Dragon Age II | game review
Crazy chaos in Kirkwall.
Game summary: The medieval world of Thedas is invaded by demonic Darkspawn. Hawke and her family are saved by a powerful mysterious witch Flemeth. They end up in a foreign city where racial, religious and political tensions threaten to tear it apart. (IMDb)
Having just recently re-watched Prometheus and found it better than I remembered, you'd think that perhaps the same was true of playing through Dragon Age II again, but the truth is that I always liked it more than most others did when it was released. Yes, it has some pretty huge faults that prevent it from coming close to touching the magnificence of Dragon Age: Origins, but simply being 'good' isn't that much of a criticism.
So let's get the biggest issues out of the way: this game had an insanely short amount of time in which to be made, which resulted in a lot of shortcuts to get it out on schedule, including what many felt was a simplified skills and combat system. At least the latter is true, with a far less strategic aspect than the system found in Origins, with far less refinement over telling your companions how to behave too.
There are a number of other 'issues' which are problems for players, but are also sort of justified by Dragon Age II's framing device of Varric (Brian Bloom), one of your companions, being interrogated by a woman named Cassandra (Miranda Raison) over just what the hell happened in the city of Kirkwall that almost the entire game takes place in.
Repeated use of the same environments can be explained away as either Varric describing different places poorly or Cassandra lacking imagination to picture Varric's words differently. New waves of enemies showing up mid-fight out of thin air? I'm pretty sure there's a line in the next game, Dragon Age: Inquisition where Varric is actually asked about this and he says he just wanted to make the battles more exciting.
Could those explanations be seen as cop-outs? Absolutely. They also don't change the fact that even if there is an in-world justification for something, that doesn't automatically make it good. I never really minded the repeat locations too much as I was aware how little time the developers had been given, and enemies coming out of nowhere happens in so many other games I never noticed it until I saw people complaining online.
Part of the reason I can't fully excuse them is because of how open the game is, meaning you can end up visiting the same location acting as multiple different areas multiple times in a row, and - while the combat does feel more frantic and energetic than Origins - some of the fights can drag on a little too long when you start a fight massively outnumbered and then an equal number of enemies join in.
On the other hand, Dragon Age II has one of BioWare's best collection of characters ever in a game, with performances and writing to match. There's also a system whereby you can actually become rivals with your companions instead of becoming friends, which opens up new skills and dialogue options that rewards multiple playthroughs immensely - it's very easy to have entirely different relationships with characters from one game to the next.
Then there's the excellent antagonist of Knight-Commander Meredith, wonderfully performed by Jean Gilpin. Meredith is extremely forceful with her opinions, so she can be difficult to like right from meeting her through to the end of the game. But she's written so well that even though you might not want to side with her, it's often difficult to deny that there is often some truth to what she says, even if her reaction is unjustified.
And I honestly think that complexity of character carries over to the main story in general, and also why I think a lot of players don't like Dragon Age II. So many games put the player in control of proceedings, making the decisions that will define how events unfold and acting as power fantasies - here, the player character of Hawke (Jo Wyatt/Nicholas Boulton) is simply swept along.
I think removing that agency from the player to control how the story unfolds is genuinely part of why some dislike the game rather than praising a large studio for having the balls to make a story like that in the first place, effectively telling the players "make whatever choices you like, there are bigger things going on that those choices won't affect even in the slightest" - which is how most people on this planet actually live, after all.
Dragon Age: Origins was a far more black-and-white affair, with a clear evil - the Archdemon and the Darkspawn horde - as enemies, with most of the choices being more down to player preference than anything truly impactful to the world at large beyond the scope of that game, so it's very easy to see how another game that lives in the greyest of worlds, almost completely lacking such clear-cut or harmless choices might not go down as well.
As for the DLC, there's nothing to match the quality of Awakening, with Mark of the Assassin being almost a complete waste of time unless you're a fan of Felicia Day fan-fiction about being the bestest, most super great person in existence who is never wrong; and Legacy, which is enjoyable enough, but the true impact of the story not really being felt until the events of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Ultimately, I can recognise how Dragon Age II could prove to be a real mixed bag, if not considered outright bad by some, but I enjoyed the characters, performances and the murky, morally-ambiguous stories they get caught up in so much that I still enjoyed what I think was my fourth time through the game despite some of the flaws still being enough to irritate me on occasion.
Dragon Age II is a lot better than many people think, even if that still doesn't make it a great game. It's a large departure from Origins in almost every sense, plus it's pretty obvious shortcuts to get released after just a year's work might be enough to put most off, but then you'd be missing out on some of the best story and character work in a BioWare game - along with an ending and DLC that hugely shape the future of the series.