You are one of the few who escaped the destruction of your home. Now, forced to fight for survival in an ever-changing world, you must gather the deadliest of allies, amass fame and fortune, and seal your place in history. This is the story of how the world changed forever. The legend of your Rise to Power begins now.
A more personal, tightly-focused setting, combined with fast-paced combat and well-developed characters, sends Dragon Age II soaring into the air as one of the grandest role-playing sagas in gaming history.
Following the events of the first game, Dragon Age II takes the focus away from the globe-trotting exploits of the Grey Warden in Dragon Age: Origins. This time, you fill the shoes of Hawke, a Fereldan refugee who has been made the Champion of Kirkwall.
It sounds like a typical zero-to-hero story at the outset, but the manner in which it is told is novel and clever. At the beginning of the game, you learn that the events of Dragon Age II have already happened. For reasons yet unknown, the world is on the brink of a new war between mages and templars.
Enter Varric Tethras, a beardless dwarven storyteller with a penchant for embellishment. He is recounting Hawke’s adventures to Cassandra, a mysterious woman seeking to discover the Champion’s part in the events up to this point. From then on, the game takes you from Hawke’s escape from Ferelden to Kirkwall and his subsequent rise to power.
The game is divided into one Prologue and three Acts, each with its own quests to be completed in and around Kirkwall. Main quests appear at distinct points throughout the game to pull the story forward, while side quests are available for that extra experience gain and loot drops, and getting to know your companions better (more on this later).
Some side quests will only be available depending on the choices you made in Dragon Age: Origins, and later on Dragon Age II itself. If you’ve played the first game and its expansions, there are numerous reappearances by familiar characters in surprising roles. If you didn’t, Dragon Age II has three preset histories you can choose from that will shape the world and the characters you meet accordingly.
It is notable that Dragon Age II spans a period of ten years in-game. Although you are able to immediately see the effect your quest outcomes have had on the world (as opposed to waiting for the next game), it feels a bit odd that the city (and its people) hardly shows any wear and tear as time passes by. Still, the long time span makes you that much more invested in the decisions you take, rather than being a dick at every opportunity just because you can.
Speaking of being a dick, the Paragon / Renegade system that was introduced in Mass Effect 2 is conspicuously missing here. At last, you can make Hawke respond to each situation as you see fit, with three distinct response categories: Friendly/Diplomatic, Charming/Sarcastic, and Ruthless/Aggressive.
Continuously selecting responses from a specific category cements Hawke’s personality, opening unique dialogue selections for certain conversations and influencing the one-liners he says sometimes. It’s a fantastic system, and watching my Charming/Sarcastic Hawke crack jokes in the middle of dire situations certainly made for some awkwardly hilarious moments.
Not all conversational choices are so clearly outlined, though. Dialogue choices during crucial moments, such as critical plot points and opinion debates, are not separated into these categories, making it more challenging as you can only guess as to how the other party will respond to your approach. Sometimes the choices you make in these situations can lead to some very interesting and unforeseen plot developments.
Besides the story, Bioware lives up to its reputation for well-written companions with Dragon Age II. Take Varric, for example. He’s a beardless dwarf archer who was born on the surface and hates living underground – that’s about as atypical you can get. Other characters such as a broadsword-wielding elf, a female pirate captain, and a shield-bearing guardswoman are equally interesting; you will definitely enjoy the company and banter they bring to the table.
Dragon Age II replaces the original game’s Approval meter with a Friendship / Rivalry system. Each companion has their own backstory that influences their worldview, so expect the actions you take (especially where the mage-templar conflict is concerned) to either appease or annoy them, thus gaining Friendship or Rivalry, respectively. While Friendship is pretty self-explanatory, Rivalry here doesn’t necessarily mean outright enmity; it’s just that you and your companion have agreed to disagree.
Your relationship with each companion is developed through their reactions to the various quests you undertake, and your involvement in their individual quest chains. Expect your responses and reactions to the events in Kirkwall to either appease or annoy them; your noble act to protect runaway mages from the oppressive templars, for example, may be met with approval from fellow casters such as Anders and Merrill, but will disappoint strict Aveline and vengeful Fenris.
Depending on whether your companion is a Friend or a Rival, they gain special bonuses in combat, so there’s incentive to take the relationship one way, all the way as early on as possible. Naturally, having high Friendship (and, interestingly, Rivalry) with a companion unlocks romance options, though some fans aren’t happy that same-sex relationships are possible with every romance-able companion.
