When people say that Dragon Age 2 is more closely aligned with Mass Effect than Dragon Age: Origins, I agree. Beyond the conversation wheel, Dragon Age 2 borrows a lot of narrative cues from Bioware’s cold sci-fi trilogy, even if at first a lot of people don’t recognize the similarities. It’s a game that allows you to import your choices from the first game, yet those choices only create a sense of ownership, not agency. It’s more interested in serials and self-contained tales woven into a broad, vague goal rather than a traditional Campbellian Hero’s Journey. Its characters are glued together by self-reflection and familiarity rather than a sense of purpose.
And, yes, it has conversation wheels. But that’s a minor point.
So how do you evaluate a game like Dragon Age 2, a game that is radically different from its predecessor? Under what metric – as a standalone game, or as a segment in the larger Dragon Age franchise – do we evaluate a game like this as being good or bad?
These peculiarities may seem a bit trivial – and to many gamers, they are; but they’re questions that can affect the score of a game like Dragon Age 2. As a standalone game, it’s a slightly above-average RPG with somewhat bullish writing; as a game that exists in the Dragon Age series, it feels somewhat discordant and jarring compared to its predecessor.
Dragon Age 2 isn’t necessarily a bad game, but rather a different game in its storytelling, its design, and its gameplay. Because of that distinction, the question shifts to two follow-ups: is Dragon Age 2’s differences forward thinking and beneficial to the IP, and should familiarity be a hallmark of the Dragon Age series? I’ll try and answer them, though my answers will be somewhat limited.
The first and most confusing thing about Dragon Age 2 is the number. Dragon Age 2 is so far removed from Dragon Age: Origins in terms of conception, style, and narrative that it seems more like just another game that exists in the Dragon Age universe rather than being a sequel to Dragon Age: Origins.
In fact, the story of Dragon Age 2 doesn’t even start where Dragon Age: Origins leaves off, as is the usual case with videogame sequels. Dragon Age 2 begins shortly before the Warden in Dragon Age: Origins finishes his or her first major quest. You play as the oldest child of the Hawke family as you’re escaping the remains of your hometown. Lothering is crumbling in flames, the Darkspawn are marauding the south of Ferelden, and you’re stuck fleeing from the brunt of the horde. During their escape, they decide their best destination is to take a ship from Gwaren (then Teyrnir of Loghain Mac Tir, one of the antagonists in Dragon Age: Origins) to Kirkwall, where mother Hawke says they have an estate.
When you arrive in Kirkwall (one of the many city-states north of Ferelden) the game reveals that your uncle, Gamlen Amell, wasted away the remaining of the Amell family’s once prodigious fortune on risky investments, leaving the Hawke family penniless. Luckily, Uncle Gamlen concocts a solution where you work for a mercenary band or a smuggler group for a year to pay off the cost of entering the city.
Dragon Age 2 doesn’t begin in major earnestness until the end of that prologue. It also establishes Kirkwall’s two major ails: a fleet of shipwrecked Qunari and growing tensions between the local Templars and Mages. However, the game’s meat starts when you meet Varric, a quick-talking, story-telling, fib-quibbling Dwarf who quickly develops a fascination with Hawke unlike any other. Having watched you and your sibling initially rebuffed from your offer to be a bodyguard for a Dwarven merchant (who is also Varric’s brother), Varric instead tells you to save up money to invest in the merchant’s expedition as a partner, not a sellsword.
After gaining enough gold and going through the expedition (where your sibling – through one circumstance or another – is taken away from you), Hawke acquires enough money to buy back the old Amell estate. While Hawke is experiencing considerable success and a meteoric rise in renown, Kirkwall continues to suffer from the oppressively silent and stone-faced Qunari army squatting on their docks and the bubbling powder keg politics of the Templars and Mages.
The reason why the 2 in Dragon Age 2 is a bit of a misnomer, is that much of it happens regardless of your choices in Dragon Age: Origins – and the causal link is somewhat shallow. As I’ve already said, Dragon Age 2 is quite good at feigning individual ownership through the import save feature, but lacks any meaning. Each of your choices in Dragon Age: Origins are so removed from what goes on in Kirkwall that while you hear, see, and are approached by the consequences of your actions, none of them have an impact on Hawke’s story. When you compare the import save between Dragon Age: Origins to Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3, you find that the imports in Dragon Age 2 are still rudimentary and simplistic. In Mass Effect 3, whether you have Tali as a squad member depends upon whether she dies during the suicide mission; whether she dies during the suicide missions depends upon whether you have her loyalty and choose the right options.
