Dragon Age 2 has been out for almost a month, and I feel I have ingested enough of its delicate flavor to form a complete opinion of the game. Granted, it is an opinion slanted in the direction of total adoration, but really what can you expect? Its Bioware. I have flat-out never
disliked any of their offerings. I loved the original KOTOR even though every half hour or so my character would be randomly transported into a wall on the other side of the map and I'd have to reload my last save. Let me tell you, the quicksave key was my very best friend throughout. Anyway, when I really like a game I tend to turn into a volcano of nerdy anecdotes, singeing friends and coworkers with small eruptions of glee. Eventually I sit down and write the inevitable Mt. St. Helen's of fangirl joy. That was not meant to sound dirty at all, I swear. So, anyone who isn't a gamer or is trying to avoid TEH SPOILERZ should probably back away slowly.
I'll start out by saying its not a perfect game. My theory is if Bioware got together with Bethesda and made an action RPG, that
would be a perfect game. It would tear a whole in the space-time continuum with its awesomeness. Bethesda's amazingly beautiful and open environments are something everyone should take a lesson from. I joke about riding my pretend horse around the pretend world of Oblivion just enjoying the pretend scenery only because that is completely accurate. There wasn't much of that in DA2. In fact, as many players have already complained, most of the environments were recycled to the point of being boring. What do a dragon-infested mine and a hideout for slavers have in common? They apparently are both in the same cave, just on different points on the map. Seriously, I realize there will be recycled environments since the whole game takes place in one city over ten years, but only ONE stock cave? One lava-festooned evil lair? There were times on my first playthrough where I couldn't access a part of one cave, and I just thought it was something that would become accessible later as the years went by and someone cleared the way. No, it was because I was going to be in that exact same map later for some other quest on the other side of the world. Disappointing, but not a deal breaker for me.
That being said, I appreciate the efforts of integrate a new art style into the series. As much as I love Origins, it did kind of look like just another fantasy game. The Hanged Man is probably my favorite in-game tavern ever, and the statues in the Gallows really convey a sense of oppression. I even liked looking at the loading screens.
Alright, now the bad stuff is out of the way, its time for the gushing to begin. I've known for a long time that Bioware was doing a framed narrative for DA2, and that was one of the things I looked forward to most. Its a new way to tell a game's story, and it sounded so awesome I really hoped it worked out. I thought it did, but I might be in the minority there. I've read reviews that the story wasn't nearly as engaging as Origins', but I have to take exception to that. In Origins, the endgame was in sight pretty much from the beginning - defeat the giant evil dragon. There were some surprises along the way (some of them huge and epic), but there was always that goal in mind. With DA2, it was a little more fuzzy. There were these Qunari hanging out in the city for who knows what reason, and the mages and templars don't really like each other, but how the climax of each conflict was actually going to play out wasn't set in stone. Some people might not have liked that, but I really did. I found myself speculating on how things might play out, and some of my guesses were right. Most were wrong. And as much as I loved Origins, there wasn't a moment to compare to seeing one of your companions betray you completely and blow up a goddamn CHURCH to start a war. With materials that you helped him gather. It was heart-wrenching, even more so because he knew
he was doing something monstrous and expected you to kill him for it. I couldn't - he was my friend and incidentally my only healer. Also, watching the sequences where Varric is telling the Chantry Seeker your story were awesome, especially on a second playthrough because you see the subtle clues that tell you what's going to happen next. Maybe not as grand and sweeping as vanquishing a Blight and crowning a new king of Ferelden (and, if you're me, marrying the guy and becoming queen), but the story was more personal. It was Hawke's story, which could be any number of things depending on how you play, and I loved that. I'm in the middle of my second playthrough right now, and I'm still fascinated.
Moving on from the story of Hawke to the character. My Bioware protagonists are always female, but I have two Hawkes running right now. There's the snarky but good hearted dual-weapon rogue, who is a mage sympathizer and a slavery hater but isn't above demanding coin for services rendered. And then there's my "evil" Hawke - a staunch templar supporter who keeps slaves and hates blood mages. Did I mention she IS a blood mage? So she basically runs around catching apostates and sending them to the Gallows, a poster child for might of the Templar order, all the while consorting with demons through her own blood. Dastardly. Seriously, she's almost painful to play she's such a duplicitous bitch. That's just an illustration of how different your main character can be - I could just as easily be playing a "good" Hawke who supports the templars just like my blood mage, but does it because she genuinely believes its right.
