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Dragon Age II Review - A heartbreaking misfire

There is no worse feeling a game can induce upon a poor, unsuspecting player than that of disappointment. Dragon Age II is guilty of this worst of gaming sins. It steps forward into the spotlight with a confident stride only to reveal hours later the moldy, rotting core lying within. Terrible games are easy to dismiss. Great games are easy to recommend. Those like Dragon Age II prove difficult, offering glimmers of hope bright enough to make me truly mourn the loss of what could have been. 

Dragon Age II is proof that even the best writer can have an off day.

Anyone coming into this game because of Bioware’s illustrious pedigree will find it curiously below par. Some of its shortcomings can be written off as bold attempts to do something different than the studio’s norm. They may not have worked, but perhaps they can at least be excused in the name of attempting the unexpected. Far less justifiable are those failures that come where this group of talented developers should be strongest; those that let its audience down precisely where it is expected to be at its best. 

To begin, let us examine the setting. A more generous mind could perhaps label Kirkwall as “intimate”. I think “small” is more accurate.

There are plenty of ways a small environment can be made appealing and fun to play in. The greater detail and personality that can come with a bite-sized area can lend a place a great deal of likability.

Kirkwall consists entirely of five tiny areas and a few adjacent locations, such as buildings and underground sewers. The single city of Denerim from Dragon Age Origins exceeds it in size. Comparing it to either Mass Effect game seems silly. Purely in terms of land area, it feels more like an expansion than a full sequel, or at least it would if I wasn’t pretty sure Dragon Age’s own Awakening add-on was bigger as well.

This didn’t have to be a bad thing. If Kirkwall had been as memorable as, say, the Citadel in the first Mass Effect, it could have worked wonderfully. If it was imbued with small details and memorable landmarks it could have been an enjoyable place to explore. If my actions altered the character of the city over time it could have added weight to the story. 

Instead, Kirkwall is a series of disconnected locations that never congeals into a cohesive whole and never changes. It is impossible to walk from one part of the city to another as everything is stitched together with load screens. As if the game didn’t feel small enough already, pretty soon I was hopping randomly from one side of Dragon Age II’s tiny world to the other with nary a second thought while barely having to walk anywhere. 

Kirkwall has no personality. Rapture was memorable. Washington D.C. In Fallout 3 was memorable. Kirkwall is not. Even most of the areas in Dragon Age Origins made a greater lasting impression. Remember the cramped confines of the run-down elven alienage that actually felt like a slum, unlike the tiny square of normal-looking houses shoved absentmindedly into a corner in Kirkwall? Remember the wooden buildings and market tents in the square of Denerim? Remember the stunning architecture and underground tunnels of the dwarven city of Orzammar? 

Remember the one place in Kirkwall that had some trees in it?

Bioware’s strength has never been in creating worlds that felt truly believable. They don’t necessarily feel like places real people could live and work. They are fascinating universes that feel a bit more like movie sets. In the context of a normal Bioware game this isn’t a problem. 

With Dragon Age II, Bioware have attempted to branch out from their norm. I appreciate this, as it would be all too easy for a company with their level of success to keep falling back on familiar tropes. Unfortunately, their inability to create a believable setting has rendered this game tedious and unlikable. To make such an intimate focus work, Kirkwall needed to feel real. It needed to feel special, detailed, and full of life. It’s hard to say what went wrong here, as Origins was better about this than either Dragon Age 2 or Mass Effect. 

There is another possible explanation for the feeling of claustrophobia the game induces. Dragon Age II was rushed. Could a brief development cycle have forced Bioware’s hand in cutting the epic from their adventure?

Unfortunately, signs point to this being the case. 

There is an achievement unlocked by exploring 10 caves in the surrounding areas of Kirkwall. All of these are the same cave. I don’t mean they look similar. They are literally the exact same level, sometimes with doors cleverly blocked off by inexplicable cement walls or a different entrance used in a lame attempt to confuse me into thinking I was in a new place. The same trick is used for underground environments, Kirkwall mansions, and more. The game isn’t just small, it’s stretched too thin as well. The narrative was clearly in need of more locations than the level designers were given the money or time to create. I often felt like I was watching a low budget stage play, as if the game were asking me to suspend my disbelief and pretend the same group of potted plants was three different sets. 

