Tightened focus results in one of the best RPGs ever
Like Origins, Dragon Age II is a 50-plus-hour epic with a deep, complex combat system and a well-defined supporting cast. But it also wears its mythology proudly, confident in its goal of charting the rise of a complete and utter badass: you.
The first time you control Hawke—the hero—is in an opening flashback to your family’s escape from the Darkspawn attack on Lothering, which occurred in the first game. Dragon Age: Origins’ free battlefield camera is now gone, but at least the mouse-wheel scroll still grants the zoom you need to see the full field. Pausing, issuing a set of orders, then sitting back and watching the chaos unfold remains a joy that never gets old.
Dragon Age II has restricted the use of a free camera during combat. Outside of this, the progression remains the same: Pause, queue up some orders, and watch the bloodbath.
The story fills in the gap between this flashback battle and a decade later. The world of Thedas has always been a dark one, full of bigotry and fascism. While it felt like the first game missed a huge opportunity by glossing over this, it seems like the game’s designers have finally come to terms with the world they’ve constructed. Dragon Age II has some genuinely dark quest lines driven by moments of tension and tough decisions that not only feel contextual, but will leave you thinking about them.
Nearly all of the game events occur in the city of Kirkwall, which delivers deeper insight into the world’s complex political situation. There’s a constant back-and-forth over conflicting views, and you are free to come down on either side of any given scrap. You’ll talk endlessly with your friends about your decisions—what would have happened if you’d killed person X or saved person Y?
Much like its predecessor, Dragon Age II has no shortage of impressive moments.
You’ll also talk about who they slept with. Did you meet a new party member? Chances are you could have boned them. Thankfully, most of your companions are more enjoyable because their incidental conversations are ruder, funnier, and just plain better.
Combat is rapid and satisfying, but it’s also more intricate than in Origins. Each companion has a set class, but from there, specialization is up to you. Cooldown periods are just as integral as before, but the abilities themselves are now flashier and lightning-fast. New skills and spells exist for every class, but the Rogue class in particular has been revamped to be more combat effective through the use of exploding-flash backstabs, backflips, and more. There’s enough newness that you’ll find yourself consistently rotating your party members. That’s sacrilege in a lot of RPGs, which typically demand a standard party to succeed, but it’s sensible here because everyone’s abilities are so much fun to experiment with and develop.
From what we’d seen leading up to release, we hadn’t anticipated Dragon Age II being much of a traditional or even worthy sequel to Origins. But the interesting design decision to limit the game’s context—the world and the politics—appears to have freed Bioware to fill the series with more character and vitality than any game in recent memory. Is this the best RPG of this decade? Nine more years will tell, but for now, yes.