Alright, let’s get two questions out of the way first of all.
Is Dragon Age 2 better than Dragon Age: Origins?
No, not quite (in my opinion)
Is Dragon Age 2 a good game?
Yes, very much so.
In DA:2 you play as Hawke, a Fereldan fleeing Lothering with his or her family as the Blight ravages everything in its path (the beginning of the game takes place near the end of the previous one). With the help of a familiar witch you scarper to Kirkwall, a city within the Free Marches that was once a central part of the Tevinter slave trade, and once there discover that most of Ferelden has had the same idea, and you are now one of thousands of refugees from your home.
The game then takes you through around ten years of Hawke’s life, as you scratch out a living as a mercenary and a smuggler and eventually become one of Kirkwall’s biggest cheeses. There is a nice framing device whereby one of your companions, Varric, tells your story to a mysterious and grumpy Chantry woman, so that what we have really is a story within a story. Over the years Hawke has to deal with rising tensions between the people of Kirkwall and a band of Qunari visitors (huge and horned in this game, and even terser than in Origins) and the near outright war that is building between the city’s Circle Mages, led by First Enchanter Orsino, and the Templars, headed by the quite frankly very scary Knight Commander Meredith. In between these major challenges Hawke must also find time to explore the Deep Roads, slay some dragons, romance some companions and, quite often, return a lot of lost property. After many hours of jolly death-dealing, everything comes to a head between the Templars and the Mages and Hawke must make some decisions that will change the fate of all of Thedas.
Inevitably, DA:2 will be compared to Origins, and there are a number of ways in which it doesn’t quite live up to the earlier game.
The first and most obvious is what I have decided to call Epicness of Story. It just isn’t as, well… epic. In Origins you play the Grey Warden, an unknown warrior with a variety of turbulent pasts who is drafted into an order he or she knows very little of, and finds his or herself thrown right into the middle of an upcoming war against the Darkspawn. However, at your very first battle the Grey Wardens are betrayed by the King’s most trusted general, and they are all slaughtered, along with the king and lots of other hapless soldiers. You and one other recruit survive and must gather the forces of Thedas together to beat the Horde… You see, there is just so much at stake in Origins that you cannot help but feel heroic as you selflessly patch up the political problems of the Dwarf nobles, or sort out the Elves’ werewolf situation, when all the while the FATE OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY rests on your shoulders. You become the driving force behind a number of armies, you face down the Archdemon itself, and then you kick its arse all over the shop. It’s not for nothing that you are proclaimed the Hero of Ferelden at the end of the game.
DA:2 is on a much smaller scale, which is perhaps understandable. Bioware have mentioned that they didn’t want to go over old ground with the sequel, so another struggle against the Blight with an even bigger Archdemon with, like, two heads, was out of the question. It is a more intimate tale, a story about one woman’s life and how her decisions change everything (and they really do, by the end of the game), which makes for an immersive game with lots of lovely moments. However, what it lacks is an “Ostagar” moment- the point in the original game where you realise everything has gone tits up and you’re in for a tremendous and excitingly dangerous adventure. DA:2 does have a whole series of brilliant “WTF?” moments in the last hour of the game, which I cannot praise highly enough, but I wish there had been something like that in the first hour.
The other big change from the first game was choice. In Origins, you could choose between a variety of beginnings and races (hence the title) so that your character could have a different background each time you played it, within reason. People would treat you differently depending on who you were and where you were from, so, for example, if you were a human noble you would get a reasonable amount of respect from toadying posh people and could potentially end the game by becoming Queen (and marrying the lovely Alistair) but if you were a city elf, you were regarded with suspicion and derision by the same people. Not only that, your choices about who to aid and who to layeth the smacketh upon changed the outcome of the game, and the shape of your final battle.
DA:2, by telling the story of one character, has limited your choices somewhat. Not that this is an entirely bad thing; Hawke is a great character who can be played a number of different ways (more of that when I talk about the dialogue) and she has an excellent and interesting story. However, when it was initially announced that DA:2 would feature a single character and that you could only play a human, there was some grumbling resentment from the fans, and it does still feel like we are missing out a little.
