Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dragon Age II

Written by Joe the Revelator

Like many new RPG’s, Dragon Age II sits atop a totem pole of DLC’s (downloadable content), expansions, and original content. From Dragon Age Origins to DAII, Bioware has kept up momentum the same way the Mass Effect and Fallout series have, which are more episodic than RPG predecessors who relied solely on peddling expansions every year until they lost support and petered out. DAII even goes so far as to reward players with items for downloading the demo, spewing in-game weapons at loyal followers like a piñata full of knives.

As far as gameplay is concerned, Dragon Age II is sleeker, cleaner, and better executed than Origins. The skill trees have been arranged into brainstorming maps, bubbles with connective lines and descriptions, so you can see exactly what skills you’ll need to get the Deathblow move you saw in the teaser. And instead of buying several rows worth of useless skills just to upgrade pyromancer or duel-weapon, you upgrade only the skills you plan on keeping, by using mini-tabs in each tree. This keeps your skillbar uncluttered, and early-level skills can still be kept effective during the later levels.

The Cleanest Gutters You’ll Ever Sleep In

Aesthetically I find DAII to be more stylized, but also more sterile than the first game, without as much clutter, stains, or gray skies. Even the poorer districts look relatively clean, like the walls have been plastered with brown wallpaper. The brightness of the character’s eyes are a new distraction. Even the dull dwarf merchant and his lackwit son have developed a severe case of spice addiction, with piercing blue or steely gray eyes that follow you around the room, even if you walk away from the monitor.

The combat system looks incredible. We may have Force Unleashed to thank for the trend in throwing henchmen around the map like a squad of armed puppets. Playing a warrior with a sword the size of a canoe is still gratifying even after the hundredth time you turn a darkspawn into strawberry jam, exploding them against a wave of steel. Rogues actually move during a fight. They dive into people knife-first, duck around enemies, and tumble through the air as they disappear behind smoke bombs. Battle is simply more kinetic; less halting when you jam special attack buttons. Instead of running up against enemies and sticking on them like gum, you bowl through them. Even mages are more energetic; using karate Kata's to propel projectiles and spells from their staffs.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The best way to deal with companions is to ignore them completely, or pick a party and stick with it. Companions are infuriating to win friendship points, and picking sides during their arguments leads to huge rivalries. Some of the male companions don't seem to trust you unless you make sexual advances toward them, regardless of your gender, and conferring with one ally during a tough decision can cause others to pout. Dialogues shared between them while traveling are entertaining and sometimes downright cruel. I eventually changed my party after the guard captain in my group took to outright calling the pirate woman a whore. While funny, it was far from conducive to a good working relationship. Anders specifically is a pain in the ass. His hate for Templars is so great that vengeful spirits surface within him, filling him with murderous rage and power, at the mere thought of their holy order. This wouldn't be a problem if half your early quests weren't given by Templars.

With the defeat of the last blight came a wondrous innovation: breast augmentation.

When The Dragons Come Home To Roost:

Without the narrator (the storytelling dwarf) and his foreshadowing of great and terrible things, the struggle would feel too slight. In Origins you were saving the world, rallying rival nations to defeat the archdemon, and working to overthrow a tyrant. For the lion’s share of DAII you’re a refugee and a street-tough doing errands in the city, buying bigger mansions and status for your family. I could almost hear the ‘mission completed’ music from GTA whenever I turned in a quest.

Aside from a sprinkling of dragons and darkspawn, and the piles of codex entries insisting they’re from Ferelden, DAII could have been written as its own fantasy entity. It’s a fun game to play, and it sets a new standard for skillbar/skilltree combat. But it could have been called Thug Age or Codex Age.

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