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Dragon Age 2 review – a worthy successor to the original – things that could use improvement

After completing a playthrough (34 hours), I have to say, I’m impressed. It’s tough to mention all the stuff that made me go “wow, that was awesome“, because most of it involves spoilers, and I’d rather not diminish that feeling from anyone reading this.

I’ll sum up the positives by saying that on the surface, it’s a typical BioWare game, with a great story and huge level of immersion. Your choices have consequences, sometimes immediate and other times, in the future. For someone who’s never played a BioWare game, it’s similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books some may have read when they were younger. Or for the non-book-readers, has aspects similar to the movie “The Butterfly Effect”. Your choices change what happens, for better or for worse. It’s all wrapped in a cinematic, fully voiced story. Ever watched a TV show or movie and thought “if the main character did this instead of that, imagine how things would have turned out!?” In BioWare games, you’re the main character, and you’re making those decisions. And yes, the consequences will change.

On top of that, it’s a new game engine with a polished UI. DA:O (and Awakening) didn’t have that cutting-edge game feel to them. The epic story was the saving grace. In DA2, the game looks and feels stunning. The combat’s got a quicker pace to it, with nice visual effects. It feels a little less like a chess game, and a little more like a high-pace shootout. You can still play tactically if you want, pausing and issuing orders (you’ll need to at higher difficulties), but for a typical player, you can treat the combat like an action-RPG.

That said, there’s so much awesome in it, that rather than spew out all the positive changes (and there are many improvements over the original Origins), I’ll focus on the things that could still use some improvement. I’ve tried to leave out Dragon Age II spoilers, but there’s a small degree of spoilage from the original Dragon Age Origins and Awakening. It’s color-coded:
Red means it really annoys me.
Orange means I’ve got some strong feelings about it.
Green means it’s probably not as big a deal as I’ve made it out to be.

Companion Gear – While I really love what was done with the companion base gear (changed to an upgradeable companion-specific armor), I wish rings/trinkets/waistbands had something similar. I still end up with way too many rings in my inventory and spent too much time sifting through companions to make sure they have what’s best. I suppose BioWare might have only gone half-far so as not to alienate the people who love customizing their companions, but this is something that should probably be 100% one way, or 100% the other way… not half-and-half.

Junk Item inventory – I love this new category (and the “sell all junk” button), but I’d prefer it if gear that nobody can wear ended up here too. Specifically I’m talking about stuff like chestpieces… if I’m a warrior, nobody can wear any mage chestpieces (since my mage companions have their own stuff), so I’d prefer if it went straight to junk by default. The saving grace is that it’s dead-easy to move stuff to junk with a right-click while I’m equipping items, making for a 5-second stop at the vendor to quickly dump everything I don’t want.

Set bonus clarification – Everything in Dragon Age II has a better description… talents, abilities…. everything except for the item set bonuses. I’d heard it was supposed to be more clear about these, but I sure didn’t come across it. It’s either not there, not clear, or too hard to find.

Tactics screen navigation – The new interface for everything is amazing, but it doesn’t translate well to the tactics screen. You could navigate through the Origins tactics pretty easily to see what all is there. In DA2, you’re constantly clicking “back” unless you know exactly which trees to follow. That said, I won’t be too hard on this oversight… the increased tactics slots, and certain conditions (STAGGARED, etc) in the tactics are aweseome.

Default tactics – Particularly with casters, and this is an Origins carryover…. As an example of the problem, when I set a mage as a healer, I want them to prioritize healing, but use ALL the damage/control/etc spells at their disposal. Why else would I have given them those extra talents? Yet they don’t. Certain spells/abilities will never be used with certain tactics. The only way to have everything used is to create custom tactics. I’m not sure why this is… if it’s mana concerns (a risk that your healer burns out all their mana on DPS and doesn’t have anything left to heal with), having a built-in condition set where they won’t DPS once their mana drops below 25% or 50% would solve it. Alternately, a few more default tactics would work. Something like “Balanced (focus-healing)” and “Balanced (focus-controller)” would be alright.

Nowhere to equip all your characters – In Origins, you could access the inventory of all your characters at camp. There’s nowhere to do this anymore though, so if you want to upgrade weapons or jewelry on your companions, you have to take them out a few at a time, upgrade, go back, take out the new characters, go back, etc.

Loot delay – It’s massively improved. Insanely improved actually. It’s still there though. Kill a wave of enemies, and they might not be lootable for a few seconds.