Your relationships aren’t restricted to just two-way interactions between you and your companions. While following you, your companions regularly have interesting conversations with each other as well, from silly jokes to getting to know each other better and even outright arguments! It certainly enlivens the atmosphere of running about completing quests and further fleshes out the backstory and personality of each companion.
Combat is now far more fast-paced and tactical than in Dragon Age: Origins. Where the original game’s combat was measured and plodding, here things take place at a much faster clip. Things can get crazy very fast; while mages engage their opponents from across huge distances, rogues and warriors rush in for the kill. The first few times you get into a tiff you’ll definitely appreciate the ability to pause the game and reorganize your thoughts (and battle plans).
The skill trees of each class have also been revamped. Each class has six main skill branches that offer different types of abilities, broadly classified into offensive, defensive, and passive: offensive skills improve damage and attack values; defensive skills support and buff the resilience of your character and allies; while passive skills offer stat bonuses. Certain skills can also be upgraded to improve their effectiveness or increase the frequency at which it can be used.
In addition, at levels 7 and 14 you will be able to choose to select two of three unique specializations which unlocks powerful focused abilities tailored to your class. Like the unique skills of each character in Mass Effect 2 (another stellar Bioware game), specializations further define the gameplay style of your character and offer much better and unique bonuses than the regular class skill trees.
Cross-class combos have also been introduced. Certain abilities of each class can afflict enemies with status effects, such as being staggered by brutal attacks or turned brittle by frost spells. Specific abilities by other classes can work in tandem with these effects for huge damage, and knowing when and where to exploit such devastating combos could potentially allow you to survive huge battles where you are outnumbered.
As if that wasn’t enough to consider, enemies also have their own repertoire of moves, skills and spells. From common street thugs and hidden assassins to armored templars and bloodthirsty demons, each manner of foe demands its own set of counter-attacks and special abilities to defeat them utterly. Eventually you’ll discover what works and what doesn’t, and pulling together a sequence of hard-hitting spells and abilities to take down a huge group of fanatics is incredibly satisfying.
But it will be the bosses that will command your attention and your respect. Near the end of each Act, you will have to face a boss enemy with incredibly dangerous powers and ridiculous amounts of health. Their immunity to your standard attacks and spells make fighting them a much more demanding affair, especially when these bosses are not above summoning their minions to do their dirty work for them. Strategy and skill is more than necessary in these notoriously difficult fights should you intend on coming out on top.
Boss battles aside though, Dragon Age II allows the composition of your party to be quite flexible when it comes to regular quests. Gone are the fixed party lineups (tank, healer, damage-dealer), instead you can opt for an entire party of mages if the urge hits you. Granted, combat may be slightly tougher in the beginning, but smart leveling and careful micromanagement will get you through almost all fights relatively unscathed.
For instance, rogues with high defense dodge enemy attacks more easily, allowing them to play an off-tank role. Warriors wielding two-handed weapons can also absorb enemy damage while simultaneously leveraging off combat bonuses to devastate foes. Combined with mages who can use special buffs to protect themselves or other characters while pressing a rapid-fire offense, and you have the option to face each bloody encounter in entirely different and unique ways.
Graphics-wise, on a technical level Dragon Age II is nothing to shout about. While details such as dynamic shadowing, depth of field blur and ambient occlusion are commonplace in games today, it’s the game’s art direction that’s truly outstanding. From the smooth marble facades of Hightown to the dank dark interiors of Sundermount, every location in the game feels like actual places, a testament to the amount of effort that was put into making the world of Dragon Age II feel real and substantial.
Your main character, Hawke, has a voice of his (or her) own. Considering Commander Shepard of Mass Effect was voiced from beginning to end, it’s a welcome change from the silent, perpetually-stupefied Grey Warden of Dragon Age: Origins. Hawke’s voice changes depending on your dialogue choices (e.g. a friendlier voice for more benign players), and it delivers a more immersive experience as a result.
The voice actors do a darn good job of conveying their respective characters’ personalities as well; each companion’s offhand comments and conversational exchanges are gems in their own right. Though the French-like accents of characters from the in-game nation of Orlais may have some of you cringing, in-game dialogue is both smartly written and expertly voiced.
Suffice to say, if you were used to the measured pace of Dragon Age: Origins, the changes in Dragon Age II will either please or irk you greatly. But it cannot be denied that Dragon Age II is one of the worthiest role-playing titles to be released this year, and a great introduction for newbies into one of the most original and richest fantasy settings to have ever been imagined.
Pros: Powerful story, memorable characters, well-written dialogue, fast-paced combat, substantial quest variety, vibrant spell effects.
Cons: Cliffhanger ending, repetitive dungeons, some may feel DA2 “dumbs down” the original’s gameplay variety.