‘Dragon Age 2’ Review: Heavyweight Champion

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Dragon Age 2
Publisher: EA
Developer: BioWare
Systems it’s available on: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
ESRB rating: Mature
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

It’s time to reveal one of the failings of my geek CV: Fantasy leaves me cold, at least the sort of high fantasy descended from Tolkien. Maybe it was the high school English teacher who pushed The Hobbit too hard on me or the friends who insisted I’d love George R.R. Martin or Piers Anthony. And the kids who played D&D made my nerdy behind feel well-adjusted. The root cause for my feeling’s long forgotten, but the aversion remains. Part of it is how white these Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds tend to be. Rarely do the kindly folk of Whatev-Shire look like me and, if they do, you better believe that their exoticized otherness carries all manner of embarrassing characterization with it. (Dragon Age 2 Announced: New Character, Revamped Combat on the Way)

So, yeah, now that I’ve dismissed 43% of all that makes Lev Grossman what he is, I can add that I didn’t play much of Dragon Age: Origins.

Aside from my general disinterest in all things faerie, the game looked butt-ugly. I’m not one to fixate on a game’s visuals but DA:O looked like a rejected game ported from Xbox to GameCube. And the idea of tackling yet another time-suck of a game didn’t appeal to me when I was already deep into Mass Effect. (Had to prepare for ME2, don’cha know.) Still, as unprepared as I am to judge Dragon Age 2 against its predecessor, I can confidently say that it’s a great damn game in its own right. (Interview: Felicia Day On Her New ‘Dragon Age’ Web Series)

You play as Hawke, a.k.a. the legendary Champion of Kirkwall. DA2 gives ten years of his life to play around in, starting you off as a fugitive from the slaughter that happened in the first game. (And, if you’re like me and didn’t finish DA:O, then you can pick a scenario set-up that fills out events in that continuity.) First up, the game looks great. The animations, details and overall art direction glisten with tons of polish. Dragon Age 2 pulls off a neat bit of styling, managing to look modern but still impart a medieval sensibility to its virtual world. Another part of DA2‘s success comes from reining in the amount of world-hopping that you do in the game. DA:O flung players all over Ferelden in an effort to create scale but the sequel goes to the opposite way, keeping players in Kirkwall so that they know the people and the locale.

Players could choose from a variety of races in DA:O and, when it was announced that Hawke would be a human hero, people worried that DA2 would be a Mass Effect title re-skinned in tunics and jerkins. There are some commonalities, though, as much of DA2 pulls in the classic elements of various BioWare RPG recipes. Your protagonist from DA:O was silent but Hawke can speak and the conversation wheel from the Mass Effect games shows up. And, where the human-centric direction of the new Dragon Age game might trouble fans, there’s a bit of RPG orthodoxy that makes a welcome return. All the stat-obsessed resource management that disappeared in the transition from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 gets a partial restoration here. If you love tweaking your party’s equipment and abilities to your own unique desires, DA2 offers a lot to play around with.

The other major complaint with DA:O was how the combat mechanic required you to constantly pause to manage your party. It was one of the reasons I never finished the game, because I didn’t quite get the flow I wanted to when skirmishing. DA2 addresses that by providing a mix of real-time combat and squad control. Also, the character classes feel much more differentiated than they did in the last game. (Awards Season: Is ‘Mass Effect 2’ a Better Game than ‘Red Dead Redemption’?)

The cross-class combos mark a forward leap for RPG battle mechanics. Each class can pair up their special abilities for a joint attack that delivers signficant damage. So, after a rogue uses their Disorient skill on a foe, a warrior can deliver the coup-de-grace. Same goes for an enemy that’s been stunned by a warrior; a mage can cast a spell that instantly kills the hapless opponent. It’s the kind of thing that seems so obvious that you wonder it hasn’t been widely implemented before.

Like many BioWare games, you’re creating a skein of memories in Dragon Age 2. The Edmonton dev studio knows how to craft dramatic plots, strong characters and compelling conflicts. It made me, with my lifelong aversion to fantasy trappings, care about dwarves and mages and templar knights. Dragon Age 2, through improved gameplay, offers a grand adventure that lets players learn a little bit about themselves, too. Huzzah to that.

Official Techland Score: 9.7 out of 10