At the beginning of 2010, it was hard to imagine that Mass Effect 2 would feature quite so heavily in so many people’s Game of the Year round-ups. The first game was decent, but still a little disappointing. The sequel, however, was a masterpiece - a perfect combination of sci-fi RPG and third-person shooter that made you care about the characters, care about the universe, and enjoy every second of the plot.
The hope as we came to Dragon Age 2 was that Bioware might manage the same trick with this sequel too. Dragon Age: Origins was a solid RPG, but disappointing by Bioware’s high standards; too loose, too flabby, too slow, too unpolished to build the audience that its harsh fantasy world and back-story deserved. Sadly, we don’t always get what we wish for. Dragon Age 2 is a brave RPG, and one that shows Bioware has understood what went right in Mass Effect 2, but it’s not one of the all-time greats. It’s a smarter, tighter game than some critics give it credit for, but there’s still a slight feeling that, whether you’re a hardcore RPG fan or the sort of mainstream gamer that Bioware is clearly trying to attract, this isn’t 100 per cent what you wanted.
Credit where credit’s due. Bioware has taken a different approach to the one taken by most fantasy RPGs, and to some extent it’s paid off. Instead of the classic clichéd story - novice adventurer seeks party, goes on epic quest to save the world - we get a tale told in noir-ish flashbacks of a refugee from the first game’s apocalyptic Blight, who ends up with his family as an anonymous immigrant in the free city of Kirkwall. The first part of the game is effectively a rags-to-riches story, which then steadily evolves into a tale of great power, great responsibility and troubling moral choice. Playing out over a decade, Dragon Age 2 can still feel less epic in scope than its predecessor - not to mention the likes of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Baldur’s Gate - but in a lot of ways it’s more ambitious, but just more subtle. The big themes and the big character arcs are all there, but it all accumulates piece by piece instead of coming on in one huge sweep.
Bioware has also been brave in the way it's transformed or even jettisoned so many elements of the classic fantasy RPG. As in Mass Effect, we now have a named hero or heroine - Hawke - and start the game as a hero, though your class, your skills and your character will be defined by the choices you make before you start the game, and the choices you make as you play through it. You still recruit members to your party and select which you wish to accompany you, but your choices over their weapons and armour are limited, and fans of party-based RPGs might feel that there’s less control.
The reason for this is simple: Bioware has not so much tinkered with how combat works in Dragon Age 2, as junked the old system and replaced it with something completely different. Instead of picking targets and attacks in a sort of pseudo-real time, pausing to switch control of party members and essentially selecting and watching your moves, Dragon Age 2 now has combat moves which work a lot more like those in an action RPG. Melee attacks and special moves now involve timing and - let’s be honest - a fair spot of button mashing. Magical attacks are either straightforward blasts or carefully aimed artillery strikes.
You can still pause the action, flick to another character, issue them a move or stay command or set them to attack, but it’s not really the way the game feels designed to work. There are times when you will need to fight in this way, but in many cases it’s more about setting tactical options for the members, using your hero to fight in real-time, and switching to another character when they’re in danger or when you see an opportunity for a specific attack or skill. It’s more action-packed, but there’s no question that some of the RPG faithful will be muttering about “dumbing down” and suggesting that if they wanted this sort of thing, they’d play Fable 3 before gargling down some bleach.
Personally, we’d argue that this streamlining makes the game more exciting and more accessible to a wider audience. What’s more, it also allows you to concentrate on the game’s strengths: engaging characters, good interactive dialogue, strong cinematic presentation and a whole fistful of interesting plots and sub-plots. However, even here Dragon Age 2 has its share of problems.
We’ll gloss over some of the minor issues - the odd charmless or dislikeable party member, the way the smuggler, Isabella, has become an innuendo-spouting vixen seemingly designed to encourage 14-year-old boys to soldier on (save your energy, chaps, the “sexy bit” is already on YouTube if you look). What we can’t gloss over is that long stretches of Dragon Age 2 are, to be honest, a little bit dull.
It’s the setting that does it. As any fan of fantasy books will know, it’s perfectly possible to base a novel or a whole series of novels in and around a single city. Fritz Lieber was doing it in the 60s, and Terry Pratchett, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie are still pulling off the same trick now. Games can manage it too, whether they’re fantasy titles (the Thief series) or not (Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed III). To make it work, though, you’ve got to have a city with real personality, some illusion of a bustling population, a range of districts and a lot of interesting architecture. This is where Dragon Age 2 falls down.
You’re not stuck in Kirkwall for the whole game, of course. There are excursions to the mountains and the coastline around the town, plus a grand expedition to the cursed “deep paths” once you’ve pushed your way through the first big chunk of quests. You do spend a lot of time in Kirkwall, however, and it’s just not that fascinating or believable a town. NPCs are few and far between, hanging around their usual posts during the day and mostly tucked safely up in bed at night. The urban scenery has its moments, but a lot of it looks lazy or generic, low on detail and short on period charm. And while the game’s myriad plotlines do produce an effective sense of a society with real conflicts and real turmoil, you don’t get this sense just from wandering around. Compared to Rome in Assassin’s Creed III or even The Imperial City in Oblivion, Kirkwall is dullsville, Tennessee. And when you’re moving from Hightown to Lowtown to The Docks to The Gallows for the umpteenth time, visiting the same mountain tracks or thug-packed warehouses once more, it all begins to feel a little samey.
That the game survives this is testament to what is so good about it. The quests are consistently involving, and the feeling that everything you do matters, not just to you but to your companions and the world at large, helps give each episode a significance it might not otherwise have. In the end, this is a game that hooks you slowly, rewarding you with great little moments, some lovable characters and some brilliant snatches of dialogue if you’re in the right place with the right people at the right time. It is not, however, one that grabs you by the collar and drags you through, in the style of Oblivion or Mass Effect 2.
It’s also frustrating that Dragon Age 2 still doesn’t have the technical polish of Bioware’s other big game. On the console version tested, the character models and the presentation of the cutscenes are a vast improvement on Dragon Age: Origins, but they’re still not up to the benchmark-setting standard of Mass Effect 2, and some of the architecture, the dungeons and the textures used harken back to the days of Neverwinter Nights 2, or maybe before. In 2011, we’ve come to expect a whole lot more than that.
The hardest thing about playing Dragon Age 2 is that it sets itself up as a streamlined, blockbuster thriller of an RPG, only to bog you down in the city that doesn’t just sleep - it barely wakes up. Give it time, however, and the pieces start to come together, producing an RPG that’s still as immersive and compelling as they come. We’ll have our fingers crossed that Dragon Age 3 manages to combine what works about this game with what worked in Dragon Age: Origins - perhaps with a bit of Mass Effect magic dust sprinkled on top. For now, however, this is just not the best Dragon Age we know that Bioware can make.