Comparing this sort of causality between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, we see that Bioware is unable to convincingly create that sort of agency. Whether this is a technical issue or not (since Mass Effect 3 came out after Dragon Age 2, so there could be a developmental or production change) doesn’t change the fact that the choices you make in Dragon Age: Origins are purely referential. Ultimately, regardless of what race stops the Blight or what you do in Amaranthine, or who sits on the throne, the events in Kirkwall are fairly uniform with no meaningful deviation from the plot.
In fact, the import feature tends to superfluously pad the experience of the player. In many cases, importing your decisions from Dragon Age: Origins to Dragon Age 2 harms experience, as minute as that harm may be. After all, what are the odds that the former werewolves that you save in Dragon Age: Origins would show up at the right moment, the right place, and the right time in Dragon Age 2 as a small dilemma for Hawke (and only Hawke) to fix? What are the odds that you’ll meet Sophia Dryden? What are the odds that a drunken Alistair would be in the bar as you at the same time? This sort of importing seeks to shrink the world of Thedas as the player experiences it. The need for some sort of visual confluence of actions between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 serves no more than to underline an unnecessary string of fate between Hawke and the Warden, as if their activities are meant to echo on equal resonances with each other. It’s much more compelling to simply tell us through tiny snippets of what people are doing instead of showing us, since the chances of running across these people out in the blue are so flimsy that it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you need to show them, at least let us know precisely how these appearances reasonably affect our sense of play.
Dragon Age 2 also undermines what I believe to be the strongest element of Dragon Age: Origins: the origin stories. Because Dragon Age 2 is about a single human, the story is theoretically more streamlined, efficient, and the goals much more clear. Less time can be devoted to crafting minutiae for each individual race and more time on details about Kirkwall itself. Even so, a human Hawke seems to be a garbled assemblage of all six origin stories from before. Hawke is a fallen-from-grace noble (Human noble) with testy familial bonds (Dwarven origins), thrust into a highly hostile environment that hates Fereldens (parallel to the Fereldens and the elves). He or she is a mishmash of all of the origin stories put together, seemingly a compromise in an attempt to appease everyone.
It sort of works. Because Hawke never experiences a fall from grace but rather hears of it from his mother, it instantly creates drama that forces some questioning on behalf of the player without compromising any sense of choice. Do we return to where we were, or do we move on, trying to forget and become stronger from our experiences? When Hawke buys back the estate, some of these very same questions are posed to his or her mother. As the Warden, you’re never given the chance to ponder those sorts of questions: the game declares you the Warden by default, never giving you the choice of return. Dragon Age 2 never gives you that same return option as well, but at least it gives you the illusion of battling with that choice: several characters ask Hawke whether he or she is interested in returning to Ferelden, and the choices are convincing enough that it mimics some sort of character progression.
That’s one of the striking things about character development between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2. In Dragon Age 2, you’re not Hawke, not in the same way that you are the Warden. In Dragon Age: Origins, the choices you make are very first-person, very involving; you can choose the progression of the Warden, from being someone who hates or loves those around him or her to someone who still hates or loves those around him or her. For Hawke, the transition is small and the details are up to the player, but ultimately the macro-arcs remain steadfastly the game’s decision to make. Hawke ultimately chooses to remain in Kirkwall, Hawke ultimately chooses to become the Champion, and Hawke ultimately chooses to avenge his or her mother. How we get there depends upon the individual players, but when we compare to the ‘mandatory’ moments between the Warden and Hawke, Hawke has so much more of them that we’re not being Hawke, but rather watching Hawke in the same way that we watch Shepard.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a subtle and different experience from what we see in Dragon Age: Origins. That same sense of belonging and character crafting is replaced with observational storytelling, and that’s where Dragon Age 2 feels somewhat jarring. Hawke meets and greets, has experiences with people, and forms bonds and relationships completely outside of the player’s ability to do so. After time skips, you’re told that Hawke is familiar with Lady Elegant or the Viscount or Worthy and you’re told that you just need to take the game’s word at it. You’re told that Bethany admires and adores you and Carver has a friendly rivalry with you.
It feels very much like the Cousland origin story of Dragon Age: Origins, where the game attempts to craft empathy for your family when they’re slaughtered, but it only does so by telling you that they matter to you. Had Dragon Age 2 left many of the bigger choices or relationships up to the player’s Hawke to solve or ignore, less emphasis might have been aimed at Hawke’s story and more at the experience of the journey. However, because Hawke is watched rather than experienced, there’s a consistent walled-garden sort of storytelling going on, where you can experience what you want to, but it’s all so cleanly placed on plot points that don’t diverge that much from Bioware’s grand vision of what they want Dragon Age 2 to be or how it ends.
