First Impressions: Dragon Age II

Courtesy BioWare

Finally.

After pushing myself to complete a replay of my original character in Dragon Age: Origins and the Awakening expansion, I fired up the sequel at long last. I know I have a long way to go before I can do a legitimate review and I’m continuing to do my utmost to avoid exposing myself to reviews both positive and negative. So, after a couple hours in the Free Marches and some hardware tweaking assisted by my lovely wife who convinced me to be unafraid of beta GPU patches, here are my first impressions of Dragon Age II.

Courtesy BioWare
Yes, I made my Hawke look like me. I did the same in Origins, and they’re related. They’re both mages from the same family.
…Don’t you judge me.

Characters continue to be BioWare’s strong suit. While I haven’t recruited every available party member yet, those I have encountered show a great range of personalities, motivations and quirkiness. I can’t say I dislike any of them, but I like them all for different reasons. Hawke him/herself also shows a good range of character depending on how we register his/her responses using a dialog wheel instead of the numbered choices of Origins. I’m sure it’s one of those divisive decisions that split the fan-base, but having Hawke speaking in his/her own voice gives the conversations more of a natural flow, and actually helps with the immersion into the story, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Staying with characters, however, the leveling system feels a lot less cumbersome than the previous game. It’s easier to make decisions as to how to tweak individual characters, and it seems that the reduced amount of choices will keep players from being overwhelmed and characters from outstripping their opponents. The lack of things like Mana Clash indicates to me that the developers wanted to present a balanced experience to make the faster-paced combat more interesting and thought-provoking. Again, more on that later.

Now, granted, I’m only a couple hours into the story of the game, but it already feels like a far more intimate affair than Origins. Without an over-arching “save the world” storyline, the importance and priority of tasks falls to the individual player. How important is it, to you, to reclaim your birthright? Would you rather blast X amount of Y opponents in order to earn Z coins to progress the plot? Immersion in the plot and importance of its points has nothing to do with a threat hanging over the characters like a Sword of Damocles. Personally? I’m liking that.

Courtesy BioWare

Kirkwall is a great setting for this sort of story. It feels like a living city. There’s places to explore, some of which you shouldn’t do during nighttime if you’ve any sense whatsoever, lots of people to talk to and history to build upon. The scale of it, with buildings looming over you and figures shuffling to and fro, draws you into the world without overwhelming you. As you begin to make your way through Kirkwall, the concerns of the outside world cease to matter as much as getting yourself out of the roach-infested scummy streets of Lowtown. The tidbits of news coming in, however, are something I appreciate, especially knowing the decisions I made in Origins influence the headlines.

Outside of Kirkwall, I’m not sure what to make of things. I’ve been through one rocky cavern already (the pass in the Sundermount related to Flemeth’s quest) and I get the feeling that’s the copy-pasted bit everybody’s complaining about. We’ll see, I suppose.

Speaking of questing, so far it seems to be a decent continuation of previously-used structures. I haven’t run into a straight-forward collection quest but I won’t be surprised when one shows up. I like the day/night system, requiring Hawke to go to different places at different times, as it contributes to the feeling that this is a living, breathing city part of a legitimate world. However, I’m not sure how I feel about the breaking of questlines into bite-size chunks: go to this area, find this person, blast them & their cronies, move directly on to the next area. It removes some of the impetus for exploration that was abounding in Origins. Yes, I know, this runs counter to my previous complaints of Origin’s length but in this case I think they’ve gone a bit too far in the other direction. Again, this is a first impression, so take it with the appropriate amount of salt.

Courtesy BioWare

The changes to aesthetics are another divisive issue, and for my part the change of elves from normal humans with pointy ears to waspish humanoids with oversized heads and Irish accents hasn’t grown on me yet. I mean, I dig the accents but the aesthetic is throwing me off. That could be part of the point – elves are supposed to be different from humans, after all – but the proportions just feel wrong. I haven’t run into an qunari yet so I can’t comment on that. But I still wonder why hurlocks, menacing creatures with human origins and malicious intent, look like rejects from Power Rangers and scuttle around with horrible posture instead of striding across the field to gleefully shove a wickedly-barbed dark longsword down my throat.

A word on combat: I appreciate the ability to pause the combat to issue orders as I did in Origins, but the removal of the isometric top-down view bugs me. I like the fact that it’s more active and fast-paced, with enhanced cries and interaction during a fight, but I can see why the removal of certain aspects pisses people off. Overall, though, I like it so far.