Bugs – They’re few (fortunately we didn’t get a repeat of the nightmare known as Awakening), but I still hit a quest that wasn’t completable, and a couple quests that claimed they could be done but couldn’t until another trigger took place. I also had a companion conversation that obviously triggered hours later than it should have. That’s the stuff that should be ironed out in QA. The other bug I hit was a delay/freeze periodically during cutscenes, where I’d miss 10-15 seconds of what was happening, though to be fair I suppose this might only affect certain systems (hopefully it’s quashed in a patch though). On the plus side, I had 0 crashes throughout an entire playthrough of DA 2 – something that was impossible in Origins and Awakening.

Unobvious quests – there are a couple places where side-quests can show up (certain boards, NPC’s, and clearing certain areas), where you don’t find out until/unless you check. This is a different situation from Origins – in DA 2 you’re largely travelling across the same areas multiple times (as opposed to Origins where you were travelling across different areas very few times and things like the chanters board or mage bag were available in multiple locations). It’s incredibly time consuming to completely walk through 7+ locations once during the day, again during the night, and then repeat that during the next act just to make sure you don’t miss anything. A cure would perhaps be an additional Side-side quest that says “it’s been awhile since you walked through ____ ¬†at day/night, and there are reports of sinister activities should you wish to check them out”, or NPC’s that say “I just saw a new notice going up at ____ board. I wonder what _____ wants?”. Really, any indication that avoids having to trial/error every location would be nice.

Overhead map views that don’t change – I don’t mind that locations were reused multiple times – it saves having to completely explore a new-but-similar area over and over again to ensure you don’t miss anything. Blocking off portions through doors to make it a bit different is fine with me too. However, I HATE that the overhead map still shows the un-open portion as available. It’s like a slap-in-the-face-reminder that “OH BY THE WAY THIS IS A REUSED LOCATION”. It’s even a bit immersion breaking. The cure? There’s 1 major location that changes during the game and has the overhead map “fizzle out” the now-inaccessible area – do the same with all the reused locations. It’s just an overhead map, and shouldn’t take an awful lot of time.

Healing talents – let’s be honest, there aren’t a lot. The DA2 talent overhaul is awesome, but there isn’t a lot for healers to do. You have 1 direct heal on a massive cooldown (no HoT’s). Maybe a group heal (on a long cooldown) if you content to enable a mode that doesn’t really let you do anything else. In DA:O, Wynne was pretty awesome. Healing, buffing, casting spells that restore mana/energy, and casting DPS spells in between. Healers in DA2 are a bit bland. The only benefit they get over a non-healer are that they have the group heal. Honestly, your best option is taking one of the mages with a healing tree and using them as DPS (micro-ing them when you need the group heal), or simply taking a DPS class and giving them the single-heal. There’s no real difference.

Journal/Inventory/Character buttons – they’re tiny,out of the way, and on the right now. Not terribly easy to use (compared to Origins where they were large, at the top, and easy to see/use. I suspect at this point, most people will either hit escape, or use hot-keys.

One thing I would have preferred to see would have been more, smaller acts as opposed to the few larger ones. As I mentioned in the beginning, I completed the game in 34 hours, but some acts actually felt a bit long. I suppose if I’d skipped the many sidequests it would have felt really quick, but since the sidequests are tied to each act and can’t be done later, I didn’t want to miss any of them.

Compare DA2’s 34 hours of game time to Origins where my playthrough took something in the neighborhood of 100 hours, and you’ll see that Origins gave more entertainment-time per dollar. Though even Origins started to feel a bit long, the portions were well spread out.

My hope is that they add further acts in the form of DLC or expansions. I’d be a little dismayed if new DLC simply made the current acts longer, but would certainly be willing to shell out money for content that advances the game further.

Honestly, despite the things I took issue with, I’d give the game a 9.5 out of 10.

I tend to enjoy the BioWare level of storytelling though, with VO, cinematics, and with choices that have consequences. Other games simply don’t have that level of immersion, that level of defining your character, or that level of determining how the game plays out. Sometimes other games give you a “choice” but the consequences often don’t affect how things turn out. Important to note that my rating takes that story/choice/experience into account. Most of the other stuff (combat, etc) just has to be “good enough” that I’m able to enjoy the BioWare experience. That’s in stark contrast to other game genres where visuals and combat take precedence (FPS’s), or game balance and strategic depth are important (Civilization series). If I were basing DA2 on those types of games, it’d have a mediocre rating (not bad though all things considered).