Mass Effect 2 sure has a lot to answer for. The term ‘game changer’ is bandied around so often by people both inside and outside the videogame industry these days, that it has almost completely lost all of its meaning. With that in mind, Bioware’s aforementioned 2010 masterpiece did truly warrant that very description, and it has inarguably changed the rules (and broadened the fanbase) of the RPG genre forever. The pre-release buzz surrounding Dragon Age II has been uncommonly strong, and this is primarily because it is rumoured to be a Mass Effect 2-style shake-up; and a significant forward step for a youthful series that some felt needed exactly that.
So is Dragon Age II as incredible a videogame as Mass Effect 2 was? Well, the answer is definitely (and inevitably) no; but it comes far closer than you probably expected, and a great deal of this feeling comes down to the fact that it has been streamlined in a very similar fashion. The inventory, conversation and skill-set management systems have been stripped back, with circular dialogue menus (that mimic those seen in ME2) being the most notable alteration. You’re now able to make your way across sizeable distances at the touch of a button rather then being forced to traverse them on foot, and the simplified hack-n-slash bent of the combat means that you’re spared the punishing difficulty of the first game.
Dragon Age II is much more like a third person action game in this respect, with Origins‘ complex tactical combat scheme resigned to the dustbin. A single face button is mapped to your primary default weapon, with the other three being used to utilise special attacks and class-specific abilities. One of your trigger buttons functions as a modifier, which proves to be an invaluable tool in the heat of the busier and more intense battles, as it allows you lightning-fast access to another three abilities. Friendly fire is now disabled by default (unless you decide to ramp up the difficulty anyway) and although you can ignore it at first, you’ll need to toy with cross-class attack combos during the game’s later stages, regardless of which difficulty tier you’re using.
The quality of both the plot and the dialogue is similarly comparable to ME2. Dragon Age II‘s story may be slightly slower, less sprawling and less grandiose than the one that powered the original game, and the fact that your character isn’t a mute this time is a change that some hardened RPG nuts may dislike intensely, but the plot is spun in a very inventive tale-within-a-tale fashion, with the overarching parable being spun by a captive (and rather loose-lipped) dwarf named Varric. The traits of your character Hawke (a man who fled Ferelden during the events that unfolded in Origins, and is apparently destined to eventually become the fabled ‘Champion of Kirkwall’) can be dynamically shaped in similar ways to those of Commander Shepherd, but unlike in Origins, you can select his class and appearance but not a great deal else.
And given that the added interest in this sequel may have caused fans to worry that it was likely to have taken a more mainstream path with regard to its visual approach, in actuality nothing could be further from the truth. The game’s world of Thedas is still as dank and foreboding as ever, and the ever-presence of blood – which, after a battle, will still be completely caking your face in the following cutscene – is, if anything, even more gleefully excessive. There are also a small selection of very welcome nods to everyone who played the the first game too; with some familiar faces showing up, often with a few clever words to say about the world that you’d previously left behind.
The quests are of a consistently high standard and the level of variety is admirable; comments that could also be made about the wonderful soundtrack. The new dynamic lighting effects create vistas that are frequently astounding to look at, and although you will come across the odd area that isn’t blessed with the sharpest of textures, these moments don’t emerge very frequently at all. As great as Dragon Age II looks though, perhaps the best thing about it is that it’s more than engaging and exciting enough to make this kind of genre and this kind of world (steadfastly Tolkien-inspired as it is) distinctly appealing to audiences who would never previously have shown any interest in either. And that’s nothing if not massively impressive.
Watch the Dragon Age II trailer here: