It's pretty much impossible to have a conversation about Dragon Age: Origins without talking about its development time. Sure, it's an epic, but after so long in development (as many as eight years by some accounts) what excuse would it have not to be? Also, why does it still feel so shoehorned onto consoles?
Now, with just a fraction of the development time, BioWare has delivered Dragon Age 2, a sequel that streamlines the experience to something that feels far more at home on the 360 or PS3 ... but might just have lost a touch of that epic feeling along the way.
Trouble is brewing in Kirkwall, a city north of Origins' homebase, Ferelden. In a conflict we're led to believe is being repeated the world over, mages are straining under the yoke of the templars, a group of knights who endeavor to keep more magically inclined citizens in line. No matter what decisions you made in Origins (some of which can be imported into Dragon Age 2) things are ... bad, to say the least.
As Hawke, an escapee from the recently-vaporized-by-Darkspawn village of Lothering, you're quickly thrust into the conflict. Depending on the class you choose at the game's start, you're either a mage yourself or have one for a sibling, so you'll have to begin choosing sides almost immediately.
With no traditional morality to speak of, Dragon Age 2 is really about choosing sides between the mages and templars. Although it's a question that's asked countless times, it's asked in progressively more interesting ways, many of which will severely challenge your allegiance. ("Sure, I support the mages, but dude, you just killed a lot of innocent people. Like, a lot.")
Beneath the surface of this binary choice, you'll have smaller scale control over how you treat others, typically selecting between "stern," "nice," and "smart-ass" options. As I progressed, I almost always went the comedic route, and characters started noticing, commenting on how easily levity came to me, or how they thought my behavior at their nephew's funeral was "really inappropriate."
The result is a lead character that I feel I have real stock in -- even more so than Mass Effect's Commander Shepard, who walks a far less interesting line between "unbelievably nice guy" and "kind of a dick."
You'll need that level of personality finesse too, with a cast of supporting characters that constantly tweak and subvert stereotypes. My favorite? Varric, a treasure hunting dwarf that also happens to be the author of a series of much-beloved pulp adventure novels.
It's such a great cast that you'll rarely notice that most all of your war buddies from Origins sit this one out, save for a couple of choice cameos.
Many of the revelations about your new companions come from interstitial conversations they'll have as you travel to your next goal. I would often find myself pairing two characters for a mission just to see what they'd talk about during and was rarely disappointed. With such a varied crew, you'll find it tough to not disappoint at least one of them with your choices, which adds welcome weight to the decision-making process.
Of course, those missions are also chock full of killing, which is one of those areas that feels vastly improved this time around (on the 360 at least).
With no auto-attack, fights feel more fast-paced and chaotic, thanks in part to the fact that I was playing a rogue who flipped wildly between enemies in a hypnotic shower of blood. It's action-heavy, sure, but also requires some tactical forethought. A straight fight between an enemy and my sneaky duelist would rarely pan out well, which required me to constantly be aware of my tougher warrior buddy's actions and location. I'm not a big proponent of the "stop and give orders" approach to combat, but Dragon Age 2 provides just the right blend of strategy and stab...egy for my tastes.
Sure, there are different things to kill, but haven't you seen this cave once or twice or eight times before?
Though the tactics system, which allows you to choose what specific actions characters will take in specific situations, is still as daunting to me as ever, I found that I barely needed to adjust the preset behavioral patterns. (All of said adjustments were the addition of "If you're about to die, heal yourself" which seems like enough of a biological imperative that I shouldn't have to dictate it.) If you want it, it's there, but you won't typically have to mess with it, thanks in large part to the removal of Origins' infuriating difficulty spikes.
Smart combat, great characters, much-improved (and much less brown) graphics; I should have been sailing through Dragon Age II with a big, stupid grin on my face. And I was, until this ... gnawing set in. By the halfway point of my adventure, I couldn't shake the sense that I was not, as I had been led to believe, living out an epic story in an epic world. Rather, I found myself with the distinct feeling of being led through a haunted house where the next encounter was being set up just moments before my arrival.
The narrative is partly to blame. As mages became more persecuted and templars more demonized, I was always acutely aware that it was my decisions that had forced them into that mold -- and it's a mold you can reverse, at any time, all the way to the final moments. It's hard to get too worked up about a chief antagonist that was created by a dialog choice, or, as Jessica Rabbit might have said, someone who is "not bad, they're just drawn that way" ... and you're the one holding the pencil.
The modular nature of the story is also reflected in the missions, which are sort of annoyingly compartmentalized. There are a couple of longer journeys, but far too many boil down to hopping to the map, talking to someone, killing them (or not) and going back to the quest giver. You will spend far more time than you're comfortable with running back and forth between exits.
The lack of forward momentum is exacerbated by the fact that you'll see almost all of the game's environments in its first third. Sure, there are different things to kill, but haven't you seen this cave once or twice or eight times before? BioWare tries to make the journey seem more sweeping by having it span a decade, but when towns look the same and characters don't appear to age or even change clothes, it feels artificial.
I'm assuming the slightly stunted world is a result of the accelerated development schedule, which I also imagine is the culprit behind the lackluster gear system. All equipment is given a star rating for your level, which makes choosing between two pieces of gear basically compulsory. Worse, the majority of the equipment is just called "Ring" or "Amulet", so the illusion that you're actually accumulating worthwhile treasure is fairly tattered.
By the time the last sword was swung in Dragon Age 2, I had enjoyed some great conversations, participated in some thrilling battles and even been at the center of an interesting story. I just never could shake the feeling that it was a story I was telling myself.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of Dragon Age II provided by EA.