Review: Dragon Age 2 (Xbox 360)

Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 is a game that wears its development on its sleeve. Its strengths and weaknesses seem to be products of its shorter-than-would-be-expected development cycle — one of only about two years from the very beginnings of pre-production compared to the at least five years of its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins. The resulting product sacrifices scope and variety for a more intimate story concerned with individuals and social dynamics.

The narrative revolves around the character of Hawke who flees the troubled kingdom of Ferelden during the events of Dragon Age: Origins and seeks refuge in the city of Kirkwall. The story trudges along from there, as Hawke rises through the social ranks and becomes enveloped in the conflicts taking the city by storm.

While it’s a unique approach to story in video games, especially in the now tritely sweeping role-playing genre, narrowing the scope also allows for some wonderful character development, particularly with the player character.

It is Bioware’s best effort in creating a bond between player and avatar — clearly one of the superstar developer’s primary goals in all its games — to date. There is a depth of user choice in dialogue that allows the one to develop their hero’s personality in almost any direction they see fit. There aren’t just “good” and “evil” responses. Your hero can react with sarcasm, aggression, reluctance and even flirtation. You’re allowed to choose a response that feels natural in that situation. The response you, the player, would actually make.

This is amplified by the lack of a silly morality system. Bioware opted instead to give feedback to player choice through a party response system. Make an unlawful decision and the noble Aveline, an early companion, will react negatively, resulting in an increased rivalry score.

This party response mechanic works far better than a morality system would have. It reinforces the idea of making organic dialogue choices while reminding you of the various personalities that make up your party.

And those personalities are wonderfully crafted. Each member is well developed with unique pasts, desires and flaws. Varric, a swarthy Dwarven noble and the game’s unreliable narrator, is a particular standout and delivers the game’s most surprising and fun set piece sequence.

While the characters and role-playing are truly top-notch, there are some major flaws in the narrative structure.

The game is just plain slow. While the developers might tout the lack of a central and obvious antagonist as a unique and compelling feature, there is a real sense of urgency lost because of the absence of an overarching conflict. What seems to be the game’s primary conflict (it’s represented as such in the marketing materials) turns out to end rather abruptly, at the the end of the second act. Instead, the seeds of a second conflict are strewn throughout the game and finally start to flower in act three (again, rather abruptly).

The quests on offer don’t help the pacing either. While some of the longer quest chains offer up thrilling little story lines — a desperate late game search for a serial killer being one of the highlights — many are simply dull “go here, kill these, grab that” affairs.

What’s worse is the lack of unique environments. You’ll enter a number of dungeons throughout the game, but they are all derived from one of a handful of maps. There’s the cave, the underground passage, the warehouse, the dock and the magical mine. You’ll see these several environments tons of times during the game, the only difference being a path blocked off here and there depending on the quest you’re visiting it for.

Luckily the combat has been livened up a little. Lots of new animations and effects have been added to make combat fast, brutal and just fun to watch. Rogues, for example, now disappear in a cloud of smoke when using their “backstab” ability, reappearing behind the targeted enemy and tearing into them. Mages now brandish their staves like monks twirling bo staffs. 

While the combat has been slightly streamlined, the core tactical feel remains the same. You’re not going to ge through this game by just mashing the attack button. Pausing is necessary, as is fine-tuning your party for combat through the game’s simple logic-based command system. With the right party configuration, skill set up and tactics you can create a death machine capable of rolling through most situations with ease. Most situations.

The ones you’re likely to trip up on are the boss fights. While the battle that ends the game’s first act offers up a unique kind of fight where positioning your party on the battlefield truly matters — a concept unfortunately unexplored in the rest of the game — the rest are just tedious time-sinks. On a number of occasions I found the easiest strategy to be putting up a fight with my full party while I could and just finishing battles with my tank attempting to kite the baddy and its army of minions while I just sat back and lobbed crossbow bolts at them with Varric. In other words, boss fights basically devolved into running around and mashing the “A” button for 15 minutes.

One major problem I have with the game, however, is the way it handles decision-making. At a micro-level — dialogue choices and character development — DA2 is probably the most advanced game I’ve ever played. At the macro-level, however, — the way your decisions impact the greater narrative and world — it is a disaster.

It’s a prime example of what can go wrong when you provide the player with the “illusion of choice,” rather than the actual power to determine the outcome of a situation. The worst offender is the game’s ending. The conflict between mages and templars builds throughout its 30 hour length and culminates with Hawke having to choose a side. Turns out though, no matter which side you choose the game ends the same way. It strips your decisions of meaning and at that point we have to ask, why bother letting us decide in the first place?

What Dragon Age 2 accomplishes is turning RPG narrative tropes on their head. There is no epic scope here. This is the story of a city and its inhabitants. While it leads to some real pacing problems, it’s a risk that ultimately pays off with a narrative that is thematically rich, touching on such real world societal problems as racism, class conflict, religious fundamentalism, immigration and even terrorism.

The end result is a product that was clearly rushed to market. I would say, however, it is a successful experiment in video game storytelling. Between the framed narrative approach and the narrow plot focus DA2, offers up a literary gaming experience that I would recommend (with some reservations) to anyone interested in the act of video game role-playing.

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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