Review: Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 is the oddest bird I have played in ages. It’s what you get when people who really don’t want to be making role playing games make one anyway. It tries to follow the Mass Effect blueprint, by tearing out all the negatives reviewers pointed out in the previous game, distilling the game down to an unadulturated positive experience.

Of course, there is a major difference. Mass Effect was a game with simple, obvious flaws: the combat was a little off, there was too much generic exploration, and the story, while good, featured a lot of characters who were not especially memorable. We can pretty much all agree why Mass Effect wasn’t perfect. On the other hand, if you put ten fans of Dragon Age: Origins in the same room, you would have ten completely different sets of complaints. Some people felt the combat was boring, some felt it was confusing, and others felt it was the best in an RPG in ages. Some people loved the story, the generic quest to defeat a horrible evil race, and some people loved the silent protagonist and the complicated dialog system. Others didn’t like those things. Some people liked the scope of the game, others felt the characters were bland and unlikeable.

A lot of the problems with Dragon Age 2 can be traced to the fact that it is a game built to mechanically correct the flaws of its predecessor. As it is, however, I want to go at it in as pure a way as possible, and not compare it to Origins in the slightest. Well, that’s not true. I plan to spend a second or two on it at the end. But it’s very much it’s own beast, and deserves to be tackled as such.

Unfortunately, as such, Dragon Age 2 is a mediocre game that is soulless and forgettable fun.

The star of Dragon Age 2 is the combat, pure and simple. It is the unquestioned star of the show. This is a game about killing dudes with style, and in that respect, it delivers. Combat is fast, furious, and exhilarating, and it definitely, unquestionably makes you feel like a badass hero. It’s simple enough that a new player can understand it, but with a significant amount of complexity. The leveling system is one of the best in ages, possibly since Diablo II, and that’s saying something.

Of course, now we get to the buts. Combat is amazing, but it’s too easy. It’s not just too easy, it is significantly too easy, and it is poorly balanced. For nearly every encounter, normal is a complete, absolute joke. You will wade through groups of enemies like they are small waves crashing against your party. Hard is more reasonable, but with a caveat: there are a number of fights that are near impossible on hard. There is major difficulty with boss scaling: the first boss, for instance, is an unbeatable monstrosity unless you kite it on hard. Most bosses in the game are ridiculously tough, even on normal; while yes, bosses should be hard, there’s a compatibility issue. If your normal encounters are absurdly easy, then the boss encounters should be a good bit above that. Here, they are miles above it, and it will no doubt frustrate many players. Additionally, should you desire to play on this website’s eponymous difficulty, you’ve got a horror show of a game coming, because suddenly friendly fire is on, and let me tell you, every attack in the damn game is an area one. Fighters hit a massive arc of enemies. Mages basic attack spells are kill everyone on this block. You’re going to die, and it will be frustrating.

The other problem with combat is the waves. There’s little more immersion breaking than seeing 4 archers appear out of nowhere in a corner and start attacking you (the only thing worse is when they are standing there, unhostile, unattackable, waiting for you to kill their friends to become combatants. This has happened far too much for my liking). It’s awkward, and the fact that you don’t know immediately what you’re up against means that your skills are just click and refresh offensive options. Really, the whole game smacks of that: this is playing World of Warcraft, and damage per second is king. The strongest party in my game was myself, a dual wield rogue, another dual wield rogue, an offense-only mage, and a healer. No tank? That’s because tanking is useless. Each party member gets more than enough damage mitigation skills to completely and utterly make the tank of the game useless. In fact, most characters are useless: bows are useless, tanks are useless, and really you’re stuck with a dual wield rogue, a two hander tank, a healer and an offensive mage/another dual wield rogue for the entire game unless you want to be useless.

Let’s talk about the characters, because that’s where we’re going. The characters are of every appealing archtype to appear in a Bioware game. You know them by now: brooding warrior with a past, upstanding force of law, damn the establishment rebel, virginal girl, guy out for a buck, and sexpot. The writers, to their credit, twist each of these a little bit and do a good job at sowing party conflict, but nothing comes of it.

That’s the real lesson of the game’s story: interesting things happen, but nothing comes of them. It’s where the soul gets sucked from the game. There’s a lot of conflict between characters, sure, but nothing ever really comes of it. The story makes a few major time jumps, but nothing really changes. The city, and its people, are the same no matter when. You get some conversations with tense choices, but none of these choices really matter.

One situation to drive that last point home: one quest in the game has you hunting a murderer. You find a man, the accused, who says he didn’t do it. You can spare his life, or you can kill him. Either way, the immediate result is the same. The problem is, either way, the end result is the same, too. When the murders come up again, if you let him live Hawke says, Oh, I bet he’ll be happy to know and that’s the end of it. He does not appear again, in the game. Your choice results in either a fairly long chase scene full of battles or nothing, and either way nothing different happens. There is, literally, no change, at all, in the game.

