After pushing myself to complete a replay of my original character in Dragon Age: Origins and the Awakening expansion, I fired up the sequel at long last. I know I have a long way to go before I can do a legitimate review and I’m continuing to do my utmost to avoid exposing myself to reviews both positive and negative. So, after a couple hours in the Free Marches and some hardware tweaking assisted by my lovely wife who convinced me to be unafraid of beta GPU patches, here are my first impressions of Dragon Age II.
Yes, I made my Hawke look like me. I did the same in Origins, and they’re related. They’re both mages from the same family.
…Don’t you judge me.
Characters continue to be BioWare’s strong suit. While I haven’t recruited every available party member yet, those I have encountered show a great range of personalities, motivations and quirkiness. I can’t say I dislike any of them, but I like them all for different reasons. Hawke him/herself also shows a good range of character depending on how we register his/her responses using a dialog wheel instead of the numbered choices of Origins. I’m sure it’s one of those divisive decisions that split the fan-base, but having Hawke speaking in his/her own voice gives the conversations more of a natural flow, and actually helps with the immersion into the story, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Staying with characters, however, the leveling system feels a lot less cumbersome than the previous game. It’s easier to make decisions as to how to tweak individual characters, and it seems that the reduced amount of choices will keep players from being overwhelmed and characters from outstripping their opponents. The lack of things like Mana Clash indicates to me that the developers wanted to present a balanced experience to make the faster-paced combat more interesting and thought-provoking. Again, more on that later.
Now, granted, I’m only a couple hours into the story of the game, but it already feels like a far more intimate affair than Origins. Without an over-arching “save the world” storyline, the importance and priority of tasks falls to the individual player. How important is it, to you, to reclaim your birthright? Would you rather blast X amount of Y opponents in order to earn Z coins to progress the plot? Immersion in the plot and importance of its points has nothing to do with a threat hanging over the characters like a Sword of Damocles. Personally? I’m liking that.
Kirkwall is a great setting for this sort of story. It feels like a living city. There’s places to explore, some of which you shouldn’t do during nighttime if you’ve any sense whatsoever, lots of people to talk to and history to build upon. The scale of it, with buildings looming over you and figures shuffling to and fro, draws you into the world without overwhelming you. As you begin to make your way through Kirkwall, the concerns of the outside world cease to matter as much as getting yourself out of the roach-infested scummy streets of Lowtown. The tidbits of news coming in, however, are something I appreciate, especially knowing the decisions I made in Origins influence the headlines.
Outside of Kirkwall, I’m not sure what to make of things. I’ve been through one rocky cavern already (the pass in the Sundermount related to Flemeth’s quest) and I get the feeling that’s the copy-pasted bit everybody’s complaining about. We’ll see, I suppose.
Speaking of questing, so far it seems to be a decent continuation of previously-used structures. I haven’t run into a straight-forward collection quest but I won’t be surprised when one shows up. I like the day/night system, requiring Hawke to go to different places at different times, as it contributes to the feeling that this is a living, breathing city part of a legitimate world. However, I’m not sure how I feel about the breaking of questlines into bite-size chunks: go to this area, find this person, blast them & their cronies, move directly on to the next area. It removes some of the impetus for exploration that was abounding in Origins. Yes, I know, this runs counter to my previous complaints of Origin’s length but in this case I think they’ve gone a bit too far in the other direction. Again, this is a first impression, so take it with the appropriate amount of salt.
The changes to aesthetics are another divisive issue, and for my part the change of elves from normal humans with pointy ears to waspish humanoids with oversized heads and Irish accents hasn’t grown on me yet. I mean, I dig the accents but the aesthetic is throwing me off. That could be part of the point – elves are supposed to be different from humans, after all – but the proportions just feel wrong. I haven’t run into an qunari yet so I can’t comment on that. But I still wonder why hurlocks, menacing creatures with human origins and malicious intent, look like rejects from Power Rangers and scuttle around with horrible posture instead of striding across the field to gleefully shove a wickedly-barbed dark longsword down my throat.
A word on combat: I appreciate the ability to pause the combat to issue orders as I did in Origins, but the removal of the isometric top-down view bugs me. I like the fact that it’s more active and fast-paced, with enhanced cries and interaction during a fight, but I can see why the removal of certain aspects pisses people off. Overall, though, I like it so far.
One of the things that really annoys me, though, is equipment. Half of the things I pick up are Hawke-only, meaning a good two-thirds of the things available for sale are useless to me. I don’t mind being able to save my coin, but it makes me feel like the development of my fellows’ equipment is dependent more on doing quests instead of making intelligent pre-combat investment decisions. Again, this is a first impression rather than a review, so that might change in the hours and days to come, but for now I’m scratching my head every time I get another item drop.
More to come, rest assured. Overall I’m really enjoying Dragon Age II, for the moment. We’ll see how long it lasts.