Game Review: Dragon Age 2 (PS3)

Rated Mature, Reviewed on PS3, Dragon Age 2 at Amazon.com

This is the highly anticipated follow-up to the deservedly wildly popular “Dragon Age: Origins”.  While not a bad game in-and-of itself by any means this is unfortunately less than its predecessor in nearly every way.  Despite it’s length it feels like an expansion rather than a full game; like an interlude between chapters of the “real” story or perhaps a prelude to “Chapter 2”.

The story follows a family displaced by the war of the first game.  Forced into poverty in a distant city our hero is followed on their rise to power over the course of nearly a decade.  Unfortunately as a featured gameplay device the long time spans involved are handled poorly.  The story is told in three acts with each broken, essentially, by a sub-titled “Three years later…”  Aside from a one-time change of housing the transition changes nothing and is therefore difficult to accept intellectually.

The quests and adventures you’ll face are all honestly rather dull.  They focus mainly on the internal politics of your adopted city and your companions and (with the noted exception of the epilogue) have no long-lasting or far-reaching effects.  In the first game you were saving an entire country, and possibly the world, from a devastating blight.  In this you’re basically working to become a minor noble in an independent border city.

The world is much smaller this time around as well.  There are several large areas in the city which can be visited either during the day or the night and a small handful of locations outside the walls.  Random encounters take place in a very small assortment of maps which are (slightly) modified throughout the course of the game.  This wouldn’t be an issue for a 20 hour game, but for a 30-40 experience the repetition becomes highly noticeable.

Many of the decisions you need to engage in also feel rather forced and sometimes outright silly.  A seemingly reasonable response might, for example, force you to massacre an entire village of elves.  Agreeing on a seemingly minor, secondary point may end up with you defending slavery as an institution.  Like other Bioware games the choices you’re given sometimes don’t mesh with the actual dialog delivered.  In other cases the choices are unintentionally ambiguous.  This is more a nagging issue than a deal-breaker but coupled with the lackluster story it does detract.

One benefit to the lack of scope is that there’s a much more light-hearted feel to this game.  The humor mostly comes out of the incidental dialog between characters and this creates most of the truly memorable and touching memories of the game.  Unfortunately this dialog, like the first game, is often very hard to hear due to the directional sound control.

Character interaction was the hallmark of the original game and returns here.  Acting and scripting are both still best-of-breed.  Every character has a deep, interesting back story and unique contextual interactions with the world and each other.  Sadly the already simplistic friendship and romance systems from the first game have been simplified ever further which is a shame.  This area, it seems to me, would have benefited greatly from added depth.

Decisions to simplify things seem to have been endemic to the design process.  Nearly every aspect of the gameplay has been dumbed-down in an effort to “streamline the action” but other areas are left inexplicably untouched.  Combat is essentially unchanged but a simple automatic combo system makes it more cinematic and basically a one button affair.  The talent and spell system is brought wholesale from the first game but a simplistic cross-class combo system has been added.

In a major step backward from the first game there’s really no way to simply configure your character for both ranged and melee combat forcing you to stick to a single style of play.  The crafting system was also a victim of this becoming almost a parody of expectations.  You need to find resources, recipes and vendors – all very easy for the most part – after which you can simply buy anything you want directly (and cheaply) from your home.

Although armor for all the classes is still available in quantity you can only actually modify it for the main character (I spent nearly 30 minutes assuming this was in fact a bug).  This feels incredibly limiting as you’re unable to pass down second-choice armor to your companions or even make use of most of the armor in the game.  Players are still allowed to outfit all characters with weapons (within class limits) and other gear.  Disappointingly this is still much more complex than it needs to be as there’s still no way to see your whole party at the same time – one of my major complaints from the first game.  You can only affect those characters (up to three) in your party which leads to endless frustration when sitting down to optimize load-outs.

Speaking of frustration: the trophies in this game suck.  While I don’t normally let trophy/achievement difficulty impact my impression of a game for these reviews it’s hard to ignore it here.  The trophies were complex, poorly thought out and glitchy as hell.  Simple, completely reasonable decisions in one area can easily prevent you from getting a completely unrelated trophy dozens of hours later.  If you’re the type that works to get all the trophies you may want to do so on second play-through (save often and use a guide) because doing so on the first time through will mostly likely result in a dripping hot hatred of the game.

If you enjoyed the first game then play this one.  When it finally gets around to it the events do play a significant role in the larger story and there are many potential hints at future installments.  There are also some minor, but welcome, cameos of characters from the first game that will put a smile on fans faces (although sadly importing a save from the first game seems to have had very little effect on them).  In the end however this simply falls short of the benchmark set by “Origins”.  While enjoyable enough for what it is you will have to set your expectations accordingly.

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