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April 13, 2011
Dragon Age 2 - PS3 Review
Release Distributer Publisher Developer Offline Players Online Players
11/3/2011EA GamesEA GamesBioware1None
Media HDD Space Resolution Move Controls Tilt Controls OFLC Rating

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Dragon Age 2 is out on PS3 now.
Electronic Arts has had a huge start to 2011. We're only in April and already they have released great titles such as Dead Space 2, Mass Effect 2, Bulletstorm, Fight Night Champion and Crysis 2 (reviews for the last three aren't too far away). Now we can add another great title to the list in the form of Dragon Age 2. The first game in the series, Dragon Age: Origins, wasn't reviewed here though we played through it at length and like most other pundits enjoyed it very much. The sequel does many things differently and there is some debate as to whether or not the game has improved overall. The one thing there can be no debate over is that Dragon Age 2 is an incredibly deep game that expands the Dragon Age canon. It's also very good.

In Dragon Age 2 you take control of a character named Hawke who can be either male or female, and any of the character classes; mage, rogue or warrior. Unlike the original game you cannot choose a different race for Hawke; he or she will always be human. The story begins with Hawke and his or her family fleeing a Darkspawn invasion from their home town of Lothering. The timing of the invasion coincides with an event in the original game where King Cailan is betrayed and Darkspawn run rampant across Thedas (the Dragon Age world), which will immediately register with people who played the first game, but it's not necessary to know of these events to understand Dragon Age 2. Although you control Hawke throughout the game, the story is actually told retrospectively through the eyes of one of Hawke's friends, Varric. Varric has been caught by a member of the Chantry (the religious body in the game) who is interrogating him for information about the ‘Champion of Kirkwall', for reasons that are not immediately clear.

What is clear is that Varric likes to spin tall tales. In the opening battle Varric embellishes the story to the point where Hawke and his family can sweep aside swarms of Darkspawn with ease. This serves as a gentle entry-point to the game allowing new users to get used to the controls and check out some more advanced skills straight off the bat. At this point Varric's tale is halted and he is forced to re-tell the story more accurately, and the real game begins.

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Visual effects in DA2 are impressive...
Dragon Age 2, unlike just about every RPG ever made, doesn't have a clear and defined villain for you to fight. The Darkspawn, like dragons, apostates (mages gone bad), thieves, bandits, raiders, demons and abominations all play their part in the game, but defeating them will not bring about the end of the game. Hawke and his family manage to flee to Kirkwall along with thousands of other refugees, but when they arrive they find that all is not well. There are political tensions between the Viscount, the Chantry, mages and the Templars as well as racial tensions between the people from Kirkwall, the refugees, Dalish elves and a group of Qunari, a warrior race, who have found themselves shipwrecked in Kirkwall as well. Into this teeming pit of tension Hawke is thrust, and he or she must find a way to get ahead.

For the most part this means taking on any and all missions the people of Kirkwall have to offer. These missions can come from just about anyone; merchants, smugglers, mages trying to escape from Templar oppression, Templars trying to hunt down rogue mages, elves, Qunari, family members, or friends who you collect on your travels. Throughout most of the quests you'll be faced with decisions to make, decisions that will influence how people respond to you. Frequently there is no right or wrong answer, but the game asks you to make a choice based on what you've learned from your time in Kirkwall. During conversations you have a radial menu with different responses to choose from, including tactful, aggressive and neutral answers, and occasionally others which are sarcastic, saintly or perhaps romantic. All of the answers have an icon next to them which will indicate the type of response you're giving, though you may need to consult the manual for some of them.

Click To Enlarge Image are character models.
As you make your way through the game you will make friends who will join up with your party. Your ranks swell quickly, and each of the three classes (mage, rogue and warrior) is well represented. At any one time your party will consist of Hawke and up to three other characters, and as you walk around the other members of the party will strike up conversations among themselves. These conversations make for interesting listening and will expand your understanding of each character as well as their biases and motivations. The characters here are, for the most part, less interesting than those in the first game unfortunately. The primary exception is Hawke, who unlike the mute hero of the first title, is fully voiced and therefore inherently more interesting. Varric, Merrill (a heavily-accented elf) and Isabella (who some might call a tramp) are all among the more interesting characters in the game, but none of them has the appeal of Morrigan or even Shale. With that said, if you didn't play the first game won't know what you're missing, and in that case the cast here does a reasonable, but not outstanding job.

The story takes place over three chapters, each spanning a few years. The entire game, apart from the opening scene, takes place in Kirkwall or one of a select few nearby locations. To get around in the game you select a location on the map, either in Kirkwall during the day, Kirkwall at night, or one of the nearby areas and your party will be moved there. Within each area there is usually plenty to see, from merchants selling wares, to a friend's home, to a mission-related objective and all of which are marked clearly on your rather perfect mini-map. Missions accrue at a rate of knots, and while in other games it might be hard to keep track of them, that is not the case here. Whether consulting the main map or your mini-map, any location that has a mission to perform is clearly marked. You can also keep abreast of your outstanding missions by clicking on your journal from the start menu. This may not sound like much, but it's all so well handled that you'll appreciate it from start to finish.

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Looking at a two handed weapon.
Combat hasn't changed a whole lot since the first game, though it is noticeable faster. You press ‘x' to perform a standard attack, and you can map abilities to square, circle and triangle, and three more to the R2 + those same buttons. You can still open up the radial menu during battle to pause the action and select an item or ability, but this is less necessary than before. L1 and R1 changes the character you're controlling, which is necessary at times when your party has overextended itself, or isn't using a skill you need right away. Whichever character you are controlling, the other three party members are AI-controlled and will behave based on the tactics set for them in the main menu. There are a variety of defaults to choose from, such as making a warrior into a damage-dealer or tank, having a mage focus on attacking spells or healing, or ensuring your archers stay at range. For the most part these pre-set tactics work well, though you have the option to adjust them in any way, or create your own list from scratch if you'd prefer. Personally I found setting tactics to be quite tedious, so only made minor adjustments such as telling everyone to drink a healing potion if their health got below a certain threshold.

