Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dragon Age II steps up the action

I spent a significant part of my spring break playing Dragon Age II, the sequel to Bioware's RPG Dragon Age: Origins. I don't play many video games, but I played Bioware's Mass Effect games last summer and discovered there's a whole world of video game RPG storytelling that is absolutely brilliant. Mass Effect 2 significantly stripped down the RPG gear and skill management and Dragon Age II does the same thing. Basically, I spent a lot less time managing my inventory and a lot more time talking. That's right, talking. Dragon Age II utilizes Mass Effect's dialogue wheel, and a fully voiced main character, which was one of my favorite things about Mass Effect and the reason I found this sequel to be a great step up.

Dragon Age II moves away from the sweeping high fantasy of the first game, drastically reducing the number of elves and dwarves and not-technically-orcs (Darkspawn). You're no longer a Grey Warden trying to save the world, you're just trying to keep your family alive and make a place for yourself in the world. This means the storyline is more focused and forced than Dragon Age: Origins. However, you can import your Origins save for the world history (or choose from three presets) and it will have some impact on the options you're presented with and characters you meet. You no longer have the choice to play as an Elf or Dwarf. You play as Hawke, a human noble, whose class (rogue, warrior, mage), gender, and first name are to you. The advantage with this is that doesn't feel nearly as much like a Lord of the Rings ripoff.

The storyline was still epic, with the narrative framed in cut scenes by a narrator recounting the life of the legendary Champion (Hawke), acknowledging that many versions of the story have been told. As Hawke, you are joined by the team of companions that can be expected from a Bioware game. Varric, the dwarf with mechanical crossbow (pictured) was probably my favorite (he's also the narrator), but I never got quite as attached to my companions as I did in Mass Effect 2, or even Origins. Romance and companion approval both play roles in how the story plays out. Hopefully, Dragon Age III, which this seems to set up, will expand these characters and give some of these companions a greater role.

The thing I like about the dialogue-wheel storytelling is that I can tell that the choices I make as Hawke actually change how events play out. Instead of playing through a series of scripted battles, I actually have a say in which battles I'm going to fight. These options existed in Origins and other games, but the dialogue system makes me feel a lot more involved and makes the decision experience more cinematic. The game presented me with several "Oh shit" moments, where I thought back to a decision I'd made and wished I'd done something differently. After completing the game, I checked out the Dragon Age Wiki to learn, as I'd suspected, that there were all sorts of things that could have turned out very differently.

So overall, I loved Dragon Age II and I'm looking forward to playing through again and trying out some other classes and making some different choices. I also found that I like the shift from the point-and-click attack control to a button-mashing attack style. On the Xbox, it meant I spent a lot of time pounding the "A" button, but it also made Dragon Age II feel more like an action game and made me like I had more control over the combat. I'm not at qualified to speak in terms of game design or quality, but I'd guess this doesn't match up to Mass Effect II, but since I'm a huge fan of the fantasy genre, I probably had just as much fun with Dragon Age II, and it is game, so that's what really matters.

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