EA Dragon Age II review

Bioware's much awaited RPG sequel - streamlined, or dumbed down?
Photo of EA Dragon Age II
£34.99

Dragon Age II has certainly caused some controversy since it swooped out of the sky. The game landed at number one in the UK all-format chart, as expected – but a whole lot of less-than-expected baggage tagged along with this scaly-necked, fire-breathing sequel.

So what’s the fuss all about? Players were outraged to find that SecuRom copy protection was included when EA had promised it wouldn’t be. Although, in actual fact, it emerged that DA II doesn’t use SecuRom, just a simple date check mechanism that’s produced by the same company.

SecuRom and banning and Metacritic, oh my…
EA then accidentally banned a player from accessing the game he’d bought, when they meant to ban him from the forum for an off-colour remark. But what really took the biscuit was the Bioware employee who was discovered to have posted a glowing review of his own game up on Metacritic. An inexcusable move for a professional game developer, certainly, but one that was doubtless a reaction to some of the seemingly harsh criticisms that have been voiced online by Dragon Age fans who have been asking: What has Bioware done to its role-playing epic?

To answer that very question, post-installation, it quickly becomes clear that Dragon Age II has morphed into a more stylishly cinematic game. The story is cleverly woven within a framed narrative, and the cut-scenes and script are just as polished – if not more so – than the first game. Neatly, it also follows the original tale, albeit splitting off from it in a different direction entirely.

What’s most obvious, however, is that a good deal of streamlining has gone on. The problem with this is that that one warrior’s ‘streamlining’ is another’s ‘dumbing down’. Some decisions have been taken which will – and, clearly, have – irritated the Bioware faithful. You can only play a human character as your main, for example, and supporting members of your party don’t have a full inventory. While you can give them a new weapon or amulet, it’s not possible to equip individual pieces of armour, which is disappointing.

Faster paced combat
Combat now happens at a faster pace, although it still uses the same system, in which players can pause the action and direct the tactics as much as they like. And it still insists on showering party members with liberal quantities of blood that would make a slasher movie director jealous. Some of the tougher monsters we remember from the first game seemed to go down quicker and easier on the Normal difficulty setting, but that’s largely balanced out by the fact that they tend to come with more cohorts.

One flaw we did notice is that these cohorts tend to arrive in waves, which can give encounters something of an artificial and repetitious feel. Nevertheless, the combat difficulty is pitched at a similar level to the original. There are plenty of tough fights, which are rewarding to overcome by developing a balance of characters with overlapping skills. Even if you find normal difficulty is a shade easier this time round, the skill level can always be cranked up to Hard (or beyond) for a real challenge.

We can see why some of the changes have led to more hardcore Dragon Age fans crying out action or arcade game in horror – but we didn’t have any real beef with the majority of the streamlining measures. Some of them are even very useful, such as the junk category in the inventory, which allows the player to quickly sort and sell useless trinkets that have been looted.

Moral dilemmas aplenty
All the debate about dumbing down aside, Dragon Age II boasts a key strength in one area in which Bioware never fails to perform. Namely, constructing an absorbing world, cast of characters, and an array of meaningful quests. There’s dialogue which demands to be listened to – not skipped through – along with touches of humour, quality voice acting, and shifting relationships between characters that are affected by your actions.

The quests are as well crafted as we’ve come to expect, with the obligatory moral dilemmas often making the adventuring life an uncomfortable one. Rarely does a game make us pause for thought for literally three or four minutes, trying to determine what course of action to take in the midst of an ethical pickle.

Indeed, we don’t think we’ve deliberated over the futures of pixel people to such an extent since Dragon Age: Origins. This sort of plotting was one of the original’s greatest achievements, and the sequel wisely continues to play up to this.

Company: EA

Positives
  • An immersive and engaging game world with plenty of moral dilemmas.
Negative
  • Combat can seem a little bit repetitive; limitations over character type.

Verdict

Dragon Age II might not serve up any particularly noteworthy innovations, but that doesn't stop it from being a thoroughly entertaining RPG brimming with Bioware's usual attention to detail in terms of the plot, character relationships and quests.

The main focus has been the streamlining measures, which are fine by us for the most part, although they overstep the line a little in places, and that may unduly aggravate more hardcore role-players. It may well also open the game up to be enjoyed by a bigger audience...