My last big grumble about the game is simply about its length. While there is certainly plenty to do, it suffers slightly I think from not having as many places to explore. Kirkwall is gorgeous and varied and interesting, and the Wounded Coast looks hauntingly grim, but you don’t get to explore much outside of that. My first play through took around about 60 hours and that was me being fairly completist about it all, and I could have quite happily had another 20 hours or so on top of that, even if it were just sidequests and finding swords for people. I want these games to get bigger as they go along, not smaller.
But that’s enough about the stuff I wasn’t happy with. It’s very easy to pick holes in something without mentioning all the glorious stuff that was exactly right, and a joy to play. There are also a number of ways in which DA:2 is a distinct improvement on the original game, after all.
Most obviously, there’s the graphics. Origins took a lot of stick in some quarters for some slightly unconvincing body movements in cut scenes and so on. Personally, I thought the game was beautiful, with exactly the right sort of atmosphere for an epic fantasy game. There are moments and places that stick out as being especially effective; the aforementioned battle at Ostagar, Lothering with its bleak skies, the mighty halls of Orzammer, Denerim aflame… DA:2 has kept the atmosphere of the original game whilst making the environments and character designs sharper, more stylised and around 97% more sexy. In some cases, such as the Elves and Qunari, they have almost entirely redesigned their forms, making both species less human and more otherworldly, which I think works really well. The gore is more impressive and you can see it better mid-battle, and action cut-scenes look fabulous (particularly lovely is Flemeth’s first appearance in the game- I immediately wanted an action figure).
The gameplay is a lot smoother and faster, so that, as Bioware promised, “When you press a button, something awesome happens.” I especially enjoyed playing as a Rogue when “evade” and “backstab” cause you to back-flip away from the action, and then disappear in a puff of smoke to reappear behind your enemies with a brutal stabbity motion- SO much fun. There’s all the usual stuff about tactics which I, as a classic button-bashing player largely ignore, but what I did use of it worked perfectly well. Leveling up and gaining your swish new abilities is also less of a chore, as the new “tree” system means you have a bit more choice about where you invest your points.
The dialogue in DA:2 has also undergone a number of changes for the better. Hawke now has a voice, which lends more meaning and emotional impact to your conversations. I personally found the female Hawke’s voice to be ever so slightly too posh (I kept expecting her to trill, “ Just off down the King’s Road darling, need to pick up some of that balsamic, yah?”) but that is really a personal preference, and male Hawke’s voice is spot on. The dialogue choices now have little symbols next to them letting you know if Hawke is about to be diplomatic, flirty, or aggressive, as well as other options. This helps you to guide your character into acting a certain way, and I have even found on my second play through that the more often I choose the “funny” dialogue option, the more likely Hawke is to make quips and change other, unchooseable dialogue later on- I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining this, as it’s something you would only notice having played the game twice. It is bloody clever and adds a whole new layer of interest to your replays.
DA:2 also features some great characters, particularly the two whom I thought I would like the least. Isabella, the saucy pirate you meet briefly in Origins, makes a hilarious and sexy companion, who continually comes out with the kind of deeply rude dialogue you would have been hearing from Oghren in the first game. Her “magical fisting” conversation is a favourite. And there is Fenris, the bishy elf with white hair and lyrium tattoos who looks like he may have wandered in from an anime filming next door. Seeing the initial screengrabs of Fenris I assumed I would find him ever so slightly daft, with the fringe and the glowing tattoos and everything, but they have pulled a masterstroke here by making Fenris the angry unstable one, and by giving him the most incredibly deep voice. Honestly, Fenris’s voice must reverberate on the same level as oestrogen or something because as soon as he started sulking about all over the place, shouting “I am no slave!” and throwing wine bottles against walls, I suddenly started taking him very seriously indeed. Well done Bioware for managing to make elves sexy- I never thought it was possible.
In short, there’s an awful lot about DA:2 that is enormous fun, and I certainly enjoyed it. I even went through that weird obsessive period where I can literally think of nothing else, just as I did with the first game. The last couple of hours, where the shit really hits the fan and all demonic hell breaks loose are exciting and genuinely full of shocks- I won’t say too much about it because I wouldn’t want to accidently spoil anyone but there is a moment when you could merrily throttle one of your companions, and even though you should be at least vaguely prepared by the character’s motivations it is still quite a shocking moment. All in all I loved this game, from the first sight of the Twins to the inevitable slaughter of the finale, and if you are a fan of the Dragon Age games at all, then I guarantee that the very last few minutes will have you clamouring for DA:3. So much intrigue!