I haven’t seen environments this blatantly reused so often since I played through Oblivion. There is no excuse for this kind of recycling. Perhaps from a small studio with an ambitious idea and a lacking budget I could let it slide. From a behemoth like Bioware that has proven their ability to deliver expansive worlds time and time again, there’s no other word for it other than unacceptable. 

Sadly, the game’s slapdash feel doesn’t end there. The presentation takes quite a beating as well. 

The game looks decent from a distance, but don’t look too closely. The environments are barren of any detail, as if built to be empty combat areas instead of a realistic city. This is of course exactly what happened, as I fought plenty of battles within city walls. 

Some of the texture work is staggeringly bad. Weapons in particular have a distinctly N64-esque muddy look to them which is quite unpleasant up close. The animations during dialog sequences remain stilted and awkward, having progressed seemingly not at all since Origins and still trailing far behind those of Mass Effect 2.

Those mediocre looks aren’t even delivered smoothly. Graphical glitches are a constant distraction. Weapons disappeared from characters mid-conversation. Textures flicker in and out of existence. The game is even plagued by noticeable slowdown, often during cutscenes. 

It’s not just the graphics that are glitchy. Quests appeared in my journal that I couldn’t complete. Waypoints on the map were often nonexistent or incorrect. Defeated enemies baring loot refused to wield to the power of my A button. Other enemies decided I wasn’t going to engage them and rendered my mashing of the attack button temporarily useless.

Not enough? The combat sees waves of new enemies appear out of nowhere in pretty much every battle, shattering any chance of immersion. It also made it next to impossible to plan and conserve resources for a long fight because I never knew what would be popping into existence next.

Even dialog wasn’t immune. For instance, my cute elf companion, Merrill, remarked quite late in the game that she had never seen an abomination before. This was, naturally, after she had been in my party the whole game and had a hand in killing more of the things than I could remember, seeing as how the creatures play a large role in the story. This kind of inconsistency was not at all uncommon.

A strong tale could have rendered all this nonsense null and void, but instead I found a messy plot that does nothing but either bore or infuriate depending on the situation. Plot holes abound, the main character isn’t likable or adequately motivated, and the entire ordeal is nothing but a setup for the next game, ending on a massive cliffhanger after a decidedly rocky final act.

Problems begin with the main character. Giving Hawke a name and a voice could have been an improvement over the awkwardly silent protagonist of Origins, but they didn’t capitalize on it. I liked my mute elf from Origins better than the ill-defined Hawke, whose personality more or less begins and ends with which of the three dialog options you stick with: kind of nice, kind of a jerk, or even more of a jerk. The lack of background information or character motivation combined with the often snarky or outright rude dialog options make Hawke unlikable instead of inspiring more often than not.

I missed being able to customize my character and define who she was. Aside from dialog choices, the only thing I could change was gender and class. I was also stupid enough to be a mage, which opened up a slew of giant plot holes, such as wandering freely through a town infested with templars as an apostate mage, wearing a colorful robe and wielding a staff no less, while no one so much as looked at me funny.

The meandering plot gave me little reason to care about the off-putting hero. With no motivation to speak of, the first 15 hours are little more than a string of random side quests. There is no cohesive plot, no drive to keep going, no clear goal. This is baffling. Even Dragon Age Origins was superior. There I knew exactly where my character came from. I knew what I was fighting for. I knew why I should care. I was given nothing to hold onto in Dragon Age II and I quickly found myself not caring. 

Especially considering the repetitive nature of the quests and the recycled environments, the game’s length could easily have been cut in half and it would have lost nothing.

When Dragon Age II finally does start to go somewhere, it quickly becomes clear that Bioware’s love of black and white extremes has gone too far. The game forced me to take sides in a conflict where both halves are equally despicable. Am I to side with the righteous templars and their torturing of innocent mages? Am I to side with the power-hungry blood mages overly eager to consort with untrustworthy demons and endanger everyone around them? The game forced a binary choice between sides even though I didn’t agree with either. 