And, of course, there's your companion characters. Where to start? I usually have one or two NPCs that I'm not super excited about. In Origins it was Zevran, Mass Effect it was Ashley, KOTOR was Bastilla (I know, I know - but seriously, she only got interesting once she turned to the dark side). In DA2, its probably Sebastian. But he was a downloadable character - all the characters packaged with the original game were amazing. I thought Isabela the pirate was going to be just your tritely lecherous swashbuckler. Lecherous, yes. Trite, no. Her dialogue was some of the funniest I've ever heard. And Varric the dwarf... I never thought I could love another dwarf after Oghren, but apparently its possible. Here's just a snippet of his wonderfulness - this happens when goody-two-shoes Sebastian is asking for your help.
Me: Why is everyone looking at me?
Varric: Hawke said sarcastically.
Me: You know, I hate it when you do that.
Varric: Hawke muttered in an angry aside to the dwarf.
I'm sure some people just surfing by the Bioware social site might think that DA2 is some kind of dating sim, because an astonishing amount of the discussion is about the in-game romances. Obviously, it wouldn't be a Bioware game without the ability to bang at least one or two of your party members. Its not required, but really. Show me a person who doesn't at LEAST have a roll in the hay with Isabela and I will show you someone who is partially dead inside. I mean, she shows up at your HOUSE for gods sakes. And yes, Adriel Hawke (the good one) swings both ways, and yes she banged the pirate. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But she goes with dudes for the long haul and ends up with Fenris the lyrium-branded escaped slave. That situation is just too angst-ridden to stay away from. Seriously, though, a dedicated person could probably sleep with half the party with some careful planning and a bit of prevarication. That sounds like something Lineth Hawke, the evil blood mage, might do. She destroys people's souls.
Going along with the romance angle, the new friendship system is pretty awesome. In Origins, either your characters loved you, or they hated your guts and might leave you. In DA2 there's an extra dimension with the addition of rivalry. If you make choices that a character disagrees with, their opinion moves further down the rivalry path but it doesn't necessarily mean they hate you. For you are Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall! So they still respect you, but they're a little more antagonistic when you talk to them. As a for-instance, there's Adriel Hawke's relationship with Fenris - she helps mages get out of the Gallows every chance she gets, and that drives him crazy. In game terms, I pretty much had him locked into permanent rivalry by the end of Act 1. He's constantly warning her that one of these days a mage is going to prove to her that not all of them deserve freedom. Which incidentally does happen but luckily he doesn't get all "I told you so" about it. However, he respects her for helping him escape his former master (who was a mage, which explains his extreme hatred for the whole magic thing), and even though he's a little snippy in conversation he gets really protective of her towards the middle of the game. Lineth Hawke is friends with Fenris, what with her anti-mage stance on everything. I gave Fenris the same gift (a book) with both characters and the dialogue was radically different. In both cases he tells you he was never taught to read, and you can offer to teach him. For the friend, he is grateful and says that maybe its time he learned. For the rival, he gets defensive and exclaims he doesn't need your charity, then backpedals and apologizes for overreacting. The rivalry idea was a pretty ingenious addition I thought, and honestly I've found some of those relationships to be more interesting than the friendships.
Although I could never be rivals with Varric. He and I agree on everything. And he likes to tell stories about me. Even he and Lineth Hawke are friends, weirdly.
I suppose I should talk about the combat a little bit as well, because Bioware did promise more exciting combat. I know there's probably some people out there that think they dumbed the series down for consoles - I am not one of them. The combat in Origins was fun, but it didn't look or feel very dynamic. The combat in DA2 feels more or less like the result of injecting the action RPG formula with some God of War stem cells while it was still developing. Which I think is awesome. And for the tactical purists out there, there is Nightmare mode. I played my first game in Normal mode, mostly. I admit I switched to Casual towards the end because I seriously
needed to see how things worked out and combat had become a hindrance to that end. In Normal mode, you don't really have to pay attention to what your party's doing if they have a halfway decent set of tactics - the pre-arranged set of commands you can configure for each of your companions - and you can just wade through hordes of enemies with Hawke. My second game with Adriel the rogue I am playing on Hard, with one brief switch back to Normal. Hard mode definitely requires more than just your preset tactics for each character; I've found myself using the pause-and-play strategy that was so popular in Origins in almost every battle. My brief switch back to Normal mode was the Ancient Rock Wraith. Anyone who's played the game knows what I'm talking about - that thing is goddamn RIDICULOUS. Even in Normal mode I used almost all of my health potions and was down to my healer at the end there. It was a close battle. The people who can play on Nightmare have my respect. I know where my limits are, and Nightmare mode probably would cause me to throw my controller at the TV. But Hard is a good challenge for me, and now that I kind of know what's going to happen next I don't feel the need to rush and lower the difficulty.
Alright, I think I'm done now. Now, if you haven't played the game go out and buy it
for fuck's sakes. I need someone to nerd out with.