This isn’t to say it’s all bad, or that the storytelling is all bad. In fact, Dragon Age 2 is probably one of the gutsier stories to be told by Bioware in a very long time. They’ve very clearly diverged from their usual standard of ‘visit four locations to end the big bad’ setup, and it’s somewhat refreshing when you couple something new with Bioware’s usually high standard of characterization. Even when the novelty wears off, Dragon Age 2 remains an engrossing experience. It’s not clean and it isn’t simple, but it’s workable.
Dragon Age 2’s major challenge is that it lacks a clear endgame. From the beginning, it tautly and mischievously implies whom the end boss is going to be, but it doesn’t reveal much about the circumstances leading to her antagonism until the beginning of the third arc. Instead, each of the three major arcs establish three major, poorly interwoven antagonists with their own goals and purposes.
In the first arc, The Deep Roads expedition is the antagonist. While the Profane boss functions as the gameplay obstacle, the enemy in that scenario is very much the labyrinthine tunnel system of the Deep Roads. Here, the enemy is presented as Man versus Nature drama, where the condition to succeed is also to survive. The climax of the first arc is preceded by getting enough money to the Deep Roads, upon which you end up lost, whereupon you need to find a way out again. Tension is lost when you’ve finally found the treasure that was stashed away by the giant Profane boss.
In the second arc, the Arishok is the antagonist. I would argue that the Arishok’s position as the antagonist is the most well done transition of any of the three arcs. From the beginning, the game clearly establishes the Arishok as a force to be reckoned with: he’s always presented through low-angle shots, everyone (including the ever fiery Fenris) treats him with utmost deference, and the very first sounds you hear of his arrival are his heavy, pummeling footsteps. When he loses his cool after the release of the Saar-Qamek gas, his eruption is volcanic. As a villain, he’s the embodiment of the uncertain and mighty Qunari military force that languishes at the hot docks of Kirkwall, constantly breathing down Viscount Dumar’s neck. He’s enigmatic and curt, difficult to understand yet unwaveringly confident in his ideals, standing as a perfect symbol to the black box that the Qunari are to the rest of Thedas.
The battle against the Arishok should have been the game’s climax, not only because he shows up so often in promotional material, but rather he’s the embodiment of Thedas’ biggest physical fear. The Qunari, after all, have taken the northern islands, and threaten to expand south; the Codices littered all over Kirkwall talk about the various whispers of Exalted Marches by the chantry’s frightened high command and the seemingly drone-like nature of the Qun.
In many ways, the Hawke’s perspective of the Qunari could have easily been shown as a parallel to the Warden’s perspective of the Blight. While the Warden’s experience with Qunari are limited to mercenaries and a quiet, steely giant with a fascination for cookies, Hawke’s experience with the Qunari have been one of unmitigated uncertainty and fear. Throughout the second act, the Qun serves the same purpose as the Blight: it’s a seemingly immutable, corrupting force that spreads to the hearts and minds of those caught in its grasp. Hawke speaking to the Arishok would change the Arishok’s mind as much as the Warden speaking to the Archdemon. Therefore, it’s somewhat underwhelming and disappointing that the Arishok is demoted from the challenge into a challenge.
Instead Dragon Age 2’s ending act is focused on the conflict between the Mages and the Templars, with Knight-Commander Meredith as the final gameplay boss. In hindsight, and considering the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition, it makes a lot of sense to focus on the Mage and Templar relationship. The Mages represent a chaotic force that aim for freedom and individualism, while the Templars represent the structural and institutional might and sacrifice needed so that society can function. Meredith, in a perfect world, would begin as slight on the right of this spectrum and then become more extreme as the events of Dragon Age 2 vindicate her more radical beliefs.
However, while Meredith does become more tyrannical, the introduction of the Lyrium Idol as a tool that makes her crazy does somewhat a disservice to her character. Meredith is never given the same super-fearsome treatment that Dragon Age 2 gives the Arishok; her first substantial introduction is protecting and aiding Hawke from an enemy group, and while Meredith certainly has conviction and confidence in her voice and mannerisms, so much of it is subdued by her respect for diplomacy. When you compare the Arishok and his wanton disregard for much of Kirkwall’s customs and formalities (even going so far as to call the city a “festering pustule”) to Knight-Commander Meredith, her transition comes up short and underplayed. The NPCs – particularly the Mages – will tell you about Meredith’s fearsomeness and her reach is felt the very moment you enter Kirkwall. But it’s no more effective than hearsay, and in the plot of Dragon Age 2 it’s so much more telling than showing.