This isn’t a matter of a well-constructed world built in shades of grey where there simply is no “right” option. This is a world that violently pushed me off of the middle path in favor of its chosen extremes for the sake of shoving a message down my throat, that message being that I was essentially screwed no matter what. My choices didn’t make a bit of difference. This served only to cheapen every decision I made throughout the game. 

Worse, Hawke had essentially nothing to do with the events the game threw at me. My character was nothing but an onlooker (albeit a deadly one) who happened to be in the right place at the right time. The game is too busy setting up for a sequel to bother connecting anything to its protagonist. The game starts with a compelling enough personal tale of Hawke’s family fleeing danger and trying to establish a new life, but I quickly become a bystander in my own story as I was swept away by events that had more to do with Kirkwall than Hawke.

I wasn’t even rewarded with a satisfying conclusion for sticking with this mess. In fact, the only thing the ending of the game made clear was that I was going to have to spend another $60 a couple of years from now for the game’s plot to mean anything. The entire story is a massive tease, designed to leave the Dragon Age world in a state that better facilitates further sequels while forgetting that perhaps it would have been a good idea to make this individual entry compelling. Nothing is resolved and there is no closure. The best case scenario is that resolution of some sort will be added via DLC, and I’d hardly call that a pleasing scenario.

One of the game’s few bright points are its characters. The cast isn’t as diverse as that of Origins, as large as Mass Effect 2, or as likable as either, but the party is still a cut above most games. Worthy of praise in particular is Aveline, who managed to overcome the terrible story she was placed into and become what I think is one of the most well-written and believable female characters I’ve ever seen in a video game. No small task, and yet another reason why it’s heartbreaking that she’s lost in the mire of mediocrity that is the rest of Dragon Age II.

Still, despite a few high points, most of this game’s cast is forgettable or unlikable. I’d love to spend more time with the diverse cast of Origins or the fascinating bunch in Mass Effect 2, but I’ve had more than my fill of Hawke’s whiny brother, Carver, moody emo mage, Anders, self-absorbed whore, Isabela, and the rest of the mediocre lot.

I won’t spend much time discussing the mechanics because, while they are almost certainly one of the game’s strongest elements, they aren’t important in the grand scheme of things. To be sure, they are better, more streamlined, and more fun than the first game. Leveling up feels more significant, the talent trees more balanced, and every skill more useful. Combat is more visceral and immediate. Slinging powerful spells as a mage or flipping around the battlefield as a rogue is undeniably fun, at least until I was 30 hours in and my hand was about to fall off from mindlessly mashing the attack button for so long. It isn’t the same as Dragon Age Origins and some will be rightfully displeased by that, but I do think it largely hits the mark they were going for, unlike so much else in this game.

Much of the coverage of Dragon Age II has focused on the mechanical changes. I think this is unfortunate on a couple of levels. First of all, while the changes made do somewhat favor the console environment over the original’s PC focus, the alterations are not nearly as significant as some would have you believe. The fundamentals of the game are still there and any “consolification” will quickly be forgotten about with a few hours of adjustment and brushed off as a minor annoyance. It’s just not that big of a deal. The other, more significant reason I find this mechanical media focus off-putting is that few are discussing the game’s plot, which is where it truly falls disturbingly short.

There are glimmers of hope amongst the muck that show that, indeed, this game was made by talented people; people who know how to create brilliant characters and touching moments, who know how to make a compelling story that involves the player. That these few moments are so buried in a disappointing whole is tragic, but the unavoidable fact remains that they don’t amount to enough to save the experience, as much as I occasionally hoped they would.

Dragon Age II is an unexpected misfire by a studio that has displayed nothing but talent of late. Whether the reason for this was misguided ambition, rushed development, prioritzing another project over this one, or something else entirely is irrelevant. What matters is that this game is a painful missed opportunity that Bioware fans would do best to ignore. That’s not an easy thing to say about a game from a studio I so admire. Your choices in Dragon Age II may not matter, but in real life they still do. Let Bioware know you expect better from them and skip this disjointed mess.

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