Review: Dragon Age II

Electronics Arts' Edmonton-based studio BioWare has just released Dragon Age II, a role-playing game that can indeed take a dragon's age to finish.

Role-playing adventure big on story and characters

As with all BioWare games, story and character development are what define Dragon Age II. (BioWare)

Winter is a good time for role-playing games, because they usually take many hours to play through and offer an excuse to hibernate until better weather comes along.

The RPG masters at Electronics Arts’ Edmonton-based studio BioWare have released Dragon Age II, a game that can indeed take a dragon’s age to finish. It’s a little shorter than its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, but the sequel will still eat up at least 30 to 40 hours of your life.

As with all BioWare games, the story and character development are what drive Dragon Age II. The tale begins with Verric, a dwarven rogue, being interrogated by an armoured woman introduced only as "the seeker." She wants to know the tale of Hawke, the champion of her city state of Kirkwall. Hawke is, of course, controlled by the player, who chooses the character’s gender.

Verric delves into his framed narrative and the action begins. Hawke’s first task is to help her family flee the destruction of their homeland and make it to Kirkwall, which is not the friendliest of places, hence its nickname: the city of chains. The family must make do in the slums, forcing Hawke to search for fame and fortune by enlisting with an expedition into some dwarven ruins.

Before that happens, the player must raise a hefty sign-up fee by performing jobs in and around town. In doing so, Hawke meets and recruits a group of followers that includes Anders, a demon-possessed mage; Isabela, a flirtatious rogue; Merrill, an elven spellcaster exiled from her clan; and of course Verric.

Each follower has a backstory and much of the fun of Dragon Age II, like many BioWare RPGs, lies in getting to know them. The game is chock full of dialogue and, like a choose-your-own-adventure book, each character relationship will turn out differently depending on the dialogue choices you make.

Great voice acting and a well-written story — which ultimately brings Hawke into conflict with the militant templars who run Kirkwall — combine to create an almost-believable fantasy world that is populated by real people.

The dialogue is, however, frequently marred by a rather comical design error. Characters often follow up brutal battles with dramatic conversations, except they fail to take the two seconds to clean off their blood-splattered faces. Their obliviousness to it is enough to spoil the believability. (You thought talking with your mouth full was rude.)

As for gameplay, BioWare’s designers have addressed one of the problems of Dragon Age: Origins – that it was unwelcoming or inaccessible to all but hardcore RPG fans – by slimming down the sequel. The character selection process at the beginning, for example, gives players the choice of only three classes – warrior, rogue or mage – and one race: human.

Players can fiddle with their various stats, like strength and dexterity, as well as their special abilities and spells as they earn experience points; or they can simply choose to auto-advance.

Combat is straightforward, with players getting six slots for talents or spells. How often they can use them depends on how much stamina or mana they have, which is determined by their stats. Players can choose to control only their own character, or switch around between the other three members of their party.

As with all RPGs, players can customize equipment and arm their characters with different weapons, armour and magic items. Figuring out which item is best for the character is theoretically easier with a star-rating system that is supposed to indicate how each compares to everything else in the inventory. But exactly how the items are rated is a mystery – a simple ring that gives a small attack advantage, for example, often rates higher than another one that provides seemingly better bonuses, such as boosting the amount of gold found on dead enemies.

The big problem with Dragon Age II is a lack of variety. Almost all of the equipment simply provides point bonuses to existing abilities, with very few actually conferring new ones. The treasures, as a result, are quite boring. Swords that shoot fire or rings that cast spells, for example, would have been nice.

This lack of variety also transfers over to the action. There’s quite a bit of recycling of cave and other locale maps, meaning that several of the missions happen in similar-looking places, even though they’re supposed to be different.

Ultimately, Dragon Age II isn’t simple enough to attract non-fans of the genre and the action on its own probably wouldn’t be sufficiently varied to satisfy hard-core RPG aficionados. That said, it has a better story and characterization than just about anything else out there. On that basis alone, it’s still a strong game that you’ll want to shovel many, many hours into.

Dragon Age II is in stores for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and Mac on March 8.