Upon its release in 2009, Dragon Age: Origins split opinion somewhat. On the one hand, a lot of people considered it a triumph thanks to its almost-perfect balance of old-school, beardy RPG number-crunching and the kind of shameless sex ‘n’ blood fantasy rarely seen since the glory days of Robert E. Howard. Others were less impressed, however, bemoaning a slightly shoddy graphics engine and a lack of imagination in the game design (Elves and Dwarves and Dragons and yawn, etc…). Having learned lessons from the comfortably-warm reception of Mass Effect in 2008 and the crazy hot love showered upon its sequel a few years later, Bioware put Origins under a similar hammer and set about making it more accessible (much), less geeky (slightly), but just as enjoyable.
Beginning shortly after the destruction of Lothering, an event that happens off-screen in the original, the story of Dragon Age 2 charts the rise to power of Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall. A Ferelden refugee fleeing the Blight with his family (I’ll use “he” to avoid confusion, even though you can be as female as you like), Hawke arrives in Kirkwall and immediately sets about making a name for himself with the various criminal cartels around the city. A little while later, a terrible storm at sea shipwrecks a few hundred Qunari warriors and leaves them stranded in Kirkwall – tensions consequently begin to rise, creating an increasingly warlike atmosphere on the streets.
Told in flashback by a Dwarven rogue named Varric as he is interrogated by saucy Chantry Seeker, Cassandra, the story – in typically-Bioware fashion – is one of the strongest elements of the game. Moving inexorably towards a civil war between Mages and Templars, the plot gathers pace and slows down where appropriate, leaving room along the way for the occasional twist (one in particular will actually make you gasp) and a great many set-pieces.
The combat has been redesigned, allowing more direct control over the characters. On lower difficulty settings early in the game, this basically amounts to button-mashing – but once you unlock some of the many skills and switch to a more tactical style it becomes far more satisfying. Special talents and spells are still mapped to the face buttons as they are in Origins, and although the crafting system has changed, it’s still possible to apply poisons and runes to your weaponry for that extra edge in battle.
Characterisation is just as important here as in the previous game. Whether dealing with Isabela, the promiscuous and deadly ship captain briefly encountered in Origins (she teaches the Warden the Duelist specialty), or the escaped, Mage-hating former-slave Fenris, interaction really feels as though it makes a difference. Doing away with the stale gift-giving mechanic of its forebear, DA2 installs a Friendship/Rivalry meter instead. Every major decision and opinion you give voice to in the presence of your party members will either endear them to you or turn them against you. The clever part is that it’s no longer as clean-cut as before – for instance, a maximum rivalry won’t necessarily prompt the character to sod off or challenge you for leadership. Instead, it may affect the story in sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle ways. It’s hard to cite an example without spoilers, but suffice to say it feels as though every decision you make has weight behind it. Additionally, every character has a unique speciality tree on their Abilities page, containing (amongst the other skills) two passive abilities unlockable only by achieving full friendship or rivalry with said individual. Unlike Origins, only Hawke can learn specialties like Reaver or Templar, one at level seven and one at fourteen.
Pre-release PR blurb almost had gamers tricked into believing they’d be seeing a title far graphically-superior to the first game, which turns out not to be true: this is still slightly rough around the edges – characters occasionally move like ventriloquist dummies when they talk, there’s still an occasional bad texture, annoying spate of pop-up or leg-stuck-in-a-wall collision problems. On the whole, if I'm honest, the improvements are visible and that’s more than adequate – it’s just a shame it doesn’t look better given how beautiful a great deal of Mass Effect 2 is. Hiring a voice actor to provide spoken lines for Hawke was a masterstroke, though, adding a whole new level to the protagonist. Able to communicate properly without looking like a mannequin is a definite bonus, and Hawke is such a wonderfully droll guy or gal (with more than a hint of a certain Commander Shepard) that it almost makes up for the fact that you can no longer select your race or background before you start.
If there is a single genuine criticism I can level at Dragon Age 2, it’s that by confining around eighty-percent of the game to Kirkwall’s various districts, it loses a great deal of the world-sweeping grandeur seen in Origins. And although you can transfer your save file, the changes are mostly cosmetic, only truly affecting the outside world – that is, the news that filters into Kirkwall throughout the story – as opposed to directly affecting Hawke’s rise to power. There are some familiar faces dotted around the city and her outskirts which do well to create a bridge between this game and its predecessor, but if not for the setting this could essentially be a stand-alone game. Quite how Bioware will approach the inevitable third instalment is a mystery – and quite why they never fully followed up on that fantastically-tantalising “Morrigan’s baby carrying the seed of an Archdemon” storyline from Origins is beyond this reviewer.
Remaining faithful to, and improving upon, the original in equal measure, Dragon Age 2 is a fantastic game in its own right. Purists will hanker after the more PC-centric combat and party micro-management of the original, whilst others will embrace the new combat system and more personable protagonist; not to mention the redesigned races (the Qunari now look MEAN), improved graphics and stacks of new gear. The game world may feel smaller, but in my opinion that makes the story that much more personal – this is Thedas as rinsed through the Normandy’s laundry room, an epic quest that is far more about the charismatic, devil-may-care leader than generic armies clashing on a distant battlefield. Bloodier, muddier and cleverer than Origins, this is a story as much about Kirkwall as about Hawke, a stepping stone setting up what I can only imagine will be one hell of a conflict in the threequel. Perhaps above all, though, it’s still the most fun you can have with dragons without being eaten alive.