Genre: Action RPG
Classification: R16 - contains violence, offensive language and sexual themes.
Platform: PlayStation 3 (tested), PC, Xbox 360
Dragon Age II is the latest offering from BioWare, and while many people have eagerly awaited the release of this game, I haven’t been one of them. The fantasy-RPG genre is overflowing with titles, so what does Dragon Age II bring to the table as a point of difference? You play as (insert name of choice here) Hawke, a character that you can superficially customise in a vague attempt to create some kind of connection with the main protagonist.
The three choices given to you in terms of character classes are nothing other than formulaic at best: Warrior, Rogue and Mage. At least, if you’ve played any other RPG you’ll know what kind of class mechanics you’re getting yourself in for from the get-go.
Dragon Age II has gained a lot of praise for its "deep-story”, but I’m inclined to disagree. The linear structure of the story is somewhat masked by the dialogue selection options you get at every possible encounter. While this mechanic provides an opportunity for you to choose whether to be a snarky bastard, a noble do-gooder or something in between, it does little to help the flow of the story. Interestingly, the game seems to pick up on your general personality preference and build this into the pivotal cutscenes, which can provide a small element of immersion.
With all the cutscenes and stops for dialogue, it’s no wonder that BioWare poured so much of its resources into the voice acting. However, the quantity seems to have gotten in the way of quality, with the dialogue often feeling awkward, unsubstantial and plain unnecessary.
Perhaps it’s a matter of appealing to a wide audience, but silence and gesture can be far better communicators than stating the obvious ad infinitum. The curious thing is, though, how did BioWare get the voice acting so right with Mass Effect 2 (widely regarded as one of the best games of our generation) but fall short with the voice acting in Dragon Age 2? It can only be assumed that this game has fallen victim to being a bit of a rush-job - an attempt to cash in on the success of the first Dragon Age before the technology the engine is running on becomes outdated.
Visually, the console version is embarrassingly inferior to the graphics you’ll experience on a top end PC. This is no fault of the developer, though; just an indication that PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles are quickly becoming more and more outdated. The sad thing is, it shows. The character attack and battle animations are superb, but the facial animation in the cutscenes doesn’t stand up to the quality of, say, L.A. Noire, currently in development at Rockstar.
Dragon Age II’s saving grace is in the down-and-dirty gameplay; after all, nothing is more fun that seeing "bits of baddies” fly in all directions when you manage to co-ordinate the full force of your party. The difficulty is relatively low initially and button mashing will get you most of the way to the end, but for a real gaming experience, it’s worth making the best of the tactics system and utilising the unique abilities and traits of each of your party members. For some players, managing a party will feel like an annoying task. But once you gain a proper understanding of the system, it becomes a completely new tactical experience that becomes the crux of the game.
The story follows our hero as he becomes the champion of Kirkwall, the town that acts as a hub for the game. In playing through the game, you’ll gradually become more and more familiar with the town, who to talk to and sometimes, more importantly, who to avoid. The environment doesn’t stretch far beyond the walls of Kirkwall, though, and will have you running through dungeons that become irritatingly familiar owing to re-use. This can sometimes create a feeling that you’re running in circles and making no real progression, which only adds to the theory that Dragon Age II is the rush job that it seems to be.
BioWare might be working on the premise that the Dragon Age II franchise is its cash cow and they’ll milk it for all it’s worth. The obvious setup for another sequel will give BioWare another chance to prove itself, but there are a lot of areas that any sequel will need to improve on if the series is to gain the same rave reviews that it’s getting at the moment. I know the "percentage of gripe” in this review is relatively high, but I feel like Dragon Age II is an academically under-performing school kid and I’m the "not angry, just disappointed” father that expects a whole lot more. It’s because Dragon Age II is the type of game that I should like that I feel so let down; the gameplay is great and the whole product has the potential to be at the top of my list, but the feeling of wanting to always play that little bit more never took hold.
The experience is brought down by lack of polish, sometimes even lagging and locking up the console, and the end result is a game that is good. But it could have been great.
Lasting appeal: 7