A Rushed Waste of Time and Money
HIGH A brief (and fictitious) mid-game scene description from Varric.
LOW Everything else.
WTF The immense drop in quality was inconceivable until I saw it for myself.
Something's gone absolutely rotten in the house of BioWare.
Dragon Age II was slated to be one of the highest-profile releases of 2011—a can't-miss blockbuster to captivate the imaginations of RPG enthusiasts everywhere. The hotly anticipated return to the realm of Thedas was talked about as a project that would not only fix the original Dragon Age: Origin's rough patches, but build upon its strengths and tell a much grander story over the span of a decade. Ironically, not only did Dragon Age II fail to meet these goals, it didn't even begin to approach the high points of its predecessor. Repetitive, tedious, shallow, rushed and sloppy, this sequel is a complete failure in every respect.
The "adventure" begins with the player selecting a character type (Warrior, Mage or Rogue) and then fleeing the Darkspawn horde that ravaged the land in the original Dragon Age. While these events will be familiar to those who quested with the Grey Wardens last time around, it's soon revealed that the game isn't a sequel so much as it is a side story.
With the wealth of material hinted at in Origins, it makes a kind of sense to let players in on events that were transpiring elsewhere in the land. However, the plot, setting, dialogue and characters are all shockingly slapdash and unsatisfying. If you had asked me prior to Dragon Age II, I would have said that BioWare had some of the best writers in the business—possibly the best. However, I'm sad to report that former prowess is nowhere to be seen in this game.
To start with, the cast of teammates as well as the central hero (or heroine) feel like shallow sketches, rather than fully-fleshed characters. Meetings and events happen quickly and without much of the required pacing, and at no point did I feel any sort of connection with them. Companion quests meant to illustrate each character are tossed at the player in regular intervals with no fanfare or build-up beforehand, leaving each "growth moment" feeling unconvincing, mechanical and false. Instead of people the player grows to know over the course of the adventure, these faces are more like boxes to be checked off in pursuit of unlocking a skill tree.
Wholly apart from the characters themselves, Dragon Age II's plot is every bit as miserable. Structured as a "framed narrative" featuring sequences taken from a ten-year period of time, what I actually got is a thin, unfocused series of things happening that had no dramatic weight and failed to keep my attention.
For some reason, BioWare thought that dropping a character into a city and watching them meddle in quasi-political affairs while cooling their heels for a decade would be just as entertaining as going on an epic adventure. Surprise—it's not. There's just no overarching goal; no purpose to the story. The laundry-list of errands taking up the first 15 hours or so seem present for no particular reason at all, and the attempt to "tie it all together" at game's end is a weak stab at making sense of nonsense.
Continuing the sequence of poor decisions, the "new, revamped" combat mechanics were one of the most talked-about changes to the original formula. Sadly, the developers fundamentally misunderstand what was wrong with encounters in the first place—if you ask me, the fatal flaw was crippling the strategy element for consoles. While BioWare's dubious remedy to lukewarm player response was to let gamers "push a button and have something awesome happen," the result is still a chaotic mess.
While it's true that player attacks (usually) happen immediately after an input, I fail to see what the advantage is aside from being a purely aesthetic change. Special abilities still use cooldowns, and now instead of simply selecting the appropriate target and having the AI execute basic attacks, the player is forced to mash a button until another special is available. It's a hell of a lot of thumb fatigue for no good reason.
Worse, every fight basically plays out the same, with players constantly mobbed by pop-in enemies. It makes even rudimentary tactical play impossible (which was the first game's problem, if you'll recall) and utterly destroys player buy-in at the same time. For example, when fighting a non-magical group of knights at a seaside, new reinforcement troops literally dropped out of the sky onto my party. I could hardly believe my eyes. From any perspective, this out-of-nowhere ambush method is a pile of steaming garbage. I don't know who approved this absurd system, but the battles are distasteful, tedious chores that wear away at a sane person's patience.
Oh, and level design? Dragon Age II completely fumbles here as well. The graphics for each environment are sparse and sterile, not at all convincing as the huge, bustling city the player's home is supposed to be. In fairness, one badly-designed locale wouldn't be a big deal under normal circumstances, but in Dragon Age II, the entire game takes place in this same city.
Imagine being stuck in one level with precious little exploration and most areas made up of simple hallways for twenty or thirty hours, and the unpleasantness becomes clear. Adding insult to injury, the player will see the exact same areas being recycled over and over and over and over again, further destroying any potential for Dragon Age's world to be a place of adventure and wonder. Thedas now feels boring, it feels cheap, and the developers should be ashamed of how small and sparse the environments are. The tiny number of unique areas is so absurd, it's got to be someone's idea of a joke.
In terms of actual programming, Dragon Age II isn't nearly as polished as one would expect from a AAA-level release. The day-one launch DLC's Achievements on 360 were glitched and un-earnable, certain quests appear in the quest list before they can be undertaken, quest markers are inconsistently used, I personally had the game crash three separate times, and I've heard many reports of deleted saves, bugged team mechanics and other assorted weirdness—and that's not even taking into account the ever-present loading screens that occur when moving from one area to the next. Since the game is not a visual powerhouse and each locale is as simple as could be, the frequent loads are especially grating. There's no reason I should spend more time looking at loading screens than playing.
Defying all expectations, BioWare managed to take one of the most memorable Western RPGs in recent history and completely destroyed everything that made it so good. I have absolutely no idea how such a respected development house could have made so many colossal mistakes and turned out such an unpleasantly rushed, shallow, utter waste of time... but they did, and it is. I forced myself to play the game to completion despite wanting to quit out of disgust and boredom at least a dozen times before credits rolled, but I shouldn't have bothered. The insulting level of quality in Dragon Age II is perfectly clear to see from the first hour or two, and everything that comes after is just more salt in the wound.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, language, sexual content and violence. To make a long story short, this game should not be played by children. Although it's not the most explicit thing I've ever seen, there are plenty of situations that I would not want my child to be exposed to, and the overall tone of the game is clearly slanted towards adult players. This is one instance when the ESRB disclaimers are both totally accurate and totally appropriate, so please keep this title away from little ones.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You shouldn't have any problems. All spoken dialogue in the game is accompanied by optional subtitles, and there are no significant auditory cues during gameplay. It may be a terrible game, but it is an accessible one.