Friday, 25 March 2011

Dragon Age 2 Review

This review is going to be pretty lengthy, and is based on extensive but not exhaustive playing of the game. I got it for the PS3, the same system I played Origins on. The review will be largely spoiler-free, and where I think a spoiler may be wanted I’ll asterisk it and put the information at the end of the post so that those who don’t want any giveaways won’t stumble over them.

Character Creator

Very similar to Origins, but it’s now easier to make a better looking character. There’s a wider range of hairstyles, though colours remain a slight problem (the only white/grey is rather bright and there’s not a good blonde, despite there being about 3-4 varieties of red).

There’s no racial choice, though gender and class can still be changed.

Faces generally throughout the game are better than in Origins. Beards are better and there are more options when creating characters.

There are two voice actors (Jo Wyatt and Nicholas Boulton) for Hawke, rather obviously. Happily, they both do a damned good job and any concerns I had about the voiced protagonist were answered by the very good performances of the leading pair.

Companions

It’s very hard to miss any this time, with one exception. For information on who this is and how to find the individual, see below*. The voice-acting is generally very good, and the banter (especially involving Isabella) is entertaining. Bethany is something of a let down, as she’s a goody two shoes wet blanket and her actress is not quite as good as the others.

There’s also a step backwards in terms of customisation. Weapons are heavily limited for companions which means each companion has a largely prescriptive role in combat. The lack of freedom to change armour does mean each character has a nice unique form but it also weakens customisation even more.

Every character can be given an amulet, belt and two rings, but, infuriatingly, these are often named simply ‘ring’ or ‘amulet’ and you cannot check the stats of the accessories when you discover them. It’s a minor but irritating point.

Throughout the game the companions take a more proactive role, generally, than those of Origins, and won’t hesitate to bicker, and support or condemn Hawke’s actions. Friendship has been improved, so that Rivalry is an equally valid road to take. Benefits come into force for achieving a certain level of Rivalry or Friendship.

Combat

The classes (warrior, rogue, mage) are better balanced than in Origins. Combat is faster and skilful use of talents/spells can make them much easier. Overall the game is less difficult than Origins, and I’d say the combat is slightly inferior. The very long cool down for healing (both through potions and spells) irritates me somewhat.

The classes have also been made more distinct. An archer rogue fires very slowly but does more damage than the ultra-fast but weak dual-wielding rogue. Likewise, a double-handed sword warrior can hit many opponents at once, whereas a sword and shield warrior gets a defence bonus.

Skill/spell progression has been improved markedly for both the protagonist and companions. Skill trees offer a variety of paths, each companion has one unique skill tree and the protagonist can select two of three for their own class.

The Story

I’ll briefly cover the framed narrative approach, then address the merits of the story itself.

The framed narrative is helped by the charismatic Varric and the rather tasty Cassandra. Coming from a point in the future gives some hints about the ultimate end of Hawke’s tale, and it works pretty well, without being spectacularly good or bad. It’s a nice change of approach from the standard.

The story is not something I’m going to discuss in great detail, for obvious reasons. However, I do think it worth saying that whilst the events in Kirkwall make sense and provide a coherent narrative there’s a certain lack of direction. Hawke just happens to be around when certain things happen. There’s not a single central thread to the plot, but a few separate chapters to the story.

Whilst Origins was rather clich├ęd, it did benefit from a certainty of purpose. DA2 does not have this.

Some people rather dislike the ending. It’s somewhat predictable, but it didn’t irk me.

It reminds me a little of my thoughts on FF12. The judges and nethicite and the political aspects of the plot were excellent, but it simply wasn’t developed enough or even finished properly. Inon Zur, the composer, has indicated the game was rushed, and in the story I feel this shows sometimes.