It’s not like this for just minor choices, too: major choices end up going the same way regardless of what you choose. Hell, regardless of what you choose the other party will usually say the same things. There’s not even a change in their dialog, only in yours. And usually, your dialog, regardless of what it is, just spurs another person to do something incredibly cool and badass.

Do you know what Dragon Age 2’s plot is? Dragon Age 2 is like playing D&D with an inflexible DM who has a cast of beloved characters who he wants to make as cool and badass as possible. You’re constantly walking from one person doing something badass to another, often at the expense of our character. Sure, Hawke is not us, but his dignity is constantly insulted. In one example, I killed wave after wave after wave of relatively powerful enemies, only to be ambushed and almost killed by one mage, whose like I’d killed two of during the previous battle. I was not worse for ware, either: I could have wrecked this mage in the most vicious way possible. We go to a cutscene, where the mage is slaughtered and another, cooler NPC saves us, one of the characters the developers want us to revere as good writing.

You never get the feeling Hawke is the champion of Kirkwall. Hawke is the middleman of Kirkwall, forced forever to side with increasingly unlikeable NPCs, to help them get their ways, rather than getting your way. All too often you’re put in a situation with two NPCs, and given three options: pick one of the two, or make a joke which shows which one of them has the better sense of humor and makes you pick again.

Or you can pick an option on the left side. Here’s the nasty truth about Dragon Age 2: if there is a symbol on the left side that isn’t a weird, three pronged spiral arrow, it is the correct choice. Like, not just a correct choice: it is the choice you pick, because it’s the one that makes good things happen. If you pick any of the ones on the right hand side, it will end in tragedy. Basically, they’ve ported the Mass Effect conversation system to this game, but instead of making certain responses dependent on you being a badass or a negotiator, it instead makes them obvious and available for everyone. How egalitarian and pointless.

All this adds up to a game with no soul. You’re never invested in any great conflict, and when you complete a time period, it jumps forward and that thread is almost forgotten. There isn’t even a story here. You’re a guy. You have some adventures. They’re not especially exciting. Then three years pass in which you do absolutely nothing of note, despite being perhaps the biggest badass in history; you do nothing because none of the major NPCs in the game, the developer’s PCs, do anything. When they start doing things, you pick the game back up.

To put it bluntly, this is medieval Gears of War with conversation choices that don’t really matter. Sure, your party members might like or dislike you, but this only serves to unlock a couple skills and, in fact, is pretty much pointless.

We haven’t even gotten to the technical problems yet. Really, the big one is reused enviornments. Every cave is the same modular cave, carved up by the placement of impassable barriers. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but it definitely makes every area just more like an area in a video game. And that’s the game’s problem: it is painfully, obviously a video game. It is Diablo II, or World of Warcraft: a big game that doesn’t really have a significant narrative arc, but which provides fun combat and the thrill of consecutive quests. The most exciting moments in the game are when you go to an area and turn in three quests at once.

This is where Bioware has fallen to. Turning in quests and getting money (that is really, inanely useless) is the biggest thrill Dragon Age 2 offers. It is cheap, and it is meaningless. It is big, brainless fun.

And I’m usually not one to be upset about that, except it wastes the results of a pretty brainy, intelligent game in the process. When I talk about being upset with Dragon Age 2 as a sequel to Origins, I am not upset that they changed the mechanics, or even made Hawke voiced. That is ancillary. What is important is that I played an eighty hour opus in Origins, one of the best games I’ve ever played, and its sequel is a big dumb game that keeps saying, I can’t believe this is happening to mages when the Hero of Ferelden was a mage. It keeps bringing up the fact that I did something spectacular in eighty hours of game, and now I’m here, killing literally hundreds of enemies an hour without anyone questioning the Ferelden killing machine on these foreign streets, making a fucking sovereign (which sovereign? That’s a very good question. Apparently, sovereigns are a universal currency, which means there must be some sort of universal banking apparatus. I never thought of this until now, but now I am horrified) for killing a hundred dudes. Each of whom has a family. In my time playing Dragon Age 2 I have killed the entire population of Kirkwall over a small amount of coin. My problems are small and stupid. They are treated as big, epic happenings by the frame narrative, but they are small and stupid and full of holes, and they make me long for how I felt when I returned to the Circle during Witch Hunt, a conquering, majestic hero looking for clues to solve the one problem in his life.

In the end, we get the impression that they took one thing from Dragon Age: Origins: that branching plots are hard. They struggle to make use of your choices, and they don’t let you make any choices. Let me put it plainly: there is precious little, here, that offers you the ability to make meaningful choice, and it takes until the last thirty seconds of the game to see why: it is because you are playing a prologue. Your actions are only important because they set up a cooler status quo for a future game, and they don’t want to allow you the ability to so fundamentally alter the world. It’s why Dragon Age 2 takes place somewhere besides Ferelden: it would be far too much work to work with the choices you made in Origins and Awakenings. Instead, they decided the go somewhere else, give you no ability to make any choices of any particular worth, and went from there.

