Dragon Age 2 is one of the best and most interesting games I've played this generation. Indeed, on a second playthrough, it is easy to see why, despite having more flaws than its predecessor, it is also the better game.
This is not an argument against what one might call 'the facts'. Dragon Age II reuses levels to a degree that is, quite frankly, unprofessional on Bioware's part. Its recycled art assets (there are literally five proper tilesets in the game- Poor City, Rich City, Cave, Mountain and Deep Roads) are a huge problem, and the game desperately needs more variety. There are also other existing problems- the Launch Day DLC, the fact that you can't equip party members, the restrictive talent trees, the plot holes with blood mages and so on.
[Clearly, this article will contain spoilers for the game.]
And yet, at its heart, Dragon Age II is a great game. It was the first AAA Western RPG in many years that did not stoop to "save the world" levels of narrative cringe, something even the Witcher and DE:HR do frequently enough. It was Bioware's honest attempt to criticise itself and learn from its mistakes. It embraced RPG tropes and hypocrisy while changing the status quo and lightly suggesting a new kind of Roleplaying Game. One built around characters and their stories, rather than cliché tales about saving the world.
Self reflection on RPGs is apparent at every turn in Dragon Age II, and what follows is a game that is deeply flawed, yet at least tries to solve many of the problems that have prevented modern RPGs from becoming as 'mainstream' as shooters or action-adventures. Over-zealous fans had their way, and instead of improving the example of DA2, it seems that Inquisition will regress to the 'save the world' template of earlier titles (a crying shame, if you ask me). So, almost three years on, let's take a look back at Dragon Age II and see where, looking past the problems, it got things right.
[Cliches? Absolutely. But loveable ones...]
With Dragon Age II, Bioware realised why people play their games.No one played Mass Effect to kill the Reapers. Sure, it was interesting to learn about them, and the conclusion to the franchise would clearly involve the end of that storyline, but what Mass Effect fans cared about (narratively) were two things. Firstly, the exploration and discovery of a new world full of lore, history and backstory. And secondly, they cared about the characters. Whether it was Wrex or Garrus, Tali or Mordin, the characters of Mass Effect captured the hearts of millions of gamers. Regardless of whether they were badly written or not (a topic for another day), they 'worked'.
In DA2, Bioware tried to create the perfect game to address those problems head on. Instead of a loose collection of 'zones' scattered across the place, they'd give you a city. A rich, detailed city that you'd grow to know (and maybe even love). A city you'd explore from the mansions to the slums, from the street gangs to the Chantry to the Guard to the Government. A city of characters that you'd become friendly with over more than thirty hours, a city of long-term rivalries and decade-old conflicts.
And in this city the main storyline meandered, rather than charged, forward. Sure, there'd be the occasional BIG PROBLEM TO SOLVE, but the story would frequently lull, giving you time to help your friends, do side missions, pursue romances and collect that one last piece of gear to complete a set. Dragon Age II had three companion missions, per companion, (one for each chapter), rather than just one as in Origins.
The trailers for Mass Effect 3 spoke of saving the galaxy. How would I do that? By stopping the Reapers. The trailers for Dragon Age: Origins spoke of becoming a hero. How would I do that? By ending the Blight and killing the big dragon. Starting Dragon Age II, all you know is that you become a 'champion', start something that will change Thedas forever, and then disappear. Oh, and 10 years earlier you were as a penniless refugee escaping the Blight.
How? Why? When and What?
[Dragon Age II had the mystery that the first game lacked. To me at least, Anders' destruction of the Chantry came as a real surprise.]
Well, you'll have to play the game to find out. The story in DA2 seems somewhat 'possible', unlike most other RPGs. You go to the Deep Roads not to kill an evil creature, but because you're poor and want money. You help stop the Qunari not because you're a noble hero, but because (if you're a mage at least) otherwise the Viscount will send you to the Circle in chains. You don't blow up the Chantry to start a rebellion- instead your best friend secretly does it, betraying you, and you have no choice but to either kill him or escape with him. The events seem, most importantly of all, spontaneous. Hawke gets mixed up in things, just like we get mixed up in things in real life. Hawke gets caught up in his buddy's shitstorm, just as might happen in real life.
DA2's characters, as cliché ridden as they are, are nice to spend time with. In my opinion they are the very best Bioware has ever built. From Varric's effortless charm to Merril's hilarious innocence to Isabela the promiscuous pirate lady, they all follow tropes and stereotypes to the letter. But they live their lives and face their struggles in such charming and endearing ways that (for me at least) it was almost impossible not to like at least most of the cast. They also have their own lives and jobs outside of the player, which I thought was a fantastic and much-needed change from the 'random people dedicating their lives to you' idea in every RPG since DnD.
[Characters in DAII interacted with each other, arguing, fighting, and making up while you played the game]
Even more so, the characters in DA2 interact with each other in ways that other RPGs could only dream of. They hang out at the pub together, go on quests together, give each other nicknames and tease each other. Unlike its predecessor, sometimes it doesn't feel like you're the only thing holding this motley crew together- they stick with each other. The characters' relationships develop on their own as well- Varric slowly becomes protective of Merrill, Isabela and Aveline quickly become enemies but then, slowly, become good friends, and so on.