Targeting is all automatic with you targeting the enemy closest to whichever direction you are facing. The auto-targeting system can work against you at times though, especially when enemies group together making it hard to pinpoint your target. Like the first game spells and abilities can be combined to great effect, like having a mage turn an enemy ‘brittle' with a cold spell, and then having a warrior pound them for extra damage (or maybe shattering them entirely). These combinations work well when done successfully, but like all other targeting it can be hard to pinpoint exactly who you're trying to attack so your follow-up attack can often miss the intended mark.

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Things get bloody in Dragon Age 2.
Much of the game outside of battle has received an overhaul, often with mixed results. One of the most noticeable changes is that no longer have any control over the armour your companions wear. You cannot buy armour for them, all you can do is find armour upgrades around the place which add certain attributes like the ability to add runes to them, or increased damage. All of the armour in the game can only be worn only by Hawke and given much of it is designed for a specific class; around two-thirds of it will be useless in any given playthrough. You can purchase weapons for all of your companions (except for Varric who sticks to his cross-bow throughout) though, which is something. However more often than not you'll find that your companions don't have the necessary attributes to wield the weapons you find, at least not yet. It seems that the game wants you to build very focused characters; mages with high willpower and magic, warriors with high strength and rogues with high dexterity and cunning, rather than characters with a mix of all attributes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is frustrating to develop them in a certain way only to find there are no better weapons available until you build your character how the game wants.

When you level up you get to choose an ability for your character from one of the many ability trees on offer. Each of the trees is clearly named but it is often necessary to read over all of the abilities in a given tree to see which offers the most suitable abilities for your play-style. It can be a little bit daunting at first, to have read over so many abilities before choosing just one, but the majority of them work as expected so you just have to dive in and take what looks best. Some of the additional abilities from the original game are now gone, such as stealing and making traps, while others such as giving gifts as well as herb and poison-making have been overhauled. Herbs and poisons can now be ordered directly from merchants once you've found the recipe for them as well as all of the required ingredients. This is a small change, but there are definitely some fans unhappy with it, though I thought it worked fine. Gift-giving has also received an overhaul, simplifying the process to the point where any time you locate a gift you are given a new mission and told to present the gift to a particular character. This does take the guess-work out of deciding who to give the gifts to, but for mine it also takes away the charm and mystique, turning it into something much more generic.

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Sending an enemy flying...
I very much enjoyed my time with Dragon Age 2 and the few issues I had with it are mostly small. The two biggest issues are without a doubt the occasionally directionless story along with the limited number of locations in the game. Personally I didn't mind the slow story that has no obvious villain because I was immersed in the game world and enjoyed the many options to shape events through conversations and actions. However many people will be turned off by the lack of direction and may stop playing well before the end. The length of the game is impressive, but it can also work against it because you'll spend pretty much the whole game in Kirkwall, which means most of the areas and dungeons you explore are repeated multiple times. Other minor issues include the loss of features from the first game, such as stealing, as well as the (over) simplification of others like gift-giving and romance. Dropping armour for your companions completely is also a strange choice. The load times too can feel overly long, though in fairness it's no worse here than in many other games like Mass Effect 2 and Fallout: New Vegas.

Graphically Dragon Age 2 is a major step up from its predecessor, with improvements across the board. Characters look great and their faces are full of expression during cut-scenes which allows you to understand their moods and intent well. The lip-synching is really well done too, which I think is undervalued in games. Spells and abilities are more vibrant and exciting to look at than before as well. Some of the effects aren't perfect, such as fire, but in the heat of battle it's still good to look at. The environments are as interesting as they can be given that most of your surroundings are either buildings or walls, with good use of colour and lighting making them look less drab than they might have. On the downside the framerate does drop quite often, which results in some stuttering, but this isn't a major issue aside from being noticeable.

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Now that's a big enemy!
In terms of sound, the voice-acting here really is top-notch. Bioware really know what they're doing when it comes to voice-acting, and just about every voice in the game brings their character to life and gives them a distinctive persona. This is a huge game and the amount of spoken content is thoroughly impressive, especially at this quality. The music does a fine job of setting the mood for the onscreen action, while the sound effects are of a similarly high quality.

Dragon Age 2 perhaps suffers from being the sequel to such a well-loved game. The vast majority of the changes made here work well, and aside from a few curious omissions and over-simplified aspects I think it plays better. Some will feel that the story lacks direction, and there is little doubt the characters here are less memorable than the first game, but for all that Dragon Age 2 is still a thoroughly entertaining game. If you've enjoyed other Bioware RPGs or have more than a passing interest in RPGs in general, there is no reason not to check out Dragon Age 2.

Review By: Mike Allison

GRAPHICSExcellent lighting and solid effects along with highly-expressive characters. The downside is frequently repeated areas and occasionally stuttering framerate.
SOUNDThe voice acting here, like in all Bioware titles, is first-class. The sound effects and music suit the game well too.
GAMEPLAYPlays really well, though the story is slow enough to turn some people off. The inhabitants of Kirkwall are well-realized and their problems are fun to resolve.
VALUEThe game is huge, taking around 40 hours to complete. Some may not make it that far, but many others will want to play it again.
OVERALLDragon Age 2 is a fine game that perhaps doesn't quite match the original game. Don't let that deter you though; it's still a long and entertaining romp.

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