Really, the only major choice you make is in the ending, and either way its effect on the obligatory Dragon Age 3 can be handled in tacked on flavor text. Everything else is filler. Everything else, everyone else can easily be forgotten.

I’m going to put this review bluntly. Origins was Baldur’s Gate. Not Baldur’s Gate 2, its infinitely superior sequel, but the big quest oriented, traditional, generic explorathon that was the original Baldur’s Gate. A fantastic game, in its own right.

Dragon Age 2 tries, really hard, to be Baldur’s Gate 2, replicating it on a very physical level (magic as a central theme, the first quest being to collect a lot of gold, awful invaders from far away, alien cultures, et cetera), but in the end, it is Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate’s brainless Diablo II wannabe cousin. It is heartless, it is soulless, and while it is fun, it is a pale mockery of its predecessor’s promises.


  1. You know, remove the references to the dialog wheel and the reused environments, I felt I was read what I would write for Red Dead Redemption (which I haven’t finished yet, btw). The thing about killing is ridiculous. They are as frequent and inconsequential as picking flowers – and nobody never mentions why a certain Williamson has more men than the entire army of a Mexican Governor.

  2. Trodamus

    First off, re-read the first 3-5 paragraphs of your review and correct your spelling and grammatical errors. I know it’s infuriating to have this pointed out on the internet, but you should be re-reading and proofing your work anyway.

    For myself, I’m a veteran RPG player; played Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Planescape, NWN 1 and 2, ME 1 and 2, and of course, Origins. So believe me when I say that a move away from the obfuscating complexity of Origins isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but I think the most apt summation of Dragon Age 1 and 2 stated that both games seem to be in a transitory state, a few steps behind what it should have been as far as RPGs are concerned.

    That is a cold comfort to those that were hoping for more “Baldurs Gate” esque gameplay in DA2, however.

    I am only on the second act, having just gotten back from the deep roads. Already I feel like much of what my character did in the first act will affect things in the second; the Viscount references the favors I did for him and my relationship with the Qunari, for example. But in this, the game reminds me of NWN2’s Mask of the Betrayer, which was less focused on saving the world, and much more so on the personal story of the protagonist.

    There are gaffs, yes. When the game basically tells you that a number of years have passed, the dialogue is a little jarring when your character seems to have trouble remembering what, to you, was just half an hour ago. It’s a literary faux pas. This much is certain.

    But even for being a personal story, there is a huge focus on the companions; and why not? This is a bioware game, after all, and part of the Baldur’s Gate je ne sais quoi is having forceful, memorable companions. Granted, they failed with Isabella, being that they went nuts with tarting her up, but everyone else is pretty believable and entertaining.

    I guess I don’t agree that it’s the massive step into mediocrity that you do. But that might change when I double my playtime.

    • Tom

      I had the same opinion after beating the first act. There was so much they could build on. So many different ways they could take things. And then they just…didn’t build on things. Characters resolved as generically as possible, without revealing anything interesting about them. No one changed, in ten years of game. After ten years, everyone was pretty much the same. Major plot elements are completely forgotten or return only as deus ex machina because they had a narrative but it was too short and took up too much time at the same time.

      It’s a game where it takes time for the story to fall apart. It’s a slow collapse, a building toppling in slow motion. Act 1 builds the house, and then the following two acts proceed to knock things down, rather than build further.

  3. Makensha

    While I’m not as harsh on the game as you are, I mostly agree with what you said. It felt like the game had possibilities to be awesome in every regard, but screwed it up somewhere down the line. It wanted to be an open ended RPG, but also wanted to be very story driven. I was also disappointed with how short it all was. I spent 60 bucks on an RPG thats as short as an FPS (Not CoD short, but then again very little is) and has no multiplayer? If the game really were open ended, multiple run throughs might be more valuable, but it really isn’t. The game spent too much time giving the illusion of choice and too little time everywhere else.

  4. Zorimar

    I agree nearly completely with every post I have read here. I have beaten DA2 on normal , again on hard and am now attempting a nightmare run with the warrior. Only now I find myself litterally having to make myself play at all. DA1 minus all the dlc even in its infant state had much much more replayability imop. The only hope I have for DA2 at this point is the possibiliy of both patches and expansion-like DLC’s. It is my hope that those things in the future will address some of the glaring generics of this release. Don’t misunderstand me I have always loved Bioware and their products. However after running countless times in DA1, and all of its DLC’s in addition to ME 1&2 this just does not compare. Sadly I still keep hoping for an open ended rpg to be released by these guys which compares to BG. In short this game just feels really bland and ‘guided’. No matter what you do its gonna be this and thats that. Not very appealing to me to say the least.

