In BioWare's 2009 release "Dragon Age: Origins," players guided the last remaining Grey Warden on an epic quest to save the world from a horrible death by Darkspawn, slavering netherbeings that hate joy with their whole, black hearts. "Dragon Age 2" is out this week and it scales back the epic scope considerably, but nonetheless improves on the first game's great RPG/action-esque formula with a quicker pace and a brand-new rogue's gallery of beasties and bad guys to put out of your misery.
The setting shifts in "Dragon Age 2" away from Ferelden to the Free Marches, a collection of city-states situated in the eastern region of Thedas. You'll spend most of your time running around the city of Kirkwall as Hawke, a survivor of the Darkspawn invasion who has sought refuge in the distant location. The Darkspawn threat is still very real, but the story is much more focused on Hawke and his family, following the would-be hero as s/he establishes a new life.
The narrative in "Dragon Age 2" unfolds in retrospect as a story told by one of the hero's companions after the fact. The framing device helps keep the lengthy 10-year arc focused on what matters, zeroing in on key moments of Hawke's rise in the Kirkwall community. Each "act" of the story raises the stakes in terms of your impact on the world around you, but there's never one over-arching, world-saving goal laid out for you. In many ways, "Dragon Age 2" feels like it lays the groundwork for a much bigger story to come, and it's a hell of a ride getting to that point.
Stop and Smell the Sidequests
As expected, there are dozens of secondary tasks for you to accomplish as you establish yourself in Kirkwall. A good portion of those are simply character interactions with your party members, who are also very well-written and voice acted. What's cool about many of the other sidequests is how they interweave with the main story thread. The game's first section, for example, finds your hero taking on a variety of side jobs as s/he works to earn enough money to help fund a treasure-hunting expedition into the Deep Roads.
The Thrill of Combat
The pace of the combat in "Dragon Age 2" is a big improvement over the original game. Your hero moves faster and engages in direct combat, rather than playing out a series of queued up commands. You can still pause the action, flip through your four party members and issue orders, but the amped-up pace keeps things more exciting.
BioWare is great about tweaking minor mechanics the enhance the overall flavor of the experience, and this is very much in evidence in "Dragon Age 2." Conversations now employ a layout that is similar to what is seen in "Mass Effect 2," with a couple of words hinting at the overall tone of your character's response. In an effort to make possible responses clearer, there are now visual icons coupled with each response which reveal the tone, be it combative, sarcastic/joking, questioning, friendly or the like. Inventory management has also been streamlined somewhat with companion-specific upgradeable armor. If you are a warrior and you find a powerful mage's robe, you can just sell it since no one in your game will be able to wear it. Character progression is similarly streamlined, with a series discrete ability trees catering to different play styles replacing the previous game's more standard list format.
While BioWare games continue to set a standard for top-shelf interactive storytelling, they also continue to shuffle along with middling visuals. In fairness, the quality of the narrative and the performances within it do a great job of selling the whole package. The blemishes remain, however. Character models move stiffly and are lacking in detail, environments are mostly static and non-interactive. The in-conversation, "dynamic," camera continues to favor very basic shot-reverse shot editing like so many BioWare games of old.
The abundance of recycled interiors in "Dragon Age 2" is, frankly, more than a little surprising. There's obviously going to be some shared characteristics between locations when you're spending most of your time in a single city, but it goes overboard here. Maps are flat-out reused again and again, with variety coming from different doors and pathways being locked or blocked off. Since you're already spending a lot of time revisiting the same locations, having to explore identical maps in any potentially fresh ones is unfortunate.
"Dragon Age 2" is an imperfect beast, but a beast all the same. If you liked the first outing then you want to play this game, simple as that. For any shortfalls, the gameplay itself is exceedingly entertaining while the story keeps you always pushing to learn more. It's easy to call out BioWare for the usual faults, but it's much more constructive to simply sit back and appreciate the achievements: "Dragon Age 2" adds another chapter to a rich fictional universe and is a total improvement over its predecessor. That's all you really need to know.