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Wednesday, 16 March 2011 16:18

Dragon Age II Impressions

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Battling through the latest Bioware RPG offering, Dragon Age II, is proving to be a double edged halberd.

The first game, Dragon Age: Origins was a fully-fledged yet typical RPG title from BioWare, modern masters of the RPG art. 

It was not as accessible, in my opinion as a game such as stable-mate Mass Effect, but for D&D RPG fans, it was a chance to play through a contemporary high quality game with all the trappings of beloved titles from the past, such as Baldars Gate, or Icewind Dale.

The original game brought high acclaim from both critics and the public, and so it is unsurprising that both EA and BioWare were keen to get out the downloadable content, as well as the expansion pack (Awakenings) and now, the sequel quick smart.

Dragon Age II has been further consolefied, BioWare deaf to the bemoaning hoards of PC playing folks, but for me, playing on the Xbox 360, the experience has been streamlined enough to enable the full enjoyment of the writing and action.  Having said that, there are obvious flaws in the game, most likely due to time to market factors.

At this point I am approximately 12 hours into the game, spreading my questing love between main plot and side quests.  Players get the initial choice of playing one of three human roles in either female or male form.   

Even though during play you can opt to take control of any of your team members, playing as Hawke, your chosen character, will be the most tempting.  It is therefore difficult to not recommend playing as a Rogue, leading the party into trap laden areas is the job of the man or women out front, with their abilities to detect and disarm traps, Rogues are the obvious choice.

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The game thus far has centred in and around the city of Kirkwall, with Hawke and family arriving by ship as a refugees only to find out that uncle Gamlin has flittered away the family fortune.  Hawke and sister Bethany and forced into a year's worth of servitude in order to crawl back up the social tree of a city split in two by caste.

Whilst scrounging around in areas such as Lowtown or other city slums, the Templars must be out manoeuvred to avoid Bethany - who is an apostate magic user - from being discovered.

Other party members come in and out of the scene, and it is always advisable to mix up both races and party roles when venturing forth, not only is this good game balance and practice, but it gives you a chance to witness just how much work Bioware has put into the dialogue system.

Strike up a conversation with the HighTown Magistrate about the morals of oppressing magic users for example, and you may be treated to an argument between your own colleagues about the pros or cons of such policies.  Depending on your mix of companions, there are many such delights to be had during the course of the game.

Whilst the dialogue between characters is enjoyable and well written, the overall plot so far has not been particularly engaging.  Hawke is essentially building a team, gathering resources' and planning a greater adventure as part of an expedition. 

Each team member has a 'home' where, when visited, unique dialogue or quests can be initiated, and travelling around town the team can pick up side quests without too much fuss.  The brilliant bit about the majority of these 'little' quests is how the innocuous can become complicated and quite morally grey as time goes on. 

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Whereas similar games might present a quest to locate a lost wife as just that, DA II deepens the mystery to the point where the 'lost' wife turns out to have secrets of her own to cover up, making the ultimate confrontation one of conflicting emotional drawstrings.

Moving about Kirkwall and beyond has been abstracted to an overview 'map' with day/night locations, removing any transit times.  This does mean that the game can boil down to non-engaging map traversal the removes some of the romance.  The biggest flaw in the game however is repeated use of rooms and locations even at different map locations.  It cheapens the experience to wander into the same cavern (with slightly modified exits) that we were in at a completely different location during another quest.

Character development is quite deep on one side of the ledger, requiring specialisation in several trees of skills, depending on the actual character (who might have a whole tree dedicated to their signature weapon for example) or role type.  But on the other side of the ledger, loot is simplified into relatively simple categories, including a system that largely prevents NPC characters from being equipped with chosen armour other than their initial choices.

Combat requires the bashing of one attack button, whilst waiting for various skill cool-downs to expire, but there is still depth in the form of BioWares trademark order giving to other party members as well as the Tactics process, where party members can be given AI routines to follow during an enemy encounter. 

These encounters, which have included large dragons, have thus far proven reasonably unchallenging.  If you are all about story, this is not such a bad thing, but if your engagement is heightened by protracted, strategic exchanges, then there may be some disappointment here. 

Certainly this game wavers more towards third-person action adventure rather than sophisticated role-playing, but only in the same way the excellent Mass Effect 2 did, so there is plenty to enjoy here, Dragon Age II is pleasantly addictive.

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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for iTWire.com, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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