Dragon Age II

A game review! This isn't really something I envisaged myself doing on this blog quite so much, but as this game just devoured a week of my life (at least so far as my free time goes) it must be worth talking about. This game is violent and unashamedly so, and as such this post has to come with a warning: if you're not of suitable age or maturity to deal with violent themes then you really shouldn't keep reading.

There... I've said my bit. Onwards to badassery and greatness!

This is Hawke. He is a badass of epic proportions and he's you; the protagonist and the pin that holds together the somewhat intertwined dance of narrative threads that drive this game onwards. Dragon Age is Bioware's second significant IP of recent years after Mass Effect and one of the striking things about the setting is the detail to which the writers and designers have gone in creating a world full of life and lore. With Bioware's previous epic RPGs they've had decades-old roleplaying settings laboriously built over the years by the geek elite but that hasn't prevented them from surpassing those worlds in many ways. Dragon Age II utilises the richness of this world to far greater effect than the previous game did and perhaps even more importantly uses that rich setting to present you with choices which you know will go badly whichever way you act. Though it's not explicit at the time, you're often left staring at your options trying to decide which likely worst-case scenario you can most easily live with; a rare thing in fiction.

The story being told is what will define this game for the next few years, and has raised the bar somewhat particularly in an industry that is over-franchised and obsessed with taking the safe tried-and-tested design paradigms. While Dragon Age II is not especially innovative it does show that a franchise can always strive to impress and excel.

The departure from it's predecessor is a marked lack of options in character creation. The previous game was subtitled "Origins" because a significant part of the tale dealt with the humble (or not so) previous life of your character before being thrust into the role of hero, and your origin had some effects on interactions in the game. Every character was unique and personal. While you still have the same range of aesthetic options for your human-only Hawke, you are stick with playing a man (or woman); no Dwarves or Elves this time and your origin is always the same. This does mean that Hawke is now voiced (and by some excellent voice talent) but removes a layer of attachment to your character that can be critical in games where immersion in the story is key to enjoyment.

The graphics are beautiful, but marred by extensive repetition of event locations. It seems that the art department were so heavily invested in a handful of area maps that throughout the game maps are repeated and obstacles and entrances moved around in an attempt at illusory variety. It's noticeable and poor. This is hands-down the game's biggest failing and it's inexcusable - there's no good reason for this appalling shortcut.

Combat is however suitably visceral and exaggerated, and all the various spells and combat effects are rendered in full 3D rather than just being sprites or limited geometry. They look incredible. The lack here again is the lack of the amusing killing blows employed in the first game. You get a handful of scripted cutscenes on key fights but the casual decapitation and ensuing comedic blood-fountains are gone. That kind of over-the-top comedic 14-year-olds-will-think-it's-awesome gore has always held an inexplicable position in my sense of humour for it's surreality and I really missed seeing it.

I'll conclude with the supporting cast. I really, really loved the companion characters in this game. Their dialogue and banter is so excellently written and a few of the quotes and catch-phrases made me laugh out loud more than once. Playing with a different selection of companions will be my primary reason for a second play-through. Their stories and morals are intelligent which is a huge improvement over the cookie-cutter character archetypes we're used to in most games of this ilk.

This is an excellent game marred by a handful of abysmal design decisions, but is more than worth it's cost and is easily one of the greatest RPGs ever published. The good far outweighs the bad, much of which can be overlooked. I can't recommend this title enough.

Dragon Age: Badass.

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