While I had been trying to keep a more steady pace through Dragon Age II, due in no small part to the fact that I knew what would happen when that changed… well, I couldn’t keep it up forever. Over the course of the time since my last entry, I blasted through the entirety of acts 2 and 3, reaching the end of the game and setting the stage for another sequel somewhere further down the line. (It won’t be this year, that’s for certain. BioWare already has two other games on its plate at the moment for this year.) I picked sides, I fought against insane odds and won, and I found out why the game had opened with Varric being interrogated about what really happened with the Champion.
As a narrative method, I’m not sure if that element was overused or not. Certainly we only get a couple moments where we’re reminded that the story is being related by Varric rather than being shown in real time (so to speak), so part of me wonders if the game wouldn’t have benefitted from more moments where we’re taken out of the story and into the framing. There’s a brilliant section in Varric’s personal quest from act 2 that still brings a smile even after I know what’s coming. But it might have watered the effect down if it was used more often. I can only really speculate.
As it stands, however, Hawke’s story is definitely more linear than that of the Warden from Origins, and intensely more personal. There’s no world-shattering threat introduced at any point; rather, the threat comes after the Champion’s story is complete as a result of what she did. Dragon Age Origins was an epic, this is one person’s rise to local greatness, ending with her having a global effect almost by accident. (Varric implies as much in his narration post-act 1.) After the ending you aren’t left wondering why the Champion was important, but you are left with the sense that the game was of a far smaller scope.
In a lot of ways, this works. I’m not tremendously fond of the fact that saving the world has marched into full-on trope status, because most writers haven’t found anything more interesting for heroes to do. Admittedly, DAO technically had you saving Ferelden rather than the world, but you were still in the large-scale savior business. Hawke is trying to save precisely one city, Kirkwall, and that plot is pretty much foisted on you and resolved partway through act 2. (It’s also handled well – you don’t set out to do it, but connections you’ve formed will naturally result in you being swept along by outside events.) Your actions aren’t ever geared toward saving anything so much as accomplishing one goal or another, all of which are well inside the realm of comprehensible and reasonable goals rather than having a villain who inexplicably wishes to destroy everything.
On the other hand… the last boss isn’t connected to anything from your distant past. In DAO, as you climbed to fight the Archdemon, there was a sense of earned finality, that you were finishing a confrontation which had been in the works since the battle at Ostagar. In DA2, you’re finishing a confrontation that had been in the works for the past seven years in-game, but you’d only been involved directly for a month or so. We’re not in the realm of the space flea from nowhere, but we also aren’t fighting or age-old nemesis, which does take a bit of the sense of finality out.
It’s present throughout the game, really. Your party members aren’t just sitting in camp until you take them along – they’re in their homes, doing their jobs, and otherwise living a life that just so happens to intersect with yours from time to time. This means that Alistair isn’t waiting by the fire whenever it’s convenient to you to romance him, but it also means that you can’t necessarily interact with your members as often as you want. You get less of the sense of a band of heroes on a journey, because you aren’t anything close. You’re a band of highly armed and trained busybodies who band up and go places because it’s interesting, not because you expect to have a long-term effect on anything. (Make your own joke about MMO players here.) The friendship/rivalry system means that you don’t lose members by disagreeing with them or disliking them, but by making certain choices they can’t endorse.
I feel closer to the gang of DA2, they feel more organic… and yet I miss the sense of companionship that came from its predecessor. A band of friends may be unrealistic, but there’s a certain naive joy to it. A band of people who only tolerate one another at times because of a strong overriding personality pushing them together might be more believable, but it takes its toll. Inter-party banter in DAO was always joyful; inter-party banter in DA2 sometimes features Anders bringing Merrill to tears for no good reason.
On the question of gameplay… well, there’s no contest. DA2 is better. Moving on.
Wait, do I have to? Ugh, fine. The only area where DA2 is weaker than its predecessor is arguably in the crafting, which is essentially a treasure hunt for particularly finnicky vendors. Every other aspect of the game has been improved and upgraded. Combat is faster and more comfortable, warriors and rogues have a role other than sentimentality, and party composition is more detailed than “all my mages plus maybe a rogue for locked boxes.” The redesigned talent tree structure allows for a staggering number of different builds for every class, and while you can go with the boring-yet-functional setup of the trinity, you can also opt for more support-oriented setups for tackling difficult fights.
Random battles are far less tactical, yes, and if you liked pausing and swapping characters every few seconds, the game will feel much less strategic. But the boss fights are actually very much improved, and the last boss fight still had me pausing and swapping on a regular basis to keep everything managed. The system has cut down a great deal on overall complexity, but in the process it’s emphasized the important choices. Each gutted element seems to be of the variety that lets a player spend less time working on a spreadsheet to determine the optimal breakpoints of fatigue versus armor increases and more time, you know, doing things.
So is this a better game than DAO? Is it worse? Certainly you don’t have the potpourri of Important Plot Choices that you did in the first game, which hurts replay value. Your choices and the effects thereof are subtle and frequently understated in nature. On the other hand, there’s a certain joy in the game that its predecessor lacked, a richness in the interactions between Hawke and her companions. There were moments that brought me nearly to tears, especially Merrill (and her stupid, touching, dangerous little set of dreams) and Avelline (who can be held up as a golden standard for making a female character in a traditionally male role without making her a stereotype or a woman in name only).
Is DA2 a great game? Without question. Is it better than the original? I’d have to say yes, but just barely. They’re both excellent games, but they’re separated by a wider rift than the Mass Effect installments. If anything, I’m just sad that it’s over now, but I do look forward to the next part of the series.