Rise from warrior to legend in Dragon Age II
The most anticipated role-playing game of 2011 is here. Bioware and Electronic Arts' follow-up to the critically acclaimed Dragon Age: Origins has arrived with the sole intention of consuming sixty hours of your life. Your hands will hurt, your brain will fry and your blood will boil in pure, unadulterated gaming ecstasy. Tremendously addictive, deeply involving, frighteningly fast and impossibly immersive, Dragon Age II offers the best kind of gaming experience, albeit a personal one.
The game follows the journey of Hawke, a warrior, mage or rogue (depending on how you choose to play him/her), whose family is fleeing the land of Ferelden during the beginning of the blight. Now, if you haven't played the first game, here's a quick recap: Ferelden was overrun by the ‘blight' (the fifth blight, to be precise), an invasion of ‘Darkspawn' who are tainted humanoid beings that dwell underground and an ‘Archdemon', a corrupted ‘old god' (the corruption itself is caused by the blight). The blight consumed the land of Ferelden until it was cleansed, and the Archdemon defeated by the Grey Warden (the protagonist of the first game). The story of Dragon Age II begins during the initial stages of the fifth blight, but a large portion of the game takes place after the blight has been vanquished. The setting this time around is Kirkwall, a coastal city located in the Free Marches, north of Ferelden across Waking Sea. Kirkwall is also known as the ‘city of chains' thanks to a substantial number of inmates (mostly mages who are forced to live in the city's gallows), thus proving to be more than an apt setting for Dragon Age II.
Most of Dragon Age II takes place in the city of Kirkwall itself, with some of the quests warranting travel to places as close as the city's outskirts and extending as far as the Deep Roads. The voice-acting, party system and character development are exactly what you would expect from a Bioware game — all top notch, but there are a few drastic changes. Combat is now lightning-quick, almost as if on fast-forward, and surprisingly, it works brilliantly. The tactical element to combat has not been removed — you still have to position your party strategically while executing spell and class combos for optimum effect. You can pause combat and issue a string of orders to your party members like before, but on the flip-side, watching skirmishes in real time is tremendously satisfying. Bioware has also decided to simplify, rather than ‘dumb-down' a lot of the core RPG elements — for instance, there aren't various categories of potions like the first game and the loot is just generally categorised as ‘junk'. This simplification really works in the game's favour by allowing the player to concentrate on character development and story, while retaining a peripheral interest in miscellaneous loot-gathering. The party system has been simplified as well — your companions, for instance, can no longer be outfitted with armour (upgrades are only available as generic items at merchant shops).
While the gameplay experience is near flawless, there are a few things that feel a little unpolished. For starters, locations repeat themselves to the point of irritation (virtually every dungeon/cave/road sports the same design) prompting more senses of deja vu than a Hans Zimmer original score. More strangely, the plot isn't epic, with Bioware choosing to focus on matters of a civil nature (to add more depth to the universe, no doubt, even if with questionable motives — DLC, anyone?).
Fortunately, the writing saves the day most of the time, but it's surprising that only a couple of companion characters are memorable. Despite these slight hiccups, Dragon Age II is still the best RPG of the year so far and it's going to take a lot for either The Witcher 2 or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to dethrone it.
Dragon Age II is available on the PC, X360 and PS3.