Developers crafting the sequel to a hit game must walk a delicate tightrope, changing enough to keep the game from looking like a rehash while ensuring it stays true to the qualities that made its predecessor excellent. BioWare only had partial success balancing those demands in Dragon Age II. While it does improve on components of Dragon Age: Origins, it also inexplicably takes steps backward.
Players control a human named Hawke, customizable as male or female. The game picks up near the beginning of Dragon Age: Origins, with Hawke’s family fleeing the Blight in Ferelden after the disastrous Battle Of Ostagar, and joining a flood of refugees arriving at the city of Kirkwall. A year passes, the action of Origins is over, and Hawke is left to make a name and gather familial support funds in a foreign and often hostile city.
Dragon Age II’s changes to combat are largely positive. Graphics are sharper throughout the game, but most notably in combat, where all classes are now capable of showy displays. Classes have also become much more balanced than in Origins, where the best strategy was typically to pack as many mages as possible into your party. Unfortunately, BioWare seems to want to force players to admire the visuals. You can’t zoom out to get a view of the whole combat nearly as far as you could in Origins, so setting up area attacks is trickier. Fights are still challenging, but not as brutal as in Origins. While you’ll still want to tab between your characters to issue orders for tougher battles, you can sometimes just let them run on set tactics and watch things play out.
Origins was an epic fantasy, taking your protagonist to far-off lands in search of allies to defeat an encroaching doom. Dragon Age II keeps things on a smaller scale. Almost all the action takes place in Kirkwall, with your party wandering between the uncreatively named Hightown, Lowtown, and Darktown, solving problems like tracking down NPCs’ lost family members and stopping criminal activity. While some quests seem to have no meaning beyond providing extra money and experience points, the best of them give inklings of deeper plots or better insights into your nuanced and often highly entertaining companions. Those insights are necessary, because Dragon Age II doesn’t have nearly as many opportunities to chat with your party as Origins. Talking to them on the streets just provides a stock response rather than triggering a scene with plenty of dialogue options. For more in-depth chats, you’ll have to visit them at their homes.
That’s a strange choice, since dialogue is so plentiful elsewhere. Your party members will idly chat with each other as you travel, and chime in to voice their opinions when you talk with NPCs. While the protagonist in Origins was silent, Hawke speaks often, just one of the many characters with excellent voice acting. Dialogue options are clearly labeled with the tone you want Hawke to express, from aggressive to romantic to funny. Interactions can be shaped by these decisions, your party composition, and even the decisions you made playing Origins, with people referencing the state in which you left the world. Characters from the first game make cameos and even become playable party members. They’re worthy tributes to the series’ genesis, but serve as reminders of Origins’ strengths. Dragon Age II is a great game, but it could have been better had it kept more of Origins’ strong points.