Some time ago, I wrote an article about the anniversary of Dragon Age: Origin. Not just because it was another one of those anniversary games I wanted to pull out, but rather to have another excuse to replay one of my favorite games of all time. I was happy to hear that the game largely held up, with the exception of some terribly stiff character animations. Dragon Age II is now ten years old, and I decided to return to the world of Tad. Let’s see how this piece holds up over time.
Dragon Age II differs from its predecessor in several ways. This is clear from the beginning. In Origins, you can start with six different introductory chapters, depending on the class, race and profession you choose. Yes, they all end up in the same place, which makes the rest of the game pretty similar. Still, there is an initial sense of satisfaction when you choose one of six very different backgrounds for your character.
However, this is not the case in Dragon Age II. This time the game focuses on the Hawke family, where you are the oldest of three siblings (one of whom is immediately removed from the game). You can still decide if your profession is Mage, Rogue, or Warrior, but you can only play one background character. Your character, Hawk, is on the run from the fifth Ferelden plague when you arrive at the coast of Kirkwall and find your uncle living there. He informs you that the family fortune has disappeared and that the only way to enter the city as a fugitive is to become a slave. Seeing no other option, Hawke agrees to join a mercenary group or a smuggler to gain access to Kirkwall.
The rest of the game is divided into three actions, which is another departure from Origins’ layout. In the first act Hawke and his companions try to raise enough money for an expedition to the Deep Roads. In the second act, Hawke tries to calm the unrest in the city in various ways, with the Kunarian threat at the forefront. Then, in the third act, war breaks out between the Magi and the Templars.
Each act is broken down by one of your companions, a dwarf named Warrick, who relays the story to an interrogator named Cassandra. It’s a very different feel to Origins, and that’s what fans were divided on. Personally, I really liked the way Dragon Age II told its story because it was really different from most other RPGs in that regard.
While it’s a little disappointing that you don’t have as much control over the origin of the main character as you did in Origins, I appreciate that the story is tighter. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the plots of Origins and thought it was fantastically written, but there are advantages to a smaller scale story. For starters, Hawke can be linked to much more than the non-speaking characters introduced in Origins. The focus is on the Hawk family, with some surprises that have a real emotional impact because you get to know them so well.
Same goes for Hawke’s girlfriend. In Origins you already had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with your companions, but Dragon Age II has expanded the dynamic between you and your teammates even further. Romance options are still available, which has become a BioWare staple. But instead of romanticizing your crew or making them like you, there’s a whole system designed to build friendships or rivalries with them. Both packs include power-ups, various dialogue options, and several side missions. This is an area that could change the game enough to justify the few walkthroughs I’ve done myself.
A more discrete storyline also means that more quests are directly related to your companions. Thus, each character gains strength. In the end, I was more interested in what happened to their characters. I sincerely wanted to help Avelina successfully court her love interest. I wanted to help Fenris avenge his former master and slave. Helping Warrick feel personal after a big betrayal. The relationship that developed with my supervisors felt more intimate and important than ever before. For me, the companions are the strongest part of Dragon Age II.
The battles have also been thoroughly revised and greatly improved. Each character still has their own battle tactics, which you can customize just like before. However, the AI in Dragon Age II is much more intelligent. The battles are generally much faster and smoother, which makes fighting much more enjoyable. My biggest complaint is that enemies always come in waves, often behind you or your weakest teammate. This can make the battles tedious after a while, especially in the later levels where the number of enemy waves increases with each confrontation.
Besides the combat, the graphics have also been greatly improved. Textures and lighting have been greatly improved, as has the level of detail in the environment. The animation of the characters has been significantly improved, their faces and bodies moving in a more realistic manner. But the headdresses still look like they’re made of wood. At least his arms don’t look like permanent back scratches anymore!
This brings me to my biggest question about Dragon Age II: the level of design. Because Dragon Age II takes place in a smaller environment, you can visit fewer locations. You can explore different areas of Kirkwall, some coastal areas, some mountain trails and a forest trail. In general, I don’t care, as long as the environment is interesting. The problem is that they are not like that at all.
It’s safe to say that this is where the developers had to make the most cuts. There are essentially only a handful of cards that switch for something slow. The biggest layout changes take place in different parts of Kirkwall, but everything else is repetitive. There is only one card for each zone: Coast, mountain, cave, mansion, warehouse, tiger and underground.
That may sound like a lot, but it’s not, especially when you consider that these maps are usually supposed to represent different locations. Every time you have to go around the warehouse, it’s exactly the same. You may have to explore a few different caves, but it’s the same map with the entrance blocked here and there by a very inconclusive rock slab. You have a mission on the coast, but the only anomaly on the map from your last visit might be a wooden cart blocking the path you were able to take last time. The level design smacks of laziness, which hurts the gameplay considerably.
If you’re more focused on the story, Dragon Age II is still a great time. Even if you don’t save Blythe’s world, what happens in the game fits perfectly with the events of Origins and builds even better on what’s to come in Inquisition. The themes of prejudice and turmoil are well thought out and offer deep puzzles for the player to ponder. It’s a game where almost none of your choices are black or white, but rather in the grey area of morality.
Dragon Age II is a game that has gone viral among fans since its release. That’s not surprising, considering the way BioWare approached this game. But if you can get past the rushed and extremely limited level design, you’ll find a game that is very strong in its own right. The story is fascinating and complex in many ways, and introduces important new aspects of the Thedas legend, such as the red lirium and the lirium idol. Battles are much faster and more fluid, and the AI isn’t constantly getting hit or stuck in doors. The relationships you can develop with your companions are strong and will keep you invested in their character development. Dragon Age II is a largely misunderstood game in my opinion, but it’s still worth it. Let’s hope Dragon Age 4 can bring back some of that magic, with exciting characters, exciting challenges, and less questing than Inquisition.
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