A few weeks ago, I posted a rather gushing review about the Bioware game Dragon Age: Origins. Since then, I've completed its much maligned younger sibling, Dragon Age 2. The verdict? An enjoyable game, and worth picking if you like fantasy adventures that are inclusive to female players, and where women actually get to play a significant role. But is it as good as the original? No. Not by a long shot.
As with its predecessor, the highlights of Dragon Age 2 are its NPCs and the relationships between them. Whenever you run around completing missions, they will chat to one another behind you, about their pasts, about love, about philosophy, and about the things happening in their day-to-day lives. You get a lively set of characters, including pirate-lady Isabela, sweet blood mage Merrill, rebel mage Anders and anti-magic ex-slave Fenris, and they provide endless entertainment (and a fair bit of angst) during your travels. I would happily drop whatever mission I was doing, just to listen to them talk.
Great female characters
Although Isabela seems to have mislaid her pants, she's a dynamic, independent and utterly enjoyable character. I kept her in my party constantly, because she provided the best dialogue, the best reactions, and was a great fighter to boot. Merrill, meanwhile, is rather naive, but passionate about her cause (restoring the history of the Dalish elves), while straight-laced and serious Aveline is the series' first female warrior NPC and the captain of the city guards. Outside of your own party, the chief antagonist is also a female warrior.
Definitely improved. It's fast-paced and exciting, with dynamic graphics.
Continuing the tradition of Dragon Age, players can pursue a romance with one or more of their party. All characters can be pursued by either a male or a female protagonist, and may choose to pursue their own romantic entanglements if left to their own devices.
The discrimination plotline takes center stage
In Dragon Age, the oppression of mages bubbles in the background, disturbing in its presence but never too important to the story. In Dragon Age II, it becomes the focus of events, leading to some pretty heavy discussions and decisions about morality.
Unlike in Dragon Age (where I fell for the awkward yet dashing Alistair), I never believed in any of the romance plotlines available to me. This is partly because of ill-timed conversations, such as Anders declaring he will "break my heart" five minutes after I meet him, just because I called him attractive, or him deciding that we're going to move in together as soon as we kiss for the first time. Despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that they take place over a ten year span, the romances didn't really have time to develop naturally, leaving me feeling bemused and uninvested.
Less dialogue control
DA2 adapts the dialogue wheel found in the Mass Effect games, and the result is somewhat disappointing. Instead of having absolute control over what the character will say, the game gives you a vague sense of their reaction. As the three-word summary often didn't accurately reflect the words that would come out of my character's mouth, I often found myself saying things I didn't intend, and I probably missed out on several genuinely funny exchanges because half of the "humorous" lines were too painfully smug to risk clicking on that option again.
Little influence over the game world
This is the big one for me. In Dragon Age, I felt that my decisions actually had consequences. By the end of the game, I had saved (or destroyed) several groups of people, meddled in a few political systems, and caused the death (or saved the life) of some of my companions, allies and friends. In Dragon Age 2, nothing I did seemed to have any longterm effect, despite the fact that the game took place over a 10 year scale. I sacrificed a friendship with one character in order to prevent her doing something terrible... and then a few years later, she does so anyway. Repeatedly, I found, the game continued in exactly the same way, regardless of what I decided, creating only the illusion of player influence. While I will replay Dragon Age over and over, I can't imagine myself giving this one another shot.
No mission to pursue
The game feels very bitty. Although there is a sort-of overarching plot of mages vs. templars, it doesn't really stick until the end. You spend most of your time doing errands for people, not sure exactly what you're supposed to achieve. Disappointing.
Occasionally nonsensical storyline
I chose to play as a mage. As I wasn't part of the Circle, I was clearly an apostate. Yet I had many dealings with other mages, with templars, with the government, and nobody ever tried to arrest me or bring me back under control. Since the mages-vs-templars story formed the basis of the entire plot, this didn't exactly make much sense.
Since it's been a year since its release, Dragon Age 2 is hardly a major investment. In fact, as I write this, Amazon are selling the PC version for only $7.99. If you like exciting combat, great characters and a bit of fantasy in your video games, it's definitely worth checking out for that price. Just don't expect it to match the original Dragon Age, and you won't be disappointed.