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Dragon Age II
Score: 70%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Bioware
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Oh, Dragon Age II, I weep for what you could have been...

The graphics in Dragon Age II look quite nice. The first time. However, in what can only have been a cost-cutting measure, several of the area environments ("maps") are reused. A lot. It wouldn't be as bad if the areas were supposed to be the same place, as in "oh, I have another quest in the cave at the top of Sundermount," but this is supposed to be unrelated quests in completely different locations and they reuse a map, with a few doors sealed off so the paths are different. They still look like doors... and they're still doors on the inset map... you just can't actually go through them now... the U.I. doesn't even say "Door" above them, even thought they're clearly doors. They don't even change the textures. That's inexcusable. Moving on.

The music is orchestral and quite nice; I have never found it annoying, and have played almost 60 hours of gameplay, without resorting to listening to my CDs while I play. The music, in fact, not only changes with the action, but does a good job of indicating whether you're in a fight or not - which, sometimes, isn't always obvious, especially at the very beginning or end of a fight.

The character creation is very limited. For one thing, you're a human. Period. You can choose male or female, and you can select between Rogue, Warrior or Mage, which have slightly different appearances. You can also adjust hair color, eye color and a little more, but you're not so much building a character as finishing some final details on the "Hawke" character the story's about. This doesn't work here as well as it seemed to in Mass Effect. There, it was one of the things that defined the game, but here, it just seems limiting.

The chatter and banter that goes back and forth between your party members is part of what made Dragon Age: Origins awesome. It's back again, and some of it is just as awesome, but sometimes it simply misfires. I can't put details here, lest I spoil some plot points, but there were some glitches or simply poorly controlled event / chat timing that should have been cleaned up before the game shipped. One in particular involved a conversation with a companion about people dying... when it hadn't happened yet, and then that same companion asking about what a certain character could possibly be thinking after that companion had killed that character. No, not in a "what is her spirit thinking about in the afterlife," but an honest-to-goodness "It totally just slipped my mind that I killed a lifelong friend... I wonder what she's doing right now?" sort of thing. It went beyond annoying to... shame.

If you're unfamiliar with Dragon Age, it is an awesome RPG that puts you in the role of a hero who basically has to save the world, but not without the assistance of a motley crew of adventurers, each with their own skills, attributes and, well, personality flaws. You control the allocation of attributes and skills for all of these characters, and would choose which ones would be in your party at any given time. You actually had to be careful as to who you took on what quests, as some party members will be against certain quests; if they disagree with your actions, they may abandon you or turn on you. You had to choose wisely and keep up your relationships with these various characters as you went on your journey. This was one of the things that made Dragon Age what it was.

Dragon Age II moved away from some of these very game elements that made Dragon Age interesting. Your actions still affect how the other characters feel about you, but instead of like and dislike, it's friendship and rivalry... and they have smaller overall effect. Furthermore, the amount of "tweaking" characters has been greatly reduced; your character has fewer choices in armor and your companions have a few, scarce, specific upgrades you can find/buy for them. You can still outfit them with accessories (enchanted belts, rings and amulets) and upgrade their weapons, but even that's much more limited than in the original. Certain weapons have one or more slots for "runes," which enchant them with additional powers or modifiers. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could place runes on a weapon, then if you got a better weapon, you could remove the rune and place it on the new weapon or, if you needed to "tweak" your weapon to have more fire damage instead of ice damage, for example, you could swap out the runes on the weapon. In Dragon Age II, the runes can only be used once. Once they've been used, they're permanently bound to the item. This may keep the gameplay moving, but some of us tweakers actually like carefully adjusting what our enchantments are to build up an attack strategy or prepare for an upcoming quest. Basically, any "installed fan base" is likely to be saddened by this change; if you liked Dragon Age, then... this will leave you cold.

This time around, you play a character known as "Hawke," who flees her homeland of Ferelden when it is overrun with evil, destructive creatures known as Darkspawn during a "blight" - a recurring event when these Darkspawn come to the surface, attack surface dwellers, and wreak havoc across the land. As Hawke, you must lead your family to safety, fighting any Darkspawn that stand in your way. Very quickly you'll find yourself up against an Ogre and then overrun with Darkspawn, then just in the knick of time, you will be saved in the unlikeliest of rescues and head to the ex-slavery city of Kirkwall, where your Uncle has an estate. Things aren't quite what you had expected when you arrive at Kirkwall, and you'll have to strike a hard bargain just to get into the city and, from there, to work your way up the food chain. Most of the game takes place in Kirkwall and the immediately surrounding area, as opposed to the greater amount of travel to be found in Dragon Age: Origins. To make up for this, there are two maps of Kirkwall - one for during the day and one for at night. Some quests are day quests, some are night quests and some can be done in either. Additionally, there is a map of the area surrounding Kirkwall, including Sundermount, a mountain where Dalish Elves have set up camp and the Wounded Coast, some meandering islands or peninsulas where you can find a variety of caves and bandits of all types. These maps offer some variety (mountains and isles), but when you venture into a cave, be it on Sundermount or the Wounded Isles, expect to see the same subterranean maps reused. Inexplicable. Truly.

