I’m a BioWare fan, undoubtedly. From the brilliance of Mass Effect to the twisted tale of Knights of the Old Republic, the venerable developers can do no wrong. So when I say that I wish they’d spent a little more time on Dragon Age 2, you know how disappointed I am.
Having not played the original Dragon Age (and often been heard to wonder why they aren’t just making Mass Effect 3 quicker – I’m a sci-fi fan, what can I say!) I was expecting Dragon Age 2 to glisten with the depth you would expect of a swords-and-sandals RPG.
Instead, the game boils down to a pretty standard quest-a-thon with a few nice moments,and restrictions on what one would expect an RPG to feature.
Starting off during the events of the first game (which are nattily explained by cool, hand-drawn cutscenes) DA2 starts out with our hero Hawke defending his or her family as they fall back to the town of Kirkwall, escaping the clutches of the evil and numerous Darkspawn.
The lack of depth is instantly recognisable as soon as you log in – there’s only three choices of class – mage, warrior and rogue – and the game takes great pleasure in explaining exactly what you have to do from the very first cutscene – become the champion of the land.
Oblivion this aint.
The difference is that how you get to that final point is up to you. Choice is the main aspect of the game, and almost every choice you make as you set off from Kirkwall will have an effect further down the line, good or bad.
This is a nice aspect to the gameplay, and draws you in a lot more as you tramp around with your merry band of warriors, mages and rogues, righting wrongs (or not.)
The missions and quests on offer are a pleasing bunch, running from slaying dragons and beasts to town politics, chatting up fair maidens and killing thousands and thousands of baddies.
There’s also a large amount of dungeon crawling on offer, but the restricted loot system may well disappoint some RPG purists, as only Hawke himself can use half the stuff you find – and the stores don’t really have an interest in yet another five, head-sized rubies.
This cutback on the trading and bartering side of things is only one symptom of BioWare’s apparent need to turn an RPG into an ‘action RPG’, and while the action is certainly good, changing or removing the core aspects of any good RPG – looting, selling and upgrading your warband – kind of rips the heart out of the game.
The same was true of Mass Effect 2 of course, when bartering fell by the wayside in the name of good combat.
It’s a good thing then that DA2’s combat is actually pretty good fun. While it lacks the finesse of games like Bayonetta, mowing down reams of Darkspawn with your warrior’s massive sword while your mage sets another group on fire and your rogue keeps appearing from nowhere is great fun, and the ability to swap characters on the fly keeps things fresh.
The AI, while competent, often needs a little nudge however, and thankfully you can assign certain behaviours to your companions – so they heal you when your health is low, or snipe bad guys from afar as you close the distance to the enemy lines.
While button bashing is still the order of the day, it’s a shame BioWare didn’t go down the route of other action-RPGs and add in a few combos.
Simply put, mashing the X button constantly gets rather old, rather fast.
There’s a decent amount of magic on offer for combat as well, although the alchemy and potion-making you would expect of an RPG is oddly absent, and most of your magic has to be learned from spells, bought in stores, or otherwise stolen from the world around you.
Aside from the combat the world of DA2 is pleasing to explore, and offers constant opportunities to make choices that affect the world itself. Face-to-face conversations are carried out via the conversation wheel, with the angry, aggressive response being picked out in red and the more sensible option in green.
There’s also a relationship or two you can dive into (and these conversations come with a little heart symbol for ease of wooing).
The facial animations are pretty good, and the voice acting is also high-quality. Varric – a rather irritable dwarf – is a stand-out character, always ready with a witty, snide remark in any conversation, and it’s nice to see the expressions on people’s faces as you chat them up – or put them down.
The graphical accuracy doesn’t always extend to the game world itself however, and though very shiny, the game suffers a lot with texture problems and will often blink and flicker for a moment as it loads these textures in.
It’s also, sadly, prone to crashing my PS3 – which is never a good sign. I’m expecting a patch to be released soon to alleviate this
Dragon Age 2 is a decent if slightly disappointing RPG. While the central plot is predictable, the journey you take to get to the endgame is so malleable that no two save files will be the same. This wonderful depth of choice is sadly balanced with a lack of depth in some of the core tenets of an RPG- trading, alchemy, trap-making and so on – which cheapen the experience somewhat.
Meaty, satisfying combat
Choices you make have interesting and varied effects
Great score and voice acting
Not so good stuff:
RPG elements cut or downplayed
While fun, combat is simplistic
Occasional graphical instabilities