On some gameplay level, I can understand why Meredith needs to be corrupted by the Lyrium Idol. When she’s corrupted by a force that’s evidently beyond the physical and magical scope of a human being, you’re given more ludic freedom to display them as an endgame boss. Without the Lyrium Idol, Meredith would simply be another Templar, probably with the ability to cast and cancel some basic spells, but she’d be unable to summon giant brass golems or leap around the screen as she does in game. Her character limitations would be gameplay limitations, lest Bioware risk making a completely unnatural and dissonant character. How can we give the Knight-Commander of the Templars supernatural powers that make them more ‘boss-like’? Simple, just make the sword they have made of Lyrium. Crazy, possessive Lyrium.
Another benefit of having the Lyrium Idol be an influencing factor in Meredith’s decision making does have a consequence that I’m not sure Bioware is intending. Throughout the game, the Templars are shown to be hellbent on stamping every renegade Mage a Tranquil, but most of Hawke’s negative experiences stem from Mages. Despite the game insistently arguing that Mages are both good and evil, the ones that lose and create loss tend to be Mages: a Mage is responsible for putting innocent Templars’ livelihoods at stake, a Mage is responsible for threatening to make Hawke a slave, a Mage is responsible for capturing, killing, and dismembering your mother, and a Mage is responsible for blowing up Kirkwall’s Chantry, causing Meredith to go crazy in the first place. In a sort of roundabout, insidious way, it forces us to question whether the Mages really deserve that freedom they espouse. Too often it doesn’t paint a fair and compelling image of what is supposed to be a complex political issue.
However, despite its challenges in being able to clearly define the series of events in its plot or garner equal empathy, Dragon Age 2 controls its smaller stories fairly well. Dragon Age 2 makes me care about the people that live within it more than Dragon Age: Origins. Not consistently and not perfectly, but…better. In Dragon Age: Origins, the characters serve as a mix of exposition dumps and plot devices, mainly as a way to pad out a lot of the things that happen. I can understand and feel for Oghren but I couldn’t really see his purpose beyond being a party member; I can understand and feel for Leliana or Zevran or Wynne, but their primary purpose was functional in nature.
Dragon Age 2 tries to create some sense of intrinsic worth for its character to varying degrees of effectiveness. The game establishes that these people whom are traveling with you exist with their own lives and their own worries and aspirations. You get a better feel for what makes them tick, even if you don’t necessarily agree with what they are or what they do.
Some characters are much less convincing than others. Fenris and Isabela have snippets of complexity, but they tend to be drowned out by their personal traits and habits. Fenris is an Elf trying to come to gripes with the challenge of a Tabula Rasa-esque situation, where he considers the possibility of freedom where it was never a real option. To Fenris, his concerns are whether to completely detach himself from his thirst for vengeance against his former master Danarius or to risk destroying all that he once was so he could start a new life. To Isabela, she wrestles with the idea of doing what’s fun with the idea of doing what’s right; her cowardice and her uncertainty of her bounty as she finds a friend in Merrill and a confidante in Hawke seem to eat away at her, making her wonder what it means to be a captain in the first place. For Anders, he’s haunted by the merging of consciousness between him and Justice. For Merrill, she questions as to whether the glory of the old Elves and whether the price associated with that glory is worth it.
But it’s hard to do so when they’re drowned out by their own quirks. In Dragon Age: Origins these quirks are subdued in moments of seriousness: you’re never put off Zevran’s accent or love for leather as he tries to brush off his kills and his upbringing through nonchalance and you’re never finding yourself chuckling at Oghren’s drunken stupor when he talks about Branka. In Dragon Age 2, sometimes Isabela’s promiscuity overtakes her flirtatiousness, Fenris’ frustration turns into a grindingly boring broodiness, and Merrill’s naivety turns her into an obstinate fanatic. For Anders, he undermines all that he preaches – that humanness of Mages which is paramount to their freedom – by his terrorism. It’s a bit jarring.
But that’s not for everyone, and there’s moments in Dragon Age 2 where it works and does so with such powerful excellence that I can’t help but be impressed by them. Aveline and Varric are some of the more entertaining and lovable characters in a very long time, and although they have their weak moments, their individual quirks never become shortcomings in times of need or moments of weakness. Aveline is a hard, strong, masculine woman, but she shows that despite her skill with a blade, she’s woefully incapable of wooing Guardsman Donnic without help; Varric shows that despite his tendency to run his mouth, his liberal retelling of revenge against his brother reveals a surprisingly quiet and private individual. As I said, it doesn’t work for everyone, but when it does, it’s fantastic.