Dragon Age II offers vastly improved gameplay when compared to its predecessor. Creating a new RPG ruleset from scratch is always difficult, and Bioware dragged DA:O down with some esoteric and unintuitive options, as well as a friendly fire system that didn't work and a huge number of superfluous potions and tonics. It also had a herbalism and crafting system that felt like it was taken straight out of an MMO, one that was horribly grindy and required the rather painful acquisition of huge numbers of raw materials.
All that goes with DA2. Ordering potions is effortless, just find the raw material and then order from home. Friendly Fire? Don't worry about it unless you play on Nightmare, and if you do decide to play on that settings, well, positioning has improved hugely and companions move a lot faster anyway. And potions? Instead of a ridiculous tiered poultice system, Health Potions now heal a percentage of health. They're also on cooldown, so you can't just chug 50 at once and never try in battle.
[Faster, prettier, and more fun- except for enemies spawning in the middle of battle, DA2's combat was a big improvement]
And the combat itself? Improved beyond comparison. Movement is fast and snappy. Animations look swift, sleek and cool (as realistic as it is, taking 6 seconds just to lift a greatsword so you can swing it does not scream 'power fantasy' to me), Mages can finally use their staves in melee combat and talent trees are vastly improved so it really feels like you're improving with each point you spend. The animations are also a lot better, and spell effects are improved considerably from DA:O, with flame and ice effects in particular looking excellent.
The gameplay of the 'party' also got a wonderful makeover. Combos happen more frequently, and freezing enemies, making them 'brittle' and then sending in your tank to smash them to bits never gets old. The tactics panel too, is wonderfully complex, and settings you companions to only use certain abilities against certain enemies in certain numbers at certain times in the battle is great for those who don't like micromanagement.
In essence, DA2 gives the franchise the tactical complexity it deserves, while improving the animations, combat speed and team-play.
Despite the disappointing amount of level repetition, the atmosphere in DA2 far outdoes its predecessor. The soundtrack, especially Hawke's family theme (which plays in your house) and the character themes for your companions, is incredible, and Inon Zur must have come into his element after a good, but not excellent, effort with the first game.
[Some of Dragon Age II's environments were actually rather beautiful]
The graphics too, are improved. While many have made fun of Dragon Age II for being 'brown' it actually offers far more colour than its predecessor. While DAO was painted universally in brown and dark green, the sequel explores a Deep Roads full of bright blues and reds (as opposed to the brown caves of the first game) and the palaces of Hightown and the Chantry are decorated in rich purple and gold. The Wounded Coast feels suitably barren, while Sundermount feels gloriously rainy, damp and wet in a way that few other games manage to capture.
Dragon Age II did not get off to a good start, DLC-wise. Launch Day featured both the 'online pass', which contained the only shop that sells respecs and lets you change your appearance, as well as a downloadable character, Sebastian, who cost an additional $7 to unlock.
[Mark of The Assassin dropped the city of Kirkwall for the beautiful Chateau Haine and its grounds]
Over the next few months however, Bioware redeemed themselves with two extraordinary DLC packs, each of which provided a solid 4+ hours of adventuring for $10. While Legacy was a journey deep into a prison built into some ancient desert mountains, and included a conspiracy involving several Grey Wardens and an ancient Darkspawn, as well as Hawke's own father, it was Mark of the Assassin that stole the show. Though both DLCs featured completely new environments (so they provide welcome 'escapes' from the city on subsequent playthroughs), Mark of The Assassin's rich Orlesian countryside was marvellous. From a Wyvern hunt to an evening ball (featuring some familiar faces) to a chase through the soup kitchens, a big puzzle section and even a bit of stealth, MotA is by far the best DLC Bioware have ever done, edging out even ME2's Lair of the Shadow Broker in my opinion.
Dragon Age: Origins built a convincing world full of cultures and languages. It had a passable cast of characters, with some standouts and a few duds. Its plotline was cliché, at times incredibly dull, at times somewhat interesting. It, much like the first Mass Effect, was a good game, but it lacked a certain spirit (one pointed out in the many 8/10 reviews that both games received).
[Facial expressions and character graphics also saw a big improvement in DA2]
Dragon Age II took that world and made it 'real'. It populated it with characters you cared about, characters who cared about each other. It delivered a story that you couldn't predict from the beginning, and improved a slow, substandard combat system into something fast, customisable, tactical and fun. It is a game riddled with flaws, shortcuts and problems, one built so on the cheap that even the composer admitted that EA just wanted to cash in on DA:O.
But when you sit in the Hanged Man and listen to Isabela teaching Merrill how to play cards, or Varric and Sebastian discussing politics, or find a torn-up page of Anders' "Freedom for Mages" manifesto stuck to your fireplace, you realise the one thing DA2 does have in spades: charm.
And to me, that counts for a whole lot.