"[Dragon Age II is] simultaneously accessible and deep with options for just about any level of player."
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the title and should be very similar to the PlayStation 3 version. We will have a review specifically for the PC version in the coming weeks.
First things first: This review will not be a direct comparison between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II. While there will be notations of changes and differences, this is not a review of Dragon Age II as it is different from Dragon Age: Origins, but a review of Dragon Age II as its own entity. Undoubtedly, there will be many reviews that directly compare the changes in style from Dragon Age to Dragon Age II, which, honestly, are less than many people would want to believe. What BioWare has crafted with Dragon Age II is a quality RPG that's both accessible for those who want to play the title like an action game and deep enough for the hardcore RPG fan. The game is thoroughly entertaining, has witty writing, and gives the player choice, which is incredibly refreshing. Still, it's not without its flaws, such as being very limited in regards to environments and having its fair share of control niggles. Dragon Age II is a quality title, despite your level of hardcore-ness, so if you like Western RPGs, you should probably read on.
That being said, let me introduce Dwayne Hawke
. Dwayne Hawke isn't the default Garrett Hawke by any stretch of the imagination. Dwayne isn't dashing like the default Hawke, he's kind of an asshole, and he's not very likely to take your side unless there's something in it for him. Dragon Age II provided me the ability to make Dwayne and play him like I set out Dwayne should be. Dwayne was a warrior, but I could very much make him a polite, helpful, but Templar-loving mage. Dwayne could also have manifested himself as Dwaynette, a rogue that has no heart of gold, and isn't even in it for herself - she's just in it to make sure that people get hurt. There's a great range of character customization just at the core level, and it's great. That's not to say that there aren't downsides: Hawke is a human, no matter what way you slice it. There's no Dwarf Hawke or Elf Hawke, which may be disappointing for some.
Hawke also lacks the same skills that the Warden had in the first game; instead, every level he simply gets three points to improve his base statistics and one point that he can apply to a skill. There's a significant amount of specialization left here - much more than Mass Effect 2, for certain. Hawke has several "base" skill trees and three specialization skill trees - two of which can be explored (one at level 7, one at level 14). Dwayne was a Warrior who never swayed from his original path - wield the biggest sword possible and bollocks to defense. He specialized into the Reaver and Berserker skill trees - sacrificing his own health at the expense of more damage. I didn't have to build Dwayne that way, but that's who Dwayne is; Dwayne could've been defense-oriented and all about buffing his teammates. He could've been balanced, too, even though there's not much fun in that.
The important thing here, though, is that there's really not a way to gimp your version of Hawke. Yes, there are skills that don't work well together and the best way to statistically level your Warrior is to just toss points into strength and constitution (and a little dexterity), and you're good to go. That's not to say that the other statistics are useless: willpower affects stamina for rogues and strength affects fortitude for mages, so there's never a "dead" stat for any given class. Because items are restricted by statistics, however, it's pretty obvious what you need to be funneling your points into for your class. It should also be noted that players can respec their characters in Dragon Age II - it requires a potion purchased at The Black Emporium - a piece of content unlocked with the code included with new copies of the game. It's a nice thing to have and really makes it so that you can experiment with different builds since the potions aren't particularly expensive.
Equipment is a big part of any RPG, and Dwayne needed to look good. The first thing I did was level his stats so he could use the Blood Dragon Armor that was on my account and the giant Axe that I received as a part of my bonus equipment with the included DLC code. This equipment can't be used until about level 5 or 6 and lasts for a good couple levels. Each held a rating of 5 stars when I equipped it, denoting it to be very good for the level. Hawke can wield a variety of weapons and shields, can equip up to four accessories and four pieces of normal equipment. It works well and there's a decent variety of equipment, although usually any good piece of gear I found stuck for several levels. To streamline inventory and clutter, Hawke's companions can only be equipped with accessories and weapons - their armor can be upgraded by finding things in the world, but they cannot be given the equipment Hawke might wear. One caveat to this is Varric - a character who never left my party because his weapon, a crossbow named Bianca, scales to his level. This is either a positive or negative depending on your point of view - less customization, but more streamlined play. I can't say that I saw this as a bad thing; players won't be forced into worrying too much about their companions.
So now Dwayne has been built - his mutton chops and moustache ready for the game ahead. The story starts not with Hawke, but with the dwarf Varric being interrogated about "The Champion." He tells the story of our friend Hawke, escaping the Blight in Ferelden during the events of Dragon Age: Origins. Varric starts with a much more flowery tale of the events, but he is stopped by his interrogators and the game starts anew with Hawke not being the amazingly skilled warrior he is known as, but as his dopey level one self, trying to escape with his family. From there, he escapes to Kirkwall and begins his journey. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that the story really isn't Hawke's - or even any of his companions', either. This is the story of Kirkwall, of fighting between the Templar and the Mages, of the political struggle inside and outside the city. Hawke is the keystone in the story arc, but despite being the main character, it never quite feels like his
Because this is truly the story of Kirkwall, the entirety of the game takes place in or around the city. With the exception of the beginning of the game in Ferelden and the journey into the Deep Roads, you see every environment in the game multiple times. Here is my first major gripe with Dragon Age II: it recycles environments. A lot. The game even pokes fun at it by noting that every secret society meeting takes place in a warehouse. There are several environments that are repeated with the exact same floor layout: the warehouse, the sewer, the cave, and the mansion. There may be some parts blocked off in one version of the warehouse compared to others, but it's all the same layout, to the tee. It's a bit disconcerting and unfortunate - while these environments are technically competent, they're not striking like the main parts of Kirkwall; they're just warehouse, cave, sewer, and mansion. The rest of the environments are more impressive artistically, but you still spend much of your time in the same places again and again.