An unorthodox part of the game is the progression being based on time rather than place. It’s an interesting idea, but there’s a rather obvious setback. When you’ve run around Kirkwall for 26 hours (the time of my first playthrough which I did reasonably quickly) and start again as a new character, the city’s entirely familiar. In Origins there could be a 15 hour gap (if you played continuously) between visiting Orzammar with your old character and your new one.

The city does not change very much (if at all) as the years roll by, which is a shame as this could’ve helped. Kirkwall is left on a number of occasions, but a good 80-90% of the game takes place there.

However, even in the out-of-city experience there’s far too much repetition. The caves, warehouses and other dungeons are all based on a very small number of highly similar presets, pointing to a rush job.

Interacting with companions is as good, or better than, Origins, and the inclusion of Hawke’s family helps flesh out the character. The lack of direction and a central storyline does detract from the game.

One area of clear improvement is in the choices that Hawke makes. The safe middle option has been made scarcer, with real dilemmas being more common.

Music and voice acting

Many of the scores are the same as in Origins, which gives a nice sense of continuity. The music is of a good quality, and includes a track by Florence and the Machine.

Voice acting is excellent. I’m not sure if there’s quite a performance to match the perfect effort of Simon Templeman’s Loghain, but if there is it must be the Arishok. The companions and other main characters are generally of a high quality, though some minor characters and Bethany (who is inferior to Carver) were not quite as good.

There’s also an extensive cast list, as per Origins, which helps make the world (well, city) more immersive. I hope the makers of Skyrim are taking note in this area.

Bugs

The PS3 version of Origins had some problems. Freezing was top of the list, followed by a poor frame rate and lengthy loading (and saving) times. The codex was interesting to read but irksome to navigate as it was often hard to tell if you’d read a certain entry before.

Unfortunately, DA2 also features freezing. For some it’s quite common, for me it was around once every 6 hours, on average. I took a few measures and these have mostly solved the problem. I disabled auto-save, and stopped importing my Origins save. (I also disabled persistent gore but I don’t think that made a difference). However, the fact that this bug, widely known and complained about for Origins, featured at all is simply not good enough.

Until today I’d had no freezing since making the above changes, and there was around a 20-30 hour gap between my last two.

There’s less jitteriness and the frame-rate is greatly improved. The codex (and the item menu) has a helpful little flag for a new entry or item, which persists when you read the entry or select the item and then disappears when you move away. It’s a simple but welcome change.

Conclusion

I’ve got very mixed feelings about Dragon Age 2. I think it was rushed and suffers for it, but despite this it makes strides forward in some areas. I’m not sure it could be called better or worse than Origins, but as the Moon must constantly accelerate to maintain the same speed so games must constantly improve to be held in the same level of regard.

The combat is slightly worse, skill trees are better, the companions are more proactive but less customisable, the character creator is improved, the locations are repetitive and the voice acting remains splendid.

If Origins were 9/10, I think I’d give DA2 8/10.

There are some very good things. I like the fact that the plot, despite lacking a central thread, is not stereotypical fantasy but rooted in the excellent world of Thedas created by the writers of Dragon Age. The protagonist voices are excellent and there’s no prolonged Deep Roads tedium.

But, the freezing bug should’ve been caught and remedied pre-release. The serious lack of customisation for companions goes too far (even if you subscribe to the idea of giving them a single outfit or a very limited range of them the restriction to a single weapon group is excessive) and playing the game again is less appetising as the city is constant and overly familiar.

This is the end of the spoiler-free review. There’s only a single minor spoiler after this, so if you don’t mind seeing it, read on.







* Fenris can easily be missed. At Gamlen’s home check your letters, and accept the Bait and Switch quest (you may need to accept a preliminary letter from the mercenary/smuggler). Isabella may also be missed (not sure), but you just need to check The Hanged Man after finding Anders and doing his little quest.

Not sure what the next game I’ll be getting is. Perhaps Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, or Skyrim. Top Spin 4 is tempting but sounds like it’s been made a bit easier. I loved 3 and thought its level of difficulty was almost perfect.

Thaddeus

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