As you proceed on your adventure, the decisions you make affect other events in the game. However, if you end up having to redo things a few times and you try different approaches, it may be shocking how often the dialogue choices you make have no real affect on the way the story progresses. Sometimes this is due to an elegant rebuttle that leads to the same outcome as if you used another approach, while at other times, the character may as well had merely said, "Whatever... I'm going to kill you anyway." The best way to keep up the illusion is to avoid having to redo any of the dialogue trees by keeping the difficulty setting a bit lower.

There are four different difficulty settings in Dragon Age II: Casual, Normal, Hard and Nightmare. For my first run-through, I started on Normal difficulty, but when I got to a tough spot, I dumbed it down to Casual. I can tell you that the game is a blast on Casual, but not much of a challenge, especially if you make good use of your characters' tactics slots. If you're easily frustrated by having to retry failed fights, then Casual will make it a lot easier to progress and experience the story without that frustration.

Furthermore, at any given point in the game, you can change the difficulty level on-the-fly, if you find you need to increase or decrease the difficulty. And, if you get to the point that even on Nightmare difficulty nothing's challenging enough, you can reduce the number of characters in your party. You can have up to four characters (including Hawke), but usually, you could drop down to only Hawke, should you wish to do so. There are some character-specific quests that force you to take a certain character with you, but these are, by far, a minority of the quests.

Game Mechanics:
First the good. Similarly to the original, Dragon Age II has a related Facebook game and, by playing the game on Facebook, you can earn some in-game items. There are also several armors and items you can get if you have a saved game file from other games made by Bioware. The game includes a voucher to unlock The Black Emporium, which is download content with a sticker price of $9.99. Since the code for this ships in the game, it would seem that the only players that won't have access to this content are anyone who rents the game (well, after the first one that gets the paperwork, anyway). Dragon Age II can also import information from your Dragon Age: Origins saved game, but it doesn't seem to affect the story in any large way, as far as I can tell.

While this is an RPG and not a racing game, it appears that there was definitely a behind-the-scenes race to the finish line. Fantasy RPGs are all about adventuring and discovering strange, new areas... well, that and killing the creatures you find there. Dragon Age II, however, uses the same maps (and by maps, I mean entire environment areas) in multiple locations. When you go into one house, you'll get a certain layout. When you find yourself in another house, later, it's the same layout... right down to a large wheel of old cheese that was commented on in one house and just sort of ignored in the other. The worst has to be the underground cave areas, which are used not twice, or thrice, but several times. Enter a cave in a desert isle, you're in that map. Enter a cave on Sundermount... same map, but some of the doors aren't "actually" doors, even though they appear as doors on the map and have visible levers to open them... nope, now they're not functional doors. Another, later quest, in a completely different area has you entering an underground area and it's the same old map, this time with different working doors. While I'm sure this saved a lot of time in development, even a simple change of textures could have made the maps feel slightly different. As it is, if you save your game while in the middle of a quest, when you resume your game later, be prepared to wander around a bit trying to figure out what direction you were going and where you came into the map. The idea of spelunking and discovering new areas is really tarnished by seeing the same landmarks over and over in what's supposed to be different locations. This is unforgivable and really difficult to overlook.

The above mentioned glitch where the game gave itself spoilers of upcoming deaths and then failed to acknowledge the death after the character who gave it away was responsible for the death is a deal-breaker. I vaguely remember some game that was plagued with a similar problem, where interactions with in-game characters consistently would refer to things that hadn't happened yet or would ask about things you had already told them. I only encountered this issue once in Dragon Age II, but that is an ingredient that gets you on the way to a game that people will, well, vaguely remember.

In addition to these problems, the game locked up on me on two occasions - one right when a battle started, and another after a battle was over, when I went into my inventory to make use of newly acquired equipment.

There are a lot of quests to go on, and there is fun to be had, but this game falls short of its predecessor and when the game, itself, tells you to save frequently, it's with good reason.

-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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