Dragon Age II (PC, PS3, X360)

I have this theory that the second game in a series is usually better than the first. For a variety of reasons, such as having a bigger budget, refinement of ideas, and fan feedback, sequels are usually better games. BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 is a great example of this theory in action. However, Dragon Age II is one of the exceptions. Dragon Age II is still a fantastic game and I had a blast with it. I’m already a bit of the way through a second playthrough, but it just doesn’t live up to Origins.

There are actually significant improvements to the gameplay, depending on what kind of games you like to play. The combat is much more of an action style game, especially for console, where you have to button mash normal attacks. Characters never just walk up to their targets to attack. They will jump, charge, roll, or do something else equally dramatic and the end result is that the combat feels very cool and dynamic. However, it still plays like MMOs such as World of WarcraftRIFT, or DC Universe Online, except that you can pause the combat and take control of different characters in order to get more strategic control. On PC, you can move your character using the WSAD keys, or by pointing and clicking, or by holding both mouse buttons down, which is the way I’m used to navigating in WoW. Removed from this game is the bird’s eye camera that would truly give you a strategic sense of the battlefield, but I didn’t miss it too much.

Questing was made much simpler with quest markers. People with quests will have an exclamation mark above their heads while people or things relevant to a quest in your Journal will have some arrows pointing to it. This new “feature”, so prominent in other games, is actually an unwelcome change. Sure, it’s great that the game is easier to play, and I’ve always been a big believer in making things easier to play, but I found myself just mindlessly following the markers instead of taking the time to know my environments and talk to every NPC in the city. Instead of picking the quests I felt were urgent, I would just go to the areas with the most quests to complete. It’s not that exploration isn’t rewarded, but it is to a lesser extent than the first game. The first game was more immersive simply because it forced you to figure out things on your own, and I prefer immersion in my single player RPGs.

The Tactics system, borrowed from Final Fantasy XII, remains intact. This is usually a boon and for most of the game you just let your NPCs do their thing, but there are occasionally hard battles where you must turn these off and control things on your own. There’s no easy way to disable all the Tactics, but that’s a minor complaint. I enjoy the Tactics system and how it just keeps the game flowing when you don’t need to micromanage things.

Dragon Age II keeps the Enchantment system from the last game, where you place runes that you find into weapons and armour in order to increase their effectiveness. It also introduces a crafting system, where you can find different sources of materials throughout the world and then craft potions, bombs, poisons, or runes from them. You’ll have to discover the recipes for them, too. Unlike the last game, you can’t recover the runes from your equipment, and you have to destroy them by slotting a new rune. Even though that improves the enchantment system, the crafting system feels unfinished. The crafting table just becomes another store. Discovering the materials are a way to reward you for exploring, but it’s too shallow and straightforward to be enjoyable, and not quite involved enough to be annoying. So in the end, the items are useful, but the system is like that wallflower at the high school dance: It’s just kind of there.

The skill trees are a bit more interesting this time around, with each tree being a graph of different dependencies. Once again you’ll get two specialization points to spend in two of the three specializations you can get for each class. Each of the Warrior, Rogue, and Mage classes had 6 skill trees plus 3 specializations, so you can actually get fairly diverse characters even within the same class. The spells and skills look really cool, too. Every spell is a joy to use because of the magnificent effects that happen, such as encasing someone in rock with Petrify, or spraying an arc of ice with Cone of Cold.

The Stamina and Mode systems are kept from the last game, so if you choose to turn on helpful Modes, it will reserve a portion of your Stamina or Mana that you would otherwise use on skills or spells. This is an interesting trade off and definitely affects your gear decisions and decisions about which skills to pick up.

The equipment management interface underwent an upgrade as you have the option not to show your helmet, and now things are sorted into five helpful categories: Weapons and Shields, Armour, Trinkets/Belts, Consumables, and Junk. Looting everything from a container or corpse is now bound to a hotkey, making looting a smooth experience. However, you can no longer choose what armour your party members wear. Though you have full control over your own gear, you can only choose weapons, shields, necklace, belt, and two rings for your other characters. In place of choosing what armour they wear, you are forced to find up to five upgrade slots for their armours, usually by going through their individual story quests. I don’t really understand why BioWare chose to do it this way, but it means that most of the torso armour, helmets, boots, and gloves you find are garbage to be sold as they will not be for your class. Upgrading the equipment of my party is one of the joys of playing RPGs, so in this particular aspect Dragon Age II is only a quarter of what nearly every other RPG delivers.

Perhaps the most important system of all to any BioWare game is the Friendship system. This is equivalent to the Paragon system in the Mass Effect franchise, and appeared in some form in Neverwinter Nights,Knights of the Old Republic, and everything significant BioWare has made dating back to Baldur’s Gate. After all, what is awesome about BioWare games are the choices you have to make and how other people will like or dislike you for them. If you become friends or rivals with different party members in Dragon Age II, they will gain an extra skill. For example, if you are friends with Aveline, the protective warrior, she will start taking a portion of your damage in your stead. Being friends or rivals will also have massive implications at certain points in the game, but I can’t discuss it too much without spoiling the story.