them tumbling back into each other. It feels visceral and brutal, and really in line with the atmosphere of the series. The animations look suitably over the top, especially some of the rogue ones, which tread lightly into anime-territory as you disappear and reappear behind your foes in a flash to perform a backstab. I must have used backstab more than any other ability but even at the end of the game I was never tired of the animation. The new combat system is so deft that it allows you to manually dodge the swipes of an Ogre, the lash of a dragon, or the slam of a golem - and it's incredibly satisfying. Skilled players will be able to vanish just as an Ogre swings its fist at you, reappear behind it and stick your blades into its back, all in the blink of an eye using one well-timed Backstab. It's truly orgasmic when done right, and something that could never have been achieved with the bland system employed by its predecessor. Complaints over the difficulty as a result of the simplified combat are unjustified. An hour into the game I had to crank the difficulty down from Hard to Normal, something I never once had to do in Origins, a game which you could comfortably stroll even in Nightmare mode. In Dragon Age 2, Nightmare mode will chew you up and spit you out, unless you use something cheesy like a 4 mage party or 'trick-pulling' the enemies one by one. If anything, I feel some fights were ridiculously unbalanced and will certainly need patching. The new interface feels intuitive although I personally did not see any reason to change the existing UI. I did enjoy the excellent minimap functionality and whilst I truly did miss the tactical camera, I have to grudgingly admit that the default one does just as good a job. The codex is back with even more entries than before, and is a joy to skim through. The pointless inclusion of 'junk' items was pretty unnecessary however, and there is noticeably less loot this time around, most of which is down to the fact that you can't equip armor on your companions anymore - they come with their own gear that can be upgraded as you progress in the game. This is a neat touch as they retain their sense of uniqueness and avoids the dreaded 'every-rogue-looking-the-same' syndrome. On the plus side you can still equip rings and amulets and weapons on companions, and Hawke is fully customizable in terms of gear, although I felt it wouldn't have hurt to have more item sets available - she/he is the protagonist after all, so three item sets in the entire game just feels lackluster to me.
Turning an eye to the technical side of things, Dragon Age 2 is a decidedly mixed bag. The graphics are decent, and the general/facial animations of NPCs and enemies has been greatly improved. The lighting and shading has gotten an upgrade too and the world feels a lot livelier. PC users will not be pleased with having to download a 1GB patch just to enable high-res textures in the game, which do look great, but really should have been included on the retail disc. DirectX11 support is included but Depth of Field and Blurring is curiously greyed out for some modern NVidia cards, which is strange given that it's essentially 3 year old technology. As with all BioWare games, the sound department is where the standout qualities emerge. Voice acting is absolutely top notch. Every single one of your companions retain a sense of originality, and the delivery of lines by the female/male Hawke is equally robust. General ambient sound effects are spot on as usual, and the game is propelled forward by Inon Zur's powerful score that captures the sombre mood of the game perfectly. The presentation is meticulous, with everything from the little animations in the (numerous) loading screens to the way the story is told in flashback narrative given a tremendous amount of detail. Unfortunately the stability of the game seemed to deteriorate as I progressed, with lock ups and crashes becoming more frequent in later chapters. One quest was evidently un-finishable for everyone, another quest played its conclusive cutscene before the quest had even started, and I experienced a couple of game-breaking glitches as well as numerous glitches where my rogue would backstab and fall into walls or random scenery. Furthermore sound would inexplicably cut off during mid-banter on occassions, and would it not have been for the subtitles I'd have no idea somebody even said anything. This is probably the most technically unstable game I've ever seen released by BioWare, which is why it's so surprising. Normally the attention to this kind of detail is excellent but it truly feels like they rushed Dragon Age 2 in order to meet a deadline, which is unfortunate.
Players will also be disappointed to see the amount of recycled dungeons and interiors present in the game. I swear I must have run the same dungeon about 7 or 8 times which is really unforgivable and another hallmark that that the content was rushed. Some players will also feel claustrophobic that the entire game is set in and around the city of Kirkwall, but having said that, BioWare has set a model example of being able to craft so many interesting characters and quests without setting the players off on a globetrotting adventure. It also makes traveling a lot easier, as you can travel swiftly across city areas without being attacked by an annoying bunch of level 2 highwaymen.
Finally we come to the stand-out aspect of Dragon Age 2, which are your trusty companions. I don't know whether it's because of the interaction provided by a fully voice acted protagonist this time around, or the general excellence of the writing team, but the companions you pick up in your travels are unanimously delightful. From the buxom pirate Isabela to the brooding ex-slave Fenris, to your trusty swindling dwarf accomplice Varric, all your companions impart a sense of uniqueness not only on Hawke but the main narrative as well. They all have important roles to play in one way or another, and the exclusion of the 'gift' system will mean you have to watch what you say to them lest you turn them into rivals instead of friends. All your companions have agendas of their own, which may or may not be in line with your decisions and will result in consequences. But it's all the little touches that immerse you, like Isabela chatting to Fenris in his mansion when you walk in, or Anders and Varric sharing a bromance moment in the tavern as you sit down to join them. The amount of party banter here is staggering, and outdoes anything BioWare has ever attempted before. I literally sat through dozens of inter-party banters involving 2 and sometimes even 3 companions as you walk around Kirkwall, and all of them are genuinely excellent. This is definitely the most humorous BioWare game to date, and the party banter humor offsets the morbidity of the main plot to good effect. Standout moments include a discussion on dwarven chest hair, a bumbling captain of the guard's attempts to seduce her subordinate, and pretty much anything Isabela says. Despite all this, it has to be said that I feel that the comic response choices of Hawke could have done with a bit more work, as the whole 'sarcastic British' shtick was hit and miss at times. The addition of truly excellent companion quests only serve to enhance your attachment to them and it's the greatest compliment to a game that I can offer when I say that at the end of it all, I genuinely missed my companions and wanted to know what happened to them. The friendships, rivalries, and even romances that you may forge all feel implicitly real and it's a testament to the writing team and the voice-actors that they have managed to pull this off. Little details like the ownership of a mansion, streamlined crafting that no longer requires you to gather up obscure ingredients, and neat mailbox system allow you to focus on the excellent cinematic experience at hand and minimize the amount of distractions. Those new to the series will be filled in with the important details so they don't feel like they missed anything critical whilst fans will be able to import your Origins save which keeps a track of all the major decisions your Warden made in that game, and adjust your Dragon Age 2 experience accordingly. Expect to see codex entries about the Warden and his allies, commoners chatting about your appointed King of Ferelden, and cameos by a couple of old friends, including one who reiterates that swooping is most certainly bad.
So now comes the million-sovereign question. Is Dragon Age 2 worth it? If you have 20 odd hours to spare and a willingness to put up with a few technical hitches then Dragon Age 2 is an excellent way to spend those hours. It's not a traditional RPG in terms of customizability and complexity and it could have clearly benefited from 3-4 months of more polish but it's hard to fault a game where so many of the charming qualities outweigh the bad ones. I can't help but shake the feeling that this is the Knights of the Old Republic 2 of this generation - an ambitious sequel marred by technical complications. With that said, I for one voraciously await the new DLC's with baited breath, because I simply must know why Varric decided to name his much-fondled crossbow Bianca.