The gameplay and design is a bit jarring. I enjoy the action emphasis, even if a lot of the changes in enemy deaths don’t make a lot of sense: for instance, when I play as a rogue and get a critical hit, there’s a chance the opponent will blow up into little pieces regardless of the move I make. As a warrior, my character closes the distance by sliding instead of running. Each hit comes with heft and might, but the damage done to an enemy is scaled disproportionately so that all that heft matters very little. I’m swinging really hard and it looks like I’m swinging really hard, but ultimately the damage doesn’t really reflect that.
Likewise, the design of Kirkwall, Sundermount, and the associated areas are somewhat disappointing. Originally I reasoned that I could – though somewhat strained – see the events happening in the same areas. Since it all happens in the same stretches of land or coast or caves or what-have-you, the repeated environments didn’t seem like a huge problem. But over time and reflecting back on it, it does create a very small sandbox and visually cripples the game’s ability to tell a story.
From Hawke’s perspective, Kirkwall is supposed to be an alien place: the first thing we see are the Twins and then the gallows, showing just how starkly foreign the place seems to the different levels of brown in Dragon Age: Origins. That perspective should be a ticket for a sense of wonder and excitement, but it isn’t. The Dalish camp is small and bare with barely any trees in the whole game at all. The Alienage is cramped and occupies a very tiny fraction of Lowtown. Darktown isn’t dark at all. The moonlight is far too bright that it makes some nighttime missions look like cloudy days; the posters, symbols, and paintings on the tall and spiky battlements of Kirkwall are only chest high and unchanging. It’s incredibly drab and somewhat of a letdown.
The game’s spawning is somewhat antithetical to the strategies it espouses. Oftentimes I’m told to have warriors control choke points so that my archers and Mages can control the field from afar, but the game is in love with summoning waves of enemies. Many times these waves will come swooping down beside my Mages or archers, making it much more difficult than it needs to be. I can understand Bioware wanting to make the battles longer and feel more action packed, but it doesn’t feel like it adds anything substantial to the gameplay element. Again, it just feels padded.
Dragon Age 2, regardless of its larger pedigree, is an unfinished product. It’s a bold but bare piece of work that, with a little bit more time in production, could have been a phenomenal successor to Dragon Age: Origins. As it stands, it’s more appropriate to consider it as a rudimentary precursor to Dragon Age: Inquisition. If we evaluate Dragon Age 2 holistically, it’s very difficult to give it a positive review: it’s a hobbling mess that doesn’t seem to have a good idea of what exactly it seeks to espouse or accomplish, spending too much time in the dark as it experiments and fumbles about.
However, part of the beauty of understanding a game is that it’s not simply defined by its end product, but also by the systems that consist of its innards. On that metric, Dragon Age 2 is very different game from Dragon Age: Origins in terms of visual and thematic components. Its characters live and act very differently from the standard Bioware formula of “these are people whose Master status is team member” by having them more as a ragtag group of friends than a fighting force.
As the end of the day, it’s hard for me to hate Dragon Age 2. Sure, the gameplay is only improved somewhat superfluously, the characters are hit-and-miss, the plotting is a bit off-focus, and the environments are reused; but it’s still a fun game. It has that same enrapturing feel of Thedas, even if it focuses on too many things at once to cleanly hone in on something that’s thought-provoking or profound. In an attempt to tell so many stories at once it sort of forgets their purpose, meandering between the tales of the citizens of Kirkwall, stopping short and somewhat abruptly on the champion they call Hawke. It’s quick and eager to please, but spouts so many ideas in so many directions that it can seem overwhelming and make the pay-off underwhelming.
So, to answer the questions I posed earlier, is Dragon Age 2 a move in the right direction or should familiarity be a hallmark of the Dragon Age series? I think it is a move in the right direction. Dragon Age: Origins is hardly a game that’s perfect, and there’s been no changes in Dragon Age 2 that make it so radical that we can consider it to be Fable levels of different. Likewise, the Dragon Age series should be able to adapt: the change in the narrative in Dragon Age 2 is properly followed by a change in gameplay. Staying conservative does a disservice to Bioware’s ability to write, so experimentation is hugely beneficial. However, what Dragon Age 2 lacks at the moment is polish. As it stands, Dragon Age 2 is a big bag of ideas, thrown like darts onto a dartboard, hoping something hits a bullseye.