While battle rages around them, the Hawke family make their escape from the ravaged kingdom of Fereldon with the hope of rebuilding their lives in the northern city of Kirkwall. But Kirkwall is a city in turmoil, with knights, mages, the religious Chantry, and the strange and arrogant Qunari all struggling for power. You take the part of the eldest of the three Hawke children and it is up to you to battle your way from refugee of Fereldon to champion of Kirkwall. What follows is a decade-long story of love, loss, and violent political struggle with plenty of severed body parts, enchanted weapons, and battles with fire breathing dragons.
Following on from 2009’s fantastic Dragon Age: Origins comes role-playing legends BioWare’s Dragon Age 2. Like the original game, this one tries to meld the RPG and action games into an epic gaming experience. While it’s no epic, Dragon Age 2 has plenty to offer for fans of dragon bashing, spell casting, and hot drunken pirates.
But we’ll get to the hot pirates later. Unlike the original game, in Dragon Age 2 your playable character is human. While this seems a significant departure from what was the first game’s most enjoyable hook, the ability to get a brand new opening story depending on you choice of race, it allows for Hawke to be a more fully realised character. You do get some choices, though. Hawke can be male or female, and either a warrior, rogue, or mage. You can also choose Hawke’s background to be heroic or tragic. Alternatively, if you have a save from Origins, that can be imported. While this does not make for a range of openings as significantly different as those in Origins, all of your choices affect Hawke throughout the entire game. Once you have set up your character we find Hawke on the trail out of Fereldon. With him is his mother, his brother Carver, and sister Bethany. After meeting up with a couple of knights the group is soon overwhelmed by the Darkspawn. Although over pretty quickly the opening has some cool surprises, both tying the story back to Dragon Age: Origins and showing how brutal the world of Dragon Age 2 can be.
The opening also gives you a chance to get to grips with the gameplay and controls. Dragon Age 2 is an action RPG, with the emphasis on the action. Essentially you control your character’s attacks with the face buttons. The most frequently used is the X button which initiates the basic physical attack. When all else fails, you can mash X to slice, dice, shoot, and cast your way out of most situations. To the other three face buttons, six all up when you hold down the right trigger, you can map potions, learned abilities, and spells. These generally need to be recharged so their use takes a bit more care and planning. But the combat is fast and furious. With bodies exploding in showers of blood and enemies spawning from every staircase and doorway, Dragon Age 2 is action all the way.
That is not to say the RPG part is pushed totally into the background. Every time you level-up you get three experience points and one skill point. With the experience points you can increase your basic attributes like magic, strength, or dexterity. You can use your skill point to add an ability. So, for your Warrior, you can open the vanguard or two-handed weapon ability tree and choose the reaper or massacre abilities. As you gain in experience, more abilities become available. As well as this, your party members have abilities that are unique just to them. So once she gains enough experience your Dalish Elf mage Merril can activate the Wounds of the Past spell from the Dalish Pariah ability tree. This blood mage spell can rend an enemy from the inside making for a very sticky end that no armour can stop.
Being an RPG your party members are essential to both the combat and the story. But unlike old-school RPGs, these are not traditional non-playable characters. While Hawke is always in your four member party, with the left trigger you can select and play any of the other three party members at any time. So, while you can set up a tactical sequence for each character and leave them fend for themselves, you can also take a very hands-on approach to the fighting. Although, in the more frantic battles, this tends more towards switching between characters when they need health than planning complex offensive moves.
Overall the mix of characters that you come across are a fairly diverse and likable lot. There is the dwarf rogue Varric who tells a good tale and has very close relationship with his powerful crossbow. Mage Anders gave up being a Grey Warden to help the poor and unfortunate in Kirkwall, but is caught in the middle of the Templars progressively more brutal attempts to pacify the mages of the city. And there’s Isabela, a drunken pirate captain without a boat, but with a fair capacity for greed, treachery and a hell of a lot of flirting.
So, as you have probably guessed the characters in Dragon Age 2 are not just there for the combat. Wandering around the streets of Kirkwall you do a lot of talking with both NPCs and your party members. The dialogue is handled with a wheel at the bottom of the screen where you and choose from a number of responses. The center of the wheel has an icon the shows what kind of response you might choose. So if someone asked you to help them you could give them a friendly ‘yes’, a sarcastic ‘not another dungeon’, or an aggressive ‘I should cut out your heart for even thinking that’. It works well and adds a level of nuance and subtlety to the dialogue. It also makes it easier if you just want to click the smart-arsed or flirty answer every time.
There is quite a bit of flirting going on. And, if you don’t mind that kind of thing, it’s not all that reliant on whether you choose to be a male or female character. For example, your female Hawke has just as much chance of scoring a roll in your four poster bed with Isabela as your male Hawke character might. While it’s no God of War or Heavy Rain, it is enough to get a sex warning the ratings sticker. Of course it’s all totally appalling and morally indefensible, and somehow strangely intriguing.
But, is it a good game? Yes it is. It is packed with spells and abilities. The high production values ensure that it looks great. The music is appropriate without being intrusive and the voice acting way above average. Even the emotional moments in the game, moments that are often cringe inducing, are handled surprisingly well. What feels a bit lacking, though, is the overall design of the world. Although what is there looks good - palaces, taverns, city streets, and mines - it doesn’t feel that big. And for an epic RPG, that is very disappointing.
The game takes place in Kirkwall. When you play, you access all areas with three maps. Kirkwall in the day, Kirkwall at night and the outlying countryside. Every time you leave an area, the maps come up showing you what missions are active in what locations. There is no sense of distance or travel. You leave the tavern, then you go to the Chantry or the mines. Leave there and you’re instantly in the docks or the Dalish village. Sometime you can have ten or fifteen missions going at once so often you can lose track of what mission you’re doing. Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing anything, it’s as if you’re visiting places to get them off your long list of active missions.
Also the battles can be a bit annoying. There is a lot of spawning going on. In the bigger battles enemies tend to come in waves. So you kill them all, and another wave spawns. It’s the same enemies, in the same place, so you kill them all again. Then the next wave spawns, then the next. While I like killing giant spiders, or dockland heavies, or evil mages, as much as the next man, it’s difficult to lose yourself in a world that has city thugs continually appearing out of thin air to attack you as well as doorways on every street that instantly take you wherever you need to go.
But, Dragon Age 2 is very enjoyable. If you like your RPGs old-school with plenty of Tolkien and Dungeon Master mixed in with sword wielding warrior women and moody elves, then Dragon Age is for you. It’s R16 so everyone is always getting covered in blood. While there is nothing to do online, aside from waiting for the inevitable DLC, there are plenty of difficult moral choices, opportunities to lie, cheat, and seek bloody vengeance. With all your choices carrying severe and sometimes heartbreaking consequences. And there’s also a lot of dragon fighting and the chance to hook up with a hot pirate - so that’s good too.