I had issues with the first Dragon Age. There is no doubt that it delivered a great story and all, but to me it seemed to be a bit bloated in the middle, with things starting to wander around a bit. Obviously, with a bit of discipline it was easy to stay on target and get through, but as someone with zero discipline, it didn’t work. However, with the sequel, Dragon Age II, Bioware seemingly decided to focus much more closely on the story, keeping the game set largely in and around Kirkwall, the capital city of Ferelden. And with that change of storytelling style to go along with the less open world setting, things were much improved. So, let’s look back to the first Dragon Age game I ever completed, shall we?
Dragon Age II had an interesting storytelling mechanic, playing out as an interrogation of a dwarven rogue called Varric whose signature weapon was a repeating crossbow; a crossbow which he bizarrely named Bianca. Varric is being interrogated by Cassandra, a member of the Seekers of Truth, an organisation that supervise the Templars, who in turn keep an eye on the mages. With me so far? The narrative is told from Varric’s point of view; him remembering what Hawke – the character that we play as – did in various situations. These reminisces play out as the levels of the game, and so the scene is set for a decade-long story of war and betrayal, love and loss, that ends up with you eventually becoming the Champion of Kirkwall and, if you play your cards right, the new ruler of the land.
The story starts with a bang, as the Hawke family home in Lothering, a small village, is attacked and the whole family has to flee from their home with a horde of Darkspawn in pursuit. We are joined by a character called Aveline, although her husband and Hawke’s brother or sister (depending on which sex you choose when starting the game) don’t make it. After this, Flemeth, the witch from the first game and mother of Morrigan, saves the group and sends them across the sea to Kirkwall. It is however from here, an ill-fated expedition into the Deep Roads provides a chance for us to make Varric’s acquaintance, and from there the story snowballs into a massive ruck between the mages and the Templars, a fight with the Qunari, and eventually culminates with Hawke having to pick a side and follow through with the choices that decision brings.
Honestly, the lore and narrative found in the story are great; much more focused than its predecessor. There’s no wondering where you are meant to go as the objectives are a lot clearer this time round, and the way the combat plays out was also changed. Dragon Age II became a lot more action orientated than the first game, but with just enough tactical decision making and ability use to stop it turning into an out and out slash ’em up. The fighting animation was also redone to be faster and flashier, and as a result the sequel was a lot more engaging. Having Hawke be fully voiced also drew me in more than the silent protagonist of the first game, and with a reported half million lines of dialogue recorded over all characters, it sometimes seems like those found in Dragon Age II never shut up!
A returning feature from the first game is the meeting, recruiting and even wooing of companions. In Dragon Age II you can find up to eight different companions, each of which can be controlled if you bring them along on missions. Some companions are mandatory, including Varric, Aveline who is a strict warrior who eventually becomes leader of the Kirkwall City Guard, the proud mage and ex-Gret Warden, Anders and finally Merrill, a Dalish Elven mage who was shunned by her clan due to her use of blood magic. Whichever of our siblings survives the start of the game is also found to be a companion for Act One, but at no point should you look to get too attached… if you know what I mean. Optional companions are Fenris, an elven warrior who is looking for revenge on the mage who enslaved him; Isabela, a rogue pirate who is about as saucy as they come, and if you had access to the Exiled Prince DLC, there is another companion called Sebastian, a human archer and lay priest. If you take a bit of a shine to a companion, it’s also possible to romance Anders, Isabela, Fenris and Merrill as either sex, keeping the whole vibe from the first game going. That said, Sebastian was only a romance option if Hawke was female.
Keeping the action going was the job of additional DLC packs; something that is much beloved of EA who like to milk as much value out of their games as possible. There were a grand total of six DLC packs released, ranging from in-game item packs, such as arms and armour, right up to story expansions. There were two of these story packs released, with the first being Legacy, which saw Hawke investigating a prison founded by the Grey Wardens, where a powerful Darkspawn is imprisoned. The second pack was The Exiled Prince, which saw Hawke helping a character called Tallis infiltrate an Orlesian estate to steal a precious relic. A third pack, The Exalted March, was announced but cancelled, as the studio decided to spend their time tweaking the Frostbite engine, which would be used for future releases.
To me, as I said at the start of this rambling, this more focused approach paid off for Bioware. Being able to concentrate on the story, which featured the traditional choice-driven dialogue and a story that could be affected by decisions that you made, just made the game as a whole flow better. Yes, the open world of the original Dragon Age was good, and being stuck in a city was a bit of a change, but I for one think that the design choices Bioware made worked. And it appears that the public agreed with me back in 2011, as this was the biggest selling game in its week of release, even beating Pokemon Black and White off the top spot. In the first two weeks after launching, the game had sold a million copies, much faster then the first game, and by May 2011 had sold 2 million copies, which isn’t bad by anyone’s standards.
So, these are my somewhat misty memories of Dragon Age II. But how about you guys out there? Did you play the game on release, or have you grabbed it as part of EA Play? Do you agree that the tighter focus produced a better game? Let us know in the comments, and if you haven’t yet played it get over to the Xbox Store, pick up a copy and delve deep into the world.