  5. Joshua Smith

    “Dragon Age 2 is the oddest bird I have played in ages. It’s what you get when people who really don’t want to be making role playing games make one anyway.”

    That statement says it all. It is the perfect description of this game. Unlike Origins, which I played through at least 5 times with every job, after finishing DA 2, I traded it in and forgot about it. It’s almost like Bioware really wants to be making Action Adventure games with linear plots. Every choice is ridiculously easy and predictable, and combat is mindless and boring, and as stated in the review, combat is so damn unbalanced and uneven that some of the major fights I finally gave up on and adjusted the sliders, which I absolutely HATE doing. Added to the combat balance problems was the crazy long timers on potions, which really pissed me off over and over.

    Bioware’s trend over the last few major titles has been to remove just about all the options in a game that make it an RPG. DA2 even went so far as to remove the options to put gear on your companions. The fun of scouring shops and chests looking for gear is almost non-existant, which is a large part of why I love RPG’s to begin with.

    I don’t even care about DLC for this game. If it comes out, I won’t play it. It annoys me when content that should be part of the core game gets cut then released almost immediately as DLC. DLC should enhance a game, not complete it, but that is a discussion for another day.

  6. Lyle

    I agree with pretty much everything stated. Personally, I’m one of those people who prefers RPGs for the roleplaying qualities – I usually just set combat to its lowest difficulty, and plow through foes without much fuss – so, theoretically, I ought to have loved DA2. Someone above compared it to Mask of the Betrayer, in that it’s much more driven by the character’s personal struggles than the world at large’s. That should be roleplaying gold. But after Act 1, I spent the whole game pretty much groaning in frustration and resisting the urge to head/desk.

    The game just kept killing my willing suspension of disbelief. It started with the visual retcons on the qunari and the elves – I can see why they’d want to make them more distinctive, but all of the qunari wound up with the EXACT SAME face (which the few-and-far-between qunari of the first game managed to avoid) and any time I saw an elf I just wondered what the heck my elven warden was supposed to look like now. Opponents dropped out of the sky like freakin’ ninjas, which isn’t even bringing up the ‘templar rogues’ who just made me laugh when they did things like back-flips in their full suits of shiny armor. My mage-Hawke busted out the spellwork in full view of the city guard’s captain (the first one, right at the beginning, when you’re little more than an unknown refugee) and the friggin’ Knight Captain of the templars himself, which they apparently didn’t notice. At least those two could be chalked up to gameplay and story segregation.

    What really got to me, though, was that you can play as an adamantly pro-templar individual, who believes that all mages should be locked away for everyone else’s sake, and yet you can’t turn in the apostates in your party. You can’t betray your sister, you can’t give Anders to the templars, you can’t walk Merrill straight to the Gallows instead of the Alienage – I liked these characters, but still. You can do something as evil as handing an escaped slave over to his evil-as-sin former master in exchange for gold, but you can’t turn the criminals in your party over to the legal authority? Sometimes the game jumps through incredibly stupid hoops in order to tie the ends together. The group of apostates you can help in Act 1, for example. Send them to the Circle, or let them loose, either way the leader will decide that she hates your guts and blames you for everything come Act 3. Defy a magistrate in the first act, and some side-characters will heavily imply that you’ve just screwed yourself over with Kirkwall’s high society… and absolutely nothing comes of it.

    You’re right in that the major quests and the minor ones both suffer from this, but in a way, it would have been easier to make the minor quests have more of an impact on things. The game had its touch-points – I understand why they wanted to put them there. It’s disappointing, but since they’re obviously setting up the world for DA3, I can sort of forgive it. Act 1 ends in the expedition, Act 2 ends with the qunari, Act 3 ends with the templar-and-mage thing coming to a head. But the details could have been anything. They could have included way more factions, more means of securing things like power or popularity, which in turn could have been used to grant different bonuses or scenes at the end. I lost count of how many times an NPC told me something like ‘I won’t forget you did this for me’ or ‘if I can repay this favor, I will’ and then disappeared forever.

    I was also really frustrated with my companions. I liked them, but the whole game felt remarkably ineffectual in terms of impacting their lives. The downside of their Friendship and Rivalry system, I suppose, was that nothing you did or said ever seemed to change anything for them. You can argue with them until you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t do anything except determine which combat bonus they get. This is particularly egregious given that Hawke, unlike most RPG protagonists, is supposed to know his party for years. Commander Shepard spends a few months with Garrus and can significantly shift his world view. Hawke spends six years with the crazy fanatics he calls friends and never once gets them to change their minds about anything.

    Frustrating. The whole thing was very frustrating.

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