In 2009, Dragon Age: Origins became the latest release from Bioware, a dark fantasy epic in a similar spirit to Baldur’s Gate but with a strong RPG feel akin to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. Creating a fantastically detailed world, the first game was engaging, entertaining and intriguing. As such, Dragon Age 2 had a lot to live up to.
First, the good. The combat flows much better; attacks appear smoother and it is gratifying to see a character perform a set move as soon as they’ve been instructed to. The graphics are stunning, with locations and people rendered beautifully (except for a few cameos from the first game who have sadly not come out of the re-modding process looking their best or, in fact, anything like they did in Origins).
Better yet, your player character is actually capable of facial expressions this time. They also speak. Like in Mass Effect, players choose their responses to questions and situations through a dialogue wheel with an icon beside each option indicating its tone (diplomatic, aggressive, sarcastic, flirtatious etc) and then these are put into words, which actually works fantastically well. The new companion characters are funny and interesting, and the quests engaging.
Yet where Dragon Age 2 falls down is the over-arching plot. You play Hawke, a human warrior, mage or rogue, who moves to the city of Kirkwall with their family in order to escape the Blight of Darkspawn which caused the Warden of the first game so much trouble. Over the course of the game (spanning nearly ten years), Hawke rises to become the city’s Champion. And that’s about it.
Whereas in Origins there was a sense of world-spanning peril and the threat of civil war, here it is just one city that is affected by your actions. On the one hand this lends more intimacy to your surroundings and some of the characters you meet along the way. Being based in this one (admittedly very large) location means that as your Hawke comes to own these streets you as a gamer have become so utterly familiar with your settings they almost feel like home, and encountering individuals then seeing how their story and situation develops over the course of the narrative is certainly rewarding. Decisions you make in this game not only have longer lasting consequences than in the first, but their impact is often more clearly apparent.
On the other hand, there is less of a sense of the epic to it. Though we learn the story of Hawke, the world of Ferelden isn’t particularly added to or developed, with very little taken up from the first game and built on right up until the finale’s huge cliff-hanger ending which indicates more exciting things to come. As a result this feels more like an aside, or the second part in a trilogy which sets up things to come but has no satisfying resolution of its own.
Moreover, the story is broken into three acts (each narrated by Varric, a merchant dwarf and companion of Hawke, in an interesting and at time hilarious manner) which, despite each having merits and interesting moments, don’t particularly feel connected or part of a coherent whole, leaving the game feeling disjointed.
Where Dragon Age 2 does excel, however, is character. As well as expanding the roles of minor characters from the first game, Bioware have created a rich, diverse and interesting motley crew to follow Hawke around, and their companion quests are always revealing and often amusing. The romances are well-developed, if a little inconsistent, and the bi-sexual and promiscuous nature of almost every inhabitant of the Dragon Age world remains an enjoyable light relief.
Overall, Dragon Age 2 is a fun, engaging game with lots of funny and emotional moments but a slightly darker, more serious tone than that of its predecessor. Not quite as good as Origins, it remains a hugely fulfilling and enjoyable game, even if at times it feels more like an expanded DLC than a story in its own right.