One of the things that really annoys me, though, is equipment. Half of the things I pick up are Hawke-only, meaning a good two-thirds of the things available for sale are useless to me. I don’t mind being able to save my coin, but it makes me feel like the development of my fellows’ equipment is dependent more on doing quests instead of making intelligent pre-combat investment decisions. Again, this is a first impression rather than a review, so that might change in the hours and days to come, but for now I’m scratching my head every time I get another item drop.

More to come, rest assured. Overall I’m really enjoying Dragon Age II, for the moment. We’ll see how long it lasts.

6 Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed DA2.

    A note about equipment:
    You won’t ever be able to change your companion’s armor. Each companion has upgrade elements you can find (4 for each companion), but it won’t really change their look.

    While this threw me off at first too, I appreciated it. It allows for keeping each character looking “right”, and from the party looking like an armory threw up on them.

  2. Immersion in the plot and importance of its points has nothing to do with a threat hanging over the characters like a Sword of Damocles.

    We’ll see if you still feel that way when you’re 20 hours in and there’s still no overarching plot to be seen.

    The problem with character-driven narratives is that it’s very easy to make them feel aimless. For a video game, this is practically a death sentence. Sitting through a character-driven 2 hour movie is different than forcing your way through the same areas for the 500th time in a game.

    And yes, the caves are what everyone’s complaining about. It’s not even that they’re just copy-pasted, which they are; often you’ll have to go to the same exact area multiple times for multiple quests. This isn’t just limited to caves; I’m pretty fucking sick of the Broken Coast already, myself.

    I dunno, Origins never felt long to me till I was maybe 45-50 hours in. DA2 already feels like it’s dragging and I’m less than 25 hours in. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s no point to any of it.

  3. Get used to a lot of repetition. Those dungeons you’ve already seen, you’re going to see them a million and a half more times by the time the game is over. This is not hyperbole. Every basement will look exactly like every other basement. Every cave will be the same as every cave.

    Also, everything Danielle said. It’s not that DA:2 is a bad game … it just feels unfinished and unfocused in terms of narrative. Still fun to play, but not quite the experience of Origins or any of Bioware’s other IPs.

    In terms of combat, they really let down the PC gamer to cater to console players. The systems was designed with the PS3/360 in mind. As a console gamer, I didn’t mind. If I were a PC gamer though I’d be pretty disappointed.

  4. @Kate
    I’ve actually heard the opposite, that console players are annoyed that combat is more twitchy.

    The overarching plot is there, it’s just harder to pick up on if you’re not paying close attention. You’ll hear the rumors.

    As for revisiting the same locations, that didn’t bother me. Kirkwall and Sundermount are much more condensed in terms of space. To me, it would have made little sense for a small city-state and the one mountain it was built on to have vast territories to explore.

    It makes sense to me that a cave used in Act I as a bandit base could be reused in Act II as a hideout for rogue mages. Mage 1: “We need a place to hide out of town.” Mage 2: “Well, there was that cave off the Wounded Coast the bandits used a few years back.” Mage 1: “Good idea.”

    I mean, why wouldn’t they reuse the cave? Why would they go out, find a new cave with suitable layout (access to water, proper location, etc), clear out all the animals (giant spiders) living in it, and so forth when there’s a cave (possibly with abandoned supplies even!) that suits just fine?

    As for locations in-city, maybe it’s an artifact of growing up in suburbia, but seeing a bunch of houses/buildings with the same layout didn’t seem out of place to me.

  5. Oh, there is an over-arching plot. But it’s sloppy narrative as everything would have happened regardless of whether Hawke were there or not. Hawke doesn’t have much agency in his/her role of the hero – things happen around Hawke without Hawke being the cause of said situations. It’s hard to care about a character when there’s not much at stake for them.

    Also, the issue of repetition wasn’t that locations were reused – it was the fact that every separate cave had the same exact map. There’s no variation whatsoever in dungeon layout saved for a few closed passages. Even the loot is located in the same locations in every dungeon. A little variation to the multiple cave on Sundermont and along the Wounded Coast would have been a vast improvement.

  6. I agree with the caves having the same maps, but I blame that on EA and their “Hey, you guys can make an awesome game in 18 months, right?” rather than BioWare.

    And I still found Hawke’s involvement to be critical. Without Hawke, Berandht may never have been able to finance his operation, meaning what lay in the Deep Roads may never have been uncovered. And several other points where only Hawke’s prowess is able to overcome the challenges.

    But it is actually a refreshing change from playing the “I’m the only one that can save the world” characters to play the character who exerts subtle influences.

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