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It’s worth remembering that even before BioWare’s foray onto consoles it was known for its Dungeons & Dragons titles on PC. Long before Mass Effect, or even Knights of the Old Republic, the studio had the excellent Baldur’s Gate series, still regarded as one of the highlights of the genre. Dragon Age: Origins was the developer’s re-entry into the fantasy RPG after a few years’ hiatus.
But Bioware’s “Think like a general, fight like a Spartan” mantra tells us everything you need to know about this sequel. The company has been using the phrase as a choice tagline at nearly every DA2 press event to signal a new approach to the fledgling series. What does it actually mean? It’s marketing drivel, sure, but for the less cynical it’s a rough description of the game’s approach to the genre – either a thinking man’s press-A-to-win, or a traditional hack-and-slash with the tactical elements of Dragon Age: Origins. But Dragon Age 2 is BioWare’s attempt to unfurl its tendrils and reach out to a slightly wider market of gamers, generals and Spartans alike.
For a lot of fans, this is just pouring fuel on the fire. The worry that the franchise is being dumbed down to cater to non-PC players is partly thanks to what happened to Origins when it was brought to console. It came off the PC as a micro-management fantasy title and went onto consoles with a clunkier, third-person action flavour. Dragon Age 2 is an outright attempt to appeal to two kinds of gamers, something that might make those who played the PC version feel nervy.
Combat is based around a set of quick buttons that let you access abilities you’ve chosen to unlock. As in Origins, you’ll gain points as you level-up which can be used in particular talent trees to develop specific skill-sets. A mage might aim to specialise in healing, a rogue might want to be a ranged shooter or a stealth character, a warrior might try for either tank-based or DPS abilities. But get into a scrap and it begins to feel like a beginner’s guide to hack-and-slash combat. The A button will be your primary weapon, and often it’s the Solve-All button of choice. The easier fights, early on, only require a few taps of the A button before you can move on through the zone. Area-of-effect spells or defensive abilities will be mapped to other buttons, but with enough potions it’s possible to mechanically hit A and get through more than one fight with your health intact.
Combat may have changed, but the game’s world still feels familiar. Origin’s setting was heavily influenced by the kinds of tropes that had been ingrained in the fantasy genre for decades. Despite being the first BioWare fantasy not to have a pre-established franchise kicking around, it had an arsenal of games to thank for its universe -particularly the studio’s own Baldur’s Gate and the Forgotten Realms campaign settings. When some critics called the story cliché they were complaining about the game relying too much on an identity that had already been established years ago.
Dragon Age 2 still relies on most of the same concepts, although here they’re structured a bit differently. The tale is told by way of a conversation: this is a story within a story where the svelte dwarf Varric, a member of your crew, is being interrogated by a woman who’s out to find the person behind the myth of your character. You are Hawke, a tunic-encased refugee heading toward Kirkwall after escaping from your destroyed homeland. But who is the real Hawke? How did he/she end up becoming champion of Kirkwall? Varric begins to recite a story about that one time Hawke warded off reams of monsters with only his trusty sibling at his side, treating you – the player – to a quick tutorial as Hawke and sis play whack-a-monster with the oncoming disposable hordes. The story is graded by the interviewer, with her dulcet Eastern European accent, as “bullshit” and we’re given a revision of what really happened – the real story.
The real Hawke is the one you’ve fiddled with in the character creator. Dragon Age 2 has downsized the previous selection of playable characters – Dalish Elf, City Elf, Dwarf Commoner, Dwarf Noble, Mage or Human Noble – and gone for a streamlined approach. Here there is just a single origin story featuring a human character whose gender and class (mage, warrior or rogue) you can select for yourself. You and your family are a rag-tag bunch of ex-nobles deserting what’s left of their old city, and the result is a gruffer version of events than Varric’s exaggeration. It’s not exactly Rashomon, but you get the idea. Dragon Age 2 dangles a cliché in front of you and has you beat it away to reveal the equally familiar but slightly more rugged version of reality.
This story follows Hawke’s ascent over a 10-year period, albeit in condensed form, leaving you to play out the key moments. The ensuing adventure is noticeably shorter than the first game – the main storyline can be finished off in about 25 hours – but as a result of this concise nature, decisions you make in-game have a fast and obvious effect. The strength of DA2 is how accessible this makes most of the socio-political fantasy stuff that often gets ignored or lost after hours of play. Like Origins, it’s all very concerned with the politics of racism. Do you support the Templars and their harsh treatment of magic users, or do you support the magic users, many of which are on your team? An Emotion Wheel has been added to the dialogue system to throw users another bone during these pivotal decisions. Now pictures are put alongside dialogue to give you an idea of the effect of your words. An olive branch will indicate diplomacy, a drama mask will imply sarcasm, a red fist means hostility.
But while the new plot structure makes hours of narrative easier to digest, the simplification of combat doesn’t work in the game’s favour. The result is a demographically sensible hack-and-slash that makes tactics available but not strictly necessary. There’s a shadow of the original game’s pause-and-play element, but it’s not exactly encouraged: Left trigger pauses the game and brings up an action wheel that gives you access to abilities, potions and move-here commands, character-switching lets you take over your team-mates for a more hands-on approach to group combat, and the behavioural tactics system still lets you plan their auto-attacks when you aren’t controlling their moves. You’ll obliterate enemies in a way you never did before. The combat feels heftier: with the right ability one swing will leave a red mist instead of a corpse, followed by a trademark blood-splattered cutscene. But when the reality is that instantly locking onto enemies and pressing A is more readily available, the slower pause-and-play element is redundant if not completely obsolete.
Dragon Age 2 often seems too conventional a fantasy to be fantastical. With only three major areas to explore – the city of Kirkwall at night, the city during the day, and a mountain that doubles up as wilderness and costal zones – plus a section early on in the dwarven Deep Roads, it feels like a remarkably small place to live. What should have the scale of an epic kingdom feels like it’s about the size of Runcorn, and between the dusty brown peasantland of Lowtown and the traditional grey brick-on-brick nobleland of Hightown, it seems like despite trying to develop its own mythos, the game never progresses beyond the identity issues it had with Origins.
But Origins also had its cast to fill the personality quota: Alistair’s straight British wit, Morrigan’s femme fatale sass. Unfortunately it’s when the best original characters from Origins start making cameos that DA2’s league of characters begin to feel like the B-team. The sequel’s gang are well-developed – each of them has a darker side that becomes clearer in their companion quest – but they’re still functional more often than memorable. Varric is the closest you’ll find to a likeable comedy figure, as a sort of dwarf hedonist, but he never quite pulls the same punches as an Alistair; he manages to be amusing only in the sense that none of the others really are. Elven mage Merill is brilliantly voice-acted with a neurotic Welsh accent, but again she seems to disappear into the background – partly because of the timid personality, but largely because faint neurosis still isn’t enough to make her stand out as an individual character.
There’s as much maturity to the game as there ever was – DA2 is a bloody, moody thing. But despite the way narrative has been re-structured and the combat made meatier, this sequel follows the old conventions of the genre too literally to develop an individuality beyond them. Two entries down the pipe, and Dragon Age is still experiencing the growing pains of a series that’s more dedicated to studying fantasy games than developing its own personality in the genre.