This morning, I faced a terrible dilemma: should I write something about Dragon Age II, or should I wait until I've finished the game? As I've only just completed Act I after a week of playing into the wee hours of the morning, when the house has gone all still and quiet, a full review wouldn't come for a long time yet. But! I feel like I should say something about it, hmm? I've got enough play under my belt to have a decent opinion on it, so why not give some thoughts on it, especially after the way I've gone on and on and on about my ? That's what The Internet and BLOGS are for. I mean, I read one review written after 3-4 hours of gameplay, which...well, that's not really enough time to grasp it, I think, but if you hate a game, you hate a game. And it seems that the knee-jerk reaction from fans, so far, is on the negative side of the scale.
That's because an awful lot has changed since Dragon Age: Origins...big big changes, some for the better, some for the not better. I suppose this is what Morrigan was talking about at the end of Witch Hunt, when she was going on about all the changes that were coming and how people don't like change but they must accept it and adapt. Very slick, BioWare! Very slick.
Let's hold hands and walk through some of this. I will keep this spoiler-free, but I'm going to assume that you played through the demo...so, I guess there are actually spoilers for that, but nothing that's not covered in the first 30-45 minutes in the game. Oh, and for what it's worth, on my first playthrough I'm a sessy rogue Lady Hawke.
The visual style in Dragon Age II is vastly different than in its predecessor. I'm not a huge graphics hound, so while I'll admit the environments- particularly "wildlands", for lack of a better word- are a bit dull, I'm perfectly happy with it. A note- dungeon layouts are reused...and reused some more. Areas will be blocked off during one quest, then opened up for another. It's not quite as glaring an issue as it was during Mass Effect, but some players are shouting about it from the top of Mount Internet. I don't find it that distracting, personally.
The biggest changes has to do with character race. Elves, dwarves, and Qunari have all undergone massive design overhaul. Massive. MASSIVE. It's good, if initially a bit shocking to anyone who's played the first game. Characters you met in Origins who pop up in DA II will look vastly different than you remember them. I like that now elves don't just look like slightly shorter humans with slightly pointier ears, and Qunari don't look like slightly taller humans with brows that are slightly more furrowed. They're definitely other races, which ties into the story as a whole. In particular, the new Qunari design is awesome. They're kind of terrifying. Check out Sten, a companion from the first game, and the Arishok from the second. Which is more formidable?
As I noted in my review of the demo, there's a fair amount of button mashing during combat. This may be because I'm a fan of melee; a mage might be tapping the A button significantly less. The action is so fast and furious, I think going back to the battles in Origins would feel like fighting through molasses. The tactics menu feels deeper, which is good; since there's no auto-attack option (at least on consoles; I've read there is auto-attack on PCs), it's tough to dole out commands to party members in the thick of things. I love that, actually. I'm not big into planning and plotting and controlling everyone on the battlefield at all times. I set up one mage to heal me when I need it, and then I go in hacking and get shit done.
Items and inventory comprise one area where Dragon Age II drops the ball, methinks. Most RPG fans dig loot. They dig stats and earning money and items with lore behind 'em and inventory micromanagement. DA II has essentially gotten rid of all of that, and it just plain stinks. While you can change your companions' weapons, you can't change their armors or outfits- there are a few upgrades available for them throughout the game, but their appearances can't be altered. There are woefully few outfits and weapons for Hawke, as well, although judging by the items I have picked up, it's rogues who get the short end of the stick in that regard. Junk inventory- the crap you pick up solely for the purposes of selling- is limited to eight or so varieties ("torn trousers", "opal fragment", etc) and it goes straight to the "junk" tab. It's all very streamlined, but as I said- that micromanagement is something most RPG nuts dig and while it may seem a small thing, it does add to immersion. IT DOES. I don't care if that makes me a nerd. I will cop to the fact that I find the armor to be much more badass-looking than in DA: O.
Story is where BioWare shines, but I'll admit- it's only at the end of Act I that Dragon Age II really starts to come together for me and even now, it feels...well, I can't quite get a grasp on it. The formula they've used for most every one of their games in the past- big, overarching plot; 4-6 large hub worlds; sidequests- has been eschewed in favor of...I'm not sure what. Once you arrive in Kirkwall, you remain in Kirkwall save a few expeditions to the coast and whatnot. Fast-traveling from place to place, it seems like a game made up exclusively of sidequests. Your journal keeps missions categorized (main plot, secondary, companion, etc), but it doesn't feel cohesive. A bigger picture is hinted at through the framing narrative with Varric and Cassandra as he tells Hawke's story, but I don't feel mired in it as Hawke herself. So far, while well written, it's just not completely gripping. It's getting better, and it seems that even small events will be intertwined as things play out- and I'm certainly not saying I don't dig it, or that I'm not invested. It's just a bit more scattered and superficial than I've come to expect from BioWare.
COMPANIONS & CHARACTERS
Hmm. My sessy Lady Hawke has picked up a lot of people on the road, but we don't feel exactly like a band of Merrye Travelers like my Warden's gang in Origins. The conversation wheel doesn't bother me in the least, but companion interactions are far shorter than they were in the first game. Maybe some players don't want to talk to NPCs for ten minutes at a stretch, listening to their stories and conversing; I do! It's one of the things I like best about BioWare games. In DA II, there's no central camp where everyone hangs out. Everyone is scattered across the city; if you want to talk to Isabela, you have to go to the pub. If you want to talk to Merrill, you go to her house. So far, most interactions- whether with companions or with random NPCs- feel limited to "Hawke asks three questions, the end". They're not conversations like you find in Mass Effect 2 or Origins (even with your silent protagonist), and as a result my sessy Lady Hawke feels a bit flat. I can't gauge her personality yet, even this far in.
All that said, most of the companions are decent enough, though they pale when compared to the charmers of Origins.
The person I'm most happy with so far is Flemeth. Holy fucking shit. I don't know if I've seen the last of her in this game or not- I hope not- but I love what they've done with her. Her appearance sheds light on plenty that happens in Origins, and you finally get a sense of how damn powerful she really is, if not completely what she really is. Again, I don't know if I've seen the last of her in Dragon Age II, but if so, I hope she becomes a major player and force in the franchise. And her aesthetic redesign is made of 100% pure awesome.
I dig this game. A lot, though I'm still trying to get my bearings, so to speak. It's very different than its predecessor and I'm not as completely enamoured with it as I was with Origins or either Mass Effect or KotOR, but I'm still loving the hell out of it, just in new ways. I guess I really took Morrigan's words and warnings in Witch Hunt to heart!