Despite the repetitive environments and a story that's not truly about Hawke, Dragon Age II features some fantastic dialogue coupled with good voice acting to provide a very cohesive experience. While the overall narrative feels a little disjointed, there's never a feeling like what you've done has no affect on the world. Individual conversations are fantastic along with the characters that inhabit them. Varric is an incredibly charismatic rogue, Sandal loves enchantments, and the shy elven girl might just be a little bit crazy... or evil... or both. As you make your choices and talk to your fellows - which is now done with a Mass Effect-style radial menu - your choices have big effects on the world. I'm often not one to go back and play games multiple times, but I'm ready to dive right back in to find out what happens if I do other things because there are some choices I regret making that had some big consequences. There were also a lot of choices that had little effect - Dwayne was a little bit of a man-whore, and it's possible to have a relationship with just about any character - Dwayne saw a bit of interest from his male cohorts, too. It's not quite The Witcher in the overall effects of your choices, but it's proof that BioWare has come a long way from having very black-and-white decisions. Still, the overall narrative just lacks oomph, even if many of the individual conversations are well worth the price of entry.
The story is complemented by fast-paced gameplay, which, despite many claims otherwise, is not so dissimilar from the previous title. The biggest change is that mashing the A button causes the player to attack. It's still a quasi-turn-based RPG, as mashing the A button faster isn't going to get you any more attacks, and you're not going to dodge much by running around, but it's overlaid with a much more visceral feeling. That being said, it's still very easy to pause the game and issue orders. Holding the left trigger gives you a radial menu from which you can issue orders and access skills. On the consoles, three skills can be assigned to the face buttons, and three more skills can be assigned for use with the face buttons while holding the right trigger. The PC version retains a menu on the bottom of the screen. It feels just a little less tactical than DA:O, and it's certainly a fair bit easier on Normal. Sometimes you can't target the thing you want without completely pausing the combat, and sometimes the radial menu doesn't do what you want it to do, but the controls are still better than competent. The most important thing, however, is that despite the fact that it feels streamlined, it never feels dumbed down.
One negative aspect to the combat is often how you are presented with random battles - much like the aforementioned environments, most encounters run the same way: get swarmed by a wave of weak enemies, get swarmed by a wave of slightly stronger enemies, get swarmed by a wave of strong enemies, and combat is over. It's still fun, and in my time with the game, combat never got boring, but I do wish that there were more aspects to the encounters. Some boss encounters feel a lot like those in an MMORPG - when fighting a dragon who's attacked a mine, the fight plays out not entire dissimilarly from the Onyxia fight from World of Warcraft. Fight the dragon when she's on the ground, then when she launches into the air, fight a group of lesser dragons. In fact, it's not the only part of the game that struck me as being entirely MMORPG-like. Quests are broken up into chains, and it's often easier to take down all the quests in an area, then move on to the next, rather than take whole quests at once to see how the story plays out. This isn't a good or a bad thing, however, it's simply an observation.
The entertaining content and great dialogue is overlaid by something I mentioned earlier - great aesthetics. The graphics are a huge improvement over the first game; the characters all animate well and there's not nearly as much clipping. The models' faces look more detailed and complement the strong voice acting. Aside from the aforementioned repetition in the environments, there are truly no major complaints to be had here. I did run into some issues of loading animations, and it was just a little jarring when I had to wait for a 1-2 second load out of nowhere, but these instances were few and far between. Listening to Varric banter with Isabela while they're both out with your party, or Isabela chatting with just about anyone, however, more than makes up for any other minor aesthetic difficulties the game experiences.
Dragon Age II is streamlined, not simplified. It's a great game within its own rights, but issues with the overall story, repetitive environments, and control scheme keep it from being truly fantastic. Even with those flaws, Dragon Age II is still an above-average RPG that's worth the time of just about anyone who likes Western-styled RPGs. With fantastic characterization, quality voiceover and graphics, and only a few minor issues, there's not a good reason not to play Dragon Age II. It's simultaneously accessible and deep with options for just about any level of player. The most important thing, however? Dragon Age II is fun. The 21 hours I spent with the game were all quality, though note that I play my RPGs quickly and tend not to do all the sidequests; the average person will probably get 30-35 hours out of it. BioWare has another winner on their hands and there's no reason that you shouldn't